Skip to main content

The future ain’t so fancy! 10 sci-fi movie props that are actually real gadgets

Science-fiction films and TV shows are famous for creating out-of-this-world gadgets to help create the illusion of a futuristic world. But sometimes the art department looks a little closer to home for inspiration. Here are a few real gadgets that stand in for future technology in some of your favorite sci-fi universes.

Stargate’s all-purpose gadgets are Palm-powered

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Stargate SG-1 and its sister series are almost unique among space-faring TV shows in that they’re set in the present day — most of the technology that Stargate Command uses is conventional, semi-real military and consumer tech augmented with some fictional alien hoodoo. It’s almost appropriate, then, that as the series stretched closer to Star Trek levels of technology-focused sci-fi in the later seasons, the prop department simply grabbed a real Earth gadget for team members’ handheld computing needs.

At various points in Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, you can see the scientist characters using a curvy little PDA-style gizmo to detect alien artifacts, re-activate ancient satellites, or control sci-fi energy reactors. That gizmo was in fact a Tapwave Zodiac, a one-off design that attempted to create a portable game machine running a modified version of Palm OS. Since the Zodiac was from a time when most handheld computers lacked both cellular and Wi-Fi connections, it seems unlikely that you could use one to shoot Wraith hive ships out of the sky.

The fleet controllers in Ender’s Game are Razer Nostromo game pads

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In Ender’s Game, a group of children are trained by the military to command enormous space battles against an intractable armada of Buggers. (You, in the back, stop laughing.) Since the climax of the movie revolves around an incredibly high-stakes, holographic war game, it’s only natural that the fleet commanders would use setups that looks surprisingly similar to gaming PCs. there’s a bit of holographic movie magic thrown in, and Ender himself is in the middle like a conductor on a Minority Report orchestra, but the Battle Schoolers themselves kind of look like they’re playing Starcraft.

The setups include some suitably futuristic one-handed keyboards that the kids use to give commands to their holographic fleets. But regular PC gamers will be able to tell that they aren’t that futuristic: They’re actually the Razer Nostromo, a left-handed pad that’s designed to replace a gaming keyboard while your right hand uses a mouse. Razer adapted the design from the old Belkin N52 series of pads, then named it after the 1904 epic naval novel, or more probably, the spaceship from Ridley Scott’s Alien. And so the circle is closed.

J’s flying Mercedes in Men In Black II is powered by PlayStation

Image used with permission by copyright holder

One of the more iconic scenes in the original Men In Black is when Will Smith’s Agent J presses the “Little Red Button” and sends the Crown Victoria into rocket mode. For the reprised scene in the sequel, Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) is in the driver’s seat, and instead of a speed boost, he’s piloting a flying car with an alien-looking steering mechanism replacing the steering wheel.

J’s quip about the Game Boy is obvious to anyone who plays video games, as the replacement control mechanism is actually just a Dualshock controller painted silver with a few extra graphics stuck on. The prop choice may or may not have something to do with the movie’s production company, Columbia, owned by Sony, which is infamous for its heavy-handed product placement. (The intact PlayStation logo means it’s probably intentional.) Whatever the reason, gamers could probably tell you that standard twin-stick gamepad is actually surprisingly efficient for flight control.

The Death Star’s laser control panel is a video switchboard

Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s interesting how science fiction, despite often being set far in the future (or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”), seems to reflect contemporary technology. For example, the gadgets in the original Star Trek series (late 1960s) seems to rely on an awful lot of buttons and knobs, but they’re replaced with touchscreens by the time The Next Generation (1980s and 90s) rolls around.

Star Wars’ infamous Death Star seems to fall squarely into the “buttons and knobs” category when it comes to controls. Video editors who watched the original movie in 1977 might have felt a little odd during the famous destruction of Alderaan, since the laser control panel looks a lot like a video switchboard. A very specific one — the ISI/Grass Valley Switcher. The story goes that director George Lucas cut in a few split-second shots of a real video editor working at local Los Angeles TV station KCET to get the right look.

