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Uncertain Future: Why Hollywood Can’t Create Smart Dystopia

September 8, 2011

Soylent Green is people. Don't worry, its mostly White people.

Dystopian filmmaking was once a pretty easy score—take current issues, place in future, add sex, violence and anti-hero. The dystopic films of the seventies were truly dystopic, their heroes doomed from the first frame, and the fate of the human race sealed, as in films such as Soylent Green, Silent Running, Planet of the Apes, etc. The dystopia of the Seventies rarely predicted a change in US culture, as much as a worsening of its human generator; greed, alienation, violence, war, consumerism and, capitalism [though always the elephant in the room] would eventually spell the doom of our civilization. That makes sense, because more or less, that’s what everyone in the seventies believed would happen.

The go-go eighties dystopia-lens saw things a bit differently, predicting a humanity that was essentially good, if excessive, having allowed some kind of authoritarian/corporate dictatorship to take over, with attendant soviet-era media control—these are the films of the late eighties and through the nineties, such as The Running Man, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, The Fortress, Demolition Man and Freejack.  Its not surprising that the eighties, concerned with legitimizing excess of all kinds, would flatter itself with American self-centered hedonism as the solution to super-state intrusion.

Today’s dystopian films can’t even said to be ideological responses to Seventies and Eighties era versions of the way the future [and hence, the present] ought to be. Rather these films present societies that cater to an imagined middle class male audience, carefully avoiding any threat to their ideas of the world, and are thus based on a fantastical version of the present to begin with. In efforts to avoid the issues of the present—wide-spread scarcity and steroidal wealth disparities—such films go out of their way to portray a globalized society in which  the future’s biological-technological phenomenon exists in equal parts in every part of the world. Gamer has an extended scene where its mpg war game, Slayer, populated with remote controlled real human beings, is shown to be a big a hit in Iraq as it is in the US. Daybreakers’ nightly newscast Greek chorus tells us that the human minority/vampire majority division exists everywhere, from Bhopal to London. Surrogates in its opening explanatory sequence, informs us that mechanized avatars are used internationally—the US fights its wars in the developing world with surrogates, and apparently the developing world also uses the exact same surrogate technology, an upside down view of how and where the US fights its wars.

This globalization extends to the American social world as well, superceding what we know as institutional kinds of poverty and discrimination. Where the dynamics of the developing world can be skimmed, the social interactions of the American world must be shown, however. Given the confines of Hollywood aesthetics and demographic needs, this leads to absurd representations.

That means that we find few black people in the future. The world of Daybreakers has exactly zero African American Vampires, and one African American Human [though there is a Pacific Islander/Vampire Congressman, a double-header for this unrepresented minority]. There’s an African American police chief in Surrogates, otherwise, either African Americans prefer to inhabit white avatars, or there are no Black people in this future. Gamer has two notable African Americans, representing the two poles of the representation of black males in popular corporate-produced culture. Ludacris, the leader of the counter-corporate, counter-cultural Humanz, serves as a symbolic icon of counter-cultural rebellion. Its a construct young white teens are fond of as they search for a suitably meaningful way to rebel against authority. The physically powerful, evil Slayer character, who lives only to kill, serves as a similar, embodiment of that same rebellion; like the mythological gangsta of the corporate music and movie business. Both are utterly vacuous characters with no development and few lines. A scene with Ludacris feels uncomfortably like a white suburban fantasy–the African American freedom fighter appears and begs an affluent white teen to become one of his cadre, calling him brother.

In its main narrative structure, Gamer is a perfect example of the way cowardly Hollywood execs, who fear nothing more than actually making a viable commentary on modern society, create confused dystopian narratives. Gamer centers around two society-changing MPGs. One is a dark iteration of Syms, called Society; the other a, a war mpg, Slayer even darker than the current lot. Gamer struggles to appear to have some kind of social message about the dynamics of these games, where wealthy gamers control those who have sold themselves into virtual slavery. But it’s a message that makes no sense. The majority of human ‘bots’ in Society have sold themselves into video game slavery for the thrill and public exposure, according to commentators in the film, and only infrequently for economic reasons [as the protagonist’s wife, inexplicably, does].  Society is populated almost exclusively by whites, and all of them are healthy, well manicured and glamorous. There are a few short scenes of a Chinatown-like area of the real city, but since there are few Asians in Society or Slayer, we can assume that dystopia has quite literally left them behind.

