Predicting the future is a murky, and often pessimistic, business, but the movies have been doing it with varying degrees of success almost since their inception. FilmBar is holding a summer-long series in conjunction with Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination that looks back at cinematic interpretations of a future world from the past 40 years.
"It's slippery the way the future is interpreted through the decades," says Bob Beard, communications and public engagement strategist for the center. "Everybody really likes a scary future. Dystopia sells well. It's very easy to say technology ran amok — that's something that happened when Frankenstein was published 200 years ago."
The four films, shown one per month starting May 26, are preceded by conversations with scholars and technologists about how each movie envisioned the future and the ways those scientific fantasies have, today, become realities.
"If you look at [the movies], they're interesting and they're entertaining and they've got a touch of schlock underneath," says Beard, who helped choose the films. "Even dumb movies have something to say."
The summer starts with Westworld, originally released in 1973. Think of it like Jurassic Park, but with human robots instead of dinosaurs. (No, really. Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton wrote and directed the film.) A handful of bourgeois tourists travel to a large amusement park which gives people the chance to live in different eras of history — the bacchanals of ancient Rome, the chivalry of medieval England, and the lawless violence of the old West. Each time period features its own sets, props, and animatronic characters who succumb to every wish of the human participants. Lust. Gluttony. Murder. You name the seven sins, and the robots comply. Until one automaton gunslinger in the western town goes rogue and starts killing tourists. And did I mention that he's played by Yul Brynner? Obviously, it's a must-see. If it sounds kooky and implausible, direct your attention to a recent New York Times article about the creation of a robotic Buddhist monk in China. Robots are real, people.
Outland, starring Sean Connery and playing June 30, continues the Western vibe but sets its characters on Io, one of Jupiter's moons. In the 1981 flick, Connery plays a cop who is sent to a far-flung mining camp to wrangle the dope business there (in the future, marijuana is still a criminal offense), but he finds darker forces at work after he pokes around a series of suicides plaguing the camp. Frances Sternhagen plays a tough-as-nails doctor who aids Connery's investigation, and Peter Boyle is the cagey camp leader. Financial expediency and government collusion collide as the hero digs deeper, so that the futuristic vision of Outland doesn't feel outlandish at all.
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On July 28, The Lawnmower Man takes us into the '90s and the field of virtual reality. In a movie loosely based on Stephen King's short story of the same title, Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) is an unkempt simpleton who mows people's lawns for money until Dr. Lawrence Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) comes along and lures him into his well-intentioned scientific experiments. Smith soaks up the virtual reality scene with ease, even learning Latin in two hours (and also getting his hair done and a fitness model body that attracts the eyes of at least one wealthy woman house owner). Naturally, things go awry with poor Jobe as the lines between the goggle world and everyday life begin to blur. Google glasses are a far cry from the wondrous horrors of The Lawnmower Man, but the questions raised by the film still niggle techies and Luddites alike.
The final movie, August 25, is 2002's Equilibrium, which had enough parallels to 1999's The Matrix — handsome star, long black coats, gun katas — for it to get lost in the frenzy surrounding Neo and Morpheus. Christian Bale stars as an advanced weapon of a totalitarian state that doses the populace with the mood-deadening Prozium and orders hits on sense offenders, those who feel too much. Enemies of the state include works of art, which turn out to be truly dangerous when Bale pilfers a copy of W.B. Yeats' poetry in an attempt to better understand his enemy, some of whom are closer than he thought. He goes rogue, dresses in white, and gets into epic fights with government cronies, including Taye Diggs. (A radical white hero fights a black villain who works for the man. And who says Hollywood has a longstanding issue with racism?) While the other films in the series focus on the intersections of technology and ethics, Equilibrium is concerned with humanity's inner landscape and a culture more interested in stifling the human experience than developing it — perhaps a sign that our fears for the future don't involve science so much as our own worst inclinations.
The History of the Future, presented at FilmBar, 815 North Second Street, begins Thursday, May 26, with Westworld, followed by Outland, June 30, The Lawnmower Man, July 28, and Equilibrium August 25. All movies begin at 6:30 p.m. and are $6. For more information and to reserve tickets, visit www.thefilmbarphx.com.