Star Trek and the shiny, boring future

Futurism is dead in cinema, and tech companies can’t save it

Walking out of the new Star Trek, a friend of mine told me he wished the movie made an effort to show off what the future of today could look like, rather than the future of the ‘70s. I stopped for a second and realized that when you take out all the space travel, lens flares, and spandex uniforms, it wasn’t even four-decade-old predictions we were seeing in IMAX 3D, it was the technology we interact with every day. Everyone in the movie walks around carrying an iPad. They have heads-up displays projected on glass. They talk to each other on cell phones. For a series that inspired a generation of engineers to go out and make these incredible things they saw on TV, it’s hugely disappointing to see this big-screen admission that they’ve run out of ideas.

It’s not just J.J. Abrams that embraces this prettier version of the status quo. In nearly every Hollywood movie, if the future isn’t a dystopian nightmare, it’s characterized by minimalistic design and touchscreens. That’s the entirety of their grand vision for the future. I own an iPhone and an iPad, and I buy IKEA furniture. I don’t need to pay $20 for a movie ticket to see a shinier iDevice sitting on a Klippan couch in 3D.

If we spent the last thirty years inspired by what we saw in Star Trek, what’s going to inspire us for the next thirty? If Hollywood’s fixated on the now, then the only futurism we have is funded by Silicon Valley venture capitalists and massive tech companies. The bold thinking of Google[x] might seem inspiring, but Glass and self-driving cars are nothing compared to the things someone like Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas can make us believe with a movie set and some clever editing. The dreams of Silicon Valley can be bold, but even in their best iterations they’re hindered by constraints of funding, time, or even simple engineering reality. It would have taken decades for some startup to engineer a prototype tricorder in the ‘70s. Luckily, it only takes LEDs and spare buttons for us to believe that this scientific marvel is something that could exist, if only we spent the time to create it.

We need this kick to get going, some unrealized dreams that follow us and push us to do great things. And we rely on fiction to bring us that. It’s a terrible shame and a real disservice for the years to come when the people we count on to dream are content with IKEA and iPads.