Beameth me up
No one can know what the distant future has in store but the odds are it won't include Leonard Cohen, pay phones and last season's Armani. So how can Hollywood, of all industries, be so out of the time loop, asks Joe Queenan
Immediately after executing yet another monstrous act of unspeakable violence, Sharlto Copley, who plays the villain in new sci-fi thriller Elysium, says: “That’s what I’m talking about.”
It is the year 2154, yet the sadistic mercenary makes use of an expression that first appeared in a Depression-era Fats Waller ditty and enjoyed a certain vogue in the United States at the dawn of the current millennium, but is now, in 2013, no longer heard that often.
Is this a deliberately ironic use of a retro, anachronistic Americanism by a snarky South African scumbag, tantamount to some wiseacre in 2013 reaching back more than a century and exhuming the expression, “I’ll have your guts for garters”?
Or “Aye, that’ll fetch thee a pretty penny.” Or even “Avast, ye lubber lot!” Or is this simply a case of the screenwriter taking the rest of the afternoon off and not even trying to make the dialogue sound like something you would hear 141 years in the future because he figured nobody would be paying all that much attention anyway?
It is the sort of question that has flummoxed mankind since the beginning of time.
Elysium, a deceptively pretentious, not especially good film where a lot of stuff gets blown up, posits a world in which a tiny group of wealthy people live on a fabulous space station fully visible from Earth while everyone on the planet lives in squalor and misery. The symbolism is about as subtle as dysentery. One annoying feature of the film – other than the prepubescent metaphors – is that, more than a century into the future, the characters talk like people from the early 21st century, dress like people from the early 21st century, sport tattoos like people from the early 21st century and wear cobalt trouser suits like people from … 1987.
And, oh yes, in 2154, unemployed thugs will still be walking around in vests.
I don’t get it. I just don’t. Does anyone seriously believe that, 141 years from now, people will still try to scare anyone by wearing tattoos? Or even 131 years? Generic, ordinary tattoos? Really? My suspicion is that tattoos will either evolve stylistically or they will go back to being what they used to be: body art for people who already are scary (bikers, mercenaries, professional athletes or roadies for Scorpions tribute bands), whose use of tattoos is selfconsciously redundant, given that they are already missing eyes and teeth and noses and seem to have an awful lot of ordnance concealed in their cargo pants.
If you consider how rapidly and dramatically the world has changed since the invention of the internet and the arrival of the mobile phone and the rise of Twitter, isn’t it likely that bad, bad, bad men in the distant future will be sporting three-dimensional tattoos, or tattoos that have great white sharks living inside them, or holographic tattoos that will confuse the police by making it seem like the perp is actually a foreboding McMansion filled with famished boa constrictors? Or isn’t it vaguely possible that people living in a futuristic totalitarian society – as opposed to, say, China – will shun tattoos entirely because they make it easier for the police to identify them? I’m just throwing this out there.
Pursuing this line of inquiry, what are the odds that Elysium’s offthe- rack corporate villain (the reliably vile William Fichtner) will be wearing a suit that looks exactly like the suits that reliably vile men in suits (AKA “suits”) wear in our own world today? In other words, Armani? Or that the conscienceless defence secretary, played by Jodie Foster, will be wearing a trouser suit? Wouldn’t that be a bit like today’s chief executives doffing spats and homburgs? Or having sweet little pocket watches with a black-and-white photo of Aunt Tilly concealed in their jacket pockets? Or, on the distaff side, wouldn’t it be like wearing a bustle and a hat loaded with dried flowers and some fancy lace-up shoes? Who, other than Lady Gaga, goes in for that sort of stuff?
The future, as depicted in motion pictures, has always been problematic.
