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Historical Futurism

The history of type's future

Humans are simultaneously cursed with the knowledge that there is a future and gifted with the ability to create art. Those willing to combine these endowments sometimes create sci-fi films. Giving glimpses into just how wonderful or treacherous the future might be, this genre attracts fans with equal parts laser-blaster-heroism and gloomy foreboding.

Sci-fi filmmakers try to render convincing and entertaining visions for the future, succeeding as often as failing. Even with tens-of-millions of dollars at their disposal, there’s no one correct way to predict the future, let alone show it. As a result, these movies end up repeating similar stories: Robots/computers are trying to kill humans, aliens are trying to kill humans, or humans are trying to kill humans. One thing is common among them, though—a somewhat unlikely hero defies the robots/aliens/humans to save civilization (or America).

While many sci-fi movies tend to follow those story-rails, they each have their own take on how the future looks. Clean or grimy, advanced or devolved, utopic or dystopic: World-building stands as the genre’s greatest opportunity, responsibility, and burden. It’s where most fall and some soar.

For those audience members with an eye for graphics and type, the barrier to believability is much higher. Dirty streets or futuristic technology aren’t convincing if the signage and user-interfaces don’t match. Type quality alone doesn’t satisfy either: The real world possesses typographic texture, with layers of styles, so filmmakers who settle for only a few fonts don’t pass the test.

Typefaces per film

The cinematic approach to futurist typography falls roughly into two categories: Those that try to feel like the future—by picking cheap, stereotypically over-stylized fonts—and those that try to look like the future—by selecting fonts and styles they expect might still be in vogue. Either route can produce convincing results; although, those filmmakers who pursue the latter option tend to be more thoughtful.

Presented here are seven sci-fi films from the 60s through the 90s. Each of them attempts to show either a time we have already seen (like 2000) or time we are just about to see (like 2021). Moreover, all films showing a time in the still-distant future have been left out.

Total typeface uses across all seven films.

I have included summaries of each film’s plot, but beware: Spoilers ahead. Most have seen at least a few of these films, but the summaries are important when judging the typographic choices—something made clear by Escape from New York (1981), Rollerball (1975), and Soylent Green (1973).

Those two factors above, typographic quality and quantity, drive the analyses. Though it would be impossible to identify and present every typeface in each film, I have done my best to select the screen stills that represent or the film’s type. These are not meant as exhaustive analyses, as fun as that would be. Also, while I have tried my best to identify each typeface, I cannot promise 100 percent certainty.

Mea culpa.

Films by release year and setting timeframe

On a cultural note: The protagonist in each film is a white male. That was largely the way of Hollywood in the years considered here—and remains much the same way today. I would have loved to include Alien, Edge of Tomorrow, and other films with women as the leading stars, but they were set either too far in the future or were produced too recently such that judgments would be impossible. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight some of these films which present a well-balanced cast or atypically well-developed female characters.

Death Race 2000 (1975), while very objectifying, seems to objectify evenly, as each driver (three men and two women) are each assigned a navigator of the opposite sex, who is regarded as expendable. The cast in that film is also evenly balanced, with a male antagonist, but two of the three female protagonists. There’s also a quite satisfying line from one of the drivers: “The winner will be a member of the master race . . . a woman.”

In both Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Blade Runner (1982), the leading lady saves the male protagonist’s life repeatedly. Also, in both cases, the leading ladies are stronger and faster than their male counterparts.

Finally, Soylent Green pushes the objectification of women to its extreme, such that up-scale apartments come with concubines, referred throughout the movie as “furniture.” It’s awful, and painful to watch. The world in the film, concubines and all, is presented as something we do not want, so viewers see the sexism as a warning, not an invitation. Indeed, in two scenes, these women push back against the term “furniture,” with one telling the protagonist, “Don’t talk to me like that.”

Acknowledgments

A word of thanks to those who have helped with this story. Two sites—Identifont and What the Font—were valuable. Stephen Coles’s The Anatomy of Type helped, especially when I knew a typeface that was similar-but-not-quite the film’s font. With Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dave Addey’s web site Typeset in the Future, helped immensely. The book—by the same title—was published by Abrams in December.

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