Column: ‘Back to the Future’ isn’t the first fictional future to be outrun by time

Dr. Brown shows Marty McFly a headline from Oct. 15, 2015, in "Back to the Future Part II." At least USA Today is still with us -- and on paper, too.

Dr. Brown shows Marty McFly a headline from Oct. 15, 2015, in “Back to the Future Part II.” At least USA Today is still with us -- and on paper, too.

(Universal Pictures)

If you’re a sensate human being, you’re probably aware that Wednesday is being marked as “Back to the Future” day by the movie series’ fans and their Hollywood enablers -- Oct. 21, 2015, being the point in the future visited by the fictional 1985-vintage Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his mentor Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in the second of those comic fantasies.

We’ll spare you a detailed rundown of what details the movie got right and wrong about its future and our present -- no hoverboards and no Chicago Cubs World Series win (yet) but yes on virtual reality goggles. What’s striking is that for people of a certain age, “Back to the Future” day marks at least the third time that the inexorable turning of the calendar has outrun a cultural depiction of our own future.

First came 1984. Then 2001. Compared to those moments, 2015 doesn’t seem like such a big deal. The reason is that George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” resonate so much more deeply as visions of our future -- and really our then-presents -- than “Back to the Future.”

A vision of 1984 that still resonates? Ridley Scott's classic 1984 commercial for Apple's Macintosh exploited the atmosphere of Orwell's novel.

A vision of 1984 that still resonates? Ridley Scott’s classic 1984 commercial for Apple’s Macintosh exploited the atmosphere of Orwell’s novel.


Orwell fashioned “Nineteen Eighty-Four” as a critique of the authoritarian impulses he detected in English socialism (rendered as IngSoc in the book), whose political tenets he admired but whose bureaucratic and conformist tendencies he detested.

Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club actually refused to publish “Animal Farm,” a parody of Soviet socialism, which Orwell took as an illustration of the left’s unwillingness to accept intelligent writing unless “it tells them what they want to hear.” Orwell’s antennae were tuned to identify incipient tyranny in any form, no matter what the underlying ideology, and it was that tendency he targeted in “1984.” As he wrote in another context, “The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved.”

That’s why the social aspects of the world Orwell imagined -- and set in a year he chose by merely transposing the last two digits of the year in which he composed his book -- remain its defining features in our culture: the tyranny of mass indoctrination; the elision of discomfiting facts from the past by dropping them down the “memory hole;” “doublethink.”

The atmosphere of the book may have been co-opted by such cultural markers as Ridley Scott’s “1984" commercial for Apple’s Macintosh computer, but the book’s amazing power even today comes not from Orwell’s depiction of technology but from the tyrant’s manipulation of social norms.

This is exemplified by the mantras: “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength.” These have become, if anything, even more emblematic of our world than they were in 1948 or, indeed, 1984. And they resonate far more than the particular details of Orwell’s plot -- who even can summon the name of the book’s main characters (Winston Smith and Julia) or recall that its society isn’t entirely one of gray-suited drones, but encompasses also an unregimented segment of working-class “proles”?

As for “2001,” it still seems fresher and more modern than countless space operas that Hollywood has turned out since 1968, even though filmmaking technology has progressed by, well, decades.

A few of the quotidian details Kubrick inserted into the film’s middle section seem risibly off-base today, such as the brand names Pan-American and Howard Johnson’s (though some people have pointed out the iPad-like tablets used by the spaceship Discovery’s astronauts). But what stays with us is his theme, which is the rewards and risks of humankind’s thralldom to technology. It was “2001" that arguably bequeathed us a lasting mistrust of artificial intelligence -- and what defines Kubrick’s skill as a filmmaker is that his willful computer was represented by nothing except an unblinking red light and a soothingly soporific voiceover. Hal is still one of the scariest villains in movie history, though.

The coming of the years 1984 and 2001 in real time provoked few frissons of foreboding and apprehension, but the turning of the calendar did nothing to reduce those works’ power to shock and enthrall us, even though they’re now placed in our own past. That’s the mark of true works of art. By contrast, “Back to the Future” is mere entertainment, albeit skilled of its type. But if Hollywood’s publicity machine hadn’t stirred the awareness that Oct. 21, 2015, is “Back to the Future” day, would anyone really know or care?

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