This is because screenwriters can readily envision flying cars and genetic mutations and hard-drinking androids and auto-obstetric neo-natal surgery and foetuses that start off looking like humans but then mutate into eight-headed leeches with daddy issues, but they can never reimagine the ordinary details of life. Why, for example, is Harrison Ford making a call on a pay phone in Blade Runner? In the future, we all know, pay phones will no longer exist. They barely exist now. They were probably starting to go out of fashion way back in 1982, when Blade Runner was made. Surely, in a society teeming with feisty rogue androids and roving municipal spaceships, technology would have evolved beyond the humble land line. I am not saying the people who made Blade Runner could have anticipated texting and e-mail and the iPhone and saying goodbye to the person you have been sleeping with for the past seven years by de-friending them on Facebook.
But surely they could have thought of something less clunky than pay phones. Surely. Maybe something like telekinetic Skyping, for instance.
One other thing: I honestly believe that in the future, all women’s footwear will be made of a tasteful zinc-plutonium alloy, with just a soupcon of cadmium mixed in. For effect.
Transportation in the future is another issue. In the most recent installation of the Star Trek series, Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch teleports himself from Earth to the planet Gamulon F-960. Or Kronos. Or Vecretral Psi-Cumberbatch. Or something.
Somewhere with Klingons. The operatives of the USS Enterprise go off in hot pursuit, first in their massive spaceship, then via more discreet modes of transport. This is because they do not want to alert the inhabitants of the planet to their presence. Klingons are nasty.
Wait a minute. Why show up in Klingon airspace in a standard-issue spaceship in the first place? Or even in one of those pocket-sized lunar landing craft that always seem to be so popular in sci-fi films? Why not pluck a page from Cumberbatch’s book and teleport themselves in and out of danger, taking him back with them? Why don’t they take the path of least resistance? And why, at the conclusion of the film, does Spock run after Cumberbatch when so many other types of transportation are open to him? Run and run and run. Why do people in the future always forget that they have access to bewildering new technologies that make conventional spaceships seem clunky and dumb? Is there something about the air quality in outer space that makes it hard for people to think straight?
Movies set in the future do not always sound like movies set in the future. I am willing to believe that the future will sound like Radiohead and Pink Floyd. It may even sound like Gustav Holst or Igor Stravinsky, or Hans Zimmer and John Williams and James Horner channelling Holst and Stravinsky. There is a reasonably good chance that the future will sound like Vangelis or Kraftwerk, though for the sake of our unborn grandchildren, I hope not. But I do not believe it will sound like Leonard Cohen. Much as I love the Canadian troubadour, who made his first record when I was still in college back in 1927, I do not believe that Cohen’s weird, monochromatic singing will still seem weird in the centuries to come. I think it will seem quaint. By the time the future arrives, the idea that anyone ever honestly believed that including I’m Your Man or Everybody Knows or Hallelujah on their movie soundtrack would help evoke it will seem like using Tyrolean drinking songs or arias by Vivaldi in a Vin Diesel film set in 2013. The Fast and the Orlando Furioso. I feel the same way about music by Depeche Mode.
Classy, but just not futuristic. One other thing: department-store country & western music will cease to exist by 2154, and no one will be allowed to name their child Shania. This is one of the great things about films such as Event Horizon and Prometheus, and even Planet of the Apes: no Taylor Swift.
Movies set in the near future are also a problem, because the near future quickly arrives, and if Al Gore doesn’t get himself elected president of the US or if a camera specially designed for blind people does not get invented, the whole premise of the film goes right out the window. Actually, the list of inexplicable things that take place in movies set in the future is endless. Why do Space Age guns always look like harmless Super-Soakers? Why do the futuristic fascisti always look like the imperial troopers from The Empire Strikes Back? Why are there so rarely birds of prey, mandrills, spotted tamarinds or ferrets in films set in the future? And, while we’re on the subject, why is Jeff Daniels playing a murderous capo di tutti capi in Looper? Since the affable Daniels would be completely unconvincing as a murderous gangster in a film set in 2013, why would he seem more convincing as a murderous gangster in 2044? And what bizarre physiognomic re-transmogrification would enable Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the year 2044 to look like Bruce Willis in 2074? I just don’t get it.
Guardian News & Media
Elysium is currently showing in Hong Kong cinemas.