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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Dystopias, part 1 (originally published 12/02)

In 1515, Thomas More imagined an idealized society, a place populated by "citizens ruled by good and wholesome laws," where people "live together in a civil policy and good order." More's name for this civic paragon has entered the language as the word on which we hang our hopes for a better world. He called it "Utopia."

Some five centuries later, we are still struggling to realize that ideal. Indeed, it sometimes seems that we are moving away from the dream of Utopia, rather than closer to it. With that in mind, it is perhaps not so surprising that the more pessimistic strains of science fiction, both literary and cinematic, occasionally show us the other extreme of the continuum by imagining a future society in which good and wholesome laws have been entirely abandoned in favor of repressive and dehumanizing ones. This nightmare inversion of the utopian dream is generally referred to as "dystopian fiction."

A recent example is "Minority Report," adapted from the Philip K. Dick story in which people can be arrested for crimes that they haven't yet committed. The most recent dystopian film is the currently playing "Equilibrium," in which the possession of art and the manifestation of emotion are both capital crimes. For a sampling of how earlier films have portrayed possible nightmare societies, look for these titles on home video.

"Fahrenheit 451" (1966). Ray Bradbury's chilling cautionary tale reached the screen courtesy of renowned French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. In the world Bradbury postulates, all books have been banned on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to write anything without offending someone. All structures, by this time, have been made fireproof, so the function of firemen has evolved to meet the new societal need. Instead of putting out fires, fire trucks are dispatched for the purpose of burning books. Occasionally a die-hard book lover will have a cache of books squirreled away in defiance of the law. When their names are turned in, as they always are sooner or later, the fire engine rolls up to their house, uses the fire hose to douse the books with kerosene, and torches them.

"1984" (1984). The novel that has come to be the standard bearer for all dystopian fiction is George Orwell's grim tale of Winston Smith's fate after falling in love, and thereby committing a crime against the state. It's all here: Big Brother, the Ministry of Truth, the Thought Police, doublespeak - all the Orwellian touches that have entered our collective consciousness as the eternal symbols of totalitarianism writ large. Orwell's novel had been adapted for the screen once before, in 1956, but it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a version produced in 1984. This one features John Hurt as Smith and Richard Burton, in his last screen performance, as the mendacious O'Brien.

"Soylent Green" (1973). Based on Harry Harrison's novel "Make Room! Make Room!," the plot of this film is driven by the investigation of an industrialist's murder. The social backdrop, however, is what distinguishes it. Set in New York City in the year 2022, it offers a nightmarish vision of a world that has cast aside any pretense of ecological responsibility in the face of an overwhelming population explosion.

"Mad Max" (1979). One of the most popular subcategories of dystopian fiction is the "after the bomb" story, a vision of life after the world has been devastated by thermonuclear war. This Australian picture, starring Mel Gibson in the title role, caught on in a big way with audiences worldwide. It shows us how the rule of law has become a violent, brutal joke in the outback following the apocalypse. Max, a motorcycle cop charged with riding herd on the almost sub-human denizens of the outback's highways, turns his job into a vehicle for a personal vendetta after his own family is murdered by these same marauding gangs.

Next week we'll look at still more examples of dystopian cinema. In the meantime, if your morning newspaper should begin to seem disquietingly similar to Orwell's "1984," just keep reminding yourself that doublethink will liberate you from all such anxieties. Say it with me: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." There now. Feel better?

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