The Greek word ‘dystopia’ describes an undesirable or frightening society; an anti-utopia.
A dystopia predicates on the idea that the world it presents brings terror and unease to the people who live in them. Films have used dystopian settings as a means of drawing in audiences and keeping them interested in the stories presented for over 50 years.
There is no shortage of good and bad dystopia films that span every genre. Since 1953 and the film The Day the Earth Stood Still a new dystopia film has graced the silver screen nearly every single year. Dystopia films also make up some of the most well-known series in film. From The Planet of the Apes saga to the more recent Hunger Games trilogy this sub-genre of film has captivated every generation.
Closely related to the apocalypse and post-apocalypse sub-genre dystopia films often take place around such apocalyptic events. The dystopia film also takes techniques and symbolism from sci-fy, fantasy, horror, thriller, and action films to create the frightening and uneasy diegetic world. The singular determiner for a true dystopia film centers around the fall or failure of some pivotal part of our lives. Dystopias usually fall into three categories of failures that more often than not will overlap with each other; failure of culture, failures of government, and failures of humanity.
A fall of culture comes from a devolution of humans and society. Devolution could either be a literal backwards shift of humans to the Neanderthals of the past, or a shift of human culture and society to regress back to a feudal or prelaw state. It could also speak to a regression of ideas, rights, morals, etc. In the globalized world of today, the creation of a homogenous world either with a singular type of person, or the removal of multiculturalism belongs to the type of anti-utopia seen in films.
Such films as Daybreakers (2009) where the population is almost solely made up of vampires that are very quickly eradicating humans − set the scene for the human race to devolve into nothing more than food for another species. The Mad Max series takes viewers through the apocalypse and into the dystopian future of mutated people who struggle to find food, water, and safety. Society has collapse and what forms from its ashes tends to be less civilized and far more dangerous than what it left behind. Usually more reminiscent of a long forgotten past than the present day in which the film is airing.
Another great example of the devolution of culture and humanity shows up in War for the Planet of the Apes where the humans become speechless animals that live in the wild and the apes become the smart, critically-thinking, dominant species. The film also has the potential to be categorized as a fall of humanity, but the apes take on both human attributes and emotions that would make up humanity. Humanity is not lost merely transformed and transmuted to a new species.
The fall of culture category works well, because it paints a future where the past, or some facsimile of it, has come back to haunt the future we all hope exists beyond today. The idea that the human race might shift backwards losing thousands and thousands of years of culture is upsetting. Even the idea that humanity may lose its spot as the apex predator fuels such films as the Aliens saga, which unsettles the viewer and creates a driving need to see the human heroes succeed.
The viewer knows that while they may or may not like the current culture they live in, it far exceeds the one presented in the films. An empathetic bond begins to tug the audience to view the current state as bad or evil. The viewer wonders what it would be like to live in this new society, who they would be, how they could survive and the answer they face may shock or terrify them. With the success of the protagonist comes the success of humans everywhere; especially those watching from the other side of the screen. The hope that by returning a sense of safety and ease of living to the film the audience then does not have to worry about finding themselves in a similar situation.
If a society collapses or is taken over and either instills something close to the original or at least not far from the structure and systems available today, then the film usually focuses on the fall of government. The famous Churchill quote states that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” and dystopia films thrive on this idea. These films set-up their stories either about oppressive governments that need to be taken down or under oppressive governments that need to be shrugged off. Some of the most beloved dystopias come from classic movies like A Clockwork Orange (1971), 1984 (1984), Brave New World (1998) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966) as well as newer movies such as V for Vendetta (2005), The Hunger Games Series, Divergent (2014), Maze Runner (2014), and the list goes on, especially in cases of newer releases.
The consensus about dystopias and thus films set in dystopias, is that they pop up from the annihilation or an exasperated and corrupt form of capitalism. David Christopher talked at length on this point in his article for Cineaction in 2015 entitled “Dystopian Films.” The breakdown of his analysis on dystopias stems from either the complete disregard of the capitalistic state and in turn establishing a new version or from creating a similar capitalistic state that has gone too far and thus is on the verge of collapse. The new states created in this type of dystopia both makes the viewer worry about the effects capitalism could have while also soothing the viewers fears as the portrayal of this future society is not a present worry.
