10 Films that Tell the Future of War

Most Hollywood science fiction isn’t really all that “out there.” Take the computers on the original Star Trek. They operated a lot more like creaky 1960s IBM mainframes than 21st century iPads. Nevertheless, Hollywood has often been the inspiration for how militaries think about future wars. Here are 10 films that impress by their ability to presage the next weapons of war.

1. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (1961)

The 19th century novelist pretty much single-handedly invented science fiction—and in the process he forecast military weapons from submarines to super bombs. The single best effort to bring his imagination to the screen was a 1958 Czech film, later released in the U.S. and dubbed in English. What makes this film so engaging is a unique visual style called “Mystimation” which combined flats that looked like Victorian engravings with live actors.

2. The Last War (1961)

Many post-World War II science fiction films dealt with the implications of nuclear warfare and missile attack—none more grimily than those produced in the only country to be on the receiving end of an atomic attack. This Japanese movie about World War III features dog fights over the Arctic with nuclear-tipped air-to-air missiles. It follows up with volleys of transcontinental ballistic missiles and ends in scenes of a decimated Tokyo, a children’s song playing in the background. Today, many people view the film as a relic of war history and concerns. And that’s scary itself. The danger of nuclear warfare is still very much with us.

3. Starship Troopers (1997)

This effort to bring Robert A. Heinlein’s military sci-fi novel to the big screen gets a bad rap from the critics. Janet Maslin in the New York Times slammed the film as a “crazed, lurid spectacle,” with “raunchiness tailor-made for teen-age boys.” That is exactly what makes the film so much fun. An idealistic young citizen joins the “mobile infantry” to battle bugs on a far-off planet. What captures the imagination in this film is the technology added to make individual warriors so fearsome. [This year’s Edge of Tomorrow features an even more extreme version of individual battle technologies.] Today’s military badly wants all this stuff.  Check out, for example, the Army Future Soldier 2030 Initiative.

4. Target Earth (1954)

The 1950s was a fount of classic B-movies that mined every science fiction cliché that underpaid scriptwriters could find. One of the staples was “evil” robots. In this so-bad-it’s-really-good movie, giant killer robots from Venus invade Chicago. Seriously, this film is so nicely paced and creepy, it’s worth watching. A generation of American kids grew up playing with toy robots. Some of those kids are now senior military leaders and more than ready to take robots to war. In 1990, during the first Gulf War, the Pentagon put zero robots on the battlefield. Over the course of America’s second go-around in Iraq, one estimate put the number of military robots employed at 12,000. How ubiquitous will they be on future battlefields? Scott Hartley, a senior research engineer and co-founder of 5D Robotics, predicts: “10 years from now, there will probably be one soldier for every 10 robots… ”

5. Screamers (1995)

On a far-off mining planet in the far-off future, wars are waged by free-thinking, blade-wielding, self-replicating killing devices. Unfortunately, they go from fighting for the humans to wiping out the humans. Based in part on “Second Variety,” a short story by Philip K. Dick, this movie follows the typical technology-run-wild plot that Hollywood has done in scores of films, from Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) to The Terminator (1984). What makes this movie particularly engaging is that it raises the implications of employing “autonomous” technologies—devices that can think for themselves—in warfare. Many think the days when countries will field these kinds of military capabilities are not far off, and they are struggling to come to terms with how to handle that. 

6. WarGames (1983)

Young hacker cracks into the military’s central computer. He thinks he has broken into a really cool game-playing program. Instead, he inadvertently triggers U.S. nuclear forces and threatens to start an atomic war. Produced long before the advent of laptops and iPhones, this was Hollywood’s clarion call to take cybersecurity seriously. Sadly, this must have been one film the military didn’t watch. In 2012, one estimate held that the Pentagon was hacked about 250,000 times year. Cyberwar is now such a central part of war, the military has its own cyber command.

7. Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Based on an Isaac Asimov novel, Hollywood tells the story of a secret military project that shrinks a research vessel to cell-size and injects it into a human. The crew’s task is to navigate the bloodstream and destroy a blood clot with a laser. While this particular technology may be beyond military science, nanotechnologies are not, and their implications for national security are pretty daunting.

8. 28 Weeks Later (2007)

Don’t put the U.S. military in charge of dealing with biological weapons outbreaks. That’s the message of this atmospheric zombie-sequel. In real life, biowarfare and bioterrorism are clear and present threats. This is something worth worrying about. Check out this government commission’s report: “World at Risk.”

9. They Live (1988)

Alien invaders infiltrate the earth and become the enemy among us. A drifter winds up the accidental leader of an insurgency to take back Earth. This cinematic mix of loopy political commentary and sci-fi horror can also be seen as a cautionary tale of what is now called “hybrid” warfare—blending terrorism, insurgencies and propaganda into a messy style of war likely persists long into the future. Maybe the planners who sketched out the campaigns for Iraq and Afghanistan should have watched this movie. 

10. Star Wars (1977)

The Star Wars canon is derivative junk hardly worth a snip of celluloid—except for the iconic original film with young Luke Skywalker taking on the Evil Empire. Star Wars was not only classic cinema, the title of the film became closely associated with one the premier defense debates—the deployment of missile defenses. President Ronald Reagan argued missile defenses could greatly devalue the threat of nuclear weapons. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) derided the idea, calling it “Star Wars.” Missile defenses that Kennedy dismissed as science fiction are now science fact. Arguably, they are a key component of strategic defense far into the future.