6 Bizarre Messages You Didn't Notice In 'The Hunger Games'
Science fiction is an inkblot test for the collective anxieties of the present, especially when it comes to stories about dystopian hellholes. Consider The Hunger Games, that beloved coming-of-age tale about kids murdering each other for sport.
Sure, The Hunger Games has made so much goddamn money that it's going to become a theme park, but when you look beyond the marketing hoopla, you'll find some surprising insights into our society's hopes and fears. And no, I don't mean "You can make huge amounts of money ripping off Japanese movies." (Everybody knows that already.) I'm talking about stuff like ...
Climate Change Is The New Robot Apocalypse
Remember when Terminator, Logan's Run, Alien, Westworld, and THX 1138 all unanimously shat runny fear over the possibility that robots would eventually turn us into pink mulch? Those films all came out in the '70s and '80s -- which happened to be the era in which computers were becoming a thing. Little did we know that the mechanized rapture would come in the form of affable Japanese robo-mannequins instead of a meadows of skulls.
"I'm going with the skull meadows, thanks."
It's kind of like how every modern apocalyptic hellscape involves famine, overpopulation, or the good ol' unsurvivable scorch. Even Roland Emmerich went from moonsaulting the world with dinosaurs and aliens to realizing that the world was plenty capable of KO'ing itself.
Further evidence of the planet's self-loathing: It produced Roland Emmerich.
I'm not the only person who noticed this: The Guardian recently pointed out that every modern dystopian story more or less originates in climate change. Elysium, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, and Maze Runner are all scenarios in which the spark of destitution is weather-related. In almost all of these cases, humanity is first forced to live amongst its own fumes in a bunkered society before forming an oppression-tastic government as a side effect -- much like how robots and war created the fictional dystopias of the pre-2000s. "A bunch of dust" is the new Skynet.
The Hunger Games, specifically, takes place in the nation of Panem ... which, in case you never noticed, is merely the US with a shitload more beaches.
Canada remains unchanged, according to the text in this map.
In both Logan's Run and THX 1138, the heroes emerge from their totalitarian bio-cage to find a perfectly habitable world outside -- all because yesterday's writers never envisioned a wasteland so stupid that our proclivities toward freight shipping and plastic bottles would mark our demise. That's why, even when we did acknowledge our negative effect on the environment, we never focused on it as a catalyst. The world of Blade Runner might be smog-filled and nearly bereft of non-synthetic animals, but the real concern was getting your head twisted off by Daryl Hannah's robo-legs. The irony now is that instead of enslaving us, modern fictional robots, like Interstellar's TARS, are helping us un-fuck the world. And on that thought ...
No One Cares About Automation Or Surveillance Anymore
Movies like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil, and THX 1138 made it seem like technology would doom us to live and die on a perpetually-monitored conveyor of soulless existence, like 7-Eleven hot dogs. The '70s and '80s thought that cameras and microphones would be as common as Bo Derek braids, allowing the impersonal dominating bureaucracy to dictate your most intimate moments.
Now cut to today, and we're ordering pizza by bellowing at an all-seeing game box that never stops listening to you. And we love it!
Shouting "I hate myself!" works, too.
I'm not disparaging today's less-privacy-concerned world, but rather pointing out what a tremendous wad of nothing Big Brother turned out to be. Instead of silently eradicating us for thoughtcrime, technology's meaty clasp on our personal identity culminated in selling custom T-shirts on Facebook. This would explain why newer dystopias like Maze Runner and The Hunger Games don't nearly demonize technology and surveillance as much as older films. Katniss might live in a world in which it's implied that the Capitol is always watching, but that surveillance is a secondary annoyance. For the most part, all she has to do is stay indoors or walk outside the boundary, and no one is the wiser.
The "no hunting" law is apparently enforced by an honor system.
Not to mention how the all-seeing cameras are actually utilized by the heroes, as Katniss uses her reality TV persona to gain public support. It's hard to paint cameras as an evil entity now that everyone has one on their phones. As the media gets more and more of its information from Twitter and Reddit, the sad truth is that Big Brother doesn't need to watch us; we crowdsourced that ourselves.
Hell, other dystopian films will even flat-out glorify otherwise terrifying inventions. Elysium ends with (spoilers: you don't care) the heroes bestowing magic ailment-curing machines on the common folk on Earth ... which is really gonna fuck with the already-overpopulated, resource-lacking planet. And yet these genie beds get featured as inconsequentially as the amazing robots that no one in this society cares about. Because, again, robots aren't the main aggressor anymore.
They've gone from "EXTERMINATE" to "please take away that sharpie."
Even The Matrix ends with an amicable truce between humans and their robot overlords, implying that being harvested in an automated factory isn't the worst thing in the world. But that is by far not the weirdest precedent this series set for us ...
