Back To the Future of the Past: Time Machines, Hoverboards and One Flying Car – PART 1
By Howard Shirley, Teen Department
1989, the first year of George Bush’s presidency (the father, not the son), the last year of the Reagan decade, and the year that brought the sequel to the blockbuster time travel movie Back to the Future.
In the first film, teenager Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) accidentally travels back in time to 1955, in one of the most unique time travel devices ever filmed—a stainless steel Delorean sports car. Exploring his now retro hometown, Marty inadvertently prevents his parents from meeting, a catastrophe that means he would never be born; unless he sets things right and helps his teenage parents find true love again. Aided by Doc Brown, the time machine’s eccentric inventor, he saves the day and his parents’ future marriage (and, incidentally, transforms their future lives from dull to dreamy). The film ended back in the year 1985, with the Doc Brown character zooming off into the future… and then instantly returning to take Marty (and his teenage girlfriend) to 2015 to save their own kids from that unknown future.
It took four years to find out what that future was—a time of flying cars, home fusion generators, and instant pizza. At least, that’s what the film-makers in 1989 thought the future would be like. Well, 2015 isn’t the future anymore. So what did they get right, and what did they get wrong?
Mr. Fusion home and car nuclear fusion generators. In the first film, the Delorean time machine is powered by a plutonium fission reactor (and, yes, small nuclear reactors are indeed possible and have been built for laboratory use). But when Doc returns from the future, he’s had it fitted with a plastic device resembling a food processor, labelled “Mr. Fusion.” Doc proceeds to stuff it with garbage (a banana peel, beer, and even the beer can), announcing he needs “fuel.” So apparently the future of 2015 was expected to have cheap and easy access to virtually unlimited energy that could produce nuclear fusion from any solid or liquid matter.
Well, nice try, but that’s not here, nor around the corner, nor even probable. As far as we know, nuclear fusion requires very specific isotopes of hydrogen or helium, not something you can unlock in a banana peel. And today’s fusion reactors remain pretty much what they were thirty years ago—immense, expensive and complicated machines that fill entire buildings, and require more energy to ignite than they produce from the fusion process itself. So it seems Mr. Fusion is a complete no go… but maybe not. Lockheed-Martin’s famous Skunk Works research division announced last year a potential way to create relatively inexpensive controlled fusion reactions without the massive power requirements which have so far been necessary (and have rendered fusion untenable as an energy solution). Lockheed expects to produce a viable, economically feasible fusion power plant that could fit on the back of a flatbed semi, and expects to do so in the next ten years. From any other source, this proposal might seem laughable, but the scientists at Lockheed aren’t given to absurd claims. So though Mr. Fusion isn’t here yet, just maybe he’s hanging out around the corner.
Instant sleep device. In the film, Doc Brown decides that bringing Marty’s girlfriend along is a bad idea, and he solves the problem by instantly putting her to sleep with an electronic device he shines in her eyes. Setting aside the questionable nature of using such an item on an unsuspecting person (much less a teenage girl), not to mention the underlying sexism of the moment (why is the future dangerous for her but not for Marty?), do we have anything like it? Well, not really. In a way, a Taser serves as a knock-out device, but far more violently, and isn’t intended as a path to unconsciousness for the victim (pleasant or otherwise), just a state of helplessness. Instantly induced, non-chemical sleep would be a medical wonder, but would we really want such things being available outside of a controlled medical environment? Probably not; the chance for abuse is obvious.
Weather Service (weather control). When the trio arrives in the future, it’s pouring down rain. Marty comments that the events Doc predicts don’t work for the weather. Doc checks his watch, and the rain instantly stops, with bright sun appearing immediately. “The National Weather Service. Right on the money,” he says—apparently in 2015, we’re supposed to be able to control the weather. Well, we’re not even close. We’re still arguing about whether what we do (by accident) affects the climate, and what we can possibly do about it if it even does. Controlling the weather remains as far in the future as it’s ever been.
Self-fitting clothes. Marty has to dress like his teenage son (conveniently identical to his some-day father). The jacket Doc hands him at first seems absurdly wrong—the sleeves are easily a foot longer than Marty’s arms, and the body dwarfs his frame. But a press of a tab causes the outfit to instantly contract to the proper size, the sleeves folding up like an accordion. As any parent of a young teen will tell you, this is an incredible idea. Imagine purchasing an outfit for a twelve-year-old and have it still fit him at age thirteen! But, alas, no such clothing exists. On the other hand, given the rate at which teen fashion changes, many teens would probably be whining about having to wear “last year’s” clothing again, whether it automatically fit or not.
Rejuvenation. Doc Brown brags about how “rejuvenation” has made him ten years younger—though to Marty and us, he looks pretty much the same as he did in 1985 and even 1955. Doc implies that the process somehow restores a person’s youth, a staple of science fiction for over a century. Well, no, we still can’t do that, though plastic surgery to make one appear younger remains in vogue (with somewhat dubious success; youth is in the eye of the beholder). However, certain research may indicate paths to restoring some measure of youth to older people. Experiments with mice involving stem cells and other genetic methods have indeed made older mice “younger,” in terms of their cells’ abilities to restore themselves (a natural process that is lost and in fact prevented over time, producing the effect we know as aging). These experiments, however, remain largely on the far edge of medical study, and as currently done have potentially dangerous side effects, especially a high risk of cancer. They’re certainly not ready now for any human application, nor likely to be ready in the very near future.
