Would You Drive a Future Car of the Past?
“Predictions are hard,” said Mark Twain (or was it Yoga Berra, or Niels Bohr?), “especially about the future.”
Difficulties aside, no one tries harder than television and filmmakers to divine the future. Every science-fiction show has boasted that it predicted or even inspired future technologies, and to be fair, the inspiration for the Motorola clamshell flip phone does seem to have its roots in a Star Trek episode. With the Academy Awards in our rearview mirror, this seems like as good a time as any to revisit some movies from the past and see how Hollywood thought our future might look.
What, though, makes the future look like the future?
Quite often, and this being Petrolicious, it is cars that feature prominently, because we all still need to get to where we need to be. Over the years, Hollywood has conjured up vehicles that fly, drive themselves, climb walls, and which can think for themselves. These, according to Hollywood of the past, are just a few of the automotive innovations that populate the future.
Fanciful? Perhaps. But while Tinsel Town’s goal is always to entertain, rather than accurately predict the future, sometimes the filmmakers get it right. Unbridled creative freedom allows Hollywood to conjure up futures that sometimes even influence our present. But, as I recently discovered, not every film hits the bulls-eye.
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Let’s first jump back to the 1970s: Earth is threatened by an alien race that kidnaps humans and uses them for nefarious purposes. Luckily, this was just the fictional plot for UFO, a TV series that ran from 1969-1973. Fictional or not, S.H.A.D.O (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization), the secret organization featured in the show, was still in need of transportation, as they could not very well fight an alien menace with their bare feet. The cars used in UFO were thus sleek futuristic vehicles with gullwing doors– very futuristic and ideal for battling alien intruders.
Originally designed for an earlier film, the blueprints for these vehicles were repurposed and built by racecar driver Alan Mann on a Mark 4 Ford Zodiac chassis (a predecessor to the Granada sedan). The gullwing doors, however, didn’t actually work as intended, so a production staffer always stood off-camera to raise or lower the doors. The actors, meanwhile, reported that the cars were very unpleasant to drive, as there was not enough headroom and exhaust fumes spilled into the interior. Additionally, the cars, as one might expect of a Ford Granada, were not exactly fast and many scenes were thus sped up to simulate a fast-moving vehicle. When the show was finally cancelled, the cars were sold, and one was even used for a futuristic porn movie. So how did UFO fare as a crystal ball? Well, as a predictor of the near future, UFO’s visionaries were lackluster at best: gullwing doors were nothing new, even in 1969, but to their credit, cars have become sleeker and lower to the ground. Where UFO actually stood out was as a harbinger of military technologies that were decades ahead of its time.
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George Lucas’s THX 1138 starring a “youngish” Robert Duvall (was he ever truly young?) grew out of his earlier USC Film School thesis short. Lucas being Lucas, he couldn’t–as I daresay we’ve since learned–leave well enough alone, and turned the short into a full-length feature film. In Lucas’s future, humans are all bald and live in a vast underground structure. Their emotions are controlled by drugs strictly administered by a totalitarian state. Surveillance is everywhere, and life–if you can call it that–isn’t isn’t exactly a bed of roses. As THX 1138, Duvall manages to shimmy his way off the drugs and discover emotions, which prompts him to go on the lam.
Truth be told, the movie is a bit slow, and also incomprehensible, at least until near the end where Lucas reveals, through a chase scene, that all future cars are race cars! No, really: Lucas used actual ex-racing cars like a Lola T70 that only recently lined up on the starting grid at Le Mans and Daytona. By the time THX 1138 began filming in 1969, these were just old cars, and now uncompetitive, so Lucas gave them their second life as movie props. He dressed them up with fake turbine engines and other regalia to make them look futuristic.
As fun as it is to see these cars, however, they’re hardly reliable predictors of the future. After all, the only people who drive racing cars all day now are Bruce Wayne and the police force of Dubai. Oh, and we don’t have turbine engines either!
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Gattaca (1997) stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman in a film about a genetically segregated future. Those with good genes go on to have bright futures and opportunities. Others, not so much. The filmmakers decided to go for a grounded and retro look when they were conceptualizing their future: the cars in the film are from the 1960s and 1970s and include the Citroen DS Cabriole and the Studebaker Avanti, probably because of their already futuristic design. As a concession to the film’s futuristic aims, though, they are reworked to appear to be electric.
