A look at dystopian films

Aug. 15  saw the release of  the movie The Giver, based on Lois Lowry`s  young adult novel about a “perfect” society with a dark secret.  Much like zombies, films and books with a dystopian  theme  seem to be making a major comeback in recent years.   According to the Oxford online dictionary, a dystopia is defined as an “imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.”   Here is a rundown of several quality and influential movie dystopias.


1. Metropolis ( 1927).  This  German silent film classic  is about a future society in which the working poor spend their lives in dreary factories while the rich do nothing but party, basically what Karl Marx was always warning us about.   Things change when a lovely young woman named Maria tries to bring the classes together.

There`s a lot going on here, including Maria`s romance with Fredor, the son of an industrial magnate, and  the startling appearance of her robot double, who creates chaos among the workers.  The stark, joyless look of the movie`s city environment has influenced many other cinematic dystopias.   Also of note is the Maria robot, who may be the first fully sentient mechanical being in the movies.

2.   THX-1138 (1971).   Directed by George Lucas, THX-1138 is an expanded version of a short he originally did in film school.  It depicts one of our biggest fears:   the governing state controlling every aspect of human life, from where one works to who one lives with.   Everyone walks about with the same shaved head and clean white uniform.  Individual thinking of any type is discouraged, as hero THX ( Robert Duvall) finds out the hard way when he falls in love with his roomate  (Maggie McOmie).

The rest of the story follows his arrest and evantual escape from the domed city he lives in.   Although filmed in color, the movie has an interesting sterile look from its dominating color scheme of white.  This is really emphasized when THX is tortured by black-clad police.   Hard to see for years (I first saw it on late-night cable),  the film is now available for purchase and on Netflix.

3.Fahrenheit 451 (1966).   A colorful adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel that features a world where books are banned.  It`s important to note here that people can still read for practical reasons, but the government does not want them  getting into literature (“it just makes people sad”  says one character).  Instead, they`re encouraged to take legal pills, attend social events, and watch TV- a lot of TV.   In fact, the emphasis on everyone watching and endlessly discussing their favorites makes the movie seem disturbingly current.

Main character Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman, a member of an elite police force who searches for and burns illegal books.  One day, he decides to read one and his entire worldview is changed.  Much like THX-1138, the plot concerns an individual who wants to change or escape an oppressive state and his journey to that end.

4.  Logan`s Run(1976).  At first glance, there doesn`t appear to be much that`s “unpleasant or bad” in the society of Logan`s Run.  There`s no hunger or major illness, everyone is employed, and the citizens are encouraged to  seek pleasure of every type,  from sexual to drug-induced.  The catch is that it all ends when you turn 30, so that the state can control population and resources.  If a person tries to make a “run,” they`re hunted down by the Sandman police.

And that`s what Sandman Logan 5 (Michael  York) chooses to do.   With lovely Jessica (Jenny Agutter) by his side, he faces many obstacles as the pair attempt to leave their colorful but dangerous city.   Despite its  cheesy 70`s fashions, this film has aged remarkably well.  It isn`t afraid to ask the hard questions:  i.e.,  are comfort and security worth some sacrifices? Can a society have stability and freedom?

5.  1984 (1984).   Another book adaptation, this time of George Orwell`s modern classic about a ruthless totalitarian England.  The so-called “socialist” government in both the novel and film is actually a fascist one.  Citizens must put the nation of “Oceania” and its endless participation in a variety of wars above their own needs and passions.  Average man Winston Smith ( played perfectly by John Hurt) has the job of re-writing Oceania`s history, as the past is constantly erased to suit current policies.

Tragedy ensues for Smith and  idealistic young Julia ( Susanna Hamilton) when he begins to meet with O`Brian (Richard Burton). a man he believes to be linked with an anti-government group.  This film is very poignant, but it`s also quite accurate in its portrayal of what happens when nations lose sight of human values.

6.  Gattaca (1997).  Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) wants to be an astronaut more than anything.  However, this dream involves much more than hard work and education in his future world.   He`s an “in-valid, ” a person  who has been conceived without the benefit of genetic intervention.   It`s common practice to do this: parents select for traits like  intelligence, height, and even musical or academic ability.

This improved  procedure has radically transformed society.  “Valids” have their pick of professional jobs, “in-valids” do the menial work.  Vincent alters his life by posing as a valid: he buys genetic samples from Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a former athlete who was injured in an accident.   He gets a job at Gattaca Aerospace Corp. and prepares for an assignment as navigator on a trip to Saturn`s moon Titan, but a murder investigation delays the mission.

Gattaca is disturbing on several levels because it looks directly at the dark side of genetic science.   Improving the health and brightness of children sounds good, but the film depicts it as dividing society in a negative way.   The dystopia of Gattaca stems not from its government, but from scientific changes.  Like the other movies on this list, it provides an honest look at how such changes could affect us all.








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