Last week, we learned a bit about Neill Blomkamp’s upcoming science fiction movie Elysium and while intriguing one thing revealed is that despite rumors the film isn’t set in the far future. On the other hand, earlier we found out that Will Smith’s next science fiction film After Earth takes place some one thousand years after humanity abandoned Earth. The settings for both films point out how there is very little science fiction films that take place in the far future. It seems as if filmmakers are uncomfortable producing films that take place beyond the 25th century. In fact, the average future date they tackle is the 22nd to 23rd centuries. Just look at Star Trek, Alien and other recent films. If not date is set and they want to depict a far future, the date is left vague like in THX-1138.
This contrasts with science fiction literature that is filled with books and stories taking place thousands, millions and even billions of years from now. Some of the most famous examples are H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation saga and Frank Herbert’s Dune books. As everyone knows, the first Dune book was adapted into a poorly received film by David Lynch. One complaint leveled against the adaptation was how confusing Dune’s premise was to the general audience who couldn’t relate to a tale in a galaxy-spanning society. This could be why there are so few films set far into the future. The reality is that no one can accurately predict how humanity will evolve. It’s very likely that we wouldn’t relate to them at all. That isn’t to say that it’s not possible to make the characters relatable. If it weren’t possible there wouldn’t be so many sci-fi books taking place in the far future.
Obviously the ones to blame for this attitude are movie executives who try to sell films to the general audience and often underestimate their customers’ intelligence levels. While someone who is only into romantic comedies and mindless action flicks probably don’t want to be bothered with a sci-fi movie whose setting needs some explaining. Many of them point to the failure of Dune and assume that no one wants to see a film set in an unrecognizable society. Unfortunately this has become a convenient fallback for executives (never mind that the Sci-Fi Channel produced two successful adaptations of Dune and its sequels). Also their inability to simply explain a film’s setting is due to their lack of storytelling skills. But that is debatable.
Then again one problem facing filmmakers is presenting a far future that won’t look dated years after the film is released. Not to mention they usually don’t have the budget to present a full-fledged future in detail.
One way around this challenge was to depict a dystopian future where society has collapsed and nature has reclaimed the Earth. Planet Of The Apes comes to mind when using this depiction. It takes place in 3978 long after humanity has devolved into mute savages and simians have inherited the Earth. The Time Machine is another example where humanity has evolved into two separate species millions of years from now. Or just do away with the Earth like Don Bluth’s animated film Titan, A.E. did. After the world was destroyed in the film’s beginning, humanity has become a refugee species, having lost any cultural and technological advancements. This meant that they were relatable to modern-day audiences (who related to time-placed heroes from our era in The Time Machine and Planet Of The Apes).
It is a challenge to put out a sci-fi film that takes place far into the future but it isn’t impossible. This conception that people won’t be able to relate to the characters and setting is ridiculous. After all, films come out that depict our distant past yet audiences care about those characters and understand what is going on. So it shouldn’t be difficult for the average moviegoer to understand a character in the far-flung future. It has been done and hopefully will be done in the future.
Lewis T. Grove