Elysium, last week’s box-office king, offers a vision of the future that’s pretty frightening. According to this Matt Damon vehicle, by the mid-22nd century the elite will have abandoned Earth to live on an exclusive, utopian space station, leaving behind the planet’s poorest to contend with backbreaking jobs, a polluted environment and inferior health care. Of course, Elysium’s scenario isn’t purely invented—writer-director Neill Blomkamp clearly intends it to be an allegory for current-event talking points such as illegal immigration and resentment toward the one percent.
Elysium’s portrait of the future might be bleak, but it’s hardly the bleakest. These days when I go to sci-fi movies, I often know they’ll be set in a dystopian future that’s meant to be a mirror of our times. But is that mirror intended to rouse us to action? Or is it just an excuse for the usual Hollywood conventions?
Dystopian sci-fi is nothing new. Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis is the godfather of the genre, presenting an upsetting, dehumanized portrait of urban life in which the common man is literally reduced to a cog in the machine. An anxious response to the Industrial Revolution, Metropolis set the tone for so many films to come: Show the audience the dangers of their own age through metaphor and then offer a glimmer of hope at the end about the power of the human spirit to overcome such an unthinkable fate.
Bleak futures became a staple of sci-fi in the 1970s (e.g., THX 1138, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run) and only got more play in the ensuing decades, thanks to the likes of Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop and The Matrix. But especially after 9/11, we’ve been beset by such movies. What’s even more remarkable is that they’re starting to cross-pollinate with other genres: For every Children of Men, there are dystopias with animation (Wall-E), with teens (The Hunger Games) and with comedy (Idiocracy). And that’s not even mentioning postapocalyptic films such as I Am Legend, The Book of Eli and The Road.
It’s little wonder why so many dystopias have popped up in the wake of 9/11. The death and devastation of that day, coupled with ongoing war and a lingering insecurity about future attacks, makes for fertile thematic terrain. And when you factor in the divisiveness of our political discourse as well as pressing concerns like climate change, there are still plenty of reasons for impressionable people to feel that the world really is going to hell. This year alone, the deserted Earth of Oblivion, the ozone-depleted Earth of Pacific Rim, and now the Earth-as-third-world-country of Elysium have been added to the pile. Whether the movies are based on books or are original creations, this past decade of alarmist sci-fi is all linked by its dire declarations of how our current ills—global warming, corrupt politicians, the dumbing-down of society, an overreliance on technology—will bring about deadly consequences. Such an unpalatable future is always our fault; similarly, we’re the only ones who can make it right.
Several of these dystopian films have been good, but the glut of them underlines a nagging concern about the genre as a whole: Do they really make any difference? Put another way, do studios make them—and do audiences see them—because it’s easier to grapple with difficult political and social issues through allegory? Or is it because these dystopias flatter our negative assumptions about the world around us—and then reassure us that the problem isn’t so bad after all?
Elysium is representative of these movies’ appeal and limitations. In it, Damon plays a regular guy with a criminal past who’s trying to turn his life around. (These films tend to feature regular-guy heroes so that we Ordinary Joes in the audience can identify with them.) Needing to break into the Elysium space station so he can be cured after being exposed to fatal amounts of radiation, Damon falls into the crosshairs of Elysium’s ruthless, cold-blooded defense secretary (Jodie Foster), who wants him dead.
That premise sets the stage for lots of special effects and futuristic whizbang, but it also provides a strong dose of grim darkness. Just about everything in Elysium seems awful; even Elysium’s antiseptic, unfeeling paradise doesn’t look so hot. With all these dystopian movies, though, we’re seduced, not repelled, by what we see. They’re essentially a less-disturbing version of the experience you get watching scary movies where we allow ourselves to be frightened out of our minds because we know these freaky things we’re seeing aren’t really happening. But the effect is the same: We dip our toe into the unimaginable and walk away adrenalized yet unscathed.
Bleak sci-fi doesn’t want us to just embrace the darkness; it often wants to serve as a warning as well. Wall-E decried the dangers of mass consumerism and environmental neglect. The Hunger Games bemoaned the rise of sensational TV. Minority Report, which was made before 9/11 but came out in 2002, predicted an Orwellian police state and the advent of ubiquitous, intrusive individually targeted advertising. Even Mike Judge’s Idiocracy came bearing a message: People are stupid, and they’re only getting stupider. Presumably, the filmmakers’ hope in each case is that we’ll witness these nightmare visions, be shocked by their apocalyptic pronouncements, and then go out and do our damnedest to make sure they don’t come true.
That’s an ennobling idea, but I’m not convinced it actually plays out that way with viewers. I think we watch these movies because, secretly, we sort of dig the idea that life sucks as much as we think it does. Dystopian futures appeal to our cynicism—they congratulate us for harboring our dark suspicions about society’s irredeemable failings. Children of Men is a great movie on many levels, but one of its strengths is the commitment to its arresting depiction of a human race that’s lost all hope in the face of worldwide sterility. Sure, there’s a flicker of a happy ending, but that’s not what you take home—you remember how defiantly dreary it all seemed. Director Alfonso Cuarón was smart and skilled enough to deliver a dystopia with a black sense of humor that acknowledged our shared fear of (and secret exhilaration about) our inevitable destruction.
Children of Men is among the best of our recent dystopias, but it’s also one of the least commercially successful, probably because it only gets half of the dystopian-movie formula correct, failing to offer a lot of sunshine at the end. No surprise, then, that movies like The Matrix, Wall-E and The Hunger Games are much bigger hits—their relative quality notwithstanding, they all have rousing or heartwarming finales that reassure us that we’re not too far gone yet. Elysium is no different: Its populist, we-are-the-99-percent message no doubt plays better with the masses because good ultimately triumphs over evil.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to assume that studios, which are in the happy-ending business, actually like these forlorn portrayals of our future selves. For Hollywood, it’s a win-win: These films capitalize on collective unhappiness but leave us with a soothing promise that, don’t worry, we can change things if we just…uh, don’t let Jodie Foster become defense secretary on Elysium. (Generally speaking, these movies tend to be pretty vague on how to actually avert societal decay or challenge the status quo. After all, if filmmakers had the answers, the problems wouldn’t be so daunting in the first place.)
And so, it’s hard to consider Hollywood’s dystopias as any sort of daring call to action. If they were truly nihilistic and disturbing, people wouldn’t recommend them to their friends—and that would be bad for studios’ bottom line. Unlike Metropolis, which meant to shock audiences with its message, these recent tentpole releases are either simplistic in their politics or entirely disinterested in them. When Elysium tries to score points about isolationism and class struggle, the movie is leaden—you’re better off just digging the action sequences. Likewise, Pacific Rim pays mild lip service to the evils of global warming as an excuse to introduce its big alien monsters that will do battle with humanity’s big robots. And Oblivion’s portrayal of an Earth ravaged by nuclear war to fend off alien invaders merely sets the stage for lots of showy production design and a shopworn story about lost love. They’re all either unwilling or unable to scare us with a vision of what we might become. Consequently, the big bad dystopian future has become just one more overdone Hollywood gimmick. But instead of being horrifying, the future now just looks boring.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.