We’re living in a time of uncertainty across many aspects of life. From climate change and the future of technology to food and fashion, as new breakthroughs or catastrophes occur nothing seems to be for certain. Parallel to this state of flux are a broad group of documentaries about the future that often reveal information we’ve not yet been privy to on such a mass scale, while helping to incite discussion surrounding some of the biggest problems humanity has ever faced.
Comprising both the natural and man-made, the global and local, we’ve compiled the 10 best future documentaries to get you up to speed on what’s currently happening in the world and what that might spell for decades to come. And while some of these themes might seem daunting, it’s important to remember that while the future isn’t always clear, the positive is that we still have time to turn things around and set humanity on a path for the better.
Scroll on to see our selection of the 10 best documentaries about the future.
Year: 2019 Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent Editor's note: Created by the same team responsible for BBC’s Planet Earth series, Our Planet is Netflix’s first foray into the nature documentary genre. Sir David Attenborough narrates the eight-part docu-series, making it feel like a natural extension of the original films. Shot in 50 countries over four years, Our Planet honors the wildlife on Earth through beautiful footage while bringing to light the effects humans have had on the planet, and what is needed to combat climate change.
At the series’ world premiere in London, Attenborough explained that Our Planet’s release on Netflix was key to its central message: “The problem is worldwide and the solution has to be worldwide...that’s why this distribution of this is so important. The thought that it will be seen around the world is very, very important.” Impassioned, he also pleaded for us to “Be responsible careful citizens of this planet which is our only home, and for the creatures that live in it.”
Do You Trust This Computer?
Year: 2018 Rotten Tomatoes: 71 percent Editor's note: This 2018 documentary discusses the potential outcomes — both good and bad — related to our growing dependence on technology — specifically the rise of artificial intelligence. It features a host of talking heads including Elon Musk, who strongly promoted the film’s release by sponsoring free streaming for a limited time on Vimeo; Ray Kurzweil, a futurist and strong proponent of the transhumanism movement; Jonathon Nolan, co-creator of HBO’s Westworld, and many others.
It’s great to see a recent documentary on an increasingly hot topic but it has been criticized by some of the scientific community for inciting fear-mongering among the general population, so bear that in mind. Another older doc to check out on this topic is Transcendent Man, which is specifically based on Kurzweil’s vision.
Before the Flood
Year: 2016 Rotten Tomatoes: 73 percent Editor's note: Mostly remembered as “that climate change documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio,” Before the Flood is a 2016 film presented by National Geographic that explores the impacts of global warming and what we can do to turn things around. With a particular focus on why politicians and lobbyists continue to deny the effects of climate change — more relevant now than ever — it also covers alternative energy sources and the proposal of a carbon tax. Where it succeeds is highlighting problems while suggesting workable solutions.
Before the Flood follows in the footsteps of Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, while its follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, came out one year after in 2017. Both of these are also worth viewing if you’re particularly interested in climate change, but Before the Flood offers the kind of slick production and access that only Hollywood can procure. After all, it was produced by DiCaprio, Brett Ratner, and James Packer among others, while Martin Scorsese served as executive producer. Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral docs are also recommended viewing on a similar topic.
Print the Legend
Year: 2014 Rotten Tomatoes: 81 percent Editor's note: A Netflix Original, Print the Legend takes on the 3D printing industry. Focusing on a range of businesses including small manufacturers MakerBot and Formlabs, through to larger companies Stratasys, 3D Systems, and Printform, the documentary sheds light on how the industry has developed and the potential risks it’s encountering — namely 3D printed weaponry. For this topic Print the Legend speaks to controversial figure and gun rights activist Cody Wilson, who is heavily in favor of 3D printing of guns.
The topic might not seem pressing to the regular person, but as the film explains: the world of 3D printing seems like a niche and nerdy area of technology, but it’s experiencing a similar trajectory that home computers once had, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re just as ubiquitous.
