FUTURE PERFECT

Virtual reality! Home shopping! Screens! The 1967 movie that got a lot right about how we live now

The future we’re promised in movies is often more exciting than the one that actually arrives. Back to the Future II said we’d have flying cars by now, and we don’t. It’s a full 16 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey was supposed to take place, and still no computer is sentient enough to murder us.

But occasionally a movie’s vision of the future hits it startlingly on the nose. Such is the case with 1999 A.D., a short film released in 1967 by the Philco-Ford Corporation, a consumer products manufacturer, to mark the company’s 75th anniversary. Unlike most of the fantastical or dystopian futures envisioned in sci-fi films, the world of 1999 was not too far off from our world today, filled with consumer technologies that make daily life more comfortable and convenient—and lots more screens.

There are a few missteps. The filmmakers imagined that functions like home shopping, personal finance, and education would take place across multiple single-function large machines, instead of the sleek multi-functional devices we have now (and had, at least in the form of the home computer, by the actual year 1999.) Home energy and utilities still aren’t as efficient as those in the movie, either.

And while the movie was pretty good at predicting how humans’ relationship to technology would change, it failed to imagine changes in human relationships. The high-tech family of 1999 A.D. is still organized around traditional gender roles, with a husband who works outside the house and a wife who labors in it.

We ranked how other predictions from the film stack up, on a scale from one rocket (not yet a reality) to five rockets (the future is here!).

Speed of the future

The future, the narrator explains, is a time in which “dreams travel faster than light.” That sounds incredible! It also sounds like nonsense, which makes it difficult to gauge whether or not this prediction came to pass. By 1999, Internet speeds via cable hit up to 10 MB per second, which was super fast for the time, but being able to forward an email faster than it takes to boil a pot of water feels a little less exciting than the idea of one’s dreams soaring at the rate of the universe’s expansion.

Future rating: 🚀🚀

Home design

The narrator tells us that homes in 1999 will be built of “hexagon modules” that will expand as a family grows. Most people today still live in house-shaped houses; nobody lives in hexagon modules.

Future rating: 🚀

Home computing

The movie introduces us to Michael, a 45-year-old husband, father, and astrophysicist—an occupation filmmakers may have imagined would be more in demand in the dazzling future. He’s on a team working on the first Mars colonization. Let’s assume he currently works for Elon Musk.

Michael also has a passion for botany, and is working in his spare time on a genetically modified giant peach. This oddly specific fruit also figured prominently in the 1961 Roald Dahl novel James and the Giant Peach. Were oversized stone fruits a fixture of the futurist imagination in the 1960s?

Michael takes his seat at a workbench with a screen that calls up photographs of the peach’s cell structure—essentially, a giant iPad on legs. “He stored the two photographic images in the central home computer,” the narrator explains, “which is secretary, librarian, banker, teachers, medical technician, bridge partner, and all-around servant in this house of tomorrow.” Sounds about right.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀🚀

Information organization

In the world of the film, “all pertinent information about this family—its records, its tastes and reference material—is stored in these memory banks, available instantly to every member of the family.”

The technology to organize all of a family’s information in one digital location absolutely exists. Is it technology’s fault that most families are still storing their most vital documents on a combination of hard drives, laptops, physical file folders, and cardboard boxes marked “PAPERS”? No.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀

Education

The family’s only child, an eight-year-old boy, goes to school two mornings a week. The rest of his education happens alone on various devices and screens in the home. “Master James,” as the film identifies the boy—not realizing the honorific would be considered unnecessary and vaguely gross by the early 1990s—watches a film about a hypothetical moon landing, takes a quiz on the computer, fails, and glumly sits down at a different computer later to retake the lesson.

Here the film accurately predicts the rise of online learning, but overestimates how radically it would transform primary education. Also, kids get distracted if a fidget spinner is within arm’s reach; no way is an eight-year-old surrounded by screens just dutifully following the self-guided curriculum.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀

Gender relations

The film moves to the kitchen, where Karen, 43—a wife, mother, and “part-time homemaker”—is seated before a screen displaying images of her son and husband, both of whom complain that they’re hungry. The filmmakers were able to imagine a world in which families could videoconference, but not one in which men were responsible for getting their own sandwiches.

Future rating: 🚀🚀

Hygiene

Karen orders James to wash his hands, which he appears to do (the shot is very confusing) at a sink that automatically dispenses water, soap, and hot air. The filmmakers accurately guessed we’d want these conveniences, but did not realize we’d want them in our airport bathrooms, not our homes.

