I've Seen the Future


I have never agreed with the view that the movie Network was a "prophetic" look at the television industry. Though I always enjoy the record-breaking amounts of scenery-chewing by everybody involved in that picture, Network stands out (to me at any rate) not as visionary but as extremely dated, and mostly wrong in its view of which way television was headed. Beyond the overall observation that the networks would continue to seek ratings in more desperate ways—which, as a prediction, was not much of a stretch even in 1976—I don't think America ended up looking very much like the picture Network painted. (For movies from Sydney Lumet's seventies golden age, give me Dog Day Afternoon every time!)

I think it's time to put the prophetic-movie crown on the movie that really deserves it: Demolition Man. Dismissed as anti-PC bombthrowing at the time (and, like so much of the Sylvester Stallone oeuvre, criminally underrated even now), Demolition Man is striking for its many specific, falsifiable predictions that now seem well on the way to becoming true: There's a serious movement to amend the constitution to allow Arnold Schwarzenegger to become President; fattening foods are now routinely referred to as Schedule 1 substances; virtual sex has become so mainstream that many respectable, germ-phobic people use it as their primary outlet; Scott Peterson, briefly namechecked in Demolition Man's roll call of famous murderers, has in fact become a famous murderer; Dennis Leary is the undisputed king of the lowlifes… Check out the laundry list and you'll see how right Demolition Man was about just about everything. Network, 1984, Wag the Dog, take a back seat: Demolition Man is the Nostradamus of movies.

NEXT: Is Eight Enough?

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  1. Demolition Man rules. Stallone’s best work since Death Race 2000.

    Have a joy joy day.

  2. Indeed. One of the most under-rated sci-fi flicks of recent memory. Now if only Taco Bell would run the rest of the fast-fooders out of business….

    Just what DO you do with the three shells?

  3. I have never agreed with the view that the movie Network was a “prophetic” look at the television industry.

    What color is the sky in your world Tim? Network was an ‘over the top’ (see what I did there) dystopian view of network news. Not only did events unfold in precicely the manner foretold, the current state of affairs actually exceeds the most outlandish dire predictions of Lumet et. al.

    As for Demolition Man, haven’t seen it, because aside from Rocky (the original) the half dozen other Sly films I’ve suffered through I classify as “Unwatchable”.

  4. I fully expect “The Running Man” to make its debut on a major network coming this spring.

  5. Stallone’s best work was in Bananas.

  6. Not only did events unfold in precicely the manner foretold

    Please include a list of poorly-performing network personnel assassinated by their employers.

  7. Wesley Snipes played one of the best homicidal lunatics I’ve ever seen, too.

  8. cdunlea,
    I’ve been saying the same thing throughout this reality TV pox that has infected my tube.

  9. For prophecy, it’s hard to beat Chappelle’s Show creating Trading Spouses (with the same name) a year before it came out. Not only did it come true, two networks did it.

  10. “As for Demolition Man, haven’t seen it, because aside from Rocky (the original) the half dozen other Sly films I’ve suffered through I classify as “Unwatchable”.”

    Surely you’re not including Lockdown or Over The Top in this pile, are you?

    ARE YOU?

  11. Sometime in the late 80s, I saw an issue of Mad Magazine with a half-dozen potential new sitcoms, including one concerning the wacky schenanigans at a funeral home. A year later we got “Good Grief!” with Howie Mandel. Of course, that wasn’t even the most ill-fated Fox sitcom premise of that era – that would be “Woops!”, about the half-dozen survivors of a nuclear holocaust.

  12. Dan, what are you talking about? Dan Rather was spiritually assassinated right in front of our eyes, and HIS BLOOD IS ON ALL OUR HANDS!

    Seriously, it’s not just the assassination that’s off, but the entire context of anchorman-centric, institutional news that looks dated now. In the worldview of Network, the diffusion of authority from the top of the institution isn’t just not considered, it’s not even conceivable: the only choices are rule by the Wise Men of traditional news or a Hobbesian nightmare where corporate villains stoke the passions of the unwashed masses. You have to buy the premise that an anchorman is so indispensable that if one went crazy it would be a huge news event. As Dan Rather proved, you can have a mad anchorman for decades and people would barely notice. The real history shows that even with increasingly fierce competition, with sensationalism and trash tv Chayefsky could barely have imagined, tv news has gotten steadily more robust and thorough-just not under the banner of the broadcast networks (another point on which the movie was wrong).

    None of which is to take away from Network itself, which I think is a pretty great movie. It’s really the latter-day acolytes who have saddled it with the “prophetic” burden.

  13. I still want to know how those seashells are supposed to work.

  14. Actually, Network was quite prophetic–about Saudi influence in the US. Just ask Bandar Bush.

    How could you miss that elephant in the living room, Tim?

    It also did a fair job on the dangers of the news media being owned by large “conglomerates”.

    Movies aren’t dated–viewers are. Most younger people can’t even appreciate Network, since it presents what was then a completely over-the-top view of television news–before Fox, before even Geraldo. When the film opens with 4 screens–Cronkite, Chancellor, Howard K. Smith (I think) and Howard Beal, people then understood they were seeing in Beal a (fictional) contemporary of these great, respected news oracles–the presumed “wise men”. Today, such oracles have been long ago destroyed or just ignored. Television news is largely ignored by an ever increasing segment of the populace (except, perhaps, the brainless Fox drones). In short, the whole import of that opening scene is lost on younger viewers of the film.

    Older films are often loaded with such subtexts, fully understood by contemporary audiences, that just go over most of our heads nowadays. If that is what you mean by “dated”, OK. But I don’t really see what that concept adds to anything.

