Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The case for dystopia

One of my favourite genres of film is the post-apocalyptic dystopia. I probably like them for all the wrong reasons. I'm pretty sure that they resonate with an empty, hollow ring in the large, cold, dark, stony space in my soul where the words, "It doesn't effing matter" are carved into the bedrock in letters the depth of a spear.

The bleaker the better.

But, being an all-round media genius, I think I've figured out why most of these films fail to really scare us. They all start with the audience on the outside looking in. We are introduced to these horrible scenarios of statism gone mad, as though we are watching from the moral vantage point of people living in a society that isn't, yet, quite that bad. We get the moral pleasure of shaking our heads and tut-tutting at the wickedness of (other) men. We watch the film thinking, "I'd be on the good guy's side. I'd be in the resistance and I'd blow things up real good."

But I've noticed that the thing we most fear, some of us anyway, our worst nightmares, are always the ones in which we ourselves are the bad guys. When are movie makers going to involve the audience in the crimes of the characters? When are we going to be shown a truly morally ambiguous dystopia whose allure is greatly attractive to us? One that we half wish we could go and live. When are we going to be challenged by filmmakers confronting us with our own temptation to rule and crush the spirit of others?

I want to see a dystopian film that shows a green and pleasant land, a society in which everyone more or less gets what they want and the price of freedom seems cheap. One in which I would be tempted to collaborate. (Oh, right. More like the one we already live in... but I digress.)

The other night, I was re-watching a good one. Equilibrium starred the magnificent Christian Bale at his icy, reptilian best, but sadly missed any kind of public attention. I admit that the critics were mostly right when they accused it of being derivative. Certainly all the now-standard dystopian tropes were present: monumental oppressively stalinist/nazi, brutalist architecture (it was filmed in Berlin), the monotone grey clothes, the hopeless zombie-like stomping of the inexpressive masses, etcetera. And watching it with an eye open for inconsistencies, I also admit that I went through it thinking of ways I would have made the grey inhuman society of Libria more in keeping with its own rules.

Why, after all, do they need all this scary, oppressive brutalist architecture if they have already suppressed all human emotion? Wouldn't the effect be more or less lost on the helpless slaves of Libria? If there were really a way of completely suppressing emotions without compromising cognition, the people would anyway be immune to the psychological effects, the kind of visual tricks so beloved of Nazi and Communist leaders.

Of course, I realise that the current audience of us Emos are the ones the director is trying to oppress with all this set dressing, but what if the director and screenwriters had trusted their material more? I think the writers would have made a better and much scarier film if they had presented us with the no-emotion pill as something genuinely desirable, if they had shown us a real almost-utopia where everyone is happy not to be happy.

As I was watching it, I was thinking, "Contentment, freedom from my most punishing, exhausting and wasteful emotions, the ability to not be fazed by tragedy and loss, death and abandonment. Really, it sounds pretty good. Where do I sign up?"

If they had been thinking, they could have made the leaders' rhetoric pretty convincing, showing a world where everyone is productive, where science and human achievement are no longer hampered by bitterness, fear, political maneuvering, greed or selfishness. And all for the low, low price of your individual initiative, something we hardly ever use or think about anyway.

There certainly wouldn't be any need for this (admittedly pretty cool and scary) elite police force going around shooting the Emo kids and burning the Mona Lisa. No one would be Emo, and no one would care one way or another about the Mona Lisa. Frankly, I might almost be tempted to give up the Mona Lisa for a world without Emo. Don't you think it would be a really scary movie that played on that temptation, the one that makes me want to play along?

Would it be possible to write a film that invites the audience to join the Dark Side? To seduce them into agreeing that the real solution to all mankind's problems is to be found in this one little pill, and really, the last thing anyone really wants is the freedom to be miserable. Just eliminate free will and initiative, and all will be well.

Isn't that what we all want anyway?



Teresa B. said...


Even though I am not a long time reader - I do enjoy your posts and am glad to read of your return. Looking forward to viewing some of your artwork as well!

