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Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Dystopias, part 2 (originally published 12/02)

What with the economy going down for the third time and ugly bigotry rearing its head in the high places of Washington, D.C., we might be forgiven for concluding that we are as far from achieving Thomas More's vision of a utopian society as it is possible to be. The recent release of "Equilibrium," however, reminds us that it could be worse. Its portrayal of a society that has outlawed both art and emotion belongs to a long tradition of "dystopian" fiction. These are stories that show us just how bad it could get if we aren't careful. We looked at a few examples last week. Here are a few more dystopian films to look for on home video.

"Metropolis" (1927). The earliest significant screen portrayal of a dystopian society is this German silent classic directed by Fritz Lang. Set in an enormous underground city of the future, it shows us the exploitation of the working class carried to its logical conclusion. This is a city in which most of the aristocracy are not even aware of the existence of the workers whose labor sustains their carefree lifestyle. This important and seminal film has recently received a long overdue restoration. The restored version is available on home video from Kino Video (

"Alphaville" (1965) Jean-Luc Godard, one of the icons of the French New Wave, loved to throw curveballs. Here, he plays fast and loose with genre conventions by blending the hard-boiled detective genre with science fiction to tell the story of a totalitarian society ruled by a supercomputer called Alpha 60. The hero of the story is Lemmy Caution, played by Eddie Constantine. Godard's joke here is that Constantine had already played Caution in a series of violent potboilers, very much in the standard detective film tradition. Imagine Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer being transplanted into a sophisticated science fiction film by, say, Steven Soderbergh and you'll get the idea.

"Zardoz" (1973). Writer-director John Boorman's version of a future society gone wrong is a cautionary tale about what can happen when religion becomes a tool of the political elites. The deity worshipped by this society is Zardoz, who appears in the form of a gigantic stone head. Zed (Sean Connery) is one of the exterminators who serve Zardoz by keeping the general rabble in line. To his dismay, Zed learns that Zardoz is actually nothing more than a figurehead used by a secret society of elites to impose their will on the populace.

"THX-1138" (1971). You might not find it surprising that the first Hollywood project directed by George Lucas was a science fiction film. If you're expecting "Star Wars," however, better think again. This was an expanded version of a short film produced by Lucas when he was still a film student at USC. Its narrative style is self-consciously arty and avant-garde, pushing the envelope of what a Hollywood studio can be persuaded to release. The society Lucas portrays is a world in which sexuality is strictly forbidden, such urges being suppressed through the enforced administration of sedative drugs. Although profoundly eclipsed by the massive shadow cast by the "Star Wars" series, this early Lucas effort lives on in the name he has given to his line of high end movie exhibition products and services: THX Ltd.

Dystopian films (and literature) are sometimes described as inherently pessimistic, predicting the worst for humanity instead of hoping for the best. Ray Bradbury disputes this view, however. He points out that in writing "Fahrenheit 451," he was not trying to predict the future. Instead, he was trying to prevent a future. He saw a dangerous trend developing and extrapolated it to its logical conclusion in order to suggest that we stop traveling down that road while there is still time. Seen in that light, such stories are, at their core, profoundly optimistic. Only an optimist would assume that we as a society can see the cliff coming and change directions before we go over it. If that's true, it may well be that films like "Minority Report" and "Equilibrium," along with the films we've been considering here, can lay claim to a significance far beyond the entertainment they provide.

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