The hidden psychology of every culture is visible in the stories they tell. Narrative rules everything around us and it has been this way since human consciousness blossomed. Prehistoric caves separated by temporal and cognitive chasms are etched in thematic convergences, telling tale after tale of peculiar beasts and triumphant hunts. We know what compelled them.
Over time, as evolution carefully shaped our awareness, so too did our methods of storytelling become infinitely more refined. No longer satisfied with pure depictions of reality, artistry took hold and became a conduit for something more clinical, but no less revealing. Media that resonates at the right frequency is magnetic, and the hidden message that sends is often more captivating than the embedded narrative itself.
As a quick exercise, try to think of how many stories you know that are set in the future and do not feature an environment that is relentlessly bleak on an emotional level or outright hostile to its inhabitants on a physical level. The ratio is not great, and it betrays a highly neurotic vision of tomorrow embedded deep within our culture.
Perhaps the most obvious pattern is the palpable anxiety fluttering around technology. Its inevitable advance is nearly always framed as a creeping spectre, rarely as a tool for novel expression and economic empowerment. Despite yielding almost every aspect of our lives to the ascent of tech, we seem to be aware on some level that this is a tragic misstep.
The critiques come in two forms.
First there are the shallow and predictable judgements. Black Mirror, a show with hysterical catastrophizing built into the premise, exemplifies this style best. What was intended to be a clinical meditation on the unintended consequences of technology ends up being a nervous mess at best, and an outright attempt to infect its viewers with an unrelenting vision of hopelessness at worst. One of many psychic attacks that are being welcomed with a wave of passivity.
Then there are the more interesting stabs. These examples often distinguish themselves by their fidelity. The artists at the helm become legitimately informed about the tech at the heart of their judgements and the result is a more precise and piercing attack.
Ex Machina is a film which on the surface may appear to share those same shallow cautionary overtones, but is secretly playing a deeper game with its audience. We are drawn in and compelled to sympathize with Ava, an artificial intelligence with near-human form. Without spoiling it, the way Ava evolves over the course of the movie charts an eerily plausible path for the real life evolution of these systems, and the air of mistrust the film leaves in its wake is far more potent for it.
The narratives in this latter category truly resonate because they speak to the very real threat of humanity being relegated to the edges of material existence by something we don’t even understand. A glance at the prominent imagery emerging from this sub-genre tells a story of isolation among digital ruins. Souls lost in simulation.
Empires & Individuals
If there’s one bold streak running through nearly all landscapes in future media, I would identify it squarely as the consolidation of power. That is specifically the kind of power that already exists in our current structures, but accelerated to its logical extreme.
orporations are a prime example. Today, in the West, we’re living in an age of unbridled neoliberal capitalism. The trend towards imbalance on the economic playing field has been consistent and unrelenting.
As software eats the world, and digital empires fly under the radar of archaic monopoly laws, the territory remaining for the rest to fight over is slowly shrinking. So it’s not surprising that our science fiction imagery is often dominated by the neon skyscapes of mega-corporate control. There’s always a distinct verticality to these shots because they depict an implied hierarchy made densely physical. Hypercapitalism prevails as the presumed ideology of tomorrow.
When power isn’t consolidating in private wealth it often takes the form of a tyrannical state instead. The wildly popular Hunger Games stories serve as an archetypal example, wherein society becomes overtly hierarchical, segmented into class-based regions and forced to compete against each other for dwindling resources and the entertainment of the elites. The struggle against unjust totalitarian rule is extremely compelling for modern audiences because so much of our current discourse is framed around the idea of unfair distribution.
No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, you are quickly supplied with a concrete scapegoat on which to blame your problems. Tribal allegiances thrive on well-defined enemies, and there are few more seductive than the unfalsifiable power structure of elite greed. It’s the mastercraft narrative that defines the undercurrents of today.
Dreams of Apocalypse
The pendulum can only swing so far before inciting reaction. Building on a base of established anxiety, we supplemented our unease with a barrage of media that both reaffirmed the mindset of uncertainty and even provided new avenues for it to grow. We stoked the flames of paranoia under the pretence of realism and are now living in the overflow.
An interesting trend started percolating in the early 2000s. Post-apocalyptic entertainment took off like a rocket and never really slowed down. Visions of decaying cities and nuclear wastelands started dominating the cultural consciousness as a remedy to the mundane, sterilized course charted out for us.
When you’re living in a world where it feels like the blank edges of the map have already been filled in, and the future is only ever viewed through a neurotic haze, the allure of a full reset is enchanting.
Every memetic poison has a memetic elixir, but I am not convinced this is the right one. It’s a fantasy, a coping mechanism at its core.
You cannot strive towards apocalypse, not without surrendering to nihilism.
The only path forward is an integrated one, which is why the real antidote must manifest by clearing the neurotic haze rather than trying to sidestep it.
That means daring to look forward with a lucid optimism. The kind we so rarely see in our stories today.
The final example I want to highlight is Interstellar, a film frequently lauded for its technical achievements and emotional resonance, but which deserves specific attention for the vision of the future it chooses to depict in its final moments.