Retro-futurism typically refers to visions of what the future may look like that were produced in an earlier era. But, in our modern and meta world, the idea of retro-futurism is broadening to also include modern visions of the future, which have a distinctly retro vibe.
Whichever way you cut it, there’s often a palpable sense of nostalgia that runs through retro-futurism films. Whether this nostalgia is for a time that hasn’t yet happened but feels familiar, as depicted in Her, or nostalgia for a time when our visions of the future were more tame and romantic, as we see in Barbarella, one thing is for certain: retro-futurism is having a moment.
‘After Yang’ (2021)
In a future where many children have their own robotic siblings to keep them company or help them fit into the world, Jake, played by Colin Farrell, desperately struggles to repair his daughter’s malfunctioning robotic sibling, Yang.
After Yang has a clear yearning for the ‘old-fashioned’ way of doing things. The costumes and set design are a fusion between mid-century design and Japanese influence. Jake works as a tea merchant, trying to preserve the ancient rituals surrounding tea that the rest of the world would rather trade for convenience. After Yang not only embodies retro-futurism in its look and feel, but it also embodies it in its message and its view on culture, ritual, and the importance of family.
‘Escape From New York’ (1981)
In the faraway future of 1997, ex-soldier Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, is tasked with rescuing the American President, whose plane has crash-landed in the country’s maximum security prison: the island of Manhattan.
Escape From New Yorkaligns with the more traditional definition of retro-futurism. Made in the 80s and set in the 90s, director John Carpenter’s vision of the near future is grim and brimming with sci-fi tech and gadgets which seem humble and dated by today’s standards. Despite not accurately predicting the future of technology, the film’s striking wireframe maps featured on the dashboard of Snake Plissken’s stealth glider, are an iconic image of 80s sci-fi that demands to be seen.
Set in a near-future Los Angeles, a lonely man named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, downloads a new operating system to his phone, and promptly falls in love with it. Functioning as a romance first and a piece of science-fiction second, Her is distinct in its love for the aesthetic of an era since gone, and its vision for a future yet to come.
The romantic nature of the film plays heavily into its production design, costuming, and by extension, its retro-futurism. With poppy 60s colors, mid-century furniture, and a casual take on 50s clothing (hello high-waisted pants), Her is an aspirational, albeit imperfect, vision of the future. Nostalgia of any kind can certainly play into a toxic cycle of obsessing over something that is no longer or was never, real. In this sense, this love story about a flesh-and-blood man in love with a chips-and-cables machine is as much a commentary on retro-futurism as an example of it.
‘The Lobster’ (2015)
After his wife leaves him for another man, David, played by Colin Farrell is sent to a hotel full of other single people, who will all have to find a partner within 45 days lest they be turned into animals. The Lobster is many things at once, yet totally one of a kind. Part fantasy, part absurd, and part science-fiction, this is a film that only Yorgos Lanthimos, director of The Favourite and The Killing of a Sacred Deer could make.
While more outright absurdist than retro-futurist, The Lobster certainly owes some of its success to its distinctly stilted, stuffy, and generally old-fashioned style. Monotone characters, strictly business attire, and a lot of old-school ‘courting’ rituals harken back to a time when relationships were functional, transactional, and very proper. While it isn’t a dreamy 60s-inspired mood piece like Her, or a futuristic action blockbuster like Escape From New York, The Lobster leans heavily on its evocation of the past, and how it informs the audience’s understanding of the future the film depicts.
In a distant future, space traveler Barbarella, played by Jane Fonda, is asked by Earth’s President to travel through the galaxy and retrieve a deadly weapon that could cause mass destruction. Barbarella is a quintessential piece of retro-futurism and has many hallmarks of the style, including barely-dressed female characters, a strong male gaze, fantastic yet impractical predictions of futuristic technology, and more colors and hairspray than you can shake a stick at.
The strongest visual idea within retro-futurism is certainly ‘the future, by way of the 60s’ and Barbarella has this in spades. With the space race, free love, and the moon landing defining the decade, it’s no surprise that visions of the future in the 60s included Martians, space travel, and beautiful people with very little clothing. Another common element of retro-futurism is its vision of the future as a utopia, rather than dystopia. Dystopia has been dominating modern sci-fi for many a year, and for this reason, Barbarella feels like a refreshing throw-back in more ways than one.
Hundreds of years in the future, a lonely robot named WALL-E works alone on a deserted planet Earth, cleaning up the garbage of the civilization that left him behind. His world is changed when he falls in love with a scouting robot named EVE and follows her across the galaxy. WALL-E very much uses its retro-futurism to make a statement about the price of nostalgia, and what is lost when one is too obsessed with the past to focus on one’s present or future.
WALL-E takes its themes of toxic nostalgia and looking back at the expense of looking forward and applies them elegantly to the film’s pro-environmentalism anti-consumerism message. Much like Her, this film is a great example of embracing the meta side of retro-futurism and looking at star-gazing rather than navel-gazing.
Nearly 10,000 years in the future in the desert of Arrakis, the son of a Duke leads a group of Arrakis natives in an uprising against the colonial powers that have dominated their homeland and strip-mined their land in search of a powerful and desired spice, called Melange.
Before Denis Villeneuve, there was David Lynch, one of the first to attempt to adapt Dune, which was previously considered unadaptable. Some may argue it continued to be unadaptable after Lynch’s film debuted, but say what you will about its quality, Lynch swung for the fences with his ambitious special effects. These effects are dated and clunky, but so strongly evoke a pastime’s vision of the future, creating a perfect retro-futuristic 80s time capsule.
‘The Incredibles’ (2004)
After living in secret due to a government mandate, a super-powered family is thrust back into the hero scene to save the day from a villain with a grudge. Despite being made in 2004, The Incredibles is set in the 1960s and heavily leans into the refined mid-century and sleek art-deco visions of the future that were prominent during the time period.
Although the film depicts the past rather than the present, it’s clear that the past we are peering into isn’t our own. Instead, it is an idealized past recalibrated to fulfill so many of the fantasies of technology at the time. With The Incredibles, director Brad Bird is essentially gifting the retro-futuristic world that was desired in the 60s back to the era when it was at its height.
‘Mars Attacks!’ (1996)
When Martians invade Earth and claim to ‘come in peace’ they are taken at their word… until they destroy the entire Congress of the United States. Comedy, sci-fi, satire, and parody: Mars Attacks! spins a lot of plates.
Despite being set in the time it was made, the 1990s, Mars Attacks! is heavily influenced by costumes, sets, and tropes of the 1950s. This 50s influence is there for a reason greater than as an homage to the style of the time. Tim Burton’s star-studded sci-fi film is a parody of the alien invasion and space-set films of this time, making it one of the few parodies of retro-futurism to exist on film.
‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Set in 2019, synthetic people, called replicants, are used as a labor force for space colonies. When a faction of replicants go rogue, it’s the job of Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, to track them down.
Blade Runner has many retro-futuristic layers within it. Set in a time that has since come and gone, its view of the future is officially retro by today’s standards. But, Blade Runner also honed in on a style that was retro by the standards of the 80s when the film was made. Heavily inspired by film noir and hard-boiled detective stories, Blade Runner is singular in its view of its own present, as well as its future and its past.
NEXT: Fantastical Futures: 10 Movies That Perfectly Blend Fantasy With Science Fiction