Rebekah Brammer in her article “Handmaiden’s Tale and the ‘Dystopian Film’ Space” from Screen Education in 2014 states that dystopias can be a mix of patriarchal capitalism and authoritarianism taken to the extreme as they were in the 1990 movie The Handmaiden’s Tale; as well as the new TV remake. The Handmaiden’s Tale is one such movie that crosses into all three categories of failure. The tagline for the movie ‘One woman’s story, every woman’s fear’ already establishes why this falls under the unsettling and frightening sub-genre of dystopia films. Through the installment of a new uber-authoritarian, patriarchal, and religious regime a new society that both prizes and dehumanizes fertile women makes everyone within the Republic of Gilead play a part that none of them want and makes none of them happy. While this society runs under a far more fascist regime, the new tv version turns the handmaidens into exportable goods, which speaks to the capitalistic tendencies in Christopher’s article.
The Handmaiden dystopia also plays with another of Brammer’s points. The idea that dystopias pop-up because of environmental destruction thus creating an unstable society is an oft used trope of the sub-genre. The handmaidens are the only fertile women, because of toxic air pollution. These societies are always the exaggerated response to failures that the people in the movies cause themselves. Dystopia’s rarely form by accident and usually through dire circumstances.
The final failure under which The Handmaiden’s Tale falls is the failure of humanity. Another trope of dystopia films comes from the noble cause of defining what is humanity and how do we save, bring back, find, rectify (etc.) it. A good chunk of films claim humanity to be love, sympathy/empathy, sentience, and compassion − to name just a few. Ultimately, it is the removal of empathetic emotions for other people that take the guise of humanity in these films. When these factors are ripped from society or the dominant power within a society loses these traits a failure of humanity arises alongside a dystopia. The Handmaiden’s Tale exists in a society where empathy, compassion, and love are eradicated or suppressed as both a rule and an effect of the society created. No one can love a handmaiden, who they themselves are not to feel or express love, and the treatment of these women is one without compassion nor empathy in the slightest.
Films like Equilibrium (2002) and the future society of the Terminator franchise all exist in societies where the trait humanity has died and or is dying to make way for a people, for robots, for creatures who cannot express nor understand humanity. The zombie apocalypse film may also fit into this category as the dominant society is one of flesh eating barely sentient animals who do not feel. More specifically though, a dystopia film about zombie uprising must show a society that makes it past the initial apocalypse where the main predicament does not come from the threat of death, but the threat of looing that which makes us human; this is a big theme of the TV series The Walking Dead.
These three categories cover most if not all, dystopian films and their deeper sub-context. Audiences have common fears and these films prey upon those fears while also creating a situation where these fears are overcome. Society will not stay down forever, they will overcome a vague yet menacing government agency, and the hero will regain his moral compass even in a world where it may weaken them to do such. At the end of the day these dystopias also work to soothe the viewer because they are future worlds that will never happen and even if they did someone will rise above.
A hero always arises and there seems to be some interesting through lines for the dystopian hero trope. First and foremost is the ‘just-a-regular-guy’ hero. Everything from The Matrix (1999) to In Time (2011) stars a regular man who rises up against an oppressive government or society. How successful his mission pans out usually varies, and most of the time the hero escapes and turns away from the dystopian society he once inhabited.
Another, shocking characteristic of the dystopian hero is his profession. A very high frequency of lead characters tend to be cops. If you expand this to officials within the system the number of movies this covers grows even wider. Fahrenheit 451 (1966), RoboCop (1987), and an entire host of films have main characters that are a cop or government official. As these professions tend to have more access and freedom their escape or overthrow of their dystopia is significantly easier.
These also tend to be the authoritarian roles within the society that represent what the dystopia stands for the most. In Fahrenheit 451 the main character burns books, which is painted as one of root problems and oppressions within the society. Thus, his rejection of a system, in which he has power and volition, shows just how pressing and terrible the ways of that society have become. He is then more righteous for his choice and a perfect symbol of hope and strength.
The last and probably most recent trend is to have children be the heroes of these dystopias, and most of the time these children are young girls. The amount of YA novels being turned into movies has an entire new generation of films starring young female protagonists who may not be the strongest or the fastest or the prettiest, but they are able to rise above the oppressive systems (usually governments) and take back control of their lives. It’s a very empowering trait that works to gain the respect and wonder of its original target audience −teen girls and younger women− while also creating narratives and characters that intrigue and amuse a much wider audience.
The dystopia film will likely be around until the end of movies. Its ability to play into our fears of society, government, humanity, and the future in general, will keep these films on the forefront of the film industry for a while. The stories they tell may seem to nag at the darker parts of current society, but the overarching narrative always works to soothe and calm with feats of heroisms and moral choices. Even when it seems to be the end of the world, dystopia films remind us that anyone can be the savior of society, the overthrower of evil, and the reminder of what it means to be human; is that not just the most heartwarming film you can imagine?