Start at the Beginning:
Retrofuturism looks back at the past to see how people imagined the world would look in decades and centuries to come.
Tell Me More!
You can find predictions of the future dating back to ancient times but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Futurism was an art and culture movement that began in 1909 and lasted through the 1920s. It celebrated what was then regarded as the furious pace of the new century with cars, machines and built-up cities featuring heavily.
The term retrofuturism is a play on the fact that what seemed so stunningly new to the Futurists and their children (and even grandchildren) looks impossibly quaint to us now. There is some crossover with ‘steampunk’, but that tends to be more Victorian whereas retrofuturism draws primarily from the 1920s to the 1950s.
“Retrofuturism is looking back to see how yesterday viewed tomorrow. And they’re always wrong; always hilariously, optimistically wrong.”
Illustrator, humourist and author Bruce McCall
When he first opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1955, Walt Disney included Tomorrowland as a genuine vision of the future, all curvy rocket ships to the moon and monorails speeding between clean, shiny skyscrapers. In the decades since we have indeed sent spacecraft to other planets, seen monorails come in and out of fashion, and built plenty of skyscrapers, but none of it looks as Disney and his ‘Imagineers’ thought it would through the lens of their 1950s aesthetic. What was truly futuristic then has become a prime example of retrofuturism. Ditto for 1962-3 baby boomer TV favourite The Jetsons (1962-3, 1985–87).
So is it Just Making Fun of the Past?
No, not at all. While a large streak of kitsch runs through retrofuturism, its fans in the worlds of art, design, music and fashion have a genuine affection for these delightfully misguided ideas about the future-that-never-was. Not everyone gets it, though. The designers of one of the biggest video games of 2015, Fallout 4, chose a retrofuturistic aesthetic for their post-apocalyptic survival story, leading one confused gamer to ask plaintively, “If the bombs dropped in 2077 why would the world still look like it did in the ’50s?”
“We’re all familiar with the rallying cries of the angry retrofuturist: Where’s my jetpack!?! Where’s my flying car!?! Where’s my robot maid?!?”
Matt Novak, writing about The Jetsons in The Smithsonian magazine
Where Can I See it?
Hunt out the cult 2004 film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (co-starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Angelina Jolie) or, fittingly, download the 2015 George Clooney family film Tomorrowland.