The James Clayton Column: Pessimistic sci-fi films

The arrival of Elysium in UK cinemas prompts James to ponder the bleak societies of sci-fi movies past, present and future...

Ladies, gentlemen and AIs of indeterminate gender: I have seen the future and the future is bleak. At least, the future that I’ve seen at the cinema is bleak. The films prophesy dark times and, because I believe that the screen is a scrying quadrangle and that moviemakers are credible soothsayers, I’m convinced that the ominous prophecies will come true. Ruminating on multiplex revelations I find myself concerned about ages to come.

I don’t mind immersing myself in pop cultural depictions of dystopian despair for a couple of hours. In fact I actually find the ordeal perversely entertaining and it can be a whole lot of fun if the stimulating future settings are spiced up with special effects action sequences and inhabited by excellent actors.

Even so, if you dwell on the idea that the predicted visions playing in cinemas are going to be constant and unchanging it gets depressing. In ‘real life’ there’s no rolling of end credits to mark the point where you can step away from the world to seek a more comforting alternative in the shape of, say, a romantic comedy, historical biopic or an animated fantasy.

You can’t escape if life has imitated art and totally turned into a horrendous sci-fi movie vision. You are in The Matrix permanently (the film itself, not the conceptual simulacrum) and that’s not pleasant in those moments where you feel a bit soft and would rather smile and not live under machine-subjugation on an Earth without sunlight. ‘The Real World’ has rendered itself as something irreparably awful and there’s no blue pill opt-out available anymore.

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That’s just one example out of many in the science fiction genre. I love that genre and I love stories about the future but still, contemplating the tone and ideological nuances of recent and coming cinematic releases I come away feeling pretty downbeat.

I discern a definite tendency to approach the future with fear and trepidation, for the future is frequently figured to be something that’s terrifying. It may, in fact, be something abhorrent and nigh-apocalyptic. The pessimistic sci-fi tradition is nothing new and a quick sweep across film history yields flicks like Metropolis, THX 1138, Soylent Green, Escape From New York, Blade Runner and so many more. What I reckon, though, is that the cinematic pessimism is currently more popular, more prominent and is being pushed more vigorously.

Today’s moviemakers are speculating and seeing horror over the horizon. They’re then throwing the full brunt of the special effects budget at their work to make sure it looks spectacularly dreadful for maximum disturbing effect on the big screen. (Possibly an IMAX screen and in 3D, because dystopia demands optimum digital presentation in multiple dimensions to really overwhelm complacent contemporary audiences.)

A case study: right now I’m looking forward to Elysium (both its theatrical release and the eventual arrival of its vision if its forecasting is accurate). At the time of writing I’ve not yet seen the new movie from District 9′s Neill Blomkamp but I’m familiar with the synopsis and the base that the South African director has built his blockbuster upon.

Elysium‘s concept is this: in the year 2154, Earth is a ruined planet. That’s a problem for the sprawling mass of humanity unless you happen to be a member of the wealthy elite who reside on the luxurious space station of the title. These are the circumstances in which afflicted factory worker Max (Matt Damon) lives and the narrative focuses on his attempts to break into Elysium in order to access its med-pods and bring equality to those on the surface below.

Right away it rises up the ranks as a contender for the ‘Most Disturbing Matt Damon Film’ prize (its main rival is Behind The Candelabra). Elysium suggests that 140 years from now our beloved home planet – perhaps not your home planet, extraterrestrial readers, but hey, mi casa su casa – will be a ravaged wreck characterised by ubiquitous disease, environmental damage, gross wealth disparity, corporate oppression and constant violence.

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There is no quality of life in this imagined (or envisioned) period if you aren’t one of the charmed few aboard the safe space station. On the ground the everyman/everywoman/everyperson embodied by Damon is struggling to survive, condemned to a hard gutter existence. You (yes you, because you’re not Jodie Foster or one of the 1%) are mired in the desperate poverty of the slums while the aloof elite float in the sky above, callously suppressing those who hope to emigrate to Elysium.

It’s a striking scenario that Blomkamp has written up and realised on film but Elysium doesn’t stand alone as a pessimistic shot of contemporary cinematic prognostication. Flicking through recent and upcoming theatrical releases I recognise that dystopian gloom is high on the agenda.

