The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

The TV version of Minority Report shows how quickly predictions can become lame.

Minority Report on Fox.

Minority Report on Fox is set in 2065.

Screenshot via Fox.

During the publicity tour for the new Fox TV series Minority Report, executive producer Kevin Falls has pointed out that it is the first Steven Spielberg–directed movie to be adapted for TV. “So … no pressure,” he concludes. While his premise is not entirely true (he’s forgotten The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles), he is right to stand by his conclusion because he will likely feel pressure of many other forms. Most especially, because the show promises to deliver a large component of “high tech in the near future.” Such a promise is difficult to keep in an age when, to paraphrase whoever actually said the quote attributed to Yogi Berra, the near future ain’t what it used to be. The original film (made in 2002 and set in 2054) is already showing signs of what Douglas Adams and John Lloyd called “zeerust”—a form of out-of-date futurism. The TV show’s producers need to beware.

For the noisy lot of us born during the baby boom, there is a growing nostalgia for the future of our youth. By future of our youth I don’t mean optimism about what we ourselves might have been. We’ve long given up on that. I mean what we thought the future would be like when we were youngsters. For many of us, we thought the future would mean The Jetsons living in Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland (the theme park attraction, not the movie), with all the tailfins, ray-gun gothic aesthetic, and Googie architecture you could cram into a New York World’s Fair. Our parents may have lamented about surviving world wars and a Great Depression while our kids continually grouse about facing imminent climate change and acute economic inequality. But where’s the justice of living in a world in which we haven’t gotten our jet packs?!

Fond remembrances of futures past have been around ever since the 1936 big-screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come didn’t come. It’s probably for the best that what happened in 1984 didn’t happen in 1984 (except the legendary Super Bowl Apple commercial). But there was a burst of future nostalgia when the prophesies of 2001: A Space Odyssey proved to be nonprophetic. As it turns out, the failure of Pan Am and Howard Johnson to offer deep-space hospitality (or of the former to even exist) by 2001 had already been diffused by the abrogation of the Apollo program decades prior; the mild attention in nerd culture to Hal 9000’s “birth” four years earlier; and the sobering gut punch of Sept. 11, which returned our focus to the present. Ten years later (April 21, 2011, to be exact) we blew past the oft-delayed Judgment Day from the Terminator movies only to be told in Terminator: Genisys that “it’ll be back” in a few more years. Most recently, a lot of digital ink has been spilled deciding whether the 2015 of Back to the Future II was an accurate or mistaken foreshadowing of the 2015 of 2015, but generally speaking the predictive abilities of the fictional world of tomorrow have been relegated to the trash heap of yesteryear.

“The future” yet to come doesn’t look too bright either. After the next Terminator-led Judgment Day in 2017, the bleak events of Blade Runner unfold in 2019, just in time for the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Soylent Green is on the menu for 2022, the grim “city of the future” that is Metropolis takes place in 2026, the global infertility of Children of Men will be borne out in 2027, Robocop reports for duty in 2029, Snowpiercer arrives at its dire destination in 2031, and I, Robot boots up in 2035. Good luck to anyone who lives long enough to see Woody Allen reawaken in Sleeper circa 2173, because the best he or she can hope for in the meantime is the 30-year midcentury whiplash of Looper, the did-it-or-didn’t-it-happen happenings of Total Recall, and the mildly awkward, high-waisted couture of Her. Good times (to come).

A lot of this gloom-and-doomnation is due to the fact that the sleek and shiny promises of the space-age utopias have been overshadowed in popular culture by dank and dire dystopias. But it’s one thing to set a story of future discord in the year 802,701 (as Wells did in The Time Machine) and another to set it in the specifically dated near future, when we can get our hopes and fears up.

Yet this was the case for the original Minority Report movie, a classic piece of Spielbergian popcorn noir as defined in the Philip K. Dicktionary. The film takes a premise—psychic homicide prediction and prevention—that really didn’t have to be set in the future and pegged it to 2054. The film was deemed prescient for its depiction of video touch screens, voice-controlled appliances, intrusive interactive advertising, and driverless cars. But though we are still far from 2054, its inclusion of holographic movies stored on transparent slides inserted into a projector, print newspapers and magazines with front-page video screens, flame-spewing jet packs, and vomit-inducing night sticks already cries out for a fresh coat of Zeerust-Oleum.

The TV show, which is set in 2065, is cleaner and shinier and exists in a world transformed by Steve Jobs. Sometimes the pilot episode uses the future for a gag (like selfie drones or the 75th season of The Simpsons) and sometimes as a chance to encourage social policy. (A modular rapid-transit train system has replaced the movie’s vertical autobahn.) Futuristic niceties are also baked (or, as one provocative virtual ad suggests, “half-baked”) into nearly every shot—the Washington Monument has been retrofitted with neon and Bartlet Plaza is a freeze-frame reference to The West Wing.

There is one aspect of Minority Report the movie that Minority Report the TV show has not incorporated, at least based on the pilot episode: The title Minority Report is meaningless. In the Dick short story (and the film), it referred to something issued when one of the three psychic “pre-cogs” disagreed on the specifics of a future crime. But in the TV version, the pre-cogs no longer work for the pre-crime bureau and, though they can still see the future, they issue no formal “reports” at all. Nevertheless, Fox’s insistence on retaining Minority Report kept Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore from calling his The Nightly Show by that name.

But perhaps the title has another meaning: Whereas the movie was a white-washed version of the Washington, D.C., police force (there are maybe three actors of color with speaking roles: a pregnant secretary, a desk-jockey cop, and a computer technician), the TV show looks like a United Colors of Benetton ad. In fact, aside from any character who appeared in the film (the pre-cogs, their caretaker, and the overwhelmingly white “pre-crime” convicts who were released at the movie’s end), every single speaking role is played by a woman or an actor of color. Perhaps this is an accurate portrayal of the diverse makeup of a city that, in the show, has renamed the Washington NFL team the “Red Clouds” and, in real life, will be part of a minority-white nation. However, Minority Report’s pilot writer, director, and two executive producers (who show up in all the publicity materials) are all white men, which, in 2015, is hardly diverse at all. So … no pressure.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.