Year: 2009 Rotten Tomatoes: 95 percent Editor's note: There have been a lot of documentaries about the food industry and quite a few since 2008 when Food, Inc. was released, but most just simply aren’t as good as this one. Taking on corporate farming in the United States, Food, Inc. uncovers the corruption in agribusiness, through to government policies put in place to protect corporations. It concludes that the system is inhumane to both animals and employees within the industry, and unsustainable for the environment – something we’re much more aware of now, thanks in part to documentaries like this one.
Not all of the information will be groundbreaking or even new at this point, but Food, Inc. presents a detailed expose of the US food industry, highlighting the vast issues that must be fixed if we’re to have a healthier and more hopeful future. As you might have guessed, not much has changed in the 11 years since its release. For further food-related viewing check out Fed Up, A Place at the Table, Rotten, and Eating Animals.
The True Cost
Year: 2015 Rotten Tomatoes: 63 percent Editor's note: The fashion industry isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when considering documentaries about the future, but increasingly we’ve been learning the truth about fast fashion’s impact on people and the environment, and what that means for both the future of the industry and our planet. After the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, where over 1,000 workers in the garment industry were killed, director Andrew Morgan was compelled to dig deep into the world of fast-fashion production.
What he uncovered goes beyond squalid and unsafe working conditions for those in the developing world, as the film highlights genetically-modified farming—for producing materials such as cotton—that exposes workers and the environment to high-risk chemicals, resulting in death and irreversible damage to our planet. It further cautions the “incessant consumption of mediocre stuff” in highly-developed nations.
Ultimately The True Cost comes down to the ways capitalism, within the context of fashion, has failed people and the environment. However, Morgan ensures the doc’s aim is not “anti-business or anti-market,” rather it’s about urging us to find a more humane way for the industry to exist.
Last Call at the Oasis
Year: 2012 Rotten Tomatoes: 83 percent Editor's note: Tackling the looming issue of global water shortage, Last Call at the Oasis isn’t exactly a sexy topic but its undoubtedly one of the more important documentaries about the future. The film examines how the global water crisis will be the most important issue of this century, highlighting the flaws in our current system, regions that are already struggling with access to a clean water supply, and people who are making a difference.
Interviews with experts and scientists in the field — including Erin Brockovich — gives Last Call at the Oasis a sobering check on reality. However, it’s not all bad news, the film posits that with active changes we can overcome this impending humanitarian crisis.
The Future of Work and Death
Year: 2016 Rotten Tomatoes: NA Editor's note: Examining two of life’s certainties — work and death — in the context of technological advancements such as automation, AI, and human longevity, The Future of Work and Death considers what life will look like for humanity in the decades to come. Great minds from fields including neuroscience, anthropology, futurology, and more give the documentary a solid grounding in what can otherwise seem like a far-off topic.
The Future of Work and Death feels less sensationalist than other documentaries on future subject matter, while it chooses to avoid any neat answers in favor of opening up even more interesting questions.
Year: 2017 Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent Editor's note: Artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s 2017 documentary film, Human Flow, explores the global refugee crisis. As someone who has faced persecution in his native China, resulting in a travel ban in which he wasn’t able to leave the country for a number of years, Ai handles the topic of human displacement in a highly empathetic way. Shot in 20 countries, Human Flow covers a diverse number of refugee journeys, ranging from internal displacement to international migration, due to various factors including ethnic conflicts and wars between states.
The aim of Human Flow is to bring this increasingly important and complex issue to the fore. It suggests that due to extraneous factors such as climate change, the number of global refugees will only continue to grow. Ai Weiwei urges us all to reflect on our humanity and address the problems that are causing these tragic circumstances, the consequences of which are felt by all.
Year: 2018 Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent Editor's note: In light of recent discussion regarding Facebook’s content moderation, The Cleaners is necessary viewing. The documentary takes us into the hidden shadow world of digital content moderation and the people who decide what stays online and what doesn’t, specifically those based in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.
Beyond the personal stories of these digital cleaners, the film grapples with how social media platforms have become breeding grounds for hate and violence, yet the act of cleaning such content is a form of censorship that ultimately threatens democracy. It’s a problem the world is still trying to figure out, but one that will only become more important as time goes on.