Predicting the future isn’t easy. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that George Lucas was a genius for setting the Star Wars saga “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” because it gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Laser swords? Why not?
Other films, wishing to remain more strongly rooted in the real world, aren’t so flexible. They’re forced into a delicate balancing act: enough futuristic technology to tell the story they want to tell but not so much that the film loses a sense of contemporary relevance. Invariably, movies (and TV series, for that matter) are always too ambitious in certain respects and not ambitious enough in others. 2001: A Space Odyssey, a product of the Space Race era of the 1960s, correctly predicted that the BBC would still exist in 2001 but optimistically foresaw commercial space flight and outposts on the moon as being routine by that date. Star Trek featured faster-than-light travel and gadgets like transporters that are well beyond our reach, but by the year 2012 we’ve already got smartphones that far outstrip the personal communicators available to Captain Kirk. For sci-fi franchises, it’s almost a no-win scenario. (Interestingly, when faced with this exact problem on Back to the Future: Part II, franchise creators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale took a unique approach: they decided to turn the future into a great big joke. Hence the ad for Jaws 19, a restaurant called the “Café 80s” that features virtual waiters modeled after Ronald Reagan, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Michael Jackson, tourism posters imploring people to “Surf Vietnam,” and the preposterous notion that the Cubs could actually win the World Series.)
Unlike Back to the Future: Part II, which takes place in 2015, and Star Trek, which is set in the 23rd Century, Alien never actually mentions the time frame in which it is set. (Subsequent installments in the franchise have established it as taking place sometime in the 2100s, and Ridley Scott’s forthcoming Prometheus may definitively establish the date, but the year is never mentioned in the original film.) That being said, Alien’s setting is clearly futuristic, and as a result it too falls prey to the vagaries of predicting the future.
The very beginning of the film provides immediate insight into the film’s vision of the future, as the crew of the Nostromo emerge from their suspended animation units and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Kane (John Hurt) immediately light up cigarettes.
Here we have the perfect example of the yin-and-yang of futurism in science-fiction: advanced technology that will almost certainly remain out of our reach for centuries (suspended animation/hypersleep) and a small detail that was likely meant to give the film a sense of realism and contemporary relevance in the 1970s (smoking cigarettes).
The irony, of course, is that the concept of smoking on a spaceship now seems almost as far-fetched as suspended animation technology. If it’s illegal to smoke on airplanes in the year 2012, does it seem likely that we’ll be smoking in the cockpits of spaceships a hundred years from now?
Like the cigarette smoking, other details of the Nostromo now seem hopelessly outdated, in large part as a result of the technological limitations of the era in which the film was made. Like Star Trek, the design of the ship’s cockpit and Mother’s chamber are dominated by blinking lights and brightly colored buttons that seem to have little purpose. 70s-style CRT screens impart information to the crew instead of the HD screens we’ve become used to. Things that look like the corkscrewing cords of outdated telephone handsets are strung up all over the ship. Computers feature a largely text-based user interface, with Dallas having to type on a keyboard in order to communicate with Mother (a far cry from the iPhone’s Siri). And the few computer graphics that are shown – the readout depicting the descent of the ship into the planet’s atmosphere, for one – are of course entirely archaic.
While these details were meant to furnish a sense of futuristic wonder in the film, other details give Alien a more down-to-earth aesthetic. Even in a world where androids and artificial gravity exist, humans still rely on guns to do their dirty work, and the weapons in the film look about the same as they do in the contemporary world. Ditto for the flamethrower that is used to scare the alien and the harpoon that is used by Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to finally kill it. Even the food that the crew eats (cereal and coffee, amongst other things) is recognizable.
So if certain details that were intended to create a futuristic setting can be seen in hindsight as outdated and shortsighted, and other details intentionally eschew futurism in favor of a sense of present-day realism, are there any cases where the film attempts to predict future technology and pretty much gets things accurate?
There’s at least one that I can find: wireless headsets. Like Bluetooth-wearing douchebags walking down a city street, the crew of the Nostromo are addicted to them: Engineers Brett and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) wear them while trying to repair the ship, the team that checks out the alien spacecraft on the planet uses them to stay in contact, and Ripley uses one to coordinate things from back in the cockpit.
So a sincere “hooray!” to Ridley Scott and Alien’s art designers. The business of predicting the future is a thankless one, and while the shortcomings of the technology in the film may be obvious from the privileged perch we inhabit in 2012, rest assured that it doesn’t affect the quality of the film one iota.
And hey, they did get one thing right! That’s one more than most sci-fi movies.
To see the other articles I’ve written so far in the 30 Days of Alien series, visit the link below: