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Checking in on Back to the Future II Technologies

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The future is upon us—but if you asked Marty McFly, he’d tell you we’re already behind schedule.

When Back to the Future II’s time-traveling DeLorean blasted Marty McFly and Doc Brown to the future, they arrived on October 21, 2015. While the sci-fi comedy has already predicted some things about the future correctly (playing video games without hands, for example), other elements were rather off-track (phone booths and newspapers aren’t quite as prominent today as they were in the 1989 movie).

Director-producer Robert Zemeckis and writer-producer Bob Gale knew that much of their vision of the future would not become reality by 2015—they did not believe mass-produced flying cars were just around the corner, nor did they think Jaws would get its 18th sequel. Even though comedic tone was often prioritized over plausibility, Back to the Future II’s creative team did extensive research about developing technologies for the film. Gale tells us he wanted to avoid the dark, dystopian world depicted in films like Blade Runner and make the future look like a nice place to live. “We wanted people to look forward to the future because, when we were kids," he says, "we always looked forward to the future."

Consider Zemeckis and Gale successful on that account: Hoverboards captured the imaginations of movie-goers in 1989, and they still do today. So, should we put the soaring skateboard on our Christmas list for 2015? Let's investigate the likelihood of some of Back to the Future Part II's technologies making an appearance in the near future.

1. Biometric Thumbprint Scanner

This could be the most on-schedule of Back to the Future's predictions. A year from now, you’ll be able to pay an inflated cab fee with the touch of a finger or unlock your front door without digging through a mess of keys. Important to the progress of this technology is the iPhone, no matter how glitchy the first rollout of Touch ID was. Today, just a handful of airports have biometric scanners to speed up your trip through security, but there’s a good chance this tech will be near-ubiquitous by October 2015, “especially with an organization like Apple getting momentum behind it,” says Jim Carroll, an Ontario-based futurist.

2. Hoverboard

Gale recalls that, after Back to the Future Part II’s release, “we got so many letters from kids saying, ‘Please send me a hoverboard, but don’t send me a pink one.’” Sad news, hoverboard fans: The Pitbull won’t be on the market by 2015. Anti-gravity technology isn’t there yet, no matter what a Tony Hawk-starring viral hoax says. (Magnetic levitation is the next-best thing now.)

Even if the developers at Mattel had a breakthrough and got the hoverboard ready for stores, there would be another force to overcome: lawmakers who choose what’s street-legal. Remember the Segway and how revolutionary it was supposed to be? New York-based futurist Michael Rogers says the hoverboard would probably be in for the same fate as the failed personal transporter.

3. Rejuvenation Clinic

Doc Brown's visit to a rejuvenation clinic saved the film's makeup department from doing old-age makeup on actor Christopher Lloyd throughout the production, but modern viewers can also see Doc's de-wrinkling as a reality-based nod to the growing popularity of plastic surgery—and Doc’s replacement spleen and colon could be a near-future trend, too. Rogers says that in 2015 there will be some synthetic organ replacement, but it will still be in the experimental stage. According to Seattle-based futurist Glen Hiemstra, by 2030 or 2040 we will be able to clone our own organs and grow ourselves a new spleen or liver.

4. Marty’s Clothes

Marty’s power-lacing Nike shoes and automatically adjusting jacket seemed like too good an idea not to exist. Nike has hinted at upcoming power-lacing shoes, but don’t expect electronically size-altering clothing to be all the rage a year or two from now. Futurists predict it's more likely that we see infrared body scanners that take precise measurements for clothes and Internet-connected intelligent textiles that respond to heart rate and blood pressure. Parents are already discovering the benefits of that kind of technology with the Exmobaby System: pajamas that measure an infant’s body temperature and other vital signs.

5. Holomax theater

Forget 3-D movies—in Back to the Future's 2015, holograms are the newest trend at the multiplex. When Marty steps into Hill Valley’s Clock Tower Square, he sees a Holomax Theater marquee advertising Jaws 19, directed by Max Spielberg (oldest son of Back to the Future producer Steven). Even Hollywood's rapid sequel machine wouldn't have been fast enough to get a 19th Jaws installment in theaters by October 2015. Advances in technology would have to be just as fast, if not faster, to make holographic movies a reality within the next year. Hiemstra explains that holographic projections are still “fairly crude,” but the giant holographic shark that appears to eat Marty outside of the theater is not too far off from reality: As Rogers notes, interactive digital ads already interact with pedestrians in the real world.

