It’s the end of the world as we know it!
After all, it seems that every few years a brand new blockbuster depicting the last strains of humanity clinging desperately to survival graces movie theaters nationwide. It seems a bit odd, right? This fascination with our undoing, perhaps an innate instinct within each of us is sounding the alarm for an unspoken inevitability. Perhaps we know that we too are not far removed from an actual calamity of cataclysmic proportions in the “real world”…or maybe there are deeper ties to the human psyche when it comes to dystopian entertainment.
In 2015, Disney unleashed Tomorrowland upon the world with a lavish price tag of $33o million when all was said and done. It was an attempt to counteract the dominant culture of dystopian tropes according to producer Damon Lindelof:
““The future we’re getting fed a steady diet of is sort of post-apocalyptic,” Lindelof told The Huffington Post. “The idea that something kind of terrible happens and now the dregs of humanity are roving the desert in tricked-out cars or shooting arrows at each other, that’s kind of what the future is.” While Lindelof — who, let’s not forget, is the co-creator of “Lost” and HBO’s ultra-depressing “The Leftovers” — admits he loves those types of stories, he wanted to discover what a different kind of future would look like, and whether or not audiences would even want to see it.”
Tomorrowland, much like the dystopian stories it had hoped to provide an alternative to, failed on a magnificently grandiose scale. Trashed by critics and viewers alike the film, despite being visually stunning, plummeted into the abyss costing Disney between $120-140 million.
Was it so wrong to hope for a better future?
What draws us to the desolate wastelands rather than the heights of progress in tales of the future? Why do we identify with the solitary traveler traversing deserts littered with artifacts of humanity’s former greatness, or those fighting to hold their own in societies which have descended into barbarism and ruled exclusively by the strong?
I asked these same questions to myself yesterday as I watched Oblivion for what seemed like the millionth time. It wasn’t until I woke up and was driving to work this morning as the sun was just beginning to set fire to the horizon that some possible explanations came to mind…
My first exposure to this genre was the original Planet of the Apes, you know…the one from the 60’s with Charlton Heston. At the time I was a just a pre-teen kid with no real concept of the greater moral messages in the movie itself, there were, however, two distinct moments that imprinted themselves on my memory from that movie. The first was Heston’s iconic line:
“Get yer stinkin’ paws off me ya damn dirty Ape!!”
The second had no comedic value…yet it stayed with me even as a kid, and stays with me to this day. It’s the scene at the end of the movie when Heston finds out that The Planet of the Apes is, in fact, Earth. The haunting image of Lady Liberty half submerged, a casualty of the destructive capacity of the previous rulers of the planet.
From that point on I developed a love for the genre. Movies like Equilibrium, Minority Report, 2012, The Book of Eli, Oblivion, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, I Am Legend, and many, many others repeatedly made their way into my DVD player.
Here are a few reasons I think dystopian stories hold a power that “happy ending” narratives can’t compete with…
Dystopia Reminds Us Of Our Fragility
Dystopia is a reminder that the feelings of permanence and monotony many of us experience in our daily life are illusory, and fleeting. We live in a world which could literally end at any moment. This is a relatively new phenomenon. There’s always been war, disease and hardship written in the story of humanity, but with the advent of nuclear technology humanity created the means to literally destroy our planet. We have the means to obliterate human existence. Ironically, this awareness of our fragility and mortality can ultimately have a catalyzing effect on people. It can create a spirit of Carpe Diem where it was previously absent. Without the reminder that we are merely a shadow of existence, it can be easy to be lulled into feeling like we’re gods. Safety and comfort tend to breed a callous and pathological attitude toward life due to the inadvertent expectation of longevity which accompany them.
Regaining perspective when it comes to our mortality can have a rejuvenating effect on our souls and spur us to action.
Dystopia Allows Us To Find Solitude Again
In an era of incessant noise, constant busyness and screens surrounding us 24/7 we’ve immersed ourselves in a constant state of connectivity. Humans are innately social creatures, however, we were never designed to be “plugged in” at all times. Some of the most brilliant minds in human history have proposed revolutionary ideas and inventions because they had the ability to sit quietly and think. They thought about why we exist, why things work they way they do, how we can master things to work to our advantage. Deep thought is nearly impossible when there is constant noise surrounding us. We somehow have come to believe that if it’s quiet then we are cut off from reality, but the reality is that when we allow ourselves to become quiet we are able to discover our true uninhibited self. Dystopian worlds, when protagonists aren’t dodging mortal hazards, usually have an eerie, comforting quiet about them. It’s such a foreign concept to our technologically geared generation that it seems downright unnatural, and yet, there is something in that silence which is alluring. That’s our true, repressed humanity begging for a break from the noise and finding solace in the peace of stillness.
Dystopia Allows Us The Freedom To Reboot
The great irony of many dystopian movies is that they’re very often not a story about “the end”. Quite the contrary, many set the stage for something new to begin. Have you ever looked at the world and thought to yourself, “Man we really went off the rails at ________ point in time! If only we could take that back…”. Dystopia allows that license to begin again. In many of the stories we see hardship, risk, danger and (to those who persevere through) the opportunity to begin a new humanity. A humanity which learns from its past mistakes and actively strives to correct them. Dystopia embodies our fears but allows us to refocus on the things which matter most.
For example, Oblivion revolves around main character, Jack Harper’s, scattered memories of his past. His memories that he’s held onto are memories of his wife, the person he loves more than anything. During the course of the movie Jack also shows a curiosity about things which extend beyond his “job description”. He’s holds a strong affinity for his home planet and is reticent to leave it. He takes scraps of wisdom from books he collects on his forays into the waste and the wisdom they contain. He enjoys laying in nature and allowing vinyl recordings from the past rejuvenate his soul.
Desire for more.
All these traits are sharply contrasted with the desolate wasteland surrounding him, and the machine like vigor of his occupation. Yet these are the moments which remind the viewer that there’s more to being human than being a slave to the machine. There’s more to our humanity than simply chasing money (which is never enough), or seeking to acquire prestige (which is fleeting). Being a human means to find a refuge within the wasteland, and to fully see the beauty of it which is all the more prominent due to its contrast with the desolate.
So, where do we go from here?
There are many more parallels which I could take from this genre of film, but these were three things that stuck out to me the most. Life is meant to be lived, and living means so much more than just a tacit acceptance of the way things are or have been. Living is inquiry. Living is a question at it’s core, a simple, “Why?”, that has vast and profound implications for our souls as we strive to answer that simple question.
That is why I, personally, love this genre of movie. It’s a more than a matter of waste. It’s about what can be sifted out of the rubble and put back together, better and stronger than ever before.