Screenshots by Universal Pictures

2015 - or - The Future That Never Was

25 years ago “Back to the Future II” came to our theaters. The film takes us “back” to October 21 2015, to a world with hoverboards and flying cars, but without e-mail or internet. What did people use for written communication? Fax machines! Let’s take a look back at a future that never was.

2015 — the future. Can you remember when you saw “Back to the Future II” for the first time and thought: “Wow! That is still so far away.” Guess what: That future of way back when is today — and we are right in the middle of it!

When the sequel to “Back to the Future” came to our cinemas, I felt like a time traveler. I had been an exchange student at an American high school and I had seen the movie a long time before my German friends could see it. It was the time of the Sony Walkman rather than the Sony Hack, and we compiled our own mixtapes rather than use sharing platforms or Spotify. In hindsight it looks as if it was a more innocent time, but like all hindsight, that is probably an illusion.

Roads? … unfortunately, where we are going, we will continue to need roads for a long time!

The Bavarian comedian Karl Valentin said once: “The future used to be better, too, in the old days.” This could be true about “Back to the Future II” as well. The future created by Robert Zemeckis (director) und Bob Gale (producer) is a squeaky-clean, garishly colorful world, and it seems that it was designed purposefully in contrast to the dark dystopias of “Terminator” or “Blade Runner” that had come out before.

The candy-colored future of Hill Valley as an antidote to Blade Runner

Just as we look back to the visions of Jules Verne today and learn about the 19th century, looking back to “Back to the Future” tells us more about the time the movies were made than about the year 2015. It was the mega-catastrophe of Chernobyl and the end of the Cold War that informed the future of the late Eighties, a future that of course has nothing to do with the Here and Now. But let’s start at the beginning:

The Prophesies made in “Back to the Future II”

“Where we are going we don’t need roads” (false)

From today’s point of view the biggest disappointment is right at the beginning of the film: flying cars. Even if Google is about to bring its self-driving cars to market — we won’t be getting rocket-propelled cars and sky highways any time soon.

Sleep-Inducing Alpha Rhythm Generator (false)

Right at the beginning of the film Doc Brown uses a sleep-inducing alpha rhythm generator to knock out Jennifer. Even assuming this was Doc’s own private invention, there is no hint of such a technology anywhere today. The device only fulfils one purpose: to get rid of a character that is no longer needed for the plot of the film.

Mr. Fusion (false)

A catalyst that turns waste into energy? Wishful thinking, the way “Mr. Fusion” does it. But it is interesting that an American film gives so much room to alternative ways of generating energy. Regardless of our own “Energiewende” in Germany, the subject remains as important as ever in 2015.

Michael J. Fox made up to look 47 and how he actually looks at 47

View image | gettyimages.com

Laserdiscs (true)

Some bloggers say it is a false prediction when Jennifer’s body gets dumped among laserdiscs bundled away like waste paper. I don’t see it that way: If you interpret the laserdiscs as a symbol for electronic storage media this prognosis is not that far away from today’s streaming world.

Netflix, anyone?

Power Laces (false)

One of those inventions I wish had been made for real! A designer at Nike announced recently that they were about to come out in 2015. So there is still hope. But apart from these fan shoes and from a project at Kickstarter, power laces are still not in sight anywhere.

Smart Clothing (false)

A jacket that adjusts to a body’s size and that will get dry just like that? Reality in 2015 is a bit less spectacular. Water-repellent fibers and sensors woven into textiles do exist. Marty’s smart jacket with its built-in dryer remains nothing but a nice visual effect.

Hoverboards (false)

Certainly the runner-up to flying cars in terms of disappointment: Hoverboards! Even if there are some prototypes that glide on copper plates — a board that allows us to surf on the electromagnetic radiation of the Earth will remain science fiction.

3D-Films (true)

Here the film scores in more than one aspect: “Back to the Future II” gives us a wonderful spoof both on the present renaissance of 3D-movies and on Hollywood’s habit to release never-ending series of sequels (“Jaws 19”). Plus, we have already been treated to a few three-dimensional holographic projections.

Automated Service Stations (false)

No score for the film makers at the gas station. Much as our world is getting automated, no robot or grappler has made it to the gas pump yet. Makes you wonder what kind of gas prices they would have predicted in the Eighties. They probably had their reasons for not doing that.

Antique Macintosh Computers (true)

In an antique shop window there is an Apple Macintosh (introduced in 1984, when the initial movie was made). Hit score! Just recently one of the first Apple Computers ever made was auctioned off for $ 365,000. Macintosh computers are also very popular with collectors today.

iPads and Apple Pay (true)

In Marty’s future there are iPads (Marty is requested to sign a petition for saving the clock tower on his). And yes, paying with your finger print is also predicted correctly (Apple Pay). Biff pays a cab driver with his thumb print.

