Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Focus on Sci-Fi Part 4: Dystopias and the Orwellian Equation

As part of our ongoing look at science fiction, this week's focus is on the darker side of the future, set in versions of our own world that don't have room for warm fuzzy notions like freedoms or happiness. There's a lot of ground to cover, to be sure, so we've picked our favourite 'reverse-utopias' to discuss.

Blade Runner
Loosely based on the novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" by author Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott's 1982 classic starring Harisson Ford has long been analysed and cherished by theorists, film enthusists and critics alike. The dense urban setting that director Scott created plus the film's intertextuality and references to the past - the late 40s and 50s in particular - supplies an environment of signs, symbols and simulations that provide multiple meanings, only some of which may have been intended by Scott. There are many cultural and ecological issues that the film raises with its "silent spring" of a post-nuclear, polluted, overpopulated world coming to its end; where replicants, according to the slogan of their "maker", Doctor Eldon Tyrell, are made "more human than human"; and where animals are mostly extinct or expensive simulated versions of highly valued originals.

Blade Runner's city, with its composite of time and place and its references, through architecture and fashions, to the 40s, conjures up memories of one of the blackest periods of human history: the `Fall' of humanity, linked with the domination of people perceived as the non-human enemy and therefore as subjects for brutality and experimentation in the Nazi eugenics programme, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, and as targets for nuclear bombs.

Not only does the film reveal ourselves to ourselves as many of the genre's stories do, but it also leads us to question the actions that have brought our world to this dystopia in which human dominance is affecting the well-being of other humans and other species.

Blade Runner (Director's Cut)

George Lucas' student film turned feature has become something of a legend. The movie tells the story of the titular human drone (played by a suprising Robert Duvall) and his female companion as they attempt to escape a computer-run, dehumanizing world where sex is outlawed and everyone is kept under control with drugs.

Suppression is the theme of the day in this film. Emotion and desire are squashed by the overrulling androids, and are the key to humanity and freedom. Efficiency overrides every other aspect of human life, as people are reduced to code names and their lives are contained, monitored, and manipulated for the sake of the system.

This white-washed future nightmare draws heavily on 1984, but remains a much more accessible imagining of the premise than the movie adaptation of Orwell's book starring John Hurt. There are, however some obvious differences between the two, most significantly being each's variation on the 'look and feel' of totalitarianism. Lucas' version is very stark and clean, notoriusly shot almost entirely in a white room, while your typical setting for the fall of man tends to be given more emphasis on decay.

This movie is also particularly note-worthy for its accomplishment in the field of sound design and recording.

THX 1138

Soylent Green
This Charleton Heston film blames the ruin of man on the overpopulation of the planet, rather than any political aspect. It is the year 2022 and New York City's population has swelled to 22,000,000 with over half of that number being unemployed. Other factors contributing to the misery of setting include resultant global warming and the scarcity of 'real food'. The fictional "Soylent Corporation" (presumably a fusion of the words Soy and Lentil, two high yeild crops with lower price tags) is the principal provider of nutrition, which comes in wafers of varying colours, the highest in demand being that of the Green variety, thus providing the movie's title.

Heston plays the 'everyman', in this case a police detective trying to solve the murder of one of the Soylent Corporation's board members. Through his investigation he begins to uncover a strange conspiracy involving the corporation, which leads to the answer to the film's tagline "What's the secret of Soylent Green?"

This film, now often parodied thanks to Heston's over-the-top portrayal of the main character, is a dark vision of what could lie in the future for a civilization that has yet to address it's propensity to consume without question.

Soylent Green

Mad Max
Set in near-future Austrailia, this classic finds its premise in a break-down of civil order as facilitated by a post-apocalyptic fuel shortage. That said, the premise isn't quite the plot in this case, it's simply the setting. The theme here is revenge.

Following the successful rousing of motor-gang lieutenant, hesitant police patrolman Max (Mel Gibson) gets a shiny new ride, some leathers, and a pricetag on his head courtesy of the gang he's just messed with. The gang members try to get their evens with Max by brutally killing his Wife, Son and best friend. Understandably distraught, and aided by general prevelance of anarchy in the area, Max returns the favour by slaughtering gang members one by one. He then rides off into the sunset, leaving corpses and his past in his wake.

The dystopian quotient is more of an afterthought in this film-- tossed in as a way of convincing more people that such violence would be possible. What the film became, other than being the movie with the highest cost to gross ratio until the Blair Witch Project, was the progenitor of what has become the typical post-apocalyptic setting.

Mad Max

Bureaucratic dystopias, or technocratic dystopias, are strictly regulated and hierarchial societies, thus related to totalitarian dystopias as seen in 1984. In this particularly noir example of the bureaucratic sort, Terry Gilliam pitts the imagination of the common man against the oppressive storm troppers of the Ministry of Information.

The film captures the paranoid-subversive spirit of Kafka's The Trial (along with Gilliam's own Python animation) in this nightmare-comedy about a meek governmental clerk named Sam Lowry whose life is destroyed by a simple bug. Not a software bug, a real bug (no doubt related to Kafka's famous Metamorphosis insect) that gets smooshed in a printer and causes a typographical error unjustly identifying an innocent citizen, one Mr. Buttle, as suspected terrorist Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro). When Sam becomes enmeshed in unraveling this bureaucratic glitch, he himself winds up labeled as a miscreant.

Exploring the overwhelmingly innefficient and tiresome possibilities of the Information Age, this film is probably more relevant today than it was when it was first produced.

Brazil (Criterion) (Box Set)

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury's chilling vision of a possible future is a bit of an oddball in the dystopian catalogue. In his future, firemen don't put out fires, they start them - in order to burn books. This is a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. The title refers to the temperature at which a book will ignite.

The story takes place in an unspecified future time, possibly sometime in the twenty-first century, in an America which has turned hedonistic and rabidly anti-intellectual, accompanied by the complete abandonment of self-control. At this point, books have been made obsolete due to the increasingly frenetic pace of life and the ever-shortening attention span of the common man — nobody has "time" to read anymore, and possession of books has been forbidden; the minimum punishment is confinement in a mental hospital and having one's house, books and all, burnt by "firemen"; and the maximum, is immediate death.

The result is a society that is emotionally unstable, its citizens often anxious, sad, or angry, and disruptive to society and full of nonsense. Enter the protagonist, one Guy Montag, who's previously contented life with his over-stimulated wife is put to question with the discovery of a mistress who's love of information causes him to look at his existance in a new light and subsequently descend into radicalism.

Fahrenheit 451

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