But wait a second -- I usually hate dystopian movies. What makes all those other ones so bad, at least as far as the dystopian theme goes, however well they may work on other levels? I'm thinking of Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc. (I didn't see the entire thing, but I've heard V for Vendetta was like these as well.) These stories go wrong in showing a world that is awful because there is some kind of foreign parasite making the host population sick, almost always some kind of corporate interest or totalitarian political group, although sometimes it really is a foreign species like Planet of the Apes.
The conquered-by-invaders ones aren't that bad because they're real -- have human groups never been enslaved by invaders before? Anything that pushes our Us vs. Them buttons is already halfway to being a captivating story. Unfortunately we don't define our tribes or ethnic groups as citizens vs. rulers or workers vs. managers, so the corporate/political dystopias don't work that way. Well, if these parasites didn't land from outer space or something, just where did they come from?
It seems like a deus ex machina, only an unexplained and implausible source of ruin at the beginning of the story. At best, it's something smug that barely rises above this kind of initial narration:
When those couch potatoes in Kansas finally managed to vote the Republicans into control of the House, Senate, and White House, it only took three years before we ended up in the world you see here. Yeah, I know -- real nice place, isn't it? But mister, you ain't seen the half of it...
The unchecked corporate greed stories aren't any more convincing -- why are they given free reign? Well, the politicians fell asleep at the wheel, or were bought off by the corporations, or the masses were brainwashed by laissez-faire propagandists, etc.
What makes these corporate/political stories fail is that they project the inborn human tendency toward sinning onto some evil, caricatured Other. The solution to our problems is clear and calls for no deep change to ourselves -- we just have to band together and drive out the Other, then evil will go away. If only we can rein in those greedy business owners, if only we can vote those Republicans out of office, if only we can bump off the politburo.
Back on planet Earth, we move closer toward dystopia because of the average person's greed, pride, hubris, ambition, and other flaws, both subtle and gross. Tally these sins up across the great mass of normal people, and soon quantity has a quality all its own. Corporations have to operate within the limits, whether written down or tacit, that the multitude sets. If the general population is highly vindictive, then managers cannot just fire whoever they want. In India, that could get the manager killed by angry workers. The same goes for political rulers. In a democracy, going against the general will would just get them voted out of office. In a pre-democratic society the well-to-do and a good deal of the commoners are armed and will simply kill off any leaders who aren't to their liking.
But if the multitude itself continues to indulge in its sins, what's going to stop them? Each person can change their behavior, of course, but there's no outside check on their course toward damnation. Obviously this is the path toward ruin in the real world, and the best dystopian or apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic stories take this for granted. There is a moral message that you yourself have to change (and so do all other sinners) in order to avoid the nightmare future. It's more painful for us to swallow, but we are aware that it's for our own good and appreciate stories that go this route instead of patronizing us by saying that we've been brainwashed by corporations or politicians, that we just have to wake up from the lie and things will be all hunky-dory.
Starting with Back to the Future Part II, how did the alternate 1985 -- the ruined one -- come to be? Marty himself, a normal and usually well behaved guy, gave into temptation and decided to use the time machine for greed, although Doc Brown throws away the sports almanac once he learns about it. Without that decision, old Biff would never have known about the time machine or gotten the idea to do the same thing to enrich his own younger self. No corporations who tempted Marty into it, no politicians who regulated him into it, no academic experts who lied to him, or anything like that. Just plain old human sin.
In fact, when he goes back to 1955 to recover the almanac from young Biff, does he count his blessings that Biff won't be able to take over the town, and then go ahead with his original plan? I mean, hey, he's not an evil guy like Biff, so what harm could come of him giving the book to himself in 1985? By the end of the movie, Marty's learned the lesson of checking his greed and hubris about how under-control he has things; he decides to burn the almanac so that no one may alter history by becoming a gambling big-shot. A less moral person would still arrogantly say, "Hey, as long as it doesn't fall into the wrong hands..." But with something that powerful, everybody's hands are the wrong hands.
All of the other good dystopian stories share this focus on the sins of the average person. Long before movies, there were the cautionary tales from mythology and folklore, then later the emphasis on sin and the apocalypse within near Eastern monotheistic religions, and finally the Faustian bargain and Paradise Lost stories toward the end of pre-industrial Europe.
Once industrialization begins, things get messy because suddenly there is a vast bureaucracy and huge corporations for the writer to blame if they wanted to. As I've explained at length before, during rising-crime times we go into tragic mode and during falling-crime times into trivial mode. So the most bleak and dystopian stories from the Victorian era, when the homicide rate was plummeting, will be of the blame-the-evil-Other sort. Sure enough, that's Dickens' picture of industrial England in a nutshell. If only the corporate masters and political rulers would do the right thing, the masses would be fine.