Quite obviously in our present, people of color make up a disproportionate number of America’s poor; but there are few of them where current statistics would lead you to expect to find them in the future–as the flesh for cash denizens of Society or the Death Row cannon fodder of Slayer.  The human bots in Society are subjected to an unlikely level of dehumanization and, more importantly, real physical, life-threatening dangers. They are portrayed as trapped in the world of the game, with several scenes which telegraph obvious discomfort with what they’re being directed to do. Thus, its unlikely that anyone would participate in such a game unless they had no other option.  But even as a dystopian  extreme form of prostitution, the portrayal is tone deaf to the relatively milder modern-day prostitution. Poor people sell their bodies in early 21st century America, of course. And even in some of the most arduous situations, they have a relative measure of control in how they do it. Why people would give up complete control of their bodies for a paycheck, while they can sell their body’s services in prostitution, and at least expect to use a condom, or defend themselves from physical violence, is a head-scratcher for anyone but the most cloistered cul de sac dweller. Society fails as dystopian social commentary from any perspective you care to look at.

The more critical metaphor, Slayers, is also a failure. While the script puts a flaccid critique of the financially draining prison system in the mouth of Ludacris [who seems unconvinced by his own soliloquy], the film veers away from any realistic commentary of the US prison system. In nearly every state with a death penalty, the majority of the death row population is non-white—exceptions include such states as Oklahoma, Utah and Idaho. Not so in the Gamers version, where whites finally overcome reverse-discrimination and represent a majority of death row inmates. Nor is there any mention of a prison-industrial complex–the makers of Slayers foots the bill for America’s prisons in an unbelievable reversal of the actual relationship tax payers have with the corporate private prison system.

Would that the 00’s have the kind of self-confidence and clarity that our previous dystopian visions have had, for good or ill. Even the worst dystopian film of earlier periods had a message about how the modern world could be better. Even if this was little more than a nightmarish iteration of a Reagan campaign speech, it was honest. But like so many other corporate cultural artifacts of the 00’s, the current dystopian film is a confused and fearful hodge-podge of themes and ideas. Films like Gamer are at their heart, regressive: you find a harkening to a constructed past [i.e. whatever year the film was released] as the solution to the problems facing the fictional future world. The traditional role of dystopian tales is thus up-ended. But this backwards dystopianism is too enfeebled by fear to even countenance the society it harkens back to. Fear of reminding viewers of the harsh economic and social parameters they return to when they leave the theater saturates every frame of today’s dystopian film. Film-goers are encouraged to forget that capitalism and racism continues to produce an underclass—and that globalization has successfully replicated such underclasses to worse degrees throughout the world. They can forget that the underclass already lives something akin to the dystopian future we see on the screen. That dystopian-present, of course, would make fine subject matter for a blockbuster, as the world’s dispossessed rise up against their overlords and install a system where all people can live freely as equals. Unfortunately, such a film would appeal to the wrong target group. Because the modern dystopian film also fears reminding white audiences that they aren’t the center of the Universe.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 8:32 pm

    Interesting post. I wrote a novel about a solution to our failing school systems in the US. To combat increasing parental absence, a negative peer group influence, violence, teen pregnancies, gangs, and sexualized media messages, a program called Dormant Enhancement is developed by a team of educators and scientists. Children enter the program on their 12th birthday and are placed in individualized cubicles to receive uninterrupted programming and to avoid negative pressures from their peers. They graduate at 16, in every way superior to their counterparts of the previous century. The nation is delighted. But one woman questions the system. When she fights to keep her son out of it, she makes a discovery that puts her life and the lives of those she loves in danger.

    I like to think of it as dystopia disguised in utopia. I wonder what thoughts you’d have on it…

    • Jaime Omar Yassin permalink*
      September 8, 2011 8:53 pm

      I think the best critiques of current society can be expressed in Utopian visions of society that are at their heart actually dystopian. But the key ingredients need to be a rational understanding of the dynamics of today’s society. That’s what I’m arguing in this essay; even soylent green had some kind of understanding of what was driving social collapse in the seventies. Your idea sounds interesting, but again, our education system is firmly tied into class and income in such a way that there would still likely be tiers. So the question would be, whose kids experience the “utopian” school, and what do the people who live in neglected schools do?

  2. October 28, 2011 11:45 am

    When I watched ‘Gamer’ (on Netflix, well after it came it) what struck me was its humor – which may have been unintentional. I think the very structure of the film (an eye-candy and violence movie which condemns the same) points towards self-critique. It’s interesting not to take it seriously, and in the scene you mention I felt Ludacris’ character was holding back no small amount of contempt for the white suburban teen whom he was using for his own purposes. Thus, the expression of solidarity could be of a tactical nature.

    Also, I had incredibly low expectations for ‘Gamer,’ so that probably affected my experience. I think the film’s main metaphor is that _consumers_ in culture today, i.e. all of us, are the poor schmucks in the Slayers (or the other) game.

    Have you seen ‘Blade Runner?’ That’s a significant dystopia you should analyze and add to this list. Whatever you do DON’T watch the original cut w/the voiceover – check out the Director’s cut or whatever they’re calling it these days.

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