The future is now.

Photographer: Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Zodiac Vodka

Jump in the DeLorean, for a Sunnier Future

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Wednesday is “Back to the Future” Day -- Oct. 21, 2015, the date to which Marty McFly flew forward in the 1989 film “Back to the Future Part II.” Celebrations are everywhere. The Web abounds with analyses of which of the movie’s predicted technologies we have, which ones we don’t and which ones are coming. Pepsi Perfect has arrived. So has the trailer for “Jaws 19.” (Yes, the references are geeky.)

It’s amazing how much director Robert Zemeckis got right in his masterpiece. True, there aren’t any flying cars yet, and hoverboard technology is getting hung up with technical challenges. But he was right about wearable computers, television screens that display multiple channels, fingerprint scanners, hands-free gaming, even drones.

But for all the deserved encomiums for Zemeckis’s film, I must say that what strikes me as most memorable about his imagined future is how sunnily optimistic it is. The future was something to look forward to. It would be better than the present. The devices with which the future was decorated, from the self-walking dog leash to the instantaneous food, would make life easier. In a sense Zemeckis was extending the goofy ordinariness of “The Jetsons” or for that matter the original “Star Trek”: In the future we’d be pretty much like we are in the present, but with cooler tech.

The optimism extended even to the invention of the time machine itself. When Marty buys a sports almanac so that he can take it back to 1985 and become rich betting on games that have already happened, Doc Brown throws the volume in the trash and treats his young protégé to a stern lecture about how he built the time machine not to make money but to better humanity. Of course the great threat to the beauty of that future arises only after Biff decides to carry out Marty’s unfortunate plan and change the past.

The future isn't perfect; for example, there seem to be slums. Hilldale, where Marty’s future self lives, was originally designed as an upscale subdivision, but in 2015 is derided by a police officer: “They ought to tear this whole place down. Nothing more than a breeding ground for tranks, lobos and zipheads.” Yet apart from a few tiny pieces of set decoration -- the graffiti, for instance -- the supposed slum never looks terribly slummy. The home the future Marty shares with his wife, Jennifer, seems to have all the modern conveniences. And fans (well, very geeky fans anyway) argue reasonably that the mess that’s been made of Hilldale somehow represents the future restructuring itself after Biff’s intervention in the timeline.

True, we only spend a small part of the movie in Zemeckis’s imagined future. We spend much more in the past. But we can hardly miss the contrast between, on the one hand, the bright joyful colors and splendid technology of sunny and hopeful 2015, and, on the other, the dangerous shadows of 1985 once Biff gets through changing it. The message is impossible to miss: A happy future awaits us, if we will only focus on humanity rather than personal gain.

Then there’s now, and what’s striking about movies set in the future is how overwhelmingly bleak they are. For every feel-good, if-we-all-work-together-we-can-do-it triumphs like “The Martian,” there are a dozen oh-no-the-world-is-ending downers. For Zemeckis the future was clean and bright. Now it’s all alien conquest, ravaging disease, environmental catastrophe and mindless zombie hordes. With wicked corporations or wicked government or both.

Film historians tell us that the enthusiasm for sci-fi and horror films in the 1950s and 1960s was partly about catharsis, dealing with our fears of nuclear annihilation. The enormous success of today’s movies about a grim tomorrow remind us that young people in particular are working through fears of their own. As I’ve written before, this is largely the fault of the supposed grown-ups who run the place and seem unable to generate much optimism about the future.

But for “Back to the Future” Wednesday, at least, we should relax and let the sunniness of the film fill our day with cheer. So let’s all kick back with a bottle of Pepsi Perfect, jump on our hoverboards, and watch the Cubs win the World Series.

  1. Unless you think that flying thing gathering video for USA Today was some sort of genetically engineered organism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net