On one level, dystopian films have a direct relationship with society. By their very definition, dystopian films present a negative representation of a future or alternate society. They are often mis-labeled as science fiction films because of their futuristic setting but although here are obvious similarities, their overriding artisticness is more closely united to another genre: film-noir. Stylistically, many dystopian films hark back to the darkest times in Western Society’s recent past; indirectly referringto the struggles of the depression, the oppression of totalitarian governments and the horrors of World War Two, reinvented into a fictionalized, dark future. More recently, post 9/11 fears have informed the ideas of dystopian films.
Wikipedia’s definition of ‘dystopia’ clearly illustrates this connection: A dystopia is any society considered to be undesirable and is most usually used to refer to a fictional (often near-future) society where current social trends are taken to nightmarish extremes. It is the second part of this definition that is particularity relevant to this essay –Dystopian films are inseparably connected to the society in which they are created, inducing a ‘nightmarish’ future by reflecting issues, concerns, fears or values that exist in the public consciousness of that particular society.
The central premise of these films is of a world gone mad, sometimes through the greed, ignorance or stupidity of man, sometimes though external influences. These dystopian worlds may be shaped my social, technological, medical, environmental, political or economic forces. Within this environment, there is (usually) an individual who realizes the flaw and tries to challenge or rectify it. Depending on the filmmaker and the viewing ‘market’, it will either end happily, with the protagonist victorious; or not. Wikipedia’s definition concludes that, “a dystopian all too closely connected to current-day society.” Three dystopian films, created in different societies at different times, all display the connection between society and genre, albeit in very different ways. These films are Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), Andrew Nichol’s Gattaca (1997) and Alfonzo Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006).
Metropolis is widely regarded as the first science fiction film, although it also can be seen as the blueprint for Dystopian films, Inspired by the skyline of 1920’s Manhattan, Lang created a throbbing, dystopian uber-city of the year 2000, where a decadent aristocracy thrives on the swear of laboring hoards underground. Filtered through both German Expressionism and Christian symbolism, this dark fairy tale pits man against machine, and the head against the heart. Metropolis can be easily read as a criticism of capitalism and the social and economic divisions in post WW1 Germany. Its resolution suggests a socialist solution, built on mutual respect and closer link between the ‘head’, and the ‘hands’ . An economically depressed post World War one German society, including an ambitious politician, Adolf Hitler, certainly identified this story with their own lives.
Ironically, Jewish Lang’s criticism of the ranked nature of German society and how the downtrodden masses in the city of Metropolis turn quickly to violence is a visionary vision of the rise of fascism. The ideas behind Metropolis were drawn from contemporary German society, although it was Lang’s visit to New York in 1924 that inspired his city of the future. He described this first real metropolis as, “a street as if in full daylight lit by neon lights and topping them, oversized, luminous advertisements, moving, turning, flashing on and off, spiraling…the buildings seemed to be a vertical veil, shimmering almost weightless, a luxurious cloth hung from the dark sky to dazzle. “From this impression, Land and his designers shaped their futuristic city by blending of all the latest artistic trends, of which Germany was at the forefront: Art Deco, Surrealism and Expressionism. Here we see society’s influence on this work.
Another important cinematic technological advancement was the revolutionary special effects of Eugen Schüfftan, who created advanced visual displays widely acclaimed in following years. Among the effects used are miniatures of the city, a camera on a swing, and most notably, the so-called Schüfftan process, the use of models and mirrors to create the illusion of varying scale, later also used by men such as Peter Jackson in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scene where Rotwang creates the robot Hel in Maria’s likeness still amazes as a masterpiece of special effects, as well as commenting on the possible negative effects of technology when placed in the wrong hands.
Mid to early 20th century Dystopian fiction/films were largely concerned with totalitarian governments, faceless bureaucracy, surveillance and control issues. They were a reflection of the political chaos of the middle of the century, where World War Two, the advent of the Cold War and other global conflicts threatened the democratic way of life. Films such as On the Beach and Forbidden Planet all referenced the growing conflict between the Soviet Union and the USA, and the threat of ‘alien’ invasion and nuclear holocaust.
New Zealand director Andrew Nicols Gattaca is set in a near-future America where, non-enhanced babies are born only to the poor and the sexually reckless. Those who can afford it consult with a genetic technician before initiating a pregnancy, and select their future child’s traits for optimum success: sex, life expectancy, intelligence, and appearance. Children with pre-selected genes are classified at birth as “Valids.” They are the ruling elite, eligible for top careers and entitled to high social status. “In-Valids” labor at unskilled jobs with no way up or out. Clearly, the ideas of genetic selection has direct links to the ‘unlocking’ of the DNA Genome (Gattaca itself is named after the letters used in describing DNA) and the explosion of gene science taking place in the late ‘90’s.
Gattaca acts as a warning to western society about this fast-advancing area of science, and where it could all lead. The film celebrates the stubbornness and cunningness of Vincent, an In-Valid, with a serious heart defect who defeats his genetically superior brother and the ‘system’ through determination and belief. Gattaca is a celebration of the triumph of human spirit over a pre-ordained existence. Like many other mainstream dystopian films, Gattaca’s narrative construct follows an individual’s struggle and victory against ‘the system,’ offering hope over defeat for its audience.
It seems that most Dystopian films are aim to frighten and provoke. And what makes these films, and this genre work, is their ability to tap into the ideas and beliefs of contemporary society. As a rule, the more realistic and alarming a dystopia is, the more frightening and provoking it is. One such recent film that explores the possibilities and probabilities of its society’s future is Alfonzo Cuaron’s Children of Men. The 2007 film set in 2027 shows that for the past 18 years, no humans have been born, due to some medical disaster. It is the end of the human race and civilization has collapsed, apart from in Britain, where the film is set.
However, to keep a semblance of order, draconian laws control who may stay in Britain…shades of pre-war Germany, where fear of outsiders is used to control the populated. What makes this film so plausible is not necessarily the plot but world that has been created around the characters and storyline. There are references to post 9/11 America and their government’s ‘Homeland Security Bill’, where the removal of freedoms by the government are justified for the greater good. This always leads to “the Uprising” of the deprived and downtrodden. Curaon populates this world with a present-day who’s who of ‘pressure groups’, which allow the audience to make connections with society. Like all dystopian films, Children of Men show how those things that already exist in our society could lead to if left unchallenged.
Regardless of when these films are made, they take contemporary concerns of the society in which they are created and take them to a nightmarish conclusion. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s summaries of dystopian films do not point toward alternate reality, they simply make reality more that what it already is. The nightmare that we are expecting is here. This is a genre that has captured the imagination of the filmmakers and audiences alike as it is in our nature to speculate on where the events of today will lead. It is the creativity and imagination of the filmmakers that will determine how successful their vision is.