At its best, dystopian science fiction acts as a shadow of our own lives: It may imagine a reality beyond the inevitable nuclear fallout preceding the next US election, it may depict the watery world that waits for us should the polar caps recede like Kevin Costner's hairline, or it could envision that fateful day when the machines become too smart, or possibly just too sexy, and turn on us for our transgressions. That's dystopian sci-fi at its best. At its worst, the genre is pointlessly miserable for no goddamn reason. Here are a few examples of the latter.
Minority Report presents us with a future version of Washington, D.C. that is completely free of murder, thanks to its psychic-powered "pre-crimes" division. Which is a cutting-edge task force made up of three sad people living in bathtubs. Obviously, that's a hurdle for the program's PR department, who wants to take the pre-crime division nationwide. But you know what's a worse PR hurdle? Their fucking robot spiders that shoot lasers into suspects' eyes.
This scene is its own Rule 34.
We get to see the robo-spiders in action when the police are sweeping an apartment building to find Tom Cruise. Instead of thermal optics, or sonic detectors, or calling the gooey people back at base who know the future, the cops deploy terrifying autonomous spiders that slink through cracks in every apartment, then leap onto the tenant's faces and blast them in the face with a laser. If you're not the suspect, the retinal scan will register that, and the spiders simply crawl away -- no harm done! Oh, except for if you cover your eyes. Then there is so much harm done, because they'll tase the holy spirit out of you.
"It's okay, sweetie. Let the terrifying robot onto your face so it can sear your eyeball. God bless the Pre-Crime police for protecting you from trauma."
The weird thing is that people seem to accept this. We see a mother teaching her kids proper spiderbot-face-rape protocol, a young couple annoyed when their sex is interrupted by giant spider attack, and an older couple who barely pause their argument for ambush arachnid laser eye blasts. This is a world where murder has been eradicated, yet we've traded that for robot home invasions. The Justice Department is legitimately concerned with the civil-rights implications of pre-crime, but has no problem with nightmare drones that torture you into complying with invasive searches? And speaking of searching, how thoroughly do you need to search an eight-year-old blonde girl to figure out if she's Tom Cruise? Do you really need to crawl down her goddamn optic nerve to solve that mystery? We're starting to think these cops just get off on traumatizing children and robot cockblocking.
The first act of Divergent centers around Katniss Potter's angst about her upcoming aptitude test and Sorting, wait, sorry ... Choosing Ceremony. Because in this dystopian society, everything from your neighborhood to your career is determined by your personality type, or "Faction." Members of the "Abnegation" Faction are selfless and incorruptible, making them best suited for leadership positions. "Candor" is known for honesty, so they run law and criminal justice. "Dauntless" is the faction for military service and security -- they're mostly train-hopping sociopaths with badass tattoos. It's basically a dystopian story about teenagers, mood rings, and high school-caliber cliques. Obviously, it was a monstrous success.
For a little while ...
In order to determine each citizen's Faction, the government conducts an annual, state-sponsored drug trip for teenagers. Once a year, every 16-year-old is rounded up, dosed with a psychedelic techno-potion, and observed by an administrator as they battle their way through an action-packed hallucination. You know how some inventions are actually based on science fiction tropes, like the Star Trek communicator predicting the cellphone? We'd like "mandatory high school ball trippin'" to be next, please.
You thought one Shailene Woodley was annoying...
Not only does the government expend a massive amount of time and money for these individual administrators to babysit tripping teenagers, the whole test is more of a suggestion than a rule. While the drug sequence is designed to reveal someone's natural Faction, anyone can pick whatever group they want, for whatever reason, regardless of how they scored. It's as if the government just made way too much LSD and were trying to find the most hilarious way to get rid of it.
The fact that the aptitude test is non-binding and pointless, besides being dumb, also throws much of the story into question. The central plot of Divergent revolves around a planned coup by the intellectual elite of Erudite, who want to seize control from Abnegation. But if the evil smarties want to take over the government -- hear us out -- couldn't they have just chosen Abnegation as their Faction at the ceremony?
"This is the most important test of your life. You know, unless you don't want it to be."