Sports Results (false)

A film that is based on the idea that the villain changes the future by way of sporting bets should be very careful with predictions about sports results. The Miami Marlins (originally the Florida Marlins) were founded in 1991 and made it into the Major League in 1993. But that the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series in 2015 is about as likely as the HSV (the local Hamburg soccer team) winning the Bundesliga (German national league).

Diana is Queen (false)

Even if October is a while off yet, we can rule out the possibility of Diana ever ascending to the throne. Moreover it is less than likely that a woman president will govern the US this fall. But the producers were on to something there: in 2007 Hillary Clinton was very close to becoming the Democratic candidate rather than Barack Obama.

Drones (false)

In an evening scene we see a dog being walked by a drone. In another scene a reporter drone shoots pictures in front of City Hall. Even if that

is still nonsense today, the film is making the right prediction as far as the increasing significance of drones is concerned.

Digital Service Workers (false)

It is a trend — albeit still far from becoming a reality: Digital service workers. Some airports and American car rental companies have video terminals that are serviced by employees sitting in remote call centers. At tech trade shows or conferences you can see remote-controlled Segway assistants, but these are exceptions that are not an everyday feature on our streets.

Digital cameras (true)

Back in 1988, when the movie was made, digital cameras where years away. What can be found in any of today’s smartphones, wasn’t even thinkable back then. What makes me wonder: Great Scott! — Where have all the smartphones gone in the future?

Lea Thompson then and now

View image | gettyimages.com

Prosthetics (true)

In the paper dated October 22, 2015, there is a headline saying “Pitcher suspended for bionic arm use”. Oscar Pistorius made it a hotly debated issue in 2012 whether athletes using performance-enhancing prostheses should be allowed to compete in the Olympics.

Computer Games (true)

“You mean you have to use your hands?” a young boy wisecracks at the Retro Café (Fun Fact: he is played by Elijah Wood, who later starred as Frodo Beutlin).Today consoles with motion recognition such as Microsoft Kinect are basic gaming equipment.

Double Tie (false)

The movie’s colorful outfits do look futuristic enough, but the hairstyles and other fashion items of the Eighties look even funnier from today’s point of view! So Marty McFly’s double tie of the year 2015 would have been a better match for chain mail and padded shoulders than for what is in fashion today.

Video Telephony (true)

When Marty answers his phone, it looks like a déjà-vu to us users of Skype, Google Hangout and Apple Facetime. Even if probably only few of us use this technology through their TV set in the living room, it has to be said that the film is spot-on in this case.

Data Glasses (true)

A device no one would have expected to be with us that soon: Data glasses. In terms of its technological capabilities Google Glass has even gone way beyond what was envisioned. Wearable Technology has in fact become a megatrend of our time.

Flat Screens (true)

Your TV set as a huge flat screen on your living room wall? Bingo! In those moments the film looks almost like a documentary. The networked home, including controls based on voice recognition is no longer science fiction either. (Samsung Voice Control, Microsoft Cortana, Apple Siri, Amazon FireTV, Amazon Echo).

Hydrated Pizza (false)

Total failure in our kitchens: No voice-controlled fruit baskets, nor pizza hydration in sight! With our microwave ovens and ceramic glass cooktops our kitchens seem to be stuck in the Eighties.

Thomas F. Wilson at 28 (1988), and how he looks today (Universal/FlynetFame)

Fax Communication (mega-false)

Where “Back to the Future II” really has goofed up big time is in the notion that the fax machine of all devices would be the predominant means of communication in 2015. This technology saw its heyday at the time the movie was made in the late Eighties and was replaced only a few years later by the internet and email.

The Present — a Large-Scale Failure?

So while it is fun to look at the movie today and point fingers at all the false predictions that were made, predicting future technological developments is not what “Back to the Future” is about. It is about people, and about our fears and our desires. When we join Doc and Marty on their travels through time we can’t help thinking about our own lives, and about principal questions of self-determination and of determinism. That is probably the real reason why “Back to the Future” has stood the test of time and so has written movie history in a most entertaining way.

What kind of visions did you have about the future when you saw the movie for the first time? How did you think the world was going to look like in 2015 (and how did it turn out?) What kind of advice would you give to yourself if you could visit yourself in the year 1985?

If you are interested in learning more about how the movie was made (including the fact that the script was rejected forty times) I recommend this video.

Screenshots by Universal Pictures

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