Monday, September 26, 2011

Dystopia and 20th Century Science Fiction Film

by G. Jack Urso

Dystopia: noun an imaginary place or society in which everything is bad.
                                                      Compact Oxford English Dictionary (2003)


When Sir Thomas Moore published his magnum opus Utopia in 1516, the concept of creating a perfect society has compelled countless individuals to ease the plight of our common existence by striving for an ideal of a harmonious balance between our physical and spiritual needs. From Jesus Christ to Karl Marx, as Tantalus was forever tempted in the pit of Tartarus, the utopia has long been the tantalizing fruit forever hanging just outside our reach.

To a greater degree, the concept of the dystopia fascinates us even more than the utopia, and it is no wonder. After all, humanity is so much more adept at creating the imperfect and inflicting it upon others.

The American and French Revolutions were both attempts to create a political utopia, yet both were marred; the Americans retained slavery in their new egalitarian paradise and the French Revolution soon descended into tyranny and oppression.

The European Revolutions of 1848 were an uncoordinated, but passionate expression of the desire for a restructuring of the political order on more equal terms between the rulers and the ruled. It is no surprise then to find that Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto in February of the same year. Nevertheless, the chaos and death that followed in the wake of those struggles resulted in little measurable gain for the common person. The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.

In an abstract way, the American Civil War can be viewed as yet another struggle in humanity’s stretching towards utopia. Slavery was a curse on the American utopian promise that “All men are created equal,” so the war was akin to kicking the devil out of paradise. The American model, however, was once again subverted by the nation’s complete elimination of the sovereignty of the Native American nations following the Civil War. The devil, it seems, is quite at home in paradise, or at least in a split-level ranch  house on the American plains.

The most ardent political expression of man’s reach for utopia came with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. Though now regarded as failed experiment, for much of the 20th century the former U.S.S.R. was seen as a dystopic success, threatening the freedoms of individuals and nations alike. The long shadow of the Soviet dystopia has cast its influence on such films as Metropolis, A Clockwork Orange, THX 1138, Logan’s Run, 1984, Brave New World, and Brazil, to name just a few.

Why Sci-Fi?

The genre of science fiction film provides the perfect medium to explore the concept of the dystopia. The film versions of the original written works often vary, and while some may decry any detour from the printed page, the needs of the visual medium often connect the audience with the current cultural zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, in more ways than a novel, which is often rooted in the singular vision of the author. Because film is a collaborative effort, the end result can be more expressive of the anxieties and hopes of a particular generation.

The dystopia also found a home in science fiction film because topics that were otherwise avoided in film and TV in the early to mid-20th century, such as racism, classism, war, capitalism, and socialism, could be slipped into science fiction without drawing the attention of the censors.


Metropolis, director Fritz Lang’s 1927 visionary silent film, presents a very European view of dystopia in the wake of the World War I. Those who run the city the aristocracy  inhabit the airy heights of the great city, enjoying every advantage of technology and recreation that the leisure class provides its members. Indeed, in many respects, the city, at least above ground, is very much a post-modern utopia.

In the film, there is a gap between rich and poor that is wide and dangerous.  The riches of the city are built upon the backs of the great masses of workers, who plod like automatons to their jobs, which consist of mind-numbing repetitive tasks. The workers slave away maintaining the great M-Machine, which powers the city.

Despite the great advances of the future, the conflict within Metropolis is ancient and timeless. Freder, the son of the city manager Joh Fredersen, lives in the city’s tallest skyscraper, referred to as the New Tower of Babel, but is drawn into the underground dystopia when he sees Maria, a young schoolteacher, and falls in love. Following her below ground, Freder is exposed to the ugly underbelly of the great city for the first time. There, he sees the M-Machine, which explodes, killing many workers. Freder interprets this as an analogue to a human sacrifice to the ancient god Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children ("Moloch").

While man’s tools have advanced, spiritually we are still stunted  sacrificing ourselves to appease materialistic gods created in our own image.

Fredersen and the scientist Rotwang follow Freder underground, each for reasons of their own, and hear Maria give a lesson to her students about the ancient Tower of Babel. The connection between the ancient and the new Tower of Babel is not lost on Fredersen, who fears a revolt. The implication of Maria’s lesson is that that the great city, like the Tower of Babel of old, was constructed in an attempt reach God, or at least emulate divinity, and in doing so may share the same fate. Combined with the symbolism of the death of the workers in a sacrifice to the great technological Moloch, the future represented by Metropolis is linked with our ancient past, creating a mirror image that compels us to ask how far we really have come.