The anti-surveillance gadget in V For Vendetta is a simple book light

The anti-surveillance gadget in V For Vendetta is a simple book light
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the near-future British dystopia of V For Vendetta, everyone has to watch out for Big Brother the Norsefire Party. The oppressive government constantly monitors its citizens, which leads to the widespread use of anti-surveillance devices by the titular vigilante V and other characters to keep their discussions private.

CONTROL’s Cone of Silence from Get Smart might have worked better than V’s bug-proof gadget, since the latter is an ordinary book light. You know, the kind you see on nightstands, long airplane flights, and drugstore bargain bins. You can see the more conventional version in the video below. The prop master probably liked this particular model because of its spring-loaded, flip-out design. Swap the white LED in the lamp for a red one, and bingo, you’ve got a futuristic anti-snooping gizmo.

The future of Weeds uses projection keyboards that we have right now

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The finale of Showtime’s Weeds takes place seven years in the future, and features a few “day after tomorrow” personal electronics quite heavily. At one point a character parks his phone on a special stand and an illuminated, full-sized virtual keyboard appears beneath his fingers, allowing him to type his email in comfort.

There’s just one problem: We’ve had projection keyboards like that for over a decade. They shine lasers (and illuminated keys to guide you) onto a flat surface. When your fingers break the beams, the corresponding keys are sent to your phone over Bluetooth. They’re not especially popular, because they’re much less accurate than conventional keyboards, and the projection is hard to see in daylight. An episode of CSI Miami actually used one in a conventional setting — the fingerprints the criminal left after typing on the desk were used to recreate the message she sent.

This robot controller from Doctor Who is better at controlling Mario

doctor who
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Doctor Who, which has been on and off the air for over half a century, certainly has some memorable gadgets. The TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver are undeniable icons of science fiction. But all those sets and props cost quite a bit of quid, and TV show budgets aren’t all that forgiving. It’s understandable, then, that the robot Santa killer Christmas ornament remote (don’t ask) in the 2006 episode The Runaway Bride looks a little familiar.

Yes, it’s another painted-over video game controller. The brand isn’t immediately apparent, but the shoulder buttons make it clear that it’s from something of the PlayStation 2 or GameCube generation. It may be a third-party controller, though — it doesn’t exactly line up to any stock gamepad we’ve ever seen, but the buttons and visible screw holes for the back plate make it clear it’s a production model.

To The Doctor’s credit, the prop maker tried a little harder with this one — various gewgaws and antennas have been tacked on to give it a more complex appearance, possibly salvaged from other unlucky consumer electronics. But look at the top, and it’s easy to spot the controller’s shoulder buttons — one of them even has the “L” indentation. In context, it’s a bit odd that The Doctor and company laugh at Segway scooters but don’t bat an eye at killer Santa robots.

The bridge of the Enterprise has a different kind of scanner

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The 2009 Star Trek motion picture takes place in an alternate universe, so the Enterprise spaceship is completely redesigned. The familiar grey walls and blinking lights are replaced with gleaming plexiglass and J.J. Abrams-grade lens flairs. In addition to a spiffy new window (not a viewscreen), the bridge has been redone with all kinds of neat gadgets. Including several retail barcode scanners.

Yup, barcode scanners. See those sci-fi-looking protrusions on the center console, with the big red dots on them? They’re regular old barcode scanners, like you might see in any supermarket checkout aisle. Before the sequel appeared in theaters, specialty online shop Barcodes Inc managed to match no less than three barcode scanners lying around the bridge to their (very real) commercially available models. The Enterprise also seems to have a surplus of designer desk lamps.

The rocket launcher in xXx would be better at shooting a wedding video

heat seeker
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Real guns are dangerous and expensive, and they require training and composure to use correctly. That’s why a lot of the weapons you see on TV are relatively harmless airsoft or pellet guns made to look like the real thing, or sometimes even painted NERF guns for the more outlandish examples. But the 2002 Vin Diesel vehicle xXx might take the cake in terms of fake guns, and I’m not talking about the protagonist’s over-the-top six-shooter.

