This version of America has kinder reality television, fewer replicants and far less government media control... so far.
By Robert Schlesinger
With a partial government shutdown, a turbulent stock market and an erratic, narcissistic Fox News super-fan in the Oval Office, the new year has rolled in ignominiously. But it could be worse.
We know that because, thanks to Hollywood, real life isn’t our first dance with the year 2019. It has already played out more than once on the big screen in 1982’s “Blade Runner” and 1987’s “The Running Man,” affording us the opportunity to compare and contrast our actual dystopian present with the dark days of futures passed.
To paraphrase the old Ronald Reagan-ism: Is 2019 better off than it was 37 years ago?
That is when “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s masterpiece about what it means to be human, hit screens. The movie takes place in 2019 Los Angeles, a seedy, grimy, city of smog and unceasing rain. But hey, little traffic because – flying cars! Score one for the Blade Runner-verse. (Actually, that is closer to the mark than you might realize.)
Meanwhile, the wealthy in Scott’s universe — or those who don’t luxuriously reside atop their own industrial pyramids — can escape this polluted planet to “off-world colonies.” On the down-side, real, live animals have largely disappeared, replaced by nigh-indistinguishable biological constructs. (Closest real-world parallel: The government shutdown has shuttered Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo.)
And humanity in the movie has created “replicants,” genetically engineered slaves who can only be differentiated from real humans by their faulty emotional responses. In the real 2019, by contrast, we only have to deal with cyberbots and trolls because on the internet nobody knows you’re a Russian bot. (Twitter could surely use a Voight-Kampff test.) Plus, we still have ongoing fears of artificial intelligence which are often still informed by the film.
Scott did nail a few things about the present: It’s hard to pass through Times Square these days without thinking of the iconic, giant video bill-boards that mark “Blade Runner’s” cityscape. Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard moves through a world in which the likes of Johnnie Walker Black, Coca-Cola and TDK still thrive, though Atari, not so much and, well, Pan-Am didn’t make it out of the 1900s, let alone to 2019. “Blade Runner” foretold video phone calls too.
One other point in favor of the movie’s version of 2019: The main antagonist, “skin job” Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) is more introspective and less clownishly villainous than President Donald Trump or most of the people who populate the senior ranks of his administration.
The president might, however, be more in tune with a the 2019 of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “The Running Man,” directed by Paul Michael Glaser. The film opens with a crawl describing a United States that could be straight from Trump’s “American carnage” inaugural address: “the world economy has collapsed, food, natural resources and oil are in short supply.”
It goes on: “Television is controlled by the state. … All art, music and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated.” This is, happily, far from our real life, but would might well cause the president to question the descriptive “dystopian,” if he knew what the word meant.
More broadly, though, “The Running Man” has some unsettling parallels to our world: For example, the most powerful man in the country is an unhinged game-show host (played Richard Dawson of “Family Feud” fame) who whips his adoring fans into a frenzy and soaks in their adulation. The character, Damon Killian, articulates a philosophy with which one could imagine Trump nodding along vigorously: “This is television, that’s all it is. Nothing to do with people, it’s to do with the ratings,” he explains. “We’re number one ... that’s all that counts.”
The film forecasted the rise of reality television, the genre which would come to dominate television viewership, though even the “Real Housewives” and “The Kardashians” have nothing on the movie’s “Climbing for Dollars,” in which contestants try to make their way up a rope and grab cash before vicious attack dogs pull them down for dinner.
As disturbingly, “The Running Man” foretold the coming of infotainment and its potential for deleterious societal effects. The Justice Department in the film has an Entertainment Division, and the state-sanctioned television network describes itself as, “entertainment and information network, remind[ing] you seeing is believing.” (That’s almost as good a catch-phrase as “fair and balanced.”)
The year 2019 has been imagined elsewhere as well. James Cameron’s 2000 television debut, “Dark Angel,” portrayed a young Latina with superhuman powers set loose upon a post-apocalyptic United States to right various wrongs perpetrated by the reigning military-industrial complex. This may seem far-fetched — unless you’re a Republican suffering from a fetishistic, obsessivefear of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
And more recently, 2009’s “Daybreakers” sketched out a 2019 in which the United States is dominated by vampires bent on sucking the few remaining real humans dry. Substitute “deep staters” or “Wall Streeters” for vampires and neither MAGA-philes nor Bernie Bros would blink much of an eye during a presidential debate.
Who knows how 2019 will play out in the real world, but if it continues along a dark path, take comfort in the fact that it’ll probably still prove better than what we feared.
Robert Schlesinger is a veteran Washington journalist and commentator. He is the author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters”
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.