One single image that stands out in the film Metropolis is that of the robot, the machine-man, who is transformed into a doppelganger of Maria by Rotwang. Fredersen wants the machine-man, disguised as Maria, to act as an agent-provocateur against the workers, who are uniting against him. Rotwang, however, bearing an old grudge against Fredersen, also sets the machine-man/Maria loose against the upper classes, seducing the sons of the rich in one scene where, overcome by their passion and jealousy, they kill each other. Then, the machine-man/Maria ferments revolt among the workers, an act which nearly results in the death of their children. Rotwang seeks to destroy the great city by killing its future, the children of Metropolis.

The machine-man is unthinking, doing only what it has been programmed to do. If technology turns on us, it is only because we have given it the power to do so. That is the great truth behind Metropolis.

Things to Come

H.G. Wells' science fiction classic, Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies, debuted in 1936, just prior to World War II. Indeed, the film starts off in the then not-too-distant future of 1940, with Europe on the eve of war (in real life, the war began in 1939). A decades-long war devastates the world and plunges the world into a dark age. The sick are rounded up and killed. Valuable sources of fuel become the focus of a new government/civilization dubbed “Wings Over the World,” whose capital is in Basra, Iraq. Iraq, known until 1932 as the British Mandate of Mesopotamia, is not only a source of oil, but also the very beginnings of human civilization thousands of years ago, so its significance has a double meaning.

In their underground cities, Wings Over the World brings peace and technological advances to humanity, but at a breakneck speed. The masses react, much as they do in Metropolis, violently, and in protest against the great Moloch, technology. Indeed, as with the M-Machine in Metropolis, the masses in Things to Come see themselves as being sacrificed on the altar of progress. Despite the longer life spans, and lives of leisure, technology has not brought them happiness. Nevertheless, progress is a force of nature; one can no more stop it than one can stop the world from spinning. The stakes are high; as we strive towards utopia towards "happiness"  every step closer also brings us one step nearer to dystopia.

The apex of technology in the movie is reached in the year 2036 with the launch of the first spaceship to the moon. Those opposed to progress see the spaceship as a symbol of everything about the pace of technology they despise and seek to slow things down by sabotaging the launch. Their plans, however, are thwarted by the head of the government, Cabal, who launches the spaceship before it can be destroyed, thus assuring humanity’s continuing push towards the future.

Cabal ends the movie, justifying his decision, saying, "And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing . . . Which shall it be?"

It is a question we still ask ourselves today.

Things to Come (1936), from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel.
Buck Rogers

Buck Rogers has his origins in Armageddon 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan, which first appeared in the August 1928 issue of the pulp magazine Amazing Stories; however, it is the 1939 Universal movie serial that brought him lasting fame. It is noteworthy because the post-apocalyptic dystopia it presents is ruled by a criminal syndicate, reflecting the public’s fears in the wake of the violent rise of urban street gangs after World War I.

Buck’s value to the future is that he is a man from the past. In Things to Come, the people feared progress because it further removed them from the past, while the character Buck Rogers comes from the past to save the future.  Buck, however, does not reject technology; instead, he uses it to his advantage. Buck Rogers suggests it is not technology that destroys humanity, but rather humanity itself. Only humanity can destroy itself, and only humanity can save itself by keeping in touch with the values of the past. Essentially, a very conservative viewpoint, but as the world stood on the brink of the atomic age and global war in 1939 it would do well to remember the lessons of Buck Rogers in the 25th century.

Into the 1970s and Beyond . . .

The films THX 1138 (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), and Brave New World (1980 TV production), all express the era’s growing concerns about population growth, drug use, and free love. Monogamous sexual relationships between individuals are frowned upon, if not outright banned, in the aforementioned dystopias. In Logan's Run, people have numbers for last names, removing signs of allegiance to any, but the state. For more information on Logan's Run, please visit the Aeolus 13 Umbra article Beyond the Dome: A Critical Analysis of Logan’s Run

In THX 1138, individuals are further reduced to letter/number designations, as in the title character's name; sexual relationships are criminal (unlike Logan's Run and Brave New World), libido-suppressing drugs are mandatory, and the consumption of material goods almost a religion, as evident in the film’s mantra, “Buy more. Buy more now. Buy, and be happy.” 
George Lucas's student film version of THX-1138, later made into a feature film, 
from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel.

This type of hyper-consumerism is also a key feature in Brave New World, where we encounter the phrase "spending is better than mending" state propaganda supporting a command economy. One wonders, does Madison Avenue do any different?