Future rating: 🚀🚀

Meal prep

After scrolling through potential menus and their calorie counts on the computer, Karen begins to prepare dinner. And what a dinner it is! A Philco-branded machine dispenses pre-apportioned meals on disposable plates at the touch of a button. The food is stored frozen, the narrator explains, and the computer keeps track of inventory and suggests menus based on what’s in stock and each family member’s nutritional needs.

On the surface, many of these technologies are in fact available. Frozen, easily microwavable foods? Check. Kitchen-based computers capable of keeping track of food inventory? Check. Disposable dinnerware? Check. Does this even remotely resemble how people actually eat meals at home? No. Some things are more than the sum of their parts.

Future rating: 🚀🚀

Home shopping

Karen sites down at a computer. A camera pans across items from her favorite shops, which she orders directly “by push-button.” Amazon.com made its first sale in 1995. Visionary scene on Philco-Ford’s part.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀🚀

Personal finance

“What the wife selects on her console will be paid for on the husband’s console,” the narrator explains, as the scene cuts to a grumpy Michael shaking his head over what we can only imagine is Karen’s financial profligacy. In the future, exciting new technologies will reinforce dated gender stereotypes!

Michael pays the shopping bill, reviews the family’s bank balances, and sends a letter from the “electronic correspondence machine,” which transmits notes he writes directly on its surface with a stylus. These activities take place across four screens on six separate machines; all could be accomplished today with a single iPhone.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀

Clothing

Clothing—at least “that of the non-disposable variety” (intriguing!)—will be hung in self-cleaning closets. I thought this was pure fiction but they make these now!

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀

Utilities

A giant machine inside the house maintains air temperature, burns waste, and produces power and water. The home of the future is entirely off the grid. Very cool, but still far beyond what’s available to a typical household today.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀

The sea

Unexpectedly, the next scene is of father and son underwater in scuba gear. The ocean, the narrator says, will provide both “recreation for the adventurous and an increasing variety of hydracultured exotic food stuffs.” Wait, in the future we’ll all be spearing our own fish? That is not at all convenient. There are not many wild overthrows in 1999 A.D., but this is one of them.

Future rating: 🚀

Health

Dad Michael—who, it should be said, is miserable throughout this entire film, always rubbing his face and complaining—enters the “home health center” and lies on a couch that performs in 15 second a full body scan that checks his vitals, alerts him of any oncoming infections, and tells him exactly how much exercise he’ll need to do to maintain his weight. (Just 14.5 minutes. And still he complains!) The computer then forwards the information to his doctor. This is the direction telemedicine is heading, but the technology seen here outpaces what’s currently available for the home.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀

Communications

Worn out from small amounts of exercise, paying his wife’s bills, and making giant peaches, Michael lumbers back to the computing center and fires up a screen on which appears the face of his pal Fred: proto-FaceTime! They make plans to golf in Pebble Beach that weekend, but after checking the weather on a separate screen, they opt for Mexico instead. From their plans it sounds like their “golf game” is taking place in virtual reality! That is totally a thing now.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀

Women

Karen is at a potting wheel. The narrator explains that Karen, a fine arts teacher in her “career years,” has time for pottery because the convenience of modern technology has alleviated the burden of housework. She need only spend a portion of her time catering to the needs of her husband and son, not all of it. The whole premise of The Feminine Mystique was that the home technology already available by the early 1960s freed middle class women’s time to the point that it was both possible and necessary for them to pursue creative work outside the home, but, sure, this works too. Apparently Philco-Ford assumed a 30-year runway for people to come around to this idea.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀

Games

James is playing chess against a screen. James is playing alone. The quality of the print isn’t even very good, and still James’s loneliness radiates out of every scene he’s in. This is an accurate prediction of online gaming, and of the searing isolation of the modern interconnected world.

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀🚀

Entertainment

Karen and Michael are having a party. Even in the 1990s, it turns out, people will still dress like they’re on Mad Men. Look at those ties! But wait—a guy in the middle of the party looks like he’s fishing with an invisible rod. Is he okay? Is this one of the dark consequences of a future of water sports and hydracultured exotic food stuffs?

The film skips over the details here—maybe Philco-Ford got impatient and rushed the final edit?—but it appears that in parties of the future, everybody gathers to play separate personal virtual reality games, while dressed nicely and exchanging pleasantries. Like when people at parties now are constantly on their phones, but with gusto. Michael calls up a video of a singer he and Karen saw in Puerto Rico, and the party guests watch while it plays on a giant screen. A friend asks for a copy—or “dupe”—of the recording. “3D?” Michael asks, and his friend confirms they’ve just upgraded their system. In-home 3D TV: possible!

Future rating: 🚀🚀🚀🚀

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