Windows in luggage. In a rather odd moment, Doc pulls a duffle bag out of his car, presses a button, and the plastic side panel on the duffle changes from an opaque white to a clear window, revealing the clothes inside. As far as I know, this device doesn’t exist, but why would such a thing even be needed? Maybe for easy inspection at airports, though I can’t imagine too many people want their packed undies to be revealed to everyone in the TSA line. I guess if one wonders if you remembered to pack that green shirt, you can reveal the window and glimpse inside without having to open the bag and move anything…
No lawyers, resulting in swift justice. This is a one-off joke in the film, to explain how in 2015 a character can be arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced all on the same day. Doc Brown simply says, “Since they abolished all lawyers, the justice system operates swiftly.” Thankfully, this development has not occurred, as the absence of competent representation would likely produce more injustice for the accused than the opposite. Whatever its faults, the justice system we still have seems superior to the one implied by this joke.
“Instant” pizza / food rehydration. The future version of Marty’s mother arrives to visit Marty’s family, declaring that she’s brought pizza. The pizza turns out to be a plastic-wrapped disc barely the size of a bagel. She rips open the package, stuffs the puny thing in a boxy appliance labeled as a “food rehydrator,” and presses a button. Seconds later, a full-sized large pizza slides out of the machine. Yum. Thankfully, we’ve dodged this particularly unappealing bullet. Still, quick meals have made quite an upswing in quality over the days of Hamburger Helper and the barely edible frozen pizzas of my youth, so maybe a rehydrated pizza really would taste good. I’m not betting on it, though.
Inflated prices. In the future Hilldale, an advertisement for converting a car to hover-capability suggest a “bargain” price of “$39,999.95,” which, even with the obvious luxury aspect of a conversion, implies a significant devaluation of the dollar, especially if such a cost is considered “within reach” and worth paying for on a used vehicle. Thankfully, while inflation has been bad enough, especially over the last decade (about 9-10%), it hasn’t been quite as bad as the movie suggests.
Pockets turned out as a teen fashion fad. Doc yanks Marty’s pockets out, declaring it’s the latest thing for teens. If only out-turned pockets were the “teen rebellion” fashion statement of the day, rather than exposed boxers (or worse, briefs). But the latter fad seems to be on the way out, so who knows what “kids in the future” (i.e. “this fall”) will decide to do to shock mom and dad instead?
Dust resistant paper. Nope. Though there are coatings that can repel dirt and grime might be a solution, if anyone really needs paper that always stays clean.
Extendable baseball bats. The future Biff grandson, as much of a bully as his grandfather, pulls out a baseball bat to attack Marty. The bat is collapsible, telescoping to full size with the push of a button. This innovation, which doesn’t seem to be of much use in sports, hasn’t arrived, but telescoping toy light sabers from the Star Wars films have been around for years, though they extend at the flick of a wrist, not by any power source.
Computerized celebrity waiters. The diner, like all good restaurants in the future, has dispensed with wait staff (or, apparently, any staff), replacing everyone with ceiling-suspended robot waiters, consisting of video screens with computerized images of Michael Jackson (alive in 1989, but tragically and prophetically dead today) and Ronald Reagan (looking and sounding very Max Headroom-ish, another blast from the ‘80s. The future back then w-w-w-as hi-hi-hip. And it stuttered). Yes, today some restaurants have experimented with apps and at-the-table ordering and paying systems, but a good old-fashioned living waiter still dominates the market. Digital celebrity appearances, however, have been incorporated into films, television shows, and advertisements, with deceased stars like Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly appearing to endorse modern products created long after their deaths. And documentary footage has been digitally doctored in film to give the illusion of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon, among others, interacting with characters portrayed by modern actors. There is also a restaurant in Japan which has indeed replaced human waiters with bizarrely smiling robots, so maybe a dead celebrity robot server will come to pass. Personally, this writer hopes not.
3D holographic signs and images, without a screen. At one point, Marty is briefly terrified by the image of a giant shark that lurches out of the air to apparently swallow him. It turns out to be nothing more than a 3D hologram, projected into the surroundings by the local theater to advertise the latest iteration of the Jaws movie series (thankfully, Jaws IV seems to have killed that brand for good). As yet, 3D images still require either a projection on a flat surface or special glasses or curved screens to create; they can’t just be flung into the air. However, certain experimental devices have demonstrated ways to produce screenless 3D effects. One creates pockets of plasma in the air which will reflect laser light beamed onto the plasma. Multiple lasers can thus produce a three-dimensional image apparently in empty space. But this technology is nowhere near reaching the ability to create a giant shark munching down on a passerby.