Catching up on an old episode of The Matineecast got me thinking about movies set in dystopian futures. Ryan referred to dystopias that are not that far in the future, and via the movie Pleasantville (1998) he and his guest Sasha James Talked about how a nostalgic view of America in the 1950’s could be a dystopia for people from the present day. My first thought was that we could now be living in what would be the dystopian future that people in the 50’s feared. With dwindling natural recourses, and rising costs, losses of civil liberties and an over reliance on technology coupled with the threat of war and terrorism, we are probably closer to dystopia than utopia. With this in mind I have avoided movies set in an unrecognisable world to concentrate on dystopias that are not that different to the real world.
Movies like Gattaca (1997), V for Vendetta (2005) and In Time (2011) exist in a society that has adopted practices that oppress the masses and it is through rebellion that people are able to find a better life. There are other films like1984 (1984), Brazil (1985) and Code 46 (2003) that revel in their desperation and futility by pulling rug from under the hero, and the audience with it. Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Children of Men (2006) find a happy balance where the despair is tempered by a glimmer of hope. The brilliance of Fahrenheit 451 the way we see a character comes to distrust what he has been taught to believe in and chooses to fight the system from within. We see a similar idea explored in the interesting if a little overrated Equilibrium (2002), set in a society where emotions are outlawed it also explores what it is to be human. Both these ideas are explored in the underrated and misunderstood RoboCop (1987). In there own way the characters in Rollerball (1975) and Death Race 2000 (1975). This is very different from District 13 (2004) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) whose protagonists are and remain outsiders. An interesting case is The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) whose main protagonists desire is only to escape the system but her desires bring her into the sphere of those who are trying to change things.
When you mention Mad Max many people think of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, in some ways the best film in the trilogy, but the original low budget Mad Max is actually equally as good in its own way. Set in a near future world were society is crumbling and law & order has begun to break down people will do what it takes to keep moving to stay on the road. It was relevant in its day but it has found new relevance in recent years. If we think about the glue that holds society together, it is not fear of prosecution, but a moral belief of right and wrong, if you take that bond away the world as we know it will crumble. We see the early days of this in Mad Max, and the subtlety with which this idea is displayed within a violent revenge thriller is why it is possibly the best dystopian movie. This breakdown of society is in the background of neo-noir Trouble in Mind (1985) and retro-future comic book inspired Streets of Fire (1984) but lacks the despair of Mad Max. The other movie that perfectly depicts society at a tipping point is Strange Days (1995). Made in the mid 90’s with LA’s troubles fresh in the memory and set just five years in the future, now more than a decade in the past, some would argue the world is a worse place now than what was depicted. Given the reality TV obsession of the last dozen years and current distrust of media and governments, The Running Man (1987) now seems strangely prophetic. Battle Royale covers some of the same ground but is all the more shocking in the way it casts children against society.
It is human nature to try and change and shape society, but some movies have taken this to an extreme. By travelling back in time from a dystopian future to change the present and reshape the future, their present. This is handled in different ways in different movies, the hero of Twelve Monkeys (1995) is haunted by memories of his own death and with it his failure to save the future. Millennium (1989) takes a different point of view as the characters from the future battle to hide the existence in the present through fear that it will change and potentially destroy the future with the effects of the paradox of time travel. While Millennium is afraid of the effects of paradox, The Terminator (1984) exists within a paradox. It is only within an effort to kill the hero who can save the world that he is conceived. The one thing all these movies have in common is the way they only give us glimpses of the dystopian future, a future created in the present.
One thing that is clear, there are as many differences as there are similarities within the genre, but the movies that are the best and that age the best are the ones that have a deeper relevance. This can be an overt plot, a subtle subtext or just a theme that anchors the story in reality.