    Anyway, the criticism about the “accuracy” of the “prophesy” of some work of art is often just inane. 1984 is the worst example. It wasn’t a “prophecy” (“Hey, it is 1985–we made it, Orwell!”). It was about the nature of totalitarianism, regardless of time. Similarly, Network was about the unbridled “lowest common denominator” urge of the popular media, and how it could infect even (the then) citadel of “The News”.

    How wrong was it again?

  15. Things could be worse. We could be living in the world of Americathon. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078766/


    1. Thought about this a while ago when I read the deficit was up where it was when I remembered this movie..(saw it in the early 80s)….

      Sounds more like current events if we dont get our act together.


  16. Hmm, I think Tim’s right. “Network” is a good movie, very funny, but already in the 70s had been ordained as prophetic by CJR thumbsuckers. For some reason it stokes their vanity while the excoriation of their “class” fails to register. Tune hasn’t changed much over the years; today’s whiners (cf. “brainless Fox drones”) were there in 1990, bitching about CNN

  17. Boy, you can depend on an 80s fan for a true blast from the past: Remember what a corporate villain CNN was? How Bernie Shaw’s asking Kakdukis the “What if your wife was raped” question was proof positive that cable “news” was a conspiracy to keep Ronnie Raygun’s kabal in charge of America forever? How obviously Larry King proved Chayefsky’s point about the dumbing down of America? How CNN’s Gulf War coverage was the pinnacle of prepackaged, soundtracked Nintendo warfare, a travesty of corpo-fascism no nation had ever contemplated, and our nation could never survive?

    Ah, to be a boy again!

  18. My favorite quote from Demolition Man:

    Ms. Huxley – “Let’s get down there and blow this guy!”

    Mr. Spartan – “Away! Blow this guy AWAY!”

    And, of course, the whole “He doesn’t know how to use the three sea shells” schtick was damn funny.

  19. Ironically enough, one of the running jokes in Demolition Man is completely destroyed if you watch the movie on commercial TV by the present-day analogue of one of the future-speculative elements in the movie.

    In the future (the movie holds), there are devices on the wall that spit out citations every time someone utters a naughty word. In the present, of course, naughty words are effectively forbidden on TV, so they’re all either (clumsily) cut or (even more clumsily) replaced with another actor saying ‘shoot!’ or ‘darn!’ or ‘fiddlesticks!’ or some such.

    As a result you wind up with these perplexing devices on the walls that occasionally spit out a piece of paper.

    On a somewhat related topic, the TV cut also destroys some of the clever ways that product placement is used to enrich the producers while not at the same time insulting the audience; references to Taco Bell are actually integrated into the story. The commercial TV version cuts out explicit references, presumably so competitors will be more willing to buy ads (more here — warning: embedded video), which turns the best joke in the movie into gibberish.

  20. Actually, Network was quite prophetic–about Saudi influence in the US.

    Network was “prophetic” about Saudi influence… in the sense that “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was prophetic about teen sex and drug use.

    It’s not generally called “prophecy” when (a) the predictions have already come true by the time you’re making them and (b) most people know it.

  21. KevRob says, “Things could be worse. We could be living in the world of Americathon. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078766/

    Let’s see: the sleazebag President wins office with the slogan, “I’m not a schmuck.” How different is that, really, from “anyone but Bush” or “anyone but Kerry”?

    England, the 57th State? Close!

    Things grind to a halt temporaily while technos await repair modules from CHINA? This was the height of absurdity in the 70s. Not so funny anymore is it?

    San Diego sold back to Mexico to help pay US federal debt? Hmmm … how is the peso holding up against the dollar these days?

    Everybody wearing sweatsuits, athletic shoes, and other clothing that bears a Nike (or similar) logo?

    Indian tribes with $400B or more circa 1998, and the government in need of that kind of cash? Just thinking about federal budgets that big, not to mention deficits of that magnitude, gave people nosebleeds when this movie was released. These days, however, “Americathon’s” predictions are too modest, albeit respectably in the ballpark.

    Also, did anyone pay attention to the ballot propositions that were considered in California this past November? There was much rhetoric bandied about, to the effect that Indian tribes (made ultra-wealthy by running gambling casinos) needed to pay “their fair share” to help bring our heavily indebted state government back into the black. In the fantasy world of “Americathon,” the Indians loaned the US government money it needed, and then called the loan, precipitating a financial crisis; in the real world, the California financial crisis came first, and people then voted on propositions dedicated to taking Indian money by force. (I think those propositions were defeated primarily because the Governator sent out signals that he could get an even BETTER deal for the state — i.e., squeeze the tribes more — without them.)

    There’s more, but those are the key highlights. It’s my opinion that Neal Israel and the Firesign Theater guys got a lot of things right. “Does that make me a bad guy?”

  22. James, you obviously didn’t actually look at what the CA propositions were. Neither involved taking money from the Indians. One involved expanded gambling and the other granted the Indians an irrevocable 99-year monopoly on gambling.

    The phrase “make the Indians pay their fair share” was what tribes themselves used to try to trick people into supporting the monopoly.

  23. Yeah, JAM A’thon has some superficial similarities with RL, but they got it way wrong on cars and oil. What doesn’t make sense is that today we wear outsized sports clothing to hide the fact that we are terribly out-of-shape, not because we live in our motionless cars, and need the tracksuits because we jog or bike to work. P&B didn’t forsee the 80’s oil glut or such knock-ons as the SUV. Normalizing relations with VietNam is still controversial, as the last election showed.

    The ABB crowd certainly thought Blair was Crawling To The USA, though.


  24. Best work was in Bananas? Let us not forget Rhinestone.

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  28. The Scott Peterson thing is defiantly true, but the oddest coincidence is the Arnold thing. In the movie they stated that Arnold was Governor of California before the constitution was amended and he became President. Thats some shit to dwell on. They make a quick reference back to that Arnold President line in The Expendables.

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