The Dystopian Genre: AKA Mockumentaries
Author: Eram Lee
Why are dystopian films always set in the future? Dystopias are imagined worlds of human suffering and corruption, but the fact that most dystopian films are set in the future isn’t to prove or emphasize the horribleness of the world imagined: it’s to provide the viewers with a sense of comfort. The buffer of time creates a distinction between our reality and the imagined world we see on screen (setting aside creative and fantastical differences). This is why we see dystopian films as whimsical settings for entertainment, rather than what they truly are: fun-house mirror versions of our own reality. Art imitates life, and though viewers are free to interpret dystopian movies as a warning, prophecy, parody, or just a genre, there is a thread of truth to themes that we see in popular dystopian films.
Let’s take a look at how popular dystopian films have been a reflection.
Hunger Games 2012
Hunger Games is an apt example of an autocratic government with power in the hands of the few ruling over the lives of the many. You can cherry-pick themes in the movie that are all too-prevalent today: classism, monopolizing resources, and environmental destruction. However, the example I’d like to point out is perhaps the most grotesque and fantastical seeming theme of them all: the games themselves. In Panem, formerly known as North America, the Capitol decrees that each subjugated district offer up one boy and one girl to fight to the death every year. The mandate kills two birds with one stone: it provides entertainment to the rich masses in the Capitol, and keeps consistent with instilling complete fear and obedience in each generation of the districts.
Sounds disgusting, right? Interesting to think about how similar games were held by Ancient Rome. Tributes were called gladiators and were often slaves or criminals. But they were still forced to fight against other unwilling participants as entertainment, and sometimes even for their freedom.
Running Man, 1987
Another film that explored this concept of casual human cruelty for the viewing pleasures of the privileged was the 1987 dystopian movie Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man forced to play a game broadcast on TV in which he and other convicts must escape professional killers.
Another post-apocalyptic dystopia set in North America, fans of the book and the show can watch, be horrified by the sub-human status of women, entertain themselves, and rest easy knowing that their world will never be that bad. Unfortunately, the author Margaret Atwood is quoted as saying that all the ordeals and trials the women in the book go through — impregnation, punishment for getting abortions, rape, and a complete lack of human rights — can mostly be traced back to our history books. From Romanian communist leader Ceaușescu and his policy on forced childbirth, denial of access to abortions all over the world, forced marriages, and the repurposing of religious texts to maintain a position of power over women is all a part of our reality Atwood has used as inspiration for her novel.
Again, it seems as though the ‘what-if’ factor to dystopias has already been answered.