The zeitgeist is one of anxious anticipation. In fact, scratch that: the pervading feeling is that the world is going to hell and that the human race is screwed. You are only allowed to smile during the action sequences, for when you contemplate the poignant underlying actuality of the entire premise you are meant to feel very bleak. Watching a fair few sci-fi blockbusters over the past year and meditating on them I do indeed feel bleak.

Casting my mind back – because the sheer notion of facing the future is prompting panic attacks – I recall films like Oblivion and the Total Recall remake (the one that does not get its ass to Mars). Though both are very different they share a sombre tone and are set upon a contextual backdrop in which Earth of the 2070s/80s is mostly a devastated wasteland. The reasons for this and the subsequent results of it are dissimilar but still, it’s the same pessimistic picture of hard times for remaining humanity on a devastated planet.

These movies boast advanced technology and swish aesthetics trappings but Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell show few obvious signs of happiness. Likewise, hi-tech possibilities are of little comfort in Dredd’s Mega-City One metropolis and the distressed future Kansas of Looper. Ages ahead, according to these movies, are ruled by ruthless organised crime outfits, are rife with really bad drugs and are mired in impoverishment and social disorder.

They look grim and so do the outlooks of After Earth (environmental disaster), The Purge (economic crisis and lawlessness), Cloud Atlas (corporate Korean totalitarianism and fast food fabricant slave labour) and The Hunger Games (autocratic political systems, ludicrous haircuts and teenagers murdering each other for popular entertainment).

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The Earth of Pacific Rim doesn’t actually look so bad once you get over the kaiju attack threats and the booming monster organ black market. Really though, off the top of my head the only recent future-set blockbuster flick carrying a convincing optimistic outlook is, ironically enough, Star Trek Into Darkness.

That’s not surprising considering that Trek has always painted a pretty promising picture of the 23rd century. There may be terrorist threats, hostility from alien systems and a tragic shortage of humpback whales but generally it’s a future we can feel good about. Star Trek Into Darkness does some damage to London and San Francisco but generally it sticks to canon principles and appeals to audiences by upholding utopian ideals.

That’s just the way that Star Trek rolls but other major franchises don’t see the Romulan ale glass as being half full. Riding through the panic attack I move to movies yet to be released and find the RoboCop reboot is ready to return us to dystopian Detroit. Furthermore, The Hunger Games are back this autumn with Catching Fire and that means more ethically questionable autocracy-endorsed mortal combat.

Also on the slate we have Divergent which showcases a future structured around an oppressive social system divided into personality type categories. There’s also the new manmade ice age and consequent struggles of Snowpiercer and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes will be progressing humanity’s decline in the face of the simian ascent.

There are more but you get my drift. What we’ve got here, expressed through the medium of motion pictures, is both a clear crisis of optimism. Even more crucially, what’s captured is a total collapse of confidence in Earth and its inhabitants and that’s a disaster that’s entirely rooted in the here and now.

Even in the most far-fetched and far-reaching of sci-fi film synopses you find that the fears are often present day ones projected into a future setting. Current affairs and today’s outlook distort our attitudes towards tomorrow and, in the case of filmmaking, inform the way we approach speculative stories.

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Elysium and its brethren may be set in the future but, thematically, they are all about ‘now’. The inequality, the environmental damage, the social disharmony and the technological anxiety are all contemporary concerns. Science fiction – in literature, film, television and videogaming – has always been perhaps the most powerful genre in terms of raising a mirror to the world and providing social commentary.

It’s worth pondering on when you watch Elysium. Should this be making me feel pessimistic about humanity’s prospects and should I abandon my more upbeat hopes for a possible progressive utopia ahead? I’d say no, Elysium should make you feel bleak about the world you’re living in now.

Never mind, though, because the future is bright. At least, it is if Matt Damon can crack Elysium.

James Clayton is optimistic about the future – the far, far future that follows the post-apocalyptic ages of constant drone warfare, extravagant haircut despotism and the subsequent rise of the apes to absolute supremacy. 

You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can find James’ previous column here.

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