Friday, April 12, 2013

Hollywood Predicts the Future Best When It Turns to Science-Fiction Pros

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Don Steinberg asks the question, “Can Sci-Fi Movies Predict the Future?”   This brief analysis in @WSJ focuses on 1973, which Mr. Steinberg calls a “remarkable prescient” year for science fiction, and more specifically on four movies:  Soylent Green, Sleeper, Westworld, and World on a Wire. 

I’m not sure I would have picked that year or those movies, but using 1973 as a baseline does give us four decades, which is a reasonable period to evaluate.  That’s important because innovation doesn’t happen overnight, even when someone has already written the game plan.

Mr. Steinberg asks another question, “. . . how did filmmakers know so much back then?”  The answer is simple but you won’t find it just by watching the movies.  Unless, of course, you stay for the credits.  Then you’ll learn that three of the four films are based on novels by—or have a screenplay written by—a real science-fiction author. Here’s the list:
  1. Soylent Green: Screenplay by Stanley R. Greenberg.  Novel by Harry Harrison.  Mr. Harrison, who unfortunately passed away last year, was a prolific author of science fiction novels and short stories.  These include the Stainless Steel Rat series, the Stars and Stripes trilogy, the Bill the Galactic Hero series, and Deathworld. 
  2. Sleeper:  Screenplay by Woody Allen.  While Mr. Allen is not a science fiction writer, he is the author of many books and a keen observer of humanity’s foibles. 
  3. Westworld:  Writer—Michael Crichton.  Mr. Crichton, an author and former medical student, has written many science fiction novels and thrillers as well as screenplays.  His books include The Andromeda Strain, Sphere, The Lost World, and Jurassic Park. (BTW:  If you haven’t seen this little gem, do watch it.  The seed that grew into The Terminator was planted here.)
  4. World on a Wire:  Teleplay by Fritz Muller-Scherz and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Novel by Daniel F Galouye.  Mr. Galouye was the author of five science fiction novels including The Infinite Man and Simulacron-3, which was made into the movie The Thirteenth Floor.
That makes the answer to Mr. Steinberg’s question obvious, at least to me.  The people who made these four movies, with the exception of Woody Allen, didn’t know anything about predicting the future.  It was the science-fiction authors who accomplished that with varying degrees of success.  What Hollywood did was turn their visions into movies and put their words onto the big screen. 

This is a lesson I wish Hollywood grasped more often.  As I mentioned in a previous blog about the Hollywood Dream Machine, the greatest creativity comes from people who make a living being creative.  After all, science-fiction writers are always asking their own big question:  “What if ?”
  • “What if the moon disappeared?”
  • “What if aliens invade?”
  • “What if animals become sentient?”
  • “What if the Axis powers had won World War II?”
  • “What if robots take over the world?”
  • “What if the world runs out of food?”
  • “What if we can travel to Antares?”
You get the picture.  

When Hollywood wants to predict the future, it succeeds the most by turning to the pros who look into the future every single day.  That model works out well for the filmmakers who create successful movies, the authors who earn more money, and the audiences who have a better night at the theater.

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