What about the supposedly honest lawyers and judges of Candor? Since there's zero way of enforcing Faction choice, there's no way of knowing members of Candor are actually honest, right? Do the liars in the Divergent universe not lie about being honest? Is all this nonsense worth an obvious metaphor for becoming your own person, when most teenagers are desperate to do that anyway? The world may never know...
Oh wait. No. The answer to that last one was "no." Carry on.
The futuristic world of Logan's Run, as imagined by 1976 production designers, involved people color-coordinating their outfits according to their social status, an all-knowing computer controlling every aspect of daily life, and the last people on Earth living in a big, stupid dome. So far, pretty standard '70s stuff. Also, every single person has a glowing crystal in their hand that counts down to their Last Day, because when you're 30 years old in the Logan's Run universe, you must undergo the Carrousel ritual -- a flowery way to describe "getting vaporized." Your pointless little "life-clock" hand crystal won't let you forget about your date with laser death, either. It starts changing color, blinking, and making alarm sounds as you approach your 30th birthday.
"Uh, no, guys, it's just red from... masturbating."
The thing about the life-clocks is... Why?
Every person in the city is tracked by the mega-computer from birth to death, and since most of your day in Logan's Run is spent in a hedonistic pile of orgy, it's not like anyone's going to miss some positively geriatric 31-year-old slapping everyone with his sagging, gray balls. When you think about it, life-clocks are just unnecessary terror calendars surgically implanted into your hand out of pure spite.
At least don't make them have to dress like the Boo Klux Klan, assholes.
Worse, as you may have guessed from the second word of the film's title, people tend to run when the countdown gets close. We don't want to tell robots how to run their dystopian future domes, but instead of "life-clocks" there could be bombs, or time-release poison capsules. Or anything but a blaring alarm that says "run, motherfucker! You goon' die!"
There are two things you need to know about the 1998 film Dark City: It's dark, and it takes place in a city. Good job on the title, guys! In the film, Rufus Sewell plays an amnesiac man who may or may not have committed a brutal murder. Spoiler alert: Nobody cares because it turns out the city is an enormous artificial construct built by aliens piloting dead human bodies. So spot on with the title, but they buried the lede a little on the plot.
It turns out that these aliens, referred to as Strangers, are mysteriously dying off, and have abducted a human city for their space zoo in order to study why humans are not mysteriously dying off. The Strangers constantly rearrange the city and assign new identities to the population to help understand humanity better. It's the movie version of listening to Bauhaus albums while you shake an ant farm.
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema
Coincidentally, every frame of this movie would make a great cover for a Bauhaus album called Dark City.
There's a sort of flaw in the alien researchers' plan, though. If they're running an experiment on natural human behavior, why make it a constant gloomfest? Shouldn't they be simulating our natural environment with day and night cycles? Are they able to float a city in space and rearrange its architecture at will, but haven't figured out sunlamps? Sad people and the Swedish have had that tech on lockdown for a few decades now, aliens.
New Line Cinema
The titular Dark City is really only representative of present-day Detroit.
To the film's credit, it is briefly mentioned that the Strangers are "sensitive" to light. That's a problem, sure -- but the aliens could just sit in a dark room watching us on monitors for half the day, then come out at night if they really need the personal touch. You know, like goth alien vampires. Which almost certainly is a Tim Burton film we can't remember.
In the first and inexplicably only film about pistol dancing, Christian Bale works for the fascist city-state of Libria, where all citizens are forced to take daily emotion-suppressing drugs. In addition, all art, poetry, and anything else that might stimulate emotions has been banned. Why would a universe so stupid exist? Well, because emotions were deemed to be the cause of all wars in the past.
Wait, whoa -- when you think about it, the rage-boner men get from poetry really does cause genocide.
"A reminder to our citizens that poetry is lame and you're lame if you like it."
In one early scene, Christian Bale and the Feels Police raid the hideout of some rebels who have contraband art stowed away. And not just any art -- they pry up some floorboards and find that the rebels have the Mona Lisa itself. A technician waves a sci-fi scanning wand at it and confirms, "It's real." Then the cops burn it.
But... again, why?
"DA VINCI WAS A HAAAACK!"
