This article, originally published March 15, 2015, was updated on November 3, 2016. You’ll see the updates as you read through.
In November 1989, a popular movie called Back to the Future Part II was released, the sequel to the blockbuster 1985 time-travel comedy Back to the Future. Although most people consider Part II far inferior to the original, the sequel has had particular cultural resonance in a way entirely different from the first film. A significant section of the movie depicts the world of what was then “the future”: the year 2015. As we now approach the time the movie depicts, amusing comparisons are frequently made with what the 1980s movie shows and what the real world of 2015 is like. These comparisons frequently show up on the Internet, especially social media, and their prevalence is increasing since the turn of the new year (2015).
There’s a problem, though: for some strange reason, numerous false statements and memes are circulated which incorrectly portray the movie’s “predictions,” especially the date. As early as 2010 I began seeing on my Twitter account people saying, “Today is the day shown in Back to the Future II!” Most people who don’t happen to have access to the movie right at that moment usually trust these statements. All of them are wrong, however, because we haven’t actually hit the “predicted” date yet (this article is written in March 2015). In an effort to clear up this and other misconceptions, I thought I would make this post, containing a comprehensive list of all the things the film shows about the year 2015 in one place. To do this I went back through the film minute-by-minute.
The Date: Let’s Set It Straight.
Before we begin with the actual list, let’s set straight the #1 false misconception about what BTTF2 actually shows: the date. It is Wednesday, October 21, 2015. It is only that date. In the film, time-traveling mad scientist Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and 80s teen Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) spend only one day in 2015, and that’s it. Below is a screenshot, showing the controls of the DeLorean time machine set for that date, proving it. Any image you see on the Internet showing any other date, forward of 1985, is Photoshopped. This is the only time the characters of the movie visit that is later than 1985.
Now, here are some other items the movie shows, in roughly chronological order throughout the film. It’s not really fair to call all of them “predictions,” because I don’t think any of them are actual attempts to predict the future. Most of them are jokes aimed at 1980s audiences. But, in compiling the list, I was surprised at how close some of the “predictions” actually are to the truth.
Flying cars. Depicted throughout the film. Status: false. Flying and hovering automobiles are a big plot point in BTTF2. Obviously we don’t have flying cars; to do so would require anti-gravity technology that is far beyond anything we’ve developed in 2015. The closest we’ve come is the Harrier jet, which “hovers” via the blast of a jet engine that emits thrust counteracting the vehicle’s weight.
Laserdiscs and CDs in trash bundles. Shown at 6:57. Status: partially true. Various times in the movie, large CDs, evidently Laserdiscs, are shown in trash bundles together with smaller CDs, hinting that the technology is outdated as of 2015 and people are throwing them away. This is at least partially true, as “cloud-based” data storage is becoming more common. And who can forget those ubiquitous AOL and EarthLink free CD-Roms that everyone threw away in the late 1990s?
AT&T phone booths. Shown at 8:03. Status: mostly false. Here is where the real 2015 actually outpaced the futuristic predictions of the movie. Numerous phone booths are seen in the background of 2015 Hill Valley, most with the AT&T logo. Nowadays with the commonality of cell phones it’s hard to find a phone booth, except maybe at an airport. No one in BTTF2 is shown communicating on a cell phone or other handheld device.
At 9:39 of the film, there’s a close-up of a USA Today newspaper showing various headlines. While the main one is the local story relevant to the film’s plot, there are various other “predictions” on the page if you look closely. Here they are.
Swiss terrorists. A headline reads “SWISS TERRORIST THREAT.” Status: false. Switzerland is one of the most peaceful countries in the world.
Diana Spencer is Queen of England. A headline reads “QUEEN DIANA WILL VISIT WASHINGTON.” There’s another reference to Queen Diana elsewhere on the page. Status: false. Diana Spencer died in August 1997 in Paris. However, even if that hadn’t happened, Diana, Princess of Wales, was unlikely to have become “Queen” anyway. She divorced her husband, Prince Charles, in 1996; thus, if Elizabeth died and Charles succeeded to the throne after his divorce, Diana would obviously never have inherited the title of “Queen.” Even if (1) Diana hadn’t died in 1997, (2) she hadn’t divorced Charles, and (3) Elizabeth II died between 1989 and 2015, the best Diana could have done would have been “Queen consort”–the wife of the reigning monarch of Britain–although admittedly in a newspaper headline she probably would’ve been referred to as “Queen.” Nevertheless, by all indications, England will have the same queen on October 21, 2015 that it did in November 1989 when the film came out: Elizabeth II.
Female President. A headline reads “PRESIDENT SAYS SHE’S TIRED.” Status: true, but a year late. The President in 2015 is obviously male, but it is quite likely that the next President of the United States will indeed be a woman. This is also “almost” true from the standpoint of the past. If Hillary Clinton had defeated Barack Obama for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008, which could easily have happened, she would very likely have been elected; if re-elected in 2012, there would have been a female President on October 21, 2015.
Hillary Clinton will almost certainly be elected President of the United States on November 8, 2016. As with the Chicago Cubs prediction (see below), this prediction turns out to be true, but a year after its depiction in the movie.
Jokes that are seen as “predictions.”
The movie contains several jokes which I don’t think were meant as anything other than throwaway gags; I don’t think the writers entertained even the slightest expectation that they’d be true. Nonetheless, they’ve attained the status of “predictions” in Internet memes.