6. Workout bikes in Café '80s

What was once Lou’s Café has become Café ’80s in 2015. Back to the Future Part II was on-target about the current 1980s nostalgia, but the film was off when it placed workout bikes in that café. Hill Valley of the future is also notably devoid of obese people—not quite an accurate depiction of modern America—but a turnaround for Fast Food Nation may be less far-fetched than some think. The economics of obesity could be in for a change. “By the end of this decade, your insurance premiums will be very dependent on how healthy your lifestyle is,” Rogers says. Miniature wireless devices will track calorie intake and calorie output, so “the idea of working out will not just be a healthy thing, but it will save you a lot of money.”

7. Barcode License Plates

When Doc blasts back to 1985 at the end of the first Back to the Future film, the DeLorean is sporting a new license plate—one that features no easily visible numbers or letters. Instead, it bears a metallic barcode. It’s unlikely that cars will ever have license plates exactly like that one, since drivers will still need to read them, but a scannable code that police can grab from long distances is a possibility. Rogers says that kind of license plate could use the same technology as tags on cars that automatically pay for tolls. Still, a more likely change for car identification will come with vehicle connection to the Internet. “By 2020, possibly sooner, every new car will be connected to the Internet all the time. That is completely inevitable,” he says, pointing to the development of Vehicle-to-Vehicle (a.k.a. V2V) and Vehicle-to-Infrastructure (a.k.a. V2I) technology. “Every new car will have an identification and be logged on all the time.”

8. Flying Cars

A long line of sci-fi movies would have you believe flying cars are just on the horizon. After watching a TV special in 1960 about what the world would look like in 1985, an 8-year-old Gale “was sure looking forward to flying cars,” he says. “I didn't think I'd ever have to get a driver’s license—I'd only have to get a pilot's license.” Alas, the real-world 2015 won’t have the prevalence of flying cars that future Hill Valley did. But futurists do have their eye on promising prototypes from companies like Moller International and Terrafugia. The biggest roadblocks now are the noise level of these prototypes and the Federal Aviation Administration. “There’s going to be a lot of lawyers between here and flying cars,” Rogers says. Hiemstra, however, is hopeful that affluent buyers will be able to purchase a self-navigating, personal flying vehicle by 2030.

So where we’re going, we will need roads ... but not for long.

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The Night the Brat Pack Was Born
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If Emilio Estevez had opted to pay for his movie ticket, the Brat Pack might never have been born. It was spring 1985, and Estevez—then the 23-year-old co-star of St. Elmo’s Fire—was being profiled in New York Magazine. The angle was that Estevez had just signed a deal to write, direct, and star in his own feature, That Was Then... This is Now, an opportunity that was rarely afforded to young Hollywood talent. Estevez was two years younger than Orson Welles was when he performed similar duties for 1941’s Citizen Kane.

That youthful exuberance was on display as New York writer David Blum followed Estevez in and around Los Angeles for several days gathering material for the story. With Blum in tow, Estevez decided that he wanted to catch a screening of Ladyhawke, a fantasy film starring Matthew Broderick. For reasons not made entirely clear, he preferred not to have to pay for a ticket. According to Blum, Estevez called the theater and politely asked for free admission before entering an 8 p.m. screening.

It's likely Estevez was just having a little fun with his celebrity. But to Blum, it was indicative of a mischievous, slightly grating sense of entitlement. Blum’s assessment was that Estevez was acting “bratty,” an impression he felt was reinforced when he witnessed a gathering of other young actors at LA’s Hard Rock Cafe for the same story.

What was supposed to be a modest profile of Estevez turned into a cover story declaration: Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” was here, and they had decided to forego the earnest acting study preferred by their predecessors to spend their nights partying instead.

The day the story hit newsstands, Blum received a call from Estevez. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said.

The June 1985 cover of New York magazine
New York, Google Books

Blum’s label had its roots in the Rat Pack of the 1960s, so named for the carousing boys' club led by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. Whether it was accurate or not, the performers developed reputations for squeezing every last drink, perk, and joke they could out of their celebrity well into middle age.

That dynamic was on Blum’s mind when New York dispatched him to cover Estevez. After he arrived in California, Blum took note of the fact that a tight cluster of actors seemed to have formed a group, both on- and off-screen. Estevez was close friends with Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise, and all of them appeared in 1983’s The Outsiders; Lowe and Estevez were co-starring in St. Elmo’s Fire, a coming-of-age drama that also featured Andrew McCarthy and Judd Nelson; Estevez and Nelson gained a lot of attention for 1984’s The Breakfast Club.

