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.