'When I was a kid, the future was different," George Clooney grumbles at the start of Tomorrowland, Disney's ambitious, big-budget adventure. Then the Brad Bird-directed fantasy, which opened Friday, toggles back to the 1964 World's Fair, where optimism and invention ruled the day - and promised even better days ahead for humankind.
Of course, that "great big beautiful tomorrow" turns out to have a dark core. That's the way it has been in most visions of the future realized on film. From Fritz Lang to Stanley Kubrick, from steampunk to cyberpunk, from neo-noir to Keanu Reeves' Neo, Utopia turns dystopian, scientific advances lead to apocalypse, while technology and totalitarianism reign.
Here are 10 influential science-fiction films that evoked future worlds full of miraculous gadgetry and space travel - and the doom and gloom and mushroom clouds that accompanied them.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It's hard to believe Kubrick's masterwork is just three years shy of its 50th anniversary: From the seamless white curvatures of the spaceship interiors (emulated in so many Apple products) to the theme of computers' morphing into sentient entities, 2001 was, well, ahead of its time. So, why not sing along with HAL: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.
Alphaville (1965). Jean-Luc Godard didn't build a concrete-and-glass city on the back lot to make his black-and-white sci-fi noir - he just drove Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, and cast to a part of 1960s Paris full of imposing Brutalist structures. Constantine is Lemmy Caution, a trench-coated secret agent on a mission to assassinate the creator of Alpha 60, a computer that controls society. It's a dystopian view of tomorrow that looks very much like the here and now - at least the here and now for folks who still wear trench coats, collect Kodak Instamatics, and drive vintage Mustangs. (You know who you are.)
Blade Runner (1982). Adapted from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott's sci-fi noir finds Harrison Ford as a futuristic gumshoe (the year is 2019) on the trail of genetically engineered replicants - manufactured humans designed for off-world work, outlawed on Earth. But six of them have shown up in a teeming, neon Los Angeles full of noodle bars, fog, and rain, with hover cars slicing through the sky. It's Chandlertown crossed with a distressed 21st-century Tokyo, with pyramidlike corporate towers looming ominously in the distance.
Brazil (1985). Filmmaker Terry Gilliam started off doing trippy animation for Monty Python, and the trippiness only got trippier by the time he made this live-action retrofuturistic fantasy about a clerk (Jonathan Pryce) chasing his dreams - and being chased by a nightmare bureaucracy. A marvel of crazy production design, Brazil is defined by elaborate networks of wheezing, clanging plumbing, cavernous power plants, and slapped-together machines. The future never looked so duct-y.
The City of Lost Children (1995). Steampunk fantasy from Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who put a sunnier spin on things in the Audrey Tautou hit Amélie. Here, they've created a damp, dark world where a mad scientist siphons the dreams of little kids. The gizmos are Jules Verne-y, the cyborgs are sinister, and there's an inspired chain-reaction scene - from teardrop to spiderweb to parrot to barking dog to drunken hobo to pooping seagull to truck accident to power outage to crashing ocean liner. Cause and effect, mais oui!
The Fifth Element (1997). Luc Besson's 23d-century romp stars Bruce Willis as a cabbie caught in a plot to save the world - a plot involving an alien race, ancient Egyptian stones, and an orange-haired action hero played by Milla Jovovich. The New York of the film is a vertiginous metropolis of flying cars zigging and zagging among close-in skyscrapers. The hardware includes the ZF1, a lightweight all-in-one weapon that boasts a rocket launcher, poisonous gas-tipped arrows, a net launcher, a flame thrower, and an instant ice encaser. Still waiting for NRA approval.
The Matrix (1999). What seems real isn't at all in the simulated universe of the Wachowski siblings' bullet-time mind trip. Reeves stars as Thomas A. Anderson, a.k.a. Neo, the heroic hacker who suspects machines have taken over. Exposed circuitry, grids of cables, and monochromatic green computer screens define his cybergeek world. And Reeves takes those exclamatory Whoa!'s into a whole new dimension.
Metropolis (1927). Fritz Lang's silent-screen masterpiece is set in 2026 in a city where superrich industrialists rule from their luxury high-rises, while an underclass toils in misery below. Sound familiar? The expensive, expansive sets took inspiration from the dynamic lines and monuments of Futurist architecture. And speaking of dynamic lines, you can draw one straight from Metropolis' gleaming robot Maria to Star Wars droid C3PO to Ava, the A.I. beauty played by Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland's Ex Machina, in theaters now.
Things to Come (1936). Written by H.G. Wells and directed by the cinema visionary William Cameron Menzies, this "future history" begins in 1940 with a global war that drags on for decades. Finally, a civilization called Wings Over the World is born, the work of great scientists and engineers, but their idea of progress finds skeptics and detractors, too. Giant airships and rocket ships cross the sky as man looks to the moon for hope. But the film's ending may seem, well, lunatic after all the grimness that's come before.
The Time Machine (1960). Speaking of Wells, the George Pal-directed adaptation of the 1895 novel stars Rod Taylor as the author himself, catapulting forward through time and space and atomic holocaust, only to discover . . . Yvette Mimieux, the blond beauty of the Eloi. "How do they wear their hair . . . the women of your time?" she asks Rod. Finally, some substantive dialogue about the future!