Near the climax of the film, Diesel’s character picks up a “heat seeker rocket” to attack the bad guys. It looks like a serious weapon, complete with a flip-out digital targeting reticle… until you realize that it is, in fact, a regular old video camera. The camera has been glued into a fake rocket launcher body, complete with a huge tubular barrel and painted green with decals, but it appears to be a late 90’s member of the Sony DCR Handycam family. The next time you’re taking on international criminals, you might want something with a little more firepower.

Ender’s Game uses a real robot surgeon

Image used with permission by copyright holder

This one might not count, since the set designers are using a real gadget exactly as it’s intended, just presenting it as a little more futuristic than it actually is. When the protagonist in Ender’s Game graduates from his earthly school, he gets a neural tracker removed from his head by a robot surgeon in a somewhat creepy scene. The tracker isn’t real, but the robot is.

In fact the robot is something of a celebrity, at least on the campus of the University of Washington. The BioRobotics Laboratory created the Raven II, a robot designed to perform laparoscopic surgery and assist in surgical side-tasks. UW students operated the Raven II just off-screen during the filming of the scene. You can count robot surgeons among wireless communicators (cell phones), replicators (3D printers), and flying cars (OK, maybe not just yet) in the category of sci-fi technology that’s already here.

Michael Crider
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Michael is a native Texan and a former graphic designer. He's been covering technology in general since 2011. His interests…
Usually $500, this popular HP 17-inch laptop is $280 today
A woman video chats with her friends on an HP Envy laptop.

If you’re in the market for a new laptop, you can go with something a little larger among the best 17-inch laptop deals. You’ll get some additional screen real estate in addition to some savings with the HP 17.3-inch laptop, which is marked down $220 at HP right now. This deal brings its price down to just $280 and it would regularly set you back $500. This price point puts it well in the range of the best budget laptops, and HP is including free shipping with a purchase.

Why you should buy the HP Laptop 17z
HP makes a huge range of laptop models to suit various needs, and this regularly places it among the best laptop brands. This 17.3-inch HP laptop is on the entry-level end of the model lineup, providing basic specs for getting your work or studies done throughout the day. It checks in with 8GB of RAM and a blazing fast 128GB solid state drive. It also has a dual-core AMD Athlon Gold processor and AMD Radeon Graphics. While these, too, land in the range of entry-level, this laptop can still get things done. You’ll find Windows 11 preinstalled to ensure you’re up and running in no time after breaking it out of the box.

Read more
Here’s what to do when you inevitably run out of Gmail storage
The top corner of Gmail on a laptop screen.

Are you on the verge of running out of Gmail storage? Has it already happened? This might feel like a nightmare scenario and that if you don't act fast you're going to miss important emails. Don't fret, this is a really easy fix and there are two primary ways to do it: Increase your storage size by upgrading your Google One account, or cleaning out files and emails you don't need. Fortunately for that second part, you don't have to do it all manually.

Here's what to do if you run out of space in Gmail.

Read more
This Lenovo gaming PC has an RTX 4070, 32GB of RAM, and it’s $610 off
lenovo legion tower 5i deal february 2023 gaming pc

You should be ready to spend some serious cash if you want a powerful gaming desktop like the eighth-generation Lenovo Legion Tower 5i, but fortunately, Lenovo has slashed its price with a huge $610 discount. That means you can get the gaming PC for $1,420 instead of $2,030 -- it's still not cheap, but at that price, you're going to get amazing value out of this machine. You need to act now if you're interested though -- the gaming desktop is 30% off right now, but we're not sure if it will stay that way tomorrow.

Why you should buy the Lenovo Legion Tower 5i Gen 8 gaming PC
The eighth-generation Lenovo Legion Tower 5i takes aim at the best gaming PCs with its 13th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, Nvidia GeForce RTX 4070 graphics card, and 32GB of RAM. With these specifications, not only can you play the best PC games at their highest settings, but you'll also be able to run all of the upcoming PC games without any upgrades. You'll be able to connect all of your gaming peripherals to the gaming desktop, as it features multiple USB ports at the top and back, including a USB-C port.

Read more