I sat down Thursday afternoon with the intent of marathoning the original Star Wars trilogy before I saw the new film yesterday. While the plan was cut short after A New Hope, it served its purpose.
(Minor spoilers for The Force Awakens ahead. Super minor.)
Unsurprisingly for a Star Wars movie, there are several space battles in the new installment, and in the midst of all the dogfighting action, I chuckled to myself when I saw the ships’ targeting screens remained the same as in the original trilogy, a tiny detail, but one of the utmost significance in world-building. Amongst the prequel trilogy’s many flaws, this was perhaps the greatest: The idea that a generation earlier, all technology was shinier and better, that the future had been a step backwards.
Human achievement rarely moves forward in a linear fashion, but it always trends forward, incorporating the heart of the old in the shape of the new.
It seems that recently, the retro-futuristic has experienced a resurgence in pop culture. Take God Help the Girl, a 1960s girl group-styled project conceived by Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch a decade ago as a film and music project. (The film was released last year, and has been sitting on my to-watch list ever since, based largely on the strength of this week’s song, and its accompanying sequence.) And sure, it seems like he had the idea at roughly the same time as indie nerds thought the Pipettes might break through and conquer the universe, but it’s still a particular twist on a formula my parents’ parents wouldn’t find all that objectionable.
The thing about the present is, it’s never the future. What previous generations dreamed of was always some sort of idealization that never came to fruition, a utopia that never could actually be. But we document these desires, hopeful some aspect of them will come to be, only to disappoint those who see them later.
Mine was not the first generation to see the Jetsons, Star Wars, or Doctor Who, and mine certainly won’t be the last to dream of flying cars, lightsabers, and TARDISes, broken chameleon circuit and all.
For every future that actually happened, there are infinitely many that didn’t. Somewhere out there in the multiverse, Firefly got a second season, and it was disappointing.
But it’s easy to miss what we do have: Supercomputers in our pockets, TVs as thin as our hands, and access to a lifetime’s worth of information at a second’s notice. While it takes some effort to notice and appreciate these accomplishments, they’re far more real. Human achievement is still moving forward, even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it.
And unlike in Star Wars, our screens are in HD now. So when we gaze at those spaceships flitting about, we can see the future we’ll never have that much clearer.