When I was but a wee lad I found the term ‘dystopia’ confusing. I knew that it referred to a fictional place, usually futuristic, but I also thought that said place needed to contain dinosaurs to be considered ‘dystopian’. Some time later, when I was a little less wee, to my great embarrassment a friend pointed out to me that Jurassic Park did not qualify as a film in the dystopian genre. From then on, the word was tainted.
To avoid the possibility of you having to live through such an occurrence, here’s a good definition of the term in question:
‘Dystopia: noun: An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.’
When referring directly to films, the word is usually attributed to imagined worlds that are set in some kind of pessimistic vision of the future. As the above definition points out, these worlds are usually suffering from some kind of environmental degradation or totalitarian rule, and often a combination of the two. Examples of dystopian films include: Logan’s Run (1976), Blade Runner (1982), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Idiocracy (2006), 1984 (1984, yep), Escape From New York (1981), Metropolis (1927), and Children of Men (2006). That may seem like an unnecessarily long list, but in truth I’ve had to leave out a whole host of classics; I’d need a separate article to list them all. Clearly, the dystopia genre is an important one; four of the above films are on the IMDB top 250, and there’s a bunch more on that auspicious list that would come under the ‘dystopian’ label.
So why is it that these films, which are so full of bleak and stark views of mankind’s future, have often done well on initial release, and have sometimes even gone on to be seen as genre classics? Two reasons spring to mind: 1. We like to see protagonists conflict with authority, 2. We desire originality.
Initially, let’s put the first point into another context – if there is one figure who has consistently embodied this idea, it would have to be the supremely lukewarm and perennially disappointing Tim Henman. Throughout his playing career we knew that had next to no chance of succeeding, and yet we donned our Henman shirts and roared ‘come on Tim!’ until we were hoarse, right up until the inevitable letdown. This oppressive nature of Tim Henman’s failure to win a Grand Slam could be likened to a dystopian authority, and yet he kept trying, never giving up the idea that he might one day achieve his dreams; that is why we loved him. We wanted Henman to win so badly that we would have marauded onto the court and played ourselves if it would have helped. Thankfully, when Henman hung up his trainers we could all breathe a collective sigh of relief, knowing that the oppression was over. There is the small matter of his BBC commentary… but, tennis-metaphors aside, one thing we like about characters in certain dystopian films is that they never just accept the norm, choosing instead to forge their own futures, whether successfully or not. Let’s think about the character of Logan from Logan’s Run…
Tennis-themed uprising aside, let’s think about Michael York’s character Logan in Logan’s Run. In a world where no-one lives beyond their thirtieth birthday, but instead are “reborn” in a bizarre ritual called ‘Carousel’, Logan rises against conventional wisdom and decides to ‘run’, i.e. to attempt to escape his pre-determined fate. Instantly our mind conjures images of fascist repression and we get onside with Logan. It’s also got quite an anti-religious feel to it; ‘Carousel’ is discredited before it even gets a chance to defend itself, and it’s made clear that the reality of Logan’s Run is the reality we are familiar with. So why set it in the future? Why not just pick some government we don’t like, set it on Earth as we know it and have a pop at Christianity along the way? There are several reasons for this, but one of them is definitely that we admire a bit of originality. Another reason is that you’re far less likely to offend anyone if you merely imply these ideas; the religious fascists can chose to ignore any metaphors, and the rest of us can feel all smug and empowered.
Dystopian films make up a large proportion of the Science Fiction genre, but why do we like to look at the future as such a desolate entity? The truth is, if we imagined realities where everything is peaceful and fair, then where would we fit in the heroes? Given the choice, our futures would be filled with pleasantness and harmony, rather than fascist regimes and misery. However, thankfully, our stories don’t need to be anywhere near as sterile and nice. In a way, dystopian films serve not only as escapism, but as a warning about our future too.