The next great period of falling crime was roughly the mid-1930s through the late 1950s, and dystopias from that time are also pretty bad. Nineteen Eighty-Four, which everyone creams their jeans over, doesn't focus enough on the inborn tendency toward sin in every human being; it's more of the "boo totalitarians" stuff. That book, and the movie Brazil, do show wonderfully just how degraded language becomes when we embrace bureaucracy, but even here they put too much blame on the Ministry of Bla and not enough on common speakers. In reality, it's the average speaker who is making our language more politically correct and clogged with indecipherable acronyms: they're perfectly free to speak otherwise.
Thank god that violence started spiraling out of control throughout the Western world from roughly 1960 to 1990, or else we wouldn't have gotten the rude awakening that we so sorely needed about what truly leads to dystopia. (There was a smaller and less widespread wave of violence from roughly 1900 to 1935, and we did learn some lessons there, for instance the hubris of the ordinary and eager men who enlisted for World War I.)
So let's briefly remind ourselves of what the good recent dystopian stories were, and introduce them to those who never saw them. (You never know with Millennials -- last semester I made a reference to the original Dirty Harry movie in a seminar on violence, and none of the other grad students had seen it.)
- The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Well-meaning normal people make more and more sophisticated machines, and in the background well-meaning normal consumers crave these products. Before long the machines become self-aware and in control of themselves, and proceed to wipe out most of the human race.
- Alien and Aliens. Film nerds put these in the "corporate dystopia" category, but they must have never watched them. There is zero focus on corporate greed, no portrayal of blond-haired blue-eyed executives who just don't care about the costs, etc. It's true that corporations want to terraform distant planets and bring back exotic species to make a profit, but that's not what gets the colonists and marines into a world of shit. Rather, it's the same hubris that led WWI soldiers into the trenches, and Vietnam soldiers into the jungle. There's a great scene in Aliens where Hudson is bragging on and on about how sophisticated the weaponry is among his team of "ultimate badasses." Same with the colonists, although they are not shown -- the planet looks forbidding, but hey, it's nothing that a little engineering and men in white coats can't handle. Both learn too late that they'd bitten off more than they could chew and were not humble enough when they began their adventures.
- Total Recall. The dystopia on Mars is like that of the Alien series. There's also the dystopia of the lotus-eating public who'd rather live in a dream world rather than face the joys and sorrows of the real world. Again the corporate stuff is minimal -- it's clear that their actions are all driven by what the average person is craving and dying to pay for.
- RoboCop. This is another one that film nerds throw in the "corporate dystopia" bin without thinking about it. While the police have been privatized, it's clear that this was a response to the desires of the multitude -- they'd seen crime growing out of control and put their faith in the men in white coats: All We Have to Do is privatize the police, and bingo, they'll use a little engineering and solve the problem of crime. A Clockwork Orange goes in this direction as well.
Then there are contemporary dystopia movies, which weren't very hard to imagine once it became clear duing the 1970s and '80s that all the various attempts to tame the violence had failed.
- Taxi Driver. Aside from a few new pieces of technology like refrigeration and cars, not to mention somewhat different clothing styles like pants with buttons, a lot of this movie looks like Jesus of Nazareth. There is virtually no whining about politicians, pointy-headed academics, corporate bosses, Hollywood executives, or whatever. New York City is spiraling down the toilet, and it's all their own fault for indulging in such sinful choices. It's not as uplifting as the story of Jesus because only one person (aside from the anti-hero himself) is saved, and we don't get the sense that more and more people will start to change themselves in order to pull the city away from the brink of damnation.
- The loose cannon / vigilante crime movies, such as the Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon series. Here there is a focus on how broken the system is, particularly how handicapped it is by red tape -- Miranda rights, diplomatic immunity, and so on. However, they don't blame this on a bunch of renegade politicians, but instead on the larger popular zeitgeist that had begun to move in the more liberal, rehabilitating direction during the days when the majority voted for Great Society politicians. This is not like the Dickensian poo-poo-ing of the ideological or party enemy, since the Lethal Weapon series was made well into the Reagan and then the Bush administrations.
- Most dead teenager horror movies. The ones who lead more sinful lives get butchered by a maniac, while the ones who are virtuous survive -- simple as that. The Friday the 13th movies, Carrie, and on and on and on.
- Abandoned children movies, popular when divorce rates and child abuse was more commonplace. Some of the dead teenager horror movies fall into this category, where the kids are picked off not necessarily because they've sinned but because they're vulnerable after being left unprotected or thrown out by their sinful parents and careless grown-ups in general. Not because of corporate greed or totalitarian rulers. The original Nightmare on Elm Street is more in this vein, even though it has elements of the "they sinned and must die" type too. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 3 is even more in the Hansel and Gretel direction: it features a bunch of kids whose parents push them out into a mental ward because of their embarrassing personality disorders, and most of the grown-ups look the other way when they cry out that they're being hunted in their dreams.
I'm sure there are more, but that's good enough. Since the crime rate started declining after 1992, we've had mostly morally stunted dystopian stories, and we'll have to wait until the crime rate shoots up again to get some more better ones. But at least there are enough already in existence to rely on for guidance in the meantime.