We're No Longer Afraid Of Being Brainwashed
I'm just going to say it: The robots in The Matrix were kind of the good guys. After humans indifferently ball-slapped them to the brink of war, the machines plugged us into a non-charred virtual facsimile of our once-happy society, when they could have easily kept us comatose -- or worse, looped us into an Aphex Twin music video for all eternity. Instead, they were nice enough to give us free will within the Matrix.
And free body waxing outside of it.
This is arguably better than the real world. But despite this, Neo and his leather buddies tear down the system under the principle that our bodies need to be free -- even if that means breaking the minds of millions of people in the Matrix. Remember that, according to Morpheus, getting your "mind freed" after a certain age is downright dangerous (hence his preference for child soldiers).
So the mantra here is basically "I don't care if it hurts my brain and ultimately kills millions of people. No one uses my body but me!" Which, when you think about it, is the exact opposite of older stories like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil, and Fahrenheit 451, in which the absolute worst possibility is losing your mind. Characters like Winston Smith were only truly defeated once they were conditioned into obedience. As the cliche goes, "they may have our bodies, but they can't take our souls." But in The Matrix, the characters give up their souls to keep their bodies -- and that's the happy ending.
This sunrise would be a lot nicer if billions of people weren't screaming themselves into a coma during it.
And this is every dystopian-themed movie now. We've tossed away the horrors of "thoughtcrimes" and conditioning and replaced the worst possible oppressive fate with simple pain and dying. Every struggle is physical and literal, from maze-running to hunger-gaming to, uh, whatever Divergent is about. Or having your clone organs harvested in The Island -- which happens to be the perfect movie for explaining why we no longer fear brainwashing.
The most unfeasible dystopia: One where people use Bing.
Like every Michael Bay film, The Island was dick-packed with aggressive product placement. Meanwhile, this autumn's hottest film about a famine-wracked plutocracy is being brought to us by Subway's savory new Sriracha Chicken Melt.
"May the odds of not catching fiery diarrhea be ever in your favor."
It's hard to make a movie about brainwashing when you're also trying to cultivate corporate synergy. But who gives a fuck? We don't! Since the '70s, our lives have been lousy with advertisements. Perhaps the fear of brainwashing has become less prevalent, due to how unaffected we are by the casual mind control thrown at us every day. Or maybe they brainwashed us into not caring about brainwashing anymore. The point is that Subway's new Sriracha Chicken Melt is both a bold and healthy meal solution for any occasion.
Modern Society Hates Rich People
If there was a running theme in the sci-fi stories coming out of the '50s through to the '80s, it was "FUCK SOCIALISM." Books, films, and films about books, like Logan's Run, THX 1138, and Fahrenheit 451, were steeped in the fear of sameness, forced equality, and censorship creating the social and economic disparity we imagined would result from a communist takeover.
But in the '20s and '30s, we saw films like Metropolis and Battleship Potemkin get away with demonizing a wealthy class and being praised in a US that was nearing an economic clusterfuck. Much like how everyone's feeling the Bern today, socialism was kind of popular during the Great Depression. And coincidentally, we are also ass-deep in dystopian movies whose main struggles are between corrupt upper and heroic lower classes.
It's like Occupy Wall Street, but with somehow stupider hairstyles.
The Purge is about a day of reckoning designed for the wealthy to prey on the poor, Elysium is about the one percent living on a giant space yacht above earth, In Time is about how life is literally money, Snowpiercer is about hobo Captain America pushing his way into first class, and The Hunger Games, of course, is about the wealthy Capitol lording over the poor and working. Even the new Mad Max features a water-rich maniac dwelling above the unfortunate like a warlord. In every instance, we see a total lack of a middle class -- much like real life.
The difference is, the despot with the crazy hair might come to power through an election.
It's not just dystopian films. Look at the '90s, when Kevin Spacey and Edward Norton played heroically bored middle-class whiners and Batman was a celebrated playboy and not a cold-hearted one-percenter. Now, even Captain America can't afford a place in Brooklyn anymore, implying that everyone is equally screwed by the economic situation. And it's this shared misery that creates yet another new trope in the sci-fi dystopian genre ...
Mob Mentality Is Now A Good Thing
If there was ever a baffling attribute that all modern fictional dystopias seem to have, it's that the characters now know that they are living in one. In the first Hunger Games, we see a cluster of districts full of people who can't be more bummed to sit and watch their kids gets speared through the torso. Unlike The Running Man, at no point does the film try to portray the bulk of society as being conditioned to enjoy their death-tertainment. In fact, they all look pretty pissed about it.
Except the rich minority, but they're barely people (see: previous entry).
It takes only a freaking year for V to rally all of miserable-ass London in the V For Vendetta movie. There is no effective propaganda, and no real brainwashing or doublespeak. The act of curb-stomping Parliament boiled down to scrounging postage cash for Halloween masks and revolution muumuus.
Reality has since revealed that this scene would smell like BO and pot.
Snowpiercer, Elysium, Maze Runner -- here, