Toy-like beeps punctuate the air as the Ikarie XB-1 spaceship zips across the cosmos. A rickety robot called Patrick clumsily rolls across the floor, answering commands from its owner in a deadpan voice. Accustomed to advanced computer-generated graphics and visual effects, modern-day audience members may find this black-and-white footage from the 1963 sci-fi film Ikarie XB-1 quaint and unsophisticated.
Yet, large swathes of science fiction movies recycle kitschy imagery like this – jetpacks, hoverboards, and flying cars perpetuate the genre, even today. Many of us cannot help but feel fondness and nostalgia as we relive past representations of the future that never came to pass. They seem so innocent, absurd almost. The conscious use of dated images to evoke utopian visions is defined by a movement called retrofuturism.
Retrofuturism points to how people in the early to mid-twentieth century conceived of the future, which is represented/manifested in the imagery of “technology, architecture and design” within film and literature. (Davidson 731)
The movement seeks to look back and explore “the meaning of yesterday’s tomorrows in the present” (Davidson 731).
Figure 2: Cyberpunk 2077’s retrofuturistic landscape. Image still from Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) courtesy of CD Projekt Red.
These presentations have become so ingrained in our culture that even contemporary post-apocalyptic media set in the future – like the video game Cyberpunk 2077 – still resembles the zeitgeist of the 1970s and their vision of what the coming times looked like. If you need references on the iconic aesthetic, think of holograms, neon city lights and monumental skyscrapers.
It seems that as a contemporary society, we have collectively lost sight of dreams of the future and rely on past conceptions of technological progress to propel science fiction, transferring past iterations of the future to the present. With the largely uniform imagery depicted in the genre, what purposes then, does retrofuturism serve to convey?
Primarily, the movement reminds us of the inspirational force that alternative worlds carry. Awe-inspiring scenes that show visually compelling landscapes generate feelings of wonder – a desire to experience other societies and the utopian possibilities they offer. Davidson mentions how we go back to past versions of the future not to answer the problems of the present, but to use it as a launching pad to look at society with a pair of fresh lenses.
The 2015 film Tomorrowland exemplifies this retro-futuristic urge. It presents a utopian city replete with jetpacks that work their way through the sleek metropolis. These excesses demonstrate the prospect of a world superior to ours – shaking audiences out of the cultural inertia of the present where oil crises, natural disasters and financial recessions have stunted our hopes about technology’s boundless potential.
Figure 3: Casey admires the cityscape in Tomorrowland. Image still from Tomorrowland (2015) courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
Thus, it is the emotional reactions that these images elicit rather than the contents of those utopian depictions that prove to be meaningful. Additionally, Tomorrowland transcends retrofuturism – at the end of the film, the two main characters Casey and Frank gain control of the city and seek to rebuild it in their own image, signalling a shift towards new openness for other versions of the future unrestricted by utopian visions of the past. The movie leverages audiences’ attention captured by retro-futuristic images to steer our imagination forward in the direction of more humanistic realities better suited for our modern psyche.
Reigniting imagination, however, is not the only purpose of retrofuturism. As Davidson explains, the movement can also serve as symbolic representations of present socio-political tensions. In the 2013 movie Elysium, for example, retro-futuristic images define visual portrayals of two societies – Elysium and Earth. The former is an orbiting spacecraft that houses powerful and wealthy people while the latter shows a poverty-stricken world.
Figure 3: The magnificent Elysium space station. Image still from Elysium (2013) courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing.
Many of us are familiar with the distinctive structure of circular space stations, echoed in 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Discovery One vessel and space scientist Wernher van Braun’s spaceship design of the 1950s. Elysium is a symbol of power because of its rich, mobile inhabitants with technological prowess. The spacecraft’s grandiosity stands in opposition to Earth – specifically, the photograph of Earthrise that one young character called Max holds in a locket as he looks up at Elysium from Earth.
Earthrise is an iconic image of Earth from space shot on the 1968 Apollo 8 mission. From that distance, the wondrous blue swell of Earth is shown to be vulnerable and isolated, requiring humanity to unite to protect such a small, precious planet. That representation of hope and humanity’s caring nature conflicts with Elysium’s elitism, emphasising the wealthy’s refusal to help the poor despite them being constantly within sight of each other.
Figure 4: Earthrise. Image courtesy of the National Aeronautics Space Administration
The tension between the two suggests that technology’s advanced potential is supposed to be reliant on its inherent altruistic impulse; that it should not be selfishly hoarded but rather shared equally across all socio-economic classes to better everyone’s lives. According to Davidson, the movie’s retro-futuristic symbols are thus used to metaphorically advance the argument that technological improvements should be driven by a pursuit towards egalitarianism.
The researcher summed it up as “all people should be citizens of Elysium”. The relationship between those binary retro-futuristic images hence points to the conflict of global inequality that is so pertinent to modern society. By returning to past futures, the film paves the way for debate on systemic policies that would enable equal access to technology.
Therefore, hopeful retrofuturism can provoke affective reactions through wondrous depictions of alternative futures or expand on political troubles by invoking iconic images of the past. Utopian potentials hidden in these old images can thus broaden possibilities on ways of thinking in our present society.
However, also more often than not, images of how people in the past viewed the future are already proven wrong in the contemporary world – most retrofuturistic scenes are used ironically rather than as solutions to human woes. The sentimentality of retrofuturism, after all, stems from these scenes being old-fashioned and untimely.
In this day and age, nobody would expect to space travel in a primitive-looking vessel like Ikarie XB-1. Additionally, the 1963 film hints at a reality where the communists led the space race – an-now obsolete notion. After all, the Ikarie XB-1 mission gathers astronauts of different nationalities, which serves as a political commentary by the Soviets on how “universal socialism” might look like with everyone working together in space exploration. With the dominance of capitalism in our modern society, that reality seems laughable.
Hence, I believe that overall, the retrofuturism movement should primarily be viewed as a springboard for reflecting on the past and discussing how we can move forward from outdated representations of the future.
- Davidson, Joe P.L. “Blast from the Past: Hopeful Retrofuturism in Science Fiction Film.” Continuum, vol. 33, no. 6, 2019, pp. 729–743., https://doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2019.1668352.
- Elysium. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, performances by Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga and Diego Luna. Sony Pictures Releasing, 2013.
- “Everything You Need to Know about Retrofuturism.” Reader’s Digest Asia, https://www.rdasia.com/true-stories-lifestyle/thought-provoking/Instant-Answers-Retrofuturism.
- Ikarie XB-1. Directed by Jindřich Polák, performances by Zdeněk Štěpánek, Radovan Lukavský, František Smolík and Dana Medřická. Filmové Studio Barrandov, 1963.
- Interstellar. Directed by Christopher Nolan, performances by Matthew McConaughy, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin and Ellen Burstyn. Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures, 2014.
- Tomorrowland. Directed by Brad Bird, performances by George Clooney, Hugh Larrie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy and Tim McGraw. Walt Disney Motion Pictures, 2015.
Our 2022 articles offered a selection across four broad categories to facilitate your perusal. This article was part of the THINK category: Essays and analysis to spark greater thought into the films programmed and ideas discussed. For the curious and thinkers.