16 September 2014

Dystopia Goes to Hollywood

When political writers such as Huxley, Zamyatin and Orwell first developed the dystopian genre of fiction, it marked the beginning of an intellectual movement to alert the world to societal trends which, if left unchecked, could take us all into an irrevocable nightmare. Now tales of dystopia have become mainstream screen entertainment. Is that good news or bad?

In the last decade (2005-2014), there have been one or more major dystopian films released every year. We have selected a dozen to see what they have to say about the socio-political dangers lying in wait for us:
2014 Divergent
2013 Elysium
2012 The Hunger Games
2011 In Time
2011 Atlas Shrugged
2010 Book of Eli
2009 The Road
2008 Blindness
2007 I Am Legend
2006 Children of Men
2006 V for Vendetta
2005 The Island

These films fall broadly into three categories. The first is about government becoming too over-bearing and resistance is called for to put an end to its transgression. These include:
‘Divergent’: people are divided into artificial groups based on their dispositions, and those who do not fit into a pre-determined group have a precarious existence.
‘Atlas Shrugged’: hard-working business people are threatened with excessive taxes and regulations, and decide they will go on strike.
‘Children of Men’: government has become so controlling in managing dwindling resources as the human race can no longer reproduce.
‘V for Vendetta’: government acts without constraint and seeks to crush any dissident voice with ruthless oppression, and a rebel leader rises to destroy it.

All these films suggest we should not allow any government, with its monopoly in the use of legally-sanctioned coercive force, to go beyond acceptable boundaries. But while they dwell on the spirit of resistance, they are much less clear about the rationale for opposing the government. Of course governments should not arbitrarily divide people or impose impossible burdens on businesses. But for public safety, governments do on certain occasions have to segregate people who pose a threat to others’ lives. And even the most ardent laissez-faire advocates would admit that leaving businesses alone without any regulatory framework is hardly likely to bring about the best of all possible worlds. A government which abuses its power should indeed be restrained or even overthrown, but what counts as crossing the line and what amounts to appropriate counter-moves are precisely the key factors to consider. Sometimes the true dystopian nightmare begins when a government is simply swept away with no collective and democratic alternative to take its place.

This takes us to the second category of recent dystopian films, all of which are concerned with the collapse of government when civilised rule is displaced by pervasive vulnerability in the midst of lawless chaos. These cover:
‘Book of Eli’: only a determined few can stand up against the strong who will exploit and even crush others in the absence of any government to protect the public good.
‘The Road’: a few individuals may heroically try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where others are roaming around to hunt people for food.
‘Blindness’: when nearly everyone has gone blind suddenly, anarchy breaks out and nobody can feel safe anywhere.
‘I Am Legend’: a mutated virus has wiped out most people and turned many into cannibalistic predators, and one survivor looks to escape to an improbable sanctuary.

The unifying theme here is the horror that would envelop us if some disaster should result in the total collapse of government, leaving people with no protection from thoughtless attackers, and no basis for determining or enforcing justice. These films effectively convey the sense of unremitting crisis that would ensue, but unlike John Wyndham’s dystopian classic, ‘The Day of the Triffids’ (which anticipated the plot of ‘Blindness’), they neglect to show how, beyond surviving against the immediate trials of the post-apocalyptic situation, the only long term hope rests with rebuilding some form of viable government.

So far, we are warned to be ever vigilant both against allowing government to act irresponsibly and allowing government to collapse irrevocably. The third category of recent dystopian films turn their attention to what contemporary governments should urgently address if societies are not to fall apart. These include:
‘Elysium’: the superrich have taken off with the resources they have amassed and literally left the poor behind on a dysfunctional planet.
‘The Hunger Games’: the superrich have their life of abundant luxury in their own district while others are made to live in utterly impoverished areas.
‘In Time’: the superrich can extend their life span with a ‘time’ currency while the poor are short-changed and programmed to die young.
‘The Island’: the superrich have clones of themselves made, and the clones are killed when their body parts need to be harvested to rejuvenate the wealthy ‘originals’.

The recurring theme of these films echoes what many political theorists and economists have been highlighting: if a wealthy elite is allowed to become so much richer and hence more powerful than everyone else in society, the corrosive inequalities will leave everyone else at their arbitrary mercy. Apart from ensuring it does not abuse its powers, and maintaining the basic infrastructure for general security and public services, a government has a crucial role to play in preventing one group of citizens from exercising de facto dictatorship over all others by virtue of their concentrated wealth.

Some may be disappointed that dystopian films dwell on atmosphere and effects too much at the expense of telling a fuller story of the dangers we need to avert with the help of a democratic and responsive government. But they do help to raise awareness of political issues and shift cultural norms as to what threats are no longer tolerable. And it is not marginal thinkers or radical activists who are now saying that we need to pay more attention to safeguarding the essential functions of our government, holding it to account for its actions, and most urgently of all, pressing it to reverse the widening gap between the superrich elite and everyone else.