How Hollywood Preys on Our Fear of the Future

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Joal Ryan
·Contributor
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Not to give anything away (that's not already in the trailer), but things don't work out so well for Johnny Depp and his artificial-intelligence system in the new movie "Transcendence" because, well, of course, they don't.

In Hollywood, the future's a place where computers go bad ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), robots go rogue ("Blade Runner"), and reality TV gets worse than it already is ("The Hunger Games").

"Hollywood has to sell tickets, so they have to scare the pants off the audience," Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist and author of "The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind," said via email.

But future-fear-mongering is more than a craven dramatic device. It's human nature.

"These apocalyptic scenarios go way, way, way back — before the Book of Revelation, to Plato's [lost civilization of] Atlantis," says Barry Vacker, an associate professor of media studies and production at Temple University, and author of "The End of the World — Again: Why the Apocalypse Meme Replicates in Media, Science, and Culture."

Appropriately, Hollywood's dark visions go way back, too.

"Metropolis," the 1927 silent film about a ruthless oligarchy and its killer machines, is typically viewed as the first major dystopian movie. And while the future would lighten up for a while thanks to the gee-whiz battles of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, things took a decisive turn in the late 1960s as the space race was in its final leg. Conquering the moon was all fine and impressive, but also disconcerting.

"Hollywood was tapping into this vein of anxiety about where tech where might take us, how it might get out of control," Vacker says.

And so then along came "2001," with its out-of-control HAL 9000, and the original "Planet of the Apes," with its apparently lost-in-space space travelers (and, for bad measure, nuclear annihilation). Our anxieties — and Hollywood's — haven't really let up since, the occasional "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" installment, notwithstanding.

Dystopian Future is practically its own film genre now, with recent entries including "Divergent," "Elyisum," "Oblivion," "Looper," "The Book of Eli," "District 9," "The Road," "I Am Legend," "Children of Men," and on and on and on.

[Related: Matt Damon: 'Elysium' Isn't Just Sci-Fi Speculation]

"It's natural to be a bit wary of the future and the unknown," Kaku said, "but Hollywood exploits this healthy wariness and hypes up the dangers."

"Transcendence," opening Friday, sounds like the flip side of Spike Jonze's future-neutral "Her." Instead of Scarlett Johansson's voice on a smartphone, there's Depp's brain in an A.I. system. Problems ensue when Depp's film friends realize, as Associated Press critic Jake Coyle wrote, "they've created a high-speed Frankenstein."

Overall, the movie is not faring well in reviews. The A.P. turned its thumb down, as did Variety, with critic Scott Foundas arguing that "Transcendence" never rises above "those hoary old clichés about the evils of technology and the danger by which man plays at becoming a god."

Funny thing is, though our fears and Hollywood's persist, the real-world scientific community tends to be sunnier, at least in terms of tech's impact on our lives. "We are at the beginning of a new, golden age of brain research," said Kaku, who recently outlined his vision of the future in a column for The New York Times. "Hollywood got it all wrong."

Well, something always does go wrong in these movies, doesn't it?