Visions of Future Past

Prometheus, and the future of 1979

Science fiction (SF) and the universes it lays claim to are of the most arresting material modern media has to offer, but it’s creation and subsequent exploration bears equal consideration.

The imagining of a potential future is inherently based on the experience and wisdom currently available to those making it, and as wild and wonderful a future as can be imagined, it must be inevitably rooted in the time it was conceived. As a person is nothing if not their accumulated experiences and knowledge, the ability to think entirely outside those bounds; to concoct a future that is not merely one, but several evolutions away is something of a herculean mental feat. Despite the breadth and depth of these imaginings they remain, inescapably, a product of their time. A cursory glance of SF cannon from this perspective will reveal any number of works that appear ‘dated’ by their depiction or use of technology. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four(1949) held no notion of computers and computer-networks as we currently perceive them, and  Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) was a vision based on the current state of both space exploration and artificial intelligence.

Fig 1. Prometheus
Fig 1. Prometheus: Gratuitous spaceships? A contradiction in terms.

Enter the prequel

Science Fiction as prediction becomes yet more intriguing when considered through this lens of the prequel. If a world is created, and subsequently re-visited, a sequel can understandably advance the created world’s technology with updates concurrent with our present knowledge. However, a prequel must attempt to ignore exclude any advances or gains in understanding from the story world. The concept of a prequel demands that the world’s timeline, and thus technology must either regress or stand still. That is to say, the prequel will inherently be augmented by current technical knowledge, but must still reside within the constraints of the past’s imagined future. Interesting and notable examples of this include the Star Wars prequels, which explored new content with current CGI technology that was not previously available. An attempt was made to demonstrate an earlier time period through various visual cues, but the method by with which it was rendered spoke more to the modern era than the work’s past. Similarly, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (DX:HR) depicted the original game’s vision of the future of the 1990s, but incorporated technologies we have become accustomed to, such as touch-screen devices.

Alan Moore’s Watchmen presents yet another twist, not as a past future, but an alternate (then) present / future. Alternate history stories not only require the perspective of the time of conception, but also, the consideration of the narrative’s world history turning point from our own, and all events leading to the narrative’s present.

Fig 2. Prometheus
Fig 2. Prometheus: You can never have enough H. R. Giger.


The prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, and the fifth movie in the franchise (1, 2, 3, 4, promises to be a visual treat, and an interesting demonstration of past future. A recent trailer gives several clues as to the art-direction and set-design’s modern take on the original’s bleak space-trucker future. Being a prequel, technology and visual style will play an important role in establishing Prometheus’ position within the timeline. Benchmarked by the style set in 1979, replete with 2012 touch-based technology. Corridors can be seen in all their white, padded glory, and the hibernation pods make a return.

Fig 3. Prometheus: In the future, Eurostyle replaced Helvetica as a default font. Dystopia indeed.
Prometheus trailer screenshot
Fig 4. Prometheus: The Alien universe has learned well from Minority Report

Past, present, future

Students of history will be familiar with the importance of understanding events in the context of their time, free of the analytical benefits of hindsight. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History uses this technique to great effect, providing fascinating historical perspectives. In the same way, consider of SF’s past futures from their historical perspectives, there is much to be gained.