Another common element in these films is that human beings are artificially conceived as a means of population control, not only in numbers, but on the individual level as well. Perfectly designed societies with perfectly designed people, but for what purpose other than to support the state? Why are we here? What is our purpose in life? These childlike questions haunt the protagonists.

The fear inherent in these films is that as technology improves our lives, we will lose our individuality. We will commit ourselves to serve the state and its aims in exchange for services that cater to our most primal instincts.

The Lathe of Heaven, the 1980 TV film based on the 1971 novel by Ursula Le Guin, also features a technologically advanced, dystopian future where the world struggles with overpopulation, pollution, poverty, drug abuse, insufficient food supplies, plague, and war in the Middle East. The protagonist, George Orr, has the ability to dream changes to reality — essentially, to create new “utopias.” Whatever he dreams, becomes reality. It’s a power George doesn’t want, but under the guide of the ambitious psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, it is put to use in creating various utopias as the doctor tries to create the perfect world. 

Utopia, however, has a dark side. George dreams of a solution to overpopulation with a plague that kills billions. World unity is achieved, but only after George conjures up the classic alien invasion. Racism is solved by turning everyone's skin color the same  gray. Our highest aspirations as a species are thwarted by our very own natures, our dreams fall victim to our nightmares, and our paradises have serpents in the garden (for more discussion about this film, please visit my other essay, Aeolus13 Umbra: The Lathe of Heaven: The Film That Sci-Fi (Almost) Forgot).

The Lathe of Heaven (1980), from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel.

1984 and Brazil

1984, George Orwell’s definitive novel of the dystopia, was first filmed in 1956, directed by Michael Anderson and starring Edmund O’Brian and Michael Redgrave. The novel is a depressing read, to say the least, and the movie’s film noir approach brings out the bleakness that is pervasive in the book. Orwell gives us only a limited view into the dystopic world of Winston Smith as, in the film, all the information about his world is passed to us through Oceania’s official propaganda and Smith’s own tortured mind. 

1984 (1956 film version), from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

The 1984 remake of the film, directed by Michael Radford and starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, was filmed over the same period of time as many of the events in the novel, April to June 1984. What we learn in 1984 is not the actual mechanism of a dystopian state, but rather the effects of a totalitarian, faceless, political system on the human spirit. We never meet Big Brother for he may not even exist. Indeed, Oceania may have no single leader. The fear and oppression that controls the masses originates from the masses themselves. Big Brother does not oppress us; instead, it is the collective effort of individuals reduced to the most primal states of self-preservation in a technologically advanced society.

Brazil, Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film, takes much of the basic premise of 1984 and injects a combination of satire, parody, and farce into the genre. Gilliam explores the pervasiveness of political totalitarianism in a world where people’s lives are consumed with pointless bureaucracy, as evident in the protagonist Sam Lowery’s ongoing struggle to get the air conditioning in his flat fixed.  Sam’s epiphany that one can fight an oppressive regime comes through the heroics of Archibald Harry Tuttle, air conditioning repairman, whose technical skill, combined with his inside knowledge on how to take shortcuts through the bureaucracy, makes him the bane of civil servants everywhere.

It is literally a “fly in the ointment” that is the catalyst in Brazil. A fly caught in machinery at the Ministry of Information causes a computer system error which results in the death of an innocent man, Archibald Harry Buttle, who is mistaken for Archibald Harry Tuttle, who the state regards as a terrorist. Because no one is responsible for the error, no one takes responsibility to rectify it. Dystopia in Brazil is not the result of epic political oppression, but rather of common, everyday banality. The devil in this dystopia is literally in the details.

Unlike 1984, the totalitarian government of Brazil has no Big Brother and ultimately that is the sad truth behind those films. We have no need for the iron fist of a brutal dictator to lead us into hell when our basic instincts take us there willing.

Does Not Compute

The political nature of dystopia is essentially conservative. Whether it is the Spartan socialist existence in 1984, or the drug-fueled hedonism of Logan’s Run and Brave New World, these societies refuse progress and change. As they believe they have reached the pinnacle of civilization, the possibility of change threatens the validity of their existence.

There is an assumption with the 20th century science-fiction dystopia that technology will be the tool which enslaves us, accessed by a select few, and controlling many. In Rollerball (1975), where the dystopia is run by corporations, computers are available only to the elite, and only with special permission. Rather than making texts available directly, they are instead only summarized and made available via computer at a central library; however, the digitalization of all books can lead to accidents like losing an entire century worth of information. 