When Gattaca appeared less than twenty years ago, alternative fuel vehicles were about as common on American road as Sasquatch. Today, hybrids and purely electric cars are everywhere on our roads. Nice call, Gattaca.
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Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, and Sandra Bullock, depicts a potentially utopian future for the year 2032, and the movie, besides being a hit at the box office, also did very well in the predicting the actual future, including as it did video calling, teleconferences, voice activation, tablet computers, and even a political career for Stallone’s buddy, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The filmmakers did pretty well with their automobiles, too. Besides the analogue red Oldsmobile 442, all the other vehicles in the movie are digital and self-driving. Many of the movie cars were based on the GM Ultralite concept car, which had a carbon-fiber body and 3–cylinder direct injection gas engine that would enable it to attain 100 m.p.g. Today, cars being tested by Google have driven hundreds of thousands of miles. Surely, it won’t be long before we cede control and let our cars take us to our destination in comfort and safely. Petrolistic can take solace in the fact that, in Demolition Man, at least, the self-driving function could be turned off. There is still some hope for us!
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Based on Anthony Burgess’s novel by the same name, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) features Malcolm McDowell in the lead role of Alex, a teenage thug whose twin interests are Beethoven and ultra-violence. Before inflicting some of the aforementioned ultra-violence on a poor, unsuspecting couple, Alex and his band of “Droogs” steal a futuristic sports car. In the film, the car is named a Durango 95 but it’s actually a real car called the Adams Probe 16. While the name and body are indeed futuristic, the rest of the car is what some might charitably call “agricultural.”
Designed by Dennis and Peter Adams, of British sports car maker Marcos, the Probe/Durango was powered by a four-cylinder engine from an Austin 1800 mounted mid-ships. It had all fiberglass bodywork but rode on a diminutive wheel and tire combination. In the film, Alex had this to say about the Durango: “The Durango 95 purred away real horror show–a nice, warm, vibraty feeling all through your guttiwuts”.
I take that statement to mean he approved of how the car drove, but practical and good-looking it was not. Alex and his Droogs can all barely fit in the car, as it was built for two. The actual car never caught on, but as a crystal ball into our automotive future there are several cars on the road to today that have a mid-engine design. Some exotic, like Ferrari and Lamborghini, but others more affordable like the Porsche Cayman and the Alfa Romeo 4C. Fortunately, they are all more beautiful than the Probe.
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If you believe Phillip K. Dick and Steven Spielberg, by the year 2054 police will police will be able to use a psychic technology to stop crimes before they even take place. If this seems a bit creepy, you can rest assured that by 2054 your car will be able to drive in an accident free magnetic-levitation system, and if you get bored, it may even change colors.
Enthusiastic about Lexus after driving one, Spielberg allegedly asked the company to design a vehicle for Minority Report (2002), and their 2054 EV concept contains several technologies that are now in use today. Of course, this was the early 2000s–hardly the automotive dark ages–so it’s a bit early to bestow visionary status on this crew. Still, some innovations that were wowing audiences then are now commonplac, such as voice-activation, a self-diagnosing ECU, accident avoidance systems, and parking assistance. We haven’t been able to drive cars that change color, or park themselves, but I imagine we’re not far away.
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Blade Runner, released in 1982, takes place only a scant four years from now (2019) and depicts a future with flying cars. Enlisted by director Ridley Scott to design these “Spinners,” Syd Mead envisioned cars that could drive on roads, take off vertically, hover, or cruise using jet propulsion. The cars of the future would also possess gesture-based interfaces to control them.
With only a few years to go before Los Angeles is turned into a dystopian future, we seem a long way (and thankfully, given the state of many people’s driving) from flying cars.
Cars have always been a staple of movies, and science-fiction films are no exception. As we (and Mark Twain and Yogi Berra and Niels Bohr) established earlier, however, predicting the future ain’t easy, but the folks who live in that future will have to get around somehow. So which films from the past do you think best anticipated the coming era of car technology? Which missed the mark completely?
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