10 Movies That Predicted the Future

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- New York has yet to be destroyed by a giant marshmallow man. There has never been an attempt to rob either Fort Knox or the money room at the Bellagio. Neither dogs nor babies can talk and there isn't much concern of a zombie apocalypse happening any time soon.

Movies are often at their best when they offer an escape from reality, with far-fetched plots that defy rational expectations and the rules of physics.

Every once in a while, however, what you see on the silver screen can hold a mirror to modern life years later. Technology, politics and even mundane aspects of daily existence in the film world can turn out to be eerily predictive.

Ten of the many movies that accurately nailed future predictions include:

Americathon

Americathon (1979)

The debt crisis and the risk of the U.S. losing its top-notch bond rating was foreseen back in 1979 in this often overlooked comedy, which had an ensemble cast that included John Ritter, Harvey Korman, Meat Loaf, Tommy Lasorda, Jay Leno and Elvis Costello (sneering his way through I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea and Crawling to the U.S.A.).

Americathon is one of those cult movies that hasn't been properly re-released since the days of VHS tapes. Amazingly, the rather dumb movie -- about a last-ditch telethon held to bail out the bankrupt country before it defaults back to Native American ownership -- was spot-on with many of its over-the-top (at the time) plot points.

Among them:

  • The idea that the U.S. could be on the verge of bankruptcy, with its currency devalued beyond repair and lethally in debt to other nations.
  • The declining state of U.S. oil production.
  • That China would become a global economic force by moving toward capitalism following the post-Cold War fall of the USSR.
  • That a small, under-the-radar sneaker company, Nike (Stock Quote: NKE), would become an international conglomerate. An overstatement on the movie's part, perhaps, but still a valiant guess at how big the company would become.

frankenstein

Frankenstein (1931)
Scientists have yet to discover the Fountain of Youth or give the dead life (with or without lightning bolts) as was the case with Frankenstein's monster.

The movie monster of 1931 (like the one in the original 1818 novel) was a patchwork of pieced-together body parts. In more modern times, organ transplants have become commonplace.

Taking organ transplantation a step further, scientists are on the cusp of routinely extending our lives with artificially created spare body parts.

A leader in this research is the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a program of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

By growing cellular structures from human samples (using stem cells in some cases) they have fashioned all manner of fully functional, replacement human tissue -- from tracheae to heart valves and livers -- and improved upon artificial parts.

Recently, the institute was awarded a $34.5 million contract for its effort to use its various technologies to, in its words, "create a prosthetic arm that would by far eclipse the World War II era hook-and-cable device used by most amputees" and is "designed to respond to a user's thoughts."

Its surgeons have also successfully performed single- and double-hand transplants on patients.

Modern science may not be able to reanimate the dead, but until they do there are plenty of ways to get spare parts.

forbidden planet

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Movies such as 1956's Forbidden Planet have long stoked imaginations with visions of robot pals. A less friendly vision came later, as movies such as 1973's Westworld and 1982's Blade Runner revealed that plastic people can be downright nasty.

The more benevolent robot of Forbidden Planet -- its Robbie the Robot, also featured on the TV show Lost in Space -- has been creeping into real life for years.

In Japan, consumers can buy the Wakamaru, a human-size robot that can be used as a supplemental caretaker, house-sitter or, for the kid in us, pal.

We even have the Roomba, a tiny guy that knows how to sweep and vacuum our floors and the "automower," that does the same for lawns.

The wonders of technology, it seems, are best utilized for household chores.

2001: a space odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
A lot of what we were promised in this 1968 Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick collaboration missed the mark entirely. Not only does Pan Am no longer exist; even if it did we wouldn't be hopping on its commuter spaceships at the airport.

While the movie often fails as a reliable prediction of mundane life in the future, it does score big with one of its most amazing creations. The HAL 9000 supercomputer (the name comes by shifting one letter backward from IBM (Stock Quote: IBM) but was explained as a "Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer" in the film) gains sentience and despite (or because of) its personality and intelligence goes insane.

Years later, we may not have sentient supercomputers, but we are getting closer to what was predicted by the portrayal of HAL. That may not be all that surprising, given that the film hired Marvin Minsky, co-founder director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, as a consultant.

The IBM-created Deep Blue supercomputer beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996. Earlier this year, its Watson computer similarly conquered other contestants on special episodes of the game show Jeopardy. Japanese researchers have created domestically inclined robots that can do laundry and fetch perfectly mixed drinks. Computers may not yet be thinking for themselves, but they are doing a good job at faking it.

As for the future, colleges are teaching courses in artificial intelligence and researchers, in October, will convene in San Francisco for Rules Fest 2011, the International Conference on Reasoning Technologies.

In the meantime, play nice with your PC -- just in case.

real life

Real Life (1979)
It's a testimony to the predictive powers of comedian and actor Albert Brooks that his 1979 film Real Life, a faux documentary about a dysfunctional family, despite its absurdities still looks tame compared with the reality TV morass that would engulf broadcasting years later.