Most people are already on the emotion-killing drug, so looking at art doesn't do shit anyway. We know the drug works, because even the main character doesn't start feeling contraband emotions until he goes off of it. The only people who are in "danger" from art or literature are the rebels who are already refusing the drug, and they're committing capital crimes just by doing that. And while we're on the subject of emotions, one would imagine there's a smaller emotional response from looking at a painting than from watching a priceless artifact burn.
And it also seems worth asking: Why would the government go out of its way to develop a handheld art scanner just to authenticate paintings they're going to destroy? Wouldn't a poster of a Monet be almost as criminally stirring as a real Monet? And it's not like paintings are vampires or space bugs-- when you kill the original, it doesn't also kill any existing copies. By the very rules of the moronic universe they created, it so very much doesn't matter if art is real before it gets destroyed. It's like the movie was worried that forcing everyone to take feeling-numbing drugs wasn't evil enough, so it needed to add a painfully blunt parallel to Nazi book-burning. Because we didn't get it just from the flag alone:
This looks familiar but it's probably just a coincidence.
The Maze Runner is set on a future Earth where solar flares have turned most everything into a barren wasteland. More humans have survived than can be effectively fed or housed and blah blah blah -- let's skip to the part where some insane government comes up with a ridiculous solution. Here it is: an engineered virus that kills off enough people to bring the population down to a sustainable level. That's not ridiculous enough. So okay: It turns out the virus misbehaves and does not simply vanish after it's done killing off most of humanity. Instead, it starts turning people into zombies.
Still not ridiculous enough!
20th Century Fox
"What if the zombies had plants for hair? Would that do anything for you?"
So right, like -- there are these children who are immune to the disease, and the government thinks they can cure it by experimenting on them. But they don't just say "Hey, we need your help to cure this awful disease that's destroying all of your loved ones." And despite wiping out most of the population of their own planet, the government also isn't quite evil enough to just lash the kids down to some gurneys and start poking. So instead -- stay with us here -- the government wipes the kids' memories and sticks them in a giant maze full of bio-mechanical monsters.
20th Century Fox
That's really the next logical step.
The maze is breathtakingly colossal. And on a planet with very, very limited resources, it certainly must have taken all-ish of them to build. It's also inexplicably full of greenery, despite the lack of that being the entire premise of the story. If you screamed, "HOW AM I IN A MONSTER MAZE!?" at a group of kindergarteners, their panicked answers would hold up better than the lore of The Maze Runner.
The walls of the maze also move around every day (occasionally crushing valuable virus-immune kids), and the labyrinth is "beaten" by figuring out the elaborate moving-wall pattern and using it to solve a puzzle. Again, this is to cure a disease. And last we checked, a person's ability to dodge monsters and solve elaborate riddles traditionally has nothing to do with developing vaccines, no matter what Jim Carrey says.
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
Pretty sure "Giant fucking death maze" wasn't in Jonas Salk's polio notes.
The whole mind-wipe amnesia thing uselessly hangs over the entire story, with the introduction of a memory-restoring medicine -- except that one girl reveals she was only pretending to have amnesia. None of which helps explain why their memories had to be wiped in the first place. It's so truly, utterly insane. If you tried to cure cancer by cutting the genitals off mice and opening a throwing-star theme park unrelated to, and very far away from those mice genitals, the producers of The Maze Runner would gasp, "Why didn't we think of that!?"
Roisin Isner is pronounced Roh-sheen Eyes-ner. She doesn't have any twitters or tumblers to link to, and just hopes you have a really nice day. Riley Black plays bass for Preston and the Feels Police. Nathan Kamal lives in Oregon and writes. He co-founded Asymmetry Fiction for all your fiction needs.
Behind every awful movie is the idea for a good one. Old man Indiana Jones discovers aliens. Good in theory, bad in practice. Batman fights Superman. So simple, but so bad. Are there good translations of these movies hidden within the stinking turds that saw the light of day? Jack O'Brien hosts Soren Bowie, Daniel O'Brien and Katie Willert of 'After Hours' on our next live podcast to find an answer as they discuss their ideal versions of flops, reboots, and remakes. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased here!
For more reasons all these scenarios are bullshit, check out 5 Things Movie Dystopias Get Wrong About Dictatorships and 5 Dystopian Movie Technologies That Would Improve Our World.
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