Computers are in control in THX 1138, Logan’s Run, and Brave New World, but not used at the individual level as they are today.

In Fahrenheit 451, the 1966 film based on the Ray Bradbury novel, computers must certainly be used at the state-level, but as books are banned what purpose could personal computers possibly serve except to undermine the state? In the film, we see banal entertainment programs layered with values clarification questions directed at individual viewers, whose responses are evaluated for any deviant tendencies. Computer sophistication must be very high in the world of Fahrenheit 451, but at the personal level, the individual has no control over such devices, rather they control you.

It is here, in the use of the personal computer, that our cinematic prognosticators of the dystopia in 20th century science fiction film underestimated both human invention and the human spirit.

Rollerball (1975) trailer, from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube Channel.

Yes, on one hand, these dystopias do accurately foretell many aspects of the human preoccupation with material consumption, our tendency towards overpopulation, polluting our environment, and ignoring the consequences. We create massive bureaucratic systems responsible for literally almost everything in our society, but for which no one is personally responsible, since no one person runs it. This creates a distance between the acts of the state and the culpability of those who carry out its directives. It allows us to be complicit in the crimes of the dystopia without bearing any personal responsibility.

Humanity, however, is anything but predictable. The personal computer, the Internet, and cell phone provided the communications infrastructure for the Arab Spring and the Wall Street protests of 2011. Today, we can access music, film, books, and magazines, at a level that would have been cost-prohibitive just a generation ago. The fear of the 20th century dystopia that computers will somehow enslave us, both has and has not come true. Certainly, they are integrated into almost every aspect of our lives, but they also empower and enrich individuals on a personal level that could not have been foreseen.

When computers were large and expensive and in the hands of the state their applications in war and mass control were preordained. Ironically, it was the economic free market and individuals like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, among many others, who made computers affordable and accessible to the everyday person. Rather than being only a means of control, the computer has also become a means of personal empowerment, and these two forces are forever linked.

The Soviet experiment failed and an unexpected wave of independence swept through Eastern Europe, but with dire economic results. Chinese communism is swiftly taking on a capitalist flavor, but political repression remains strong. Long-time authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have been toppled by spontaneous popular revolts organized by iPhone, even as the long arm of ultra-orthodox religious extremism maintains a firm hold.

Despite our better efforts, we will forever be caught in that shadowy world between utopia and dystopia, as the very act of drawing closer to one repels us towards the other. 

Works Cited 

“Dystopia.” The Oxford Compact English Dictionary, Second
              Edition, Revised. Oxford, New York: Oxford University
              Press, 2003. Print.

1984. Dir. Michael Anderson. Perf. Edmond O’Brien, Michael
              Redgrave, and Jan Sterling. Columbia Pictures. 1956. Film.

1984. Dir. Michael Radford. Perf. John Hurt, Richard Burton, and
              Suzanna Hamilton. Atlantic Releasing 20th Century Fox.
              1984. Film.

Brave New World. Dir. Burt Brinckerhoff. Perf. Julie Cobb, Bud
              Kort, and Keir Dullea. 1980. Television. 

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Jonathan Tryce, Robert De Niro, and
              Katherine Helmond. Universal Studios (US). 1985. Film.

Buck Rogers. Dir. Ford Beebe and Saul A Goodkind. Perf. Buster
              Crabbe, Constance Moore, and Jackie Moran. Universal
              Pictures. 1939. Film (serial).

Fahrenheit 451. Dir. François Truffaut. Perf. Julie Christie, Oskar
              Werner, and Cyril Cusack. Universal Pictures. 1966. Film.

Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. Perf. Michael York, Richard
              Jordan, and Jenny Agutter. United Artists. 1976. Film.

Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Perf. Bridgette Helm, Alfred Abel, and
              Gustav Fröhlich. UFA. 1927. Film.

“Moloch.” The Oxford Compact English Dictionary, Second Edition,
              Revised. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Rollerball. Dir. Norman Jewison. Perf. James Caan, John
              Houseman, and Maud Adams. United Artists. 1975. Film.

The Lathe of Heaven. Dir. David Loxton and Fred Barzyk. Perf.
              Bruce Davidson, Kevin Conway, and Margaret Avery. 1980.

Things to Come. Dir. William Cameron Menzies. Perf. Raymond
              Massey, Ralph Richarson, and Cedric Hardwicke. United
              Artists. 1936. Film.

THX 1138. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Robert Duvall, Donald
              Pleasence, and Maggie McOmie. Warner Brothers. 1971.