The Future on Screen: Why is It All Gloom and Doom? |

dystopian future
Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

by Evan See

What do you see when you think about the future? Maybe images of sleek machines and flashy gadgets spring up. You may even believe that the future looks optimistic for humanity, with people living better and suffering less. However, when it comes to film and television, the future tends to be portrayed rather pessimistically, with gloomy colour palettes, and a government that’s either massively oppressive or pretty much absent while technology is ruining our lives.

It bears the question – why are movies about the future always so bleak? Where are all the cheery futuristic movies?

Real-life Horror

Perhaps one reason for Hollywood’s obsession with bleak futures is the same reason horror films are made – to disturb and unsettle audiences. Often, the grim futures shown on screen don’t seem that different from real life, making these films more like very plausible horror films than mere science-fiction.

Narratively speaking, the prescient look into the near future many films provide is way more terrifying than the nebulous threats of vengeful ghosts and demons in conventional horror. The popularity of the TV series Black Mirror reveals our fascination with the impending breakdown of society, with storylines considering the impacts of real-life scientific breakthroughs on our lives. While some films intentionally blend horror and sci-fi, it’s the ones that sound plausible that disturb us the most: the insidiously manipulative androids of Ex Machina or the cold, Orwellian bureaucracies of Brazil are already absolutely terrifying without their nightmarish endings.

Fear of the Unknown

Throughout our history on this planet, we’ve consistently been inclined to fear things we don’t understand, and create legends and stories about them. Naturally, as we progress into the future, it follows that we should tell frightening stories about the things we lack control over. Things like technology, artificial intelligence and outer space commonly feature in science-fiction films set in the future, and are almost always portrayed in gloomy, depressing worlds that seem to warn us against attempted progress. 

The question is: why? We know that the point of technology and experimentation is intended to improve our quality of life, yet our films are so sure they will end up destroying everything we love.

Perhaps our deep-seated fears of the unknown will never cease despite knowledge that scientists and developers aren’t actively trying to kill everyone. Maybe it’s a conviction that what we presently have is good enough for us, or the awareness of just how fast technology is whizzing past our heads. It’s nothing new – people have resisted change for millenia. 

There are numerous films convinced that artificial intelligence is unequivocally disastrous, like the Replicants from Blade Runner or Skynet from Terminator. But fears also exist in other unexplored areas, like the devastating effects of biotechnology in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the distinct haves-and-have-nots divisions created by the technology of Elysium or The Hunger Games, or the technology of megacorporations in Soylent Green or Resident Evil that cannot help but ravage humanity to feed their unbridled greed. Perhaps we’re fearful that too much advancement too quickly can cause us to lose control over what we hold dear, and sometimes progress for the sake of it just isn’t worth the risk.

Not Just Flying Cars

It’s also possible to see the grim futures in movies as merely allegories for real-world issues. Using a futuristic setting to portray current issues can be especially effective in emphasising the filmmaker’s message, by portraying an unfamiliar world with familiar issues without stirring controversy.

In this sense it isn’t that futuristic movies are bleak, but that the nature of humanity, even at the present time, is as bleak as it gets. Snowpiercer compresses the harsh antagonisms of class warfare into a single train, while the 2015 TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale explores the possible effects of religious conservatism and misogynistic cultures. The trash-filled wasteland of Earth in Wall-E doesn’t look too different from today’s sprawling landfills, while the harsh treatment of refugees in Children of Men and District 9 isn’t particularly unfamiliar to certain parts of the world.

Sure, not all movies about the future are bleak and depressing, with films like Her or The Martian coming to mind. But the dominance of dystopian science fiction has got to make you wonder – how did people many years ago imagine our present time? Was it all dark and grim like in 1984 or Akira, or more optimistic like Back to the Future II? Or are we already living in that grim future – just that we don’t realise it yet?