We have seen the future - and it works (mostly)

Tomorrow's world: A new exhibition celebrates the great predictions of celluloid
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The Independent Online
From life on Mars to peevish robots, film-makers have been predicting the future for a century. In a surprising number of instances they got it right, an exhibition opening today reveals.

"Image-ine", at the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank in London, looks at how film-makers of the past not only visualised the future, but in some cases helped make it happen.

Philip Strick, who is writing an encyclopedia of science fiction film and acted as an adviser for the exhibition, said that many scientific advances had been foreshadowed on film long before they were invented.

"Even in the first 10 years of cinema you can spot ideas about artificial intelligence. In The Phantom Empire, a film serial made in the late Thirties, there was a tin man," he said.

"Films made about 1910 had people going into hotels which were entirely self-operating. Everything is done mechanically: light is turned on mechanically, food is provided mechanically. Now, of course, if you have enough money you can have your own home doing the work for you at a verbal command. Lights will switch on, the television will come on when you tell it to."

Other examples predicted the closer future with uncanny accuracy. The 1909 film The Airship Destroyer offered a chilling insight into the kind of destruction Britain would endure in the First World War.

Shots showed balloons, dirigibles and aircraft crowding the air over the capital and dropping bombs (admittedly heaved overboard manually) on vehicles below, including a tank.

An even earlier film, made by Georges Melies in 1903, predicted Neil Armstrong's moon landing of 66 years before it actually took place. Less than 10 minutes long, Trip To The Moon showed a rocket being fired off by a cannon and landing on the moon's surface.

Out poured warmly dressed explorers who investigated the life forms they found - an energetic group of dancers recruited from the Folies Bergere. Attempts at realism fell down, however, when the scientists returned to earth using only the forces of gravity.

Later films such as Destination Moon by George Pal in the Fifties also showed men being fired by rockets to the moon. Such was their popularity that they acted as a kind of marketing tool for the scientists in the space race - and even, some argue, helped the reality happen.

Another well-known film from 1936, Things To Come, foreshadowed the rise of Fascism and the Second World War, while reality is still catching up with a far more modern film, Bladerunner, made in 1982, Mr Strick points out.

"One example is the stark look of the city, and another is the portrayal of a society almost dominated by Eurasian and Far Eastern interests. The film also has gimmicks like umbrellas with illuminated handles which people carry around to light their way.

"Most crucially, it offers the notion that sophisticated machinery will eventually reach the point where we are unable to tell robots from real people. You could watch a nightclub performer and not know if they were human or artificial."

Last but not least, there is Star Trek, which has long shown Captain Kirk and his team casually using remotely operated doors, examining holograms and chatting by the equivalent of the video phone.

8 "Image-ine" is at the Museum of the Moving Image until 9 October