To Blum, Estevez was more than just a multi-hyphenate; he appeared to be the nucleus of a group that spent a lot of time working and playing together. And in fairness to Blum, Estevez didn’t dissuade the writer from that take: Fearing he was coming off as too serious in the profile, Estevez asked Lowe and Nelson to hang out with him at Los Angeles’s Hard Rock Cafe so Blum could see the actor's lighter side.

Nelson would later recall that he felt uneasy around Blum. “Why is this guy having dinner with us?” he asked Estevez. Lowe, meanwhile, was busy flirting with women approaching their table. The group later went to a "punk rock" club, with a Playboy Playmate tagging along.

As celebrity hedonism goes, it was a tame evening. But Blum walked away with the idea that Estevez was the unofficial president of an exclusive club—attractive actors who were soaking up success while idling late into the night.

Blum returned to New York with a different angle for his editors. He wanted to capture this “Brat Pack,” a “roving band” of performers “on the prowl” for good times. Although the magazine had just run a cover story about a teenage gang dubbed “the wolf pack” and feared repetition, they agreed.

As far as Estevez and the others were concerned, Blum was busy executing a piece on Estevez’s ambitions as a writer and director. When Estevez, Nelson, and Lowe appeared on the cover—taken from a publicity still for St. Elmo’s Fire—with his newly-coined phrase, they were horrified.

Blum began getting calls from angry publicists from each of the actors mentioned in the article—and there had been a lot of them. In addition to Estevez, the de facto leader, and lieutenants Lowe and Nelson, Blum had dubbed go-to John Hughes geek Anthony Michael Hall the “mascot”; Timothy Hutton was said to be on the verge of excommunication for his film “bombs”; Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, and Matt Dillon were also mentioned.

To the actors, the effect was devastating. Independent of how they spent their free time, all of them were pursuing serious careers as performers, with producers, directors, and casting agents mindful of their portrayal in the media. Being a Brat Packer was synonymous with being listless, or not taking their craft seriously.

Nelson recalled the blowback was immediate: Managers told him to stop socializing with his friends for fear he’d be stigmatized as unreliable. “These were people I worked with, who I really liked as people, funny, smart, committed to the work,” he said in 2013. “I mean, no one was professionally irresponsible. And after that article, not only [were] we strongly encouraged not to work with each other again, and for the most part we haven’t, but it was insinuated we might not want to be hanging out with these people.”

Universal Pictures

Some of the actors went on The Phil Donahue Show to criticize the profile, asserting that their remarks to Blum had been off-the-record. (Blum denied this.) Lowe told the media that Blum had “burned bridges” and that he was “no Hunter S. Thompson.” Andrew McCarthy called Blum a “lazy … journalist” and found the idea of an actor “tribe” absurd—he had never even met Anthony Michael Hall.

Unfortunately, the name stuck. “Brat Pack” was infectious—a catch-all for the kind of young performer emerging in the ‘80s who could be seen in multiple ensemble movies. While Blum would later express regret over the label, it’s never quite left the public consciousness. In 2005, Universal released a DVD boxed set—The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, and Sixteen Candles—as The Brat Pack Collection.

Nelson, Estevez, and Lowe never again appeared in a movie together. “Personally, the biggest disappointment about it is that ‘Brat Pack’ will somehow figure in my obituary at [the] hands of every lazy and unoriginal journalist,” Estevez told a reporter in 2011. “Warning: My ghost will come back and haunt them.”

Nelson was slightly less forgiving. In a 2013 podcast, he chastised Blum for his mischaracterization of the group of young actors. “I would have been better served following my gut feeling and knocking him unconscious.”

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Keep Tabs on 100 Classic Films With This Scratch-Off Poster
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Pop Chart Lab

Do you get a weird kind of buzz from scratching off the silver foil coating on instant lotto tickets? Do you like watching movies? Then Pop Chart Lab has something for you. The company is set to release a 100 Essential Films Scratch-Off Chart, an 18-inch by 24-inch wall hanging that lets you keep track of which classic films you’ve seen and which are still in the queue.

A look at a scratch-off poster featuring 100 classic films

The curated films are arranged in chronological order, from the works of Buster Keaton all the way to 2017’s Get Out. The silver foil obscures a portion of the artwork, which reveals more iconography from the movie when etched away with a coin. The $35 poster is due to begin shipping in September; you can purchase your copy now.

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