If the world ended, what do you think would be the first thing to go?
In many post-apocalyptic stories, we quickly see the failure of technology and infrastructure, society crumbling as humanity’s hubris all falls away. Sometimes our morality is the first thing to desert us, neighbours and friends past now scratching each other’s eyes out for the slightest chance of survival.
But really, these are sideshows – because based on an awful lot of movies and TV shows set in our future, the first thing to go in the apocalypse will be our ability to speak normally, our innate ability for language replaced by a proclivity for spouting godawful ‘futuristic’ expressions and slang.
You know the sort of thing I mean. Sometimes, in a quick attempt at world-building for post-apocalyptic or futuristic stories screenwriters have littered their contemporary-English scripts with weird expressions and buzzwords, intended to make them seem more advanced but instead making for some groan-worthy dialogue that completely takes viewers out of the action. Take some examples.
“Day one, Greenie. Rise and shine. He looks like a slopper to me,” characters remark (incomprehensibly) to each other in the very first scene of The Maze Runner movie.
“The nemesis has nullified mine and ours in the before, and will in the now,” an alien says in Star Trek: Voyager’s infamous episode Nemesis. “But in the soon after, we’ll send them flying from this sphere, and go back to our sisters and mothers.”
And Netflix’s new sci-fi drama Snowpiercer is another new addition to this canon, with its cast unself-consciously talking about how the rebellion of the “Tailies” is just “track talk” coming from the back end of their high-tech train society.
“You’ve only been living on this train for six years!” I found myself thinking. “At what point did society give up on talking like adults?”
This sort of dialogue tends to come in two camps – weirdly infantilised slang (Greenies, Tailies, the way droids are called “Clankers” in the Star Wars: Clone Wars animation etc), or normal words given a strange, menacing and mannered inflection – and it’s a trend memorably parodied in a 2014 Saturday Night Live sketch called The Group Hopper, which poked fun at the craze for Hunger Games-esque movies at the time.
“Hey Samey…welcome to Greyworld,” one character tells the lead in the sketch before introducing him to “the Metalfields…where the Samies stay until the Groupers pass them on to the Sorties for Sorting.”
“What’s beyond the walls?” our hero ponders.
“Oh nothing much…except the Death Fires,” says another.
And while it seemed for a while that this sort of dialogue was being left behind it now appears to be making something of a comeback, cropping up in programmes like Snowpiercer as well as other media like futuristic video game Cyberpunk 2077.
Cyberpunk 2077 character telling someone they're driving to the shops to buy milk: "Yo, hang tight, I'm just gonna wheelspin over to the credit-mart in my five-five-two for a clink of whitejuice, catch you on the flip."
— Andy Kelly (@ultrabrilliant) August 31, 2018
Of course, not all invented future-set dialogue is terrible. Battlestar Galactica’s swearword “Frak!” felt fairly organic within the series, while Joss Whedon’s Firefly ingeniously combined English with Mandarin to suggest the evolution of language.
And to be fair, I think what makes a lot of ‘futuristic’ slang fall flat is difficult to quantify. Sometimes it’s just overused and begins to grate (Farscape’s outer-space swear word “Frell!” may be an example here), sometimes the words just seem too embarrassing for any human to utter, and sometimes it just feels unconvincing that language would have evolved this way.
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange arguably has some of the weirdest future slang committed to film, but it works because it’s so different, with the actors fully committed to bringing a different kind of language to life.
Perhaps the rule for dialogue has to be the same as any bit of high-concept world-building – if it feels fake and ‘created”, clearly designed by someone to sound “different” to the usual words it doesn’t work.
If it does feel organically like its part of this universe, we’ll buy it – and if it can’t pass those tests, we honestly won’t mind if you just have everyone talk normally. You don’t actually need to make everyone talk like they have a brain injury just to prove we’ve jumped ahead a few years.
Though of course, I could end up eating my own words here when I emerge from the UK coronavirus lockdown talking about the ‘fore-‘fore times and the Social Distance-ies as I go on the hunt for some good-time-Pub-juice.
And if that is the case, well, I bow to the wisdom of our great creatives – and you can definitely consider this whole argument nuthin’ but track talk, Tailie.
Snowpiercer episodes 1 and 2 are streaming on Netflix now, with new episodes released weekly on Mondays. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.