How Well Do Sci-Fi Movies Predict New York City’s Future?
“Truth is stranger than fiction.” One would think Mark Twain’s famous rule would apply to New York City as much, if not more than, any place else in the world. But when it comes to science fiction, oddly it doesn’t.
The internet is full of articles about sci-fi movies that accurately predict the future, technologically and otherwise. Often, the future happens on the west coast—Los Angeles is particularly popular, according to multiple listicles devoted to the topic of movies that predict technology accurately. Although, oft-cited in the top 10 of the list, Minority Report, released in 2002, is actually set in Washington, D.C., in 2054 A.D.
But, even if some of the technology—like virtual reality, voice-interactive computers, and frighteningly personalized advertising—does exist today, when it comes to predicting New York City’s actual future status, the movies, for the most part, fail spectacularly. This science fiction is definitely stranger than any true thing about New York.
The original 1968 Planet of the Apes is set on a planet approximately 2,300 years in the future where man is pre-lingual and apes are the dominant, advanced, species. Four astronauts crash land on the planet (one is dead already) and are captured by the apes. After more than their fair share of anguish, torture and surreal moments, one astronaut, Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) escapes, follows the shoreline and sees the remains of the Statue of Liberty. So the “planet” is really New York City, more than two thousand years after a nuclear holocaust.
While it’s only 2017, and not 3978 A.D., at this point there’s no sign of an all-out nuclear holocaust and if we look at the painful and horrific example of Hiroshima, cities can recover from a nuclear bomb without humankind reverting to cave days. So, no, planet Planet of the Apes is not future New York City.
In 2022 (yes, that’s in five years) 40 million people will live in NYC, in dilapidated housing or on the streets, according to the 1973 sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. The premise is that the 20th century’s industrialization would lead to overcrowding, pollution, and global warming due to the greenhouse effect. Most of the population would survive on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation, the latest being Soylent Green, a green wafer advertised to contain “high-energy plankton” from the World Ocean.
Now, there is a homeless population in New York City, and New Yorkers do love their green foods and supplements (there is even a company called Soylent which creates powdered and liquid food substitutes.) At the same time, global warming is widely accepted as actual, scientific, fact. But in five years, will all New Yorkers rely on wafers that are actually made out of human corpses? Doubtful, exceptionally doubtful.
Movies from the 80s didn’t show a New York that fared much better. In 1981, Escape From New York predicted that Manhattan, in 1997, would be one giant maximum security prison following a war with the Soviet Union. By actual-1997 the Soviet Union had collapsed, and New York had not morphed into a prison. Also, thus far, no Presidents have been kidnapped and left in the hands of criminals in Manhattan.
The Fifth Element, released in 1997, certainly depicts New York City traffic, and taxicabs, in a relatively authentic way. In 2263 will we have cabs that fly? It’s more than possible, according to this New York Times article from April 2017.
The ability for a New York City lab to reconstruct a humanoid woman from the severed hand of an alien race? Even knowing that it’s mandatory to do so in order to save the universe, it still seems unlikely that our biotech (or casual hobnobbing with aliens) will have progressed that far in 146 years. Then again, 150 years ago who would have predicted that it would be possible, today, to bioprint human tissue?
The 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, does an admirable job flooding and then freezing New York City. But, it’s set in 2004 and while we did have the coldest January since 1977 that year, and summer brought hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne, the city survived both admirably. Also, the main branch of the New York City Public Library is an excellent place to weather any storm.
One more scenario that didn’t happen: I Am Legend. Great movie, but Will Smith has not actually turned out to be the only fully human survivor of a viral plague that swept the city in 2009. Between the anti-vaxers and the prevalence of viruses, it could, still, happen — maybe. But it hasn’t.
Which sci-fi movie, then, does get it right about New York City? In my opinion, that honor goes to The Adjustment Bureau.
The movie, starring Matt Damon as ambitious politician David Norris and Emily Blunt as beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas, hit theaters in 2011. It was set in present-day New York but in an alternate reality (discovered by Norris) in which the men of The Adjustment Bureau have a “plan” for each person.
The central question posed by the film is do we control our fate, or does fate control us?
It’s New York City, and no New Yorker—Norris included—is going to put up with predestination. The two characters fall in love and, despite the odds (presented by the agents of Fate itself) at the end of the movie they are together. Love conquers all. (Except, of course, subway delays.)