Lawyers abolished. At 9:57 the Dr. Brown character says “The justice system works swiftly in the future now that they’ve abolished all lawyers!” Status: false. But, to the film’s credit, the dream of abolishing (or killing) all lawyers is a very old one, going back to Shakespearean times.
Jaws 19 is a popular movie. At 11:58, the Marty character encounters a film marquee advertising Jaws 19, directed by Max Spielberg. A holographic shark comes out and “eats” Marty. Status: false. The Jaws franchise was killed dead in 1987, even before BTTF2 came out. Max Spielberg, the son of Jaws director Steven Spielberg and Amy Irving, turns 30 this June. Though not a director, he has worked as a technician on a few movies, and appeared in a cameo in his father’s film Catch Me If You Can.
Video games without hand controls. At 15:45, in the scene set in a nostalgia café called “Café 80s,” Marty is amazed to hear two young children deride a Wild Gunman arcade game as “a baby’s toy” because “you have to use your hands.” Status: false. As advanced as video games are, with near-photographic visual resolution and virtual reality capability, designers haven’t yet developed a video game that responds to telepathic commands. Too bad!
Chicago Cubs win World Series. In one of the film’s most famous “predictions,” at 22:03 an old man expresses amazement that the Chicago Cubs have swept the 2015 World Series. There’s also reference to this on the USA Today headline. Status: true, but a year late. We won’t know who wins the 2015 World Series until October, but if they do manage to pull it off it will be a miracle. In 2014 the Cubs finished almost in the basement of the National League Central. Although they’re in spring training now, they have to get a lot better to have a shot. The Cubs have not won a World Series since Taft was in the White House.
I’m very happy to update this article (on November 3, 2016) to note that the Chicago Cubs did win the World Series in 2016–a year later than predicted in the film. And it seems to have been every bit the miracle that the movie suggested such a thing would be!
Hoverboards. By far the most famous “prediction” of the film, I shouldn’t even have to mention Status: false. The technology required to create anti-gravity skateboards is far beyond current capability, and in any event would require a blockbuster power source that couldn’t fit on a skateboard-sized implement. This was a fanciful plot device utilized by the writers.
Some surprisingly close “predictions.”
For all BTTF2 gets wrong, it actually comes fairly close to reality in a few of its depictions, though most not in exactly the same way as portrayed.
Drone news photographers. After Griff and gang trash the courthouse, a hovering drone emblazoned with the USA Today logo floats near him to take a photo at 23:59 of the film. Status: true. They don’t “hover” the way they do in the film, but flying unmanned drones are increasingly being used for news photography. I took a picture of such a drone at Wacken Open Air 2014.
“Surf Vietnam.” At 25:09, Dr. Brown and Marty confer in front of an advertising mural reading Surf Vietnam. Status: true. Although it’s not nearly as famous as Waikiki, J-Bay, Durban, Puerto Escondido or other big-name surf spots, you can surf in Vietnam today and the country is pushing surf breaks as tourist destinations. But, as another movie (Apocalypse Now) depicted correctly, all the surf spots in Vietnam are beach breaks.
The “Scenery Channel.” At 28:07 scenes are shown of the McFly’s suburban home. An electronic wall screen shows a pastoral scene, and a recorded voice identifies it as “the Scenery Channel.” Status: mostly true. It’s not called “the Scenery Channel,” but if you have Google Chromecast, you can have beautiful photographic scenery playing across your TV any time you want. Below is a picture of mine.
Light flat-screen TVs. At 31:45, the younger Marty McFly adjusts a large flat-screen TV which is as light as a picture hanging on a wall. Status: false. Although flat-screens are becoming much lighter and more compact, they’re not quite light enough yet to hang like pictures. Arguably, however, the proliferation of channels Marty sees on the screen is at least somewhat similar to YouTube or other video streaming sites.
Food hydrators. At 33:28, Marty’s mother (Lea Thompson) puts a hockey-puck sized pizza into a Black & Decker “Hydrator,” presses a button, and two seconds later pulls out a large fresh pie. Status: false. Obviously we don’t have these yet; I think this was a product placement gag for Black & Decker.
Phone/media visors. In the dinner scene at 34:07, Marty’s kids wear sunglass-like visors that evidently display phone calls and other media information. Status: partially true. Though not available to the general public, this type of device is exactly what Google was working on with its “Google Glass” project, which has now been halted.
“Scan my card…I’m in!” At 35:24, Marty is goaded by his co-worker Needles (Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) to join some sort of illegal scheme. Marty agrees and runs his credit card through a scanner on a device resembling a laptop and says, “Scan my card, I’m in!” Status: partially true. In 2015 we can do a tremendous amount of business with credit cards from our laptops. I haven’t seen a scanner like this in someone’s home, but I’m sure people do have them; certainly businesses do.
Ubiquitous fax technology. At various parts of the movie we see references to fax machines; at 11:20 there’s a U.S. Mail box shown with a fax interface, and at 36:05 Marty’s boss fires him via a fax that comes out of a surprisingly retro-looking wall-mounted fax machine. Status: false. Again, reality outpaces fantasy. While most offices and many homes still have fax machines, the ease of .PDF files and email attachments has made them superfluous. Most people I know already think faxes are passé.
The thing about future “predictions.”
If there’s one thing that science fiction depictions of the future–everything from H.G. Wells’s Things to Come to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey–tell us, it’s that they usually have much more to say about the time they’re made than the time they’re portraying. This is certainly true of BTTF2, which, even in the future scenes, looks very much like the late 1980s. The only thing we can be sure about the future is that it will resemble the past in many ways.