Pax Christi,

Anonymous said...

Come to Australia if you want to see a dystopic paradise.

A land of "sun-drenched, steak-fed vacuity" (my apologies to the source of this quote, I don't know the origins). No wonder the youth suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.

Anyway, this topic is one my husband and I often speak about. Just this morning on the way to work I wondered what would happen if this nation's citizens had the pacifiers of the welfare state, shopping, and sport suddenly taken from them. It would be ugly. But perhaps necessary to make people wake up to the hideous reality of a life lived without a spiritual compass.


Billy Bishop said...

Did you ever watch Serenity? Or the Firefly TV series? Good stuff!

They tried the "happiness pill" (a rose by any other name - and I'm trying not to give too much away) in Serenity. It backfired horribly. Which, given what you said about the attraction of dystopian movies, might be just what we as viewers hope would happen.

I'd also have to recommend the movie version of Fahrenheit 451 from 1966. They do a disturbingly good job of making the case against books in that movie. Books just stir up trouble and make people feel superior to one another. Don't read - watch your floor to ceiling TV instead. So, not a happiness pill per se, but rewriting of our mental software the old fashioned way, via argument.

The drama in Fahrenheit of course comes from those who resist, even if reluctantly. I'm not sure how to make the seductions of dystopia have the necessary conflicts to render them dramatic. We'd have to convince our protagonist - and probably the viewer - that dystopia was good. Wouldn't that make it utopia instead?

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Did I ever watch Serenity?!!

You're trying to recommend science fiction to me?

You must be new here, huh...

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi,Hilary Jane!

Hmmmm,dystopian movies or fiction? I can think of two very grim short stories by Poul Anderson treating this idea in somewhat different ways. They are: "Welcome," and "Murphy's Hall." The ending of "Welcome" gave me a real shock which I will not mention because it would be a spoiler. And "Murphy's Hall" is a grim, sophisticated parable of what the author thinks will happen if we keep on making the same old left wing socialist mistakes we all know too well.

Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

bridget said...

Personally, I wish that educators would explain how things here on earth can be so bad. Slavery in America was justified as a way to avoid starvation and grueling poverty, for master and slave alike. Communism and the desire for our own sense of "fairness" in this world lead to the gulags in Russia. This stuff did not appear out of nowhere, nor was it done just to be mean: there were often very gripping, persuasive reasons why people engaged in such brutality. A modern, enlightened culture is not free of those temptations (see "choice" being a rationalisation for child-murder).

Dystopian fiction just continues the trend of pretending that these sorts of things only happen in other cultures, or because other people are misguided or unenlightened.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Bridget:

I disagreed with what you said about dystopian fictions are set in other "cultures" or because other people are "misguided and unenlightened." Practically all the dystopian fictions I've read are set in scenarios where the culture is Western or at least Western derived. And that is true not only of the examples I cited above by Poul Anderson but also of other writers, such as the Draka stories of S.M. Stirling. I hardly need to point out how Orwell's 1984and Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD are also placed in Western or Western derived cultures.

Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

bridget said...

Mr. Brooks: I never said that dystopian fiction is set in non-Western cultures, so please explain how you arrived at the idea to put those particular words in my mouth.

Sean M. Brooks said...


Last paragraph of your first comment was how I came to think you had "other," non Western culures in mind.

Sean M. Brookster

bridget said...

That's quite a leap, Sean. It's an especially large leap for an American like myself, since we have many different cultures in this one country. Those who live in the Northeast sneer at the backwardness of the culture of those religious, chivalrous Southerners, as but one example.

I'm sorry, but I am getting the feeling that you are picking at me because you can, rather than because anything I've said merits such picking at.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Bridget!

I disagree, what you mentioned as regards the South or Northeast are only variations on what used to be a general, nation wide culture based on Anglo American culture, Christianity, Anglo American common law, the US Constitution, the English language, etc. To have opposing or contradictory cultures in the US is all too likely to LESSEN national unity.

Sean M. Brooks