Nothing dates a movie more than the words "in the not-too-distant future," especially if that future happens to fall within our lifetimes. Because when time catches up to the date predicted in the movie, we can't help but obsess over what it got right, and what it got hilariously wrong.
But a fun, and perhaps more generous way to revisit a "near future" sci-fi movie is to view it alongside another movie that was released in the actual year the first movie was set. The best of the genre is more interested in allegory than accuracy, anyway, so why not gauge a film's prescience by how it compares one actually released in the "not-too-distant future"?
We call this silly cinematic exercise DOUBLE FUTURE, and for our first matchup, we'll look at one movie set in the then-future-year 1997, and another released that actual year.
Escape from New York** (1981)**
Set in dystopian 1997, John Carpenter's super chill action classic Escape From New York follows war hero turned criminal Snake "Don't Call Me Plissken" Plissken (peak Kurt Russell) as he's sent into Manhattan, now a lawless maximum security prison, to save the kidnapped President. Carpenter first wrote Escape in 1976, following the Watergate scandal, when, as he puts it, "the whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President." Suffice it to say, Escape's allegorical themes hold up big time.
The tech, however, is decidedly retro, with just some sophisticated tracking devices, a digital countdown watch, and a bunch of good ol' fashioned walls with those random blinking lights. Carpenter's low budget didn't allow for much technological premonition, but Escape is a B-movie less interested in future tech than it is with future tensions. And in that regard—with a walled-in city, a veteran hero betrayed by his country, and a cocky, simpering President—Escape's vision of the future is so of-the-moment now as to feel almost heavy-handed.
A remake has been in the works for a couple of years, and naturally fans of the original—including Russell—are less than thrilled. But re-watching it today, it seems like Escape might be the one 80's movie that demands a reboot. Until then, enjoy Carpenter's initial vision of the near future. And instead of watching the kinda-fun-but-mainly-dumb sequel Escape From L.A., follow it up with another cult classic about an ex-Marine reluctantly chosen to save the world…
The Fifth Element** (1997)**
When 1997 finally did roll around, things were by no means utopian, but with the dot com bubble just beginning and a cloned sheep named Dolly dominating headlines, the world wasn't exactly the police state Carpenter had envisioned (again, yet). And in Hollywood, this relative cultural stability was reflected in a year of films that seemed particularly obsessed with extra terrestrials. Men in Black, Contact, Starship Troopers, and Alien: Resurrection were all released in '97, and apart from Contact, they represented a rather goofy slew of close encounters.
But the most gonzo alien flick of them all was Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, a bright, manic, space jam featuring Bruce Willis as a New York City cab driver in the year 2263 who finds himself in the middle of an intergalactic adventure when fiery-haired alien Milla Jovovich literally falls into the back of his flying cab.
The Fifth Element is completely bonkers, which makes sense given that Besson began developing it as a teenager. He also later stated it's not "a big theme movie" beyond its 'love conquers all' message, which, in 1997, was a perfectly palatable foundation for a sci-fi film. That's an arguably harder sell these days, but perhaps Besson's next space adventure, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, coming out this July, will be just the late-90s utopian sci-fi throwback we need.
Bonus Third Future
Luc Besson was recently sued by John Carpenter for copying Escape from New York in 2012's Lockout (known in some circles as "Space Jail"). Besson lost the case, and understandably so. It is a super-dumb, shameless rip-off—one that I secretly enjoy and recommend if you want to make this Double Future a full-fledged triple.
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