[21 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Science fiction and fantasy has always thrived on the “what if”. From the earliest days of the genre, writers and filmmakers found inventive ways to view the future. As a result, there have been thoughtful and positive portrayals of technology helping mankind as well as dark, distressing tales of science/species run amok. Thanks to Hollywood and its way with vision, some of the first movies ever traded on these tenets. Georges Méliès gave us out first trip to the moon while Fritz Lang found a metropolis that functioned as a metaphor for man’s place within the social machine. There’s have been planets overrun by robots and societies stuck in human sacrifice, worlds where aliens and human share an uneasy coexistence and governments who’ve reduced war to an athletic/video game competition. In each case, a cautionary approach is taken with the material. The moral warns us of allowing our ambitions to go unchecked and unfocused.
The result has been some of the best, most thought provoking entertainments of all time. In recognition of our number eight choice on the list (now out on Blu-ray and DVD), we’ve decided to run through our own personal top ten—examples of dystopias that defy easy description and yet get their pragmatic/philosophical points across with ease. There’s a caveat, however, an exterior concern if you will. Since many of these films rely on the secrets within their society to forward their message, we are going to be spoiling quite a few. There’s a big fat SPOILER ALERT is in place, just as a precaution. If you don’t want to know what ‘soylent green’ really is, or if the reason behind the dark city’s noir nightmare, check out the movie before moving on. Otherwise, enjoy these glimpses of what could be and why it will happen. They may not be predicting the actual path we will take as hiding present truths in glossy, high tech possibilities. In either case, it’s never a truly pretty picture:
It’s important to note a kind of pattern in place for all these future shock societies. Filmmakers, faced with growing concerns both locally and abroad, love to amplify an issue until it becomes the overriding communal concern. In this case, the escalating (and elitist) cost of health care is transformed into a world where high priced procedures are metered out like car loans. Fail to pay, and you are whisked away to a TV station where a ‘repo man’ reclaims their ‘property’. This dark, gothic gorefest does a great job of highlighting the horror is such hellspawn hospice.
The problem plaguing this population is two-fold: too many people and not enough food. The answer? Make the oldsters and infirmed pay (force them into suicide), control the rioting mobs with disdain and violence (scoop them up with modified construction equipment) and turn them all into crunchy green “food stuff”. Yes, in this craven case of the high tech haves vs. the groveling, filthy have nots, the little people are forced into inadvertent cannibalism, the so called ocean-based protein substitute nothing more than human crackers created to address a growing power struggle concern. It’s the diet to die for.
War and rebellion reconfigures the former United States into 12 Districts, each one then required to send adolescent competitors to a retributive public spectacle/sacrificial game of death. While the rich and well off act like forgotten members of Visage (or, perhaps, Cirque de Soleil), these kids run around a wilderness playing field, killing each other. In this sometimes baffling battle royale (wink, wink), the players earn favors for their backstory and on air personability. Fail in this regard and you’ll be nothing more than a notch in some sly tribute’s belt.
A race of alien parasites (who use discarded corpses as hosts) need to find a way to help their dying race survive. Their answer? A mechanized cityscape, fully functioning and controllable, populated with people, that can then be managed and manipulated in ways necessary to observe and record all manner of human behavior. Within this scenario, a man is accused of murder and his attempts to clear his name are used as fuel for such sentient research. Like many movie dystopias, the shock is in the discovery of the misguided motivation behind the otherwise ‘ordinary’ reality.
Population is, once again, out of control (said explosion was a huge concern back in the ‘60s and ‘70s) and in order to maintain a proper balance between people and resources, a weird ageism doctrine is introduced. This future society allows people to live and reproduce on a specific schedule. Once they reach the age of 30, they must sacrifice themselves at a ceremony known as “Carrousel” or be hunted down by the Sandmen (think high tech police in velour jumpsuits). While existence under the dome is decent, the foreknowledge of a life predetermined makes for a fascinating ‘what if?’
Instead of focusing on the human aspect of a failed future shock, ex-Python Terry Gilliam gives us a sour society where bumbling bureaucracy (and the equally ineffectual war against is) has been reduced to a series of ducts and a shit-load of paperwork. It’s a world where information is king, where it’s retrieval is retribution, and its dissemination a dead subject. One man’s dream of escape leads him to rage against such a machine. His fate—and the fate of those like him—turn a goofy, fun house truth into something quite telling… and terrifying.
Here we have something vastly different than either Soylent or Logan. Under-population is the problem, the human race rendered infertile by a plague that has swept across the planet. In order to keep their dwindling numbers and resources safe, strict laws against immigration are imposed. When a young West African girl is found to be pregnant, those fighting against the government must try and get her to a secret scientific community, less humanity be doomed forever. While the thinking behind such a strategy may seem suspect, how the powers that be go about their duty is beyond disturbing.
Human biological perfection is the preface for this unusually thoughtful look at life in the not too distant future. Through the use of complicated scientific screening, society has been broken down into ‘valids’ and ‘in-valids.’ Those with the proper label get all the advantages. Those who do not are marginalized and reduced to something akin to a slave class. The story centers on one man’s desire to break free from these genetic shackles and realize his dreams of space flight. It’s the inner workings of this strangled society that provide the power… and the fear.
It’s a world of space exploration, robots, and mass multiculturalism. It’s also a reality where our mechanized friends are no longer happy with their place in the process. Thus the title characters must come along and “clean up” the rogues, protecting society from something even more disheartening than rain, gloom, and the gleaming towers of a skyscraping Big Brother. Outwardly, this future doesn’t seem so bad. But when viewed through the prism of an agent looking for a way out, it’s claustrophobic and suffocating.
What’s more horrifying than a doom and gloom dystopia? A doom and gloom dystopia which tricks you into thinking everything is all right, just so it can harvest your bioelectric energy and BTUs. That’s the premise of the Wachowskis amazingly influential film, a take on virtual reality in which a world run by machines harvest human beings for their energy needs. In order to keep them passive and performing, they jack everyone into the title construct, an existence where everything seems normal, but actually is nothing more than a series of impulses to the near-vegetative brain. While the idea is not all that novel, the execution is what sets it apart.