Brooks' film is, for the most part, a parody of the groundbreaking 1973 PBS series An American Family in which the California-based Loud Family allowed themselves to have nearly every waking moment committed to film over the course of the year. The resulting documentary, divided into half-hour doses, was controversial and a huge ratings hit. It gave birth to modern reality shows.

Brooks' jabs at the manipulated reality of the Loud family also land squarely on the Snookies and "real" housewives of today.

To start with, any pretense of these being mini documentary films is ridiculed. Brooks and his crew are as unobtrusive as a team of camera men -- equipped with giant helmet cams that make them look a cross between astronauts and alien beekeepers -- can be.

Just as reality shows today try their best to manufacture controversy, Brooks' attempts to stir the dramatic pot lead to, among other disasters, the death of a horse and burning down the family's house.

star trek on ipad

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
The science fiction series Star Trek -- in all its myriad forms on TV and the silver screen -- made it a mission to think ahead to how we would live, work and die in the future.

To narrow those prognostications, we'll focus on how accurately it foresaw the rise of smartphones and tablets. From the first incarnation of the series, when personal computers and cellular phones were mere flights of fancy, we had the tricorder, a handheld computer and communication device.

By the time the Next Generation set sail aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, Picard and his crew used PADD, or the Personal Access Display Device, a super-tablet that foresaw, perhaps, the current mania for Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) iPads, Research in Motion (Stock Quote: RIMM) Playbooks and their ilk.

Another science fiction classic, 2005's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- although it was a television series, novel and radio show before that -- also foresaw this evolution/revolution in personal computing when author Douglas Adams and subsequent filmmakers proposed an intergalactic encyclopedia that could fit in your hand.

kinect

Back to the Future Part II (1989)
This second film in the trilogy sends our hero, Marty McFly, into the year 2015, and what's particularly fun are the little flourishes of everyday life.

Hoverboards may not yet have replaced skateboards, we don't have credit card chips implanted in our thumbs and fashionable teens aren't walking around with inside-out pockets.

But the movie did predict that, someday, Miami would have its own baseball team -- and a World Series contender at that. A bold bit of futurism at the time as was the prediction, seen in billboards, that Vietnam would become a tourist destination.

Even more oracle-like, video game addict Marty is shocked to discover that the joystick has been relegated to antique shops. Arcade games, in the future, use either a wireless controller (a gun similar to the Wii system that would come decades later) or are manipulated by physical gestures (such as Microsoft's Kinect).

If young Marty had patented the concept upon his return to the 1980s, he would have been crowned King of the Geeks.

total recall

Total Recall (1990)
As Arnold Schwarzenegger's Quaid makes his way through airport security in the 1990 action/sci-fi film Total Recall, his violent intentions are quickly discovered. An X-ray scanner records an image of his gun-toting skeleton in the boarding area of an interplanetary shuttle.

Throughout the scene, we also see a whole family of boarding "skeletons" -- husband, wide, kids and a dog -- parading though the security checkpoint.

We can only speculate that some future TSA official clung to the image, leading to the security theater that herds airline passengers through full body scans.

face off

Face-Off (1997)
The ridiculous but entertaining premise of the movie Face-Off -- starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage under the direction of Hong Kong legend John Woo -- is that a cop and a bad guy swap identities, fooling everyone around them, via a surgical procedure that swaps their faces.

The movie, thankfully, didn't take itself too seriously. What is serious, however, is how the medical community is actually able to perform face transplants.

In March 2010, a team of 30 Spanish doctors performed the first successful full face transplant on a patient injured during a shooting mishap. French surgeons followed up that accomplishment later in the year with a full transplant that included functioning eyelids and tear ducts. Both owed their efforts to pioneering facial transplant studies by the Cleveland Clinic.

In March,a surgical team at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston succeeded with a 17-hour full face transplant (the patient even regained his sense of smell). That hospital had previously performed a partial transplant in 2009.

Minority Report

Minority Report (2002)
This Tom Cruise film about near-future police using psychics to predict -- and thereby intercept -- criminals proved very pre-cog indeed regarding new technology.

The gesture-manipulated computer interface -- where holographic images and data is swooshed into place with a wave of the hand -- is not a far cry from the "spatial operating environment" that engineers such as Los Angeles-based Oblong Industries are working to perfect. There was also the mysterious-sounding Project Natal by Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT), the code name for what would be the gesture-operated interface of the Kinect.

In the movie, cars can pilot themselves. In the real world, an added feature gaining popularity allows the vehicle to park itself. More amazing is experimental technology spearheaded by Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) that provides fully automated, self-driving cars.

We may not have "pre-crime" mutants having visions of break-ins to come, but IBM's Blue Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History software is already deployed in police departments across the country as a predictive analysis tool for crime hot spots.

The "sick stick" used by police to immobilize suspects has a real life counterpart used by some police departments to create nausea via discombobulating light and sound. Newspapers printed on flexible, electronic screens? Check. Retina scans to verify ID? Check. Billboards and signs giving you personalized shopping advice? Not yet, but they are working on it.

—For more on what you can learn from Hollywood, visit MainStreet’s “Movies” topic page for our latest coverage!

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