In the dark and distant future, in a world of oppression and destruction, a chosen one must rise up against a corrupt totalitarian government and save the world. This has become a familiar story on our screens in recent years, with films like the Hunger Games, Snowpiercer and Mad Max: Fury Road all coming out within the last 5 years and depicting our future as a dystopian hell-scape with an all powerful government or corrupt leader subjugating the masses. If this is how we are imagining our future to be, what does that say about our present?
Of course, a dark and depressing future is not exactly a new feature to film. Metropolis, a film about a seemingly idyllic city with a dark secret was set in 2027 and uses the futuristic setting to investigate contemporary issues. Made in Germany in the late 1920s, it examined themes of mass-production, industrialization and the emphasis of machinery and manufacture over the workers. The film was even criticized for its communist ideas when it was originally released.
Films are a very good way for examining and addressing present day anxieties by taking them to their logical extreme. The Matrix was released in 1999, when the Internet was just taking off. So the Matrix shows us what the Internet could become: an all-encompassing network that would enslave us. And although it may sound a bit silly, in the late 90s the Internet and technology was moving rapidly but there wasn’t yet the mass Internet culture we know and love today. It was a big scary thing of untapped potential or horror, exemplified by the fears of the Y2k bug, which could exploit our over-reliance of technology for disastrous effects. The Matrix used film to explore these issues, as the contemporary reality of a world on the cusp of the digital revolution meant that the themes and ideas displayed felt more relevant and important.
And now just look at Mad Max: Fury Road. It presents a desolate environment, where, after humans have exploited and used up the earth for resources, they turn to other people for supplies. Whether it be through Max as a human blood bag, the Wives as baby makers or even the cultist War Boys as cannon fodder, Fury Road presents a world where human bodies are nothing more than objects to be harvested and exploited for the benefit of those in power. In a world where body autonomy is constantly up for discussion, in particular through reproductive rights, and workers’ labour is being exploited through zero-contract hours or unpaid internships, Fury Road feels extremely relevant.The culture of consumerism set against a desert with limited resources acts as a warning of what may happen if we allow the world to be destroyed through greed. When Angharad asks “Who killed the world?” she’s not just addressing the war boys, she’s addressing the audience, telling us ‘this is what could happen’. Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t just talking about a distant future, it gives a warning that this is happening now, just on a less extreme scale. By examining and exaggerating these issues through the dystopian society, the film can draw attention to what’s happening right now, and make people more aware of the seriousness of real world issues.
Dystopian films can also show how our society’s values have changed. Whereas films like The Matrix focused on the Chosen White Male who must overcome and revolt against the system, more recent films actually try and put oppressed minorities at their center of their own liberation. The Hunger Games stars Katniss, a woman (who in the books implied to be a woman of colour) fighting against a violent government and systematic oppression and becoming the figurehead of the revolution. Snowpiercer has Chris Evans as the male hero who leads the revolution but in the end is shown to be just as able to continue the system as those in charge, and a woman of colour instead being the one to reform society. More recent dystopian films seem to focus more on expanding these stories of revolution against a corrupt government to include those in society who are actually oppressed, rather than co-opting present day oppression into a metaphor for white men.
Dystopian films are always going to be a commentary on the present and its issues, so they can be a really interesting look at how we view our current situation. Often they bring a message of hope, ending in revolution with the corrupt system being destroyed and our heroes triumphing over evil. Although real life oppression is a bit more difficult to defeat, these films remind us that no matter how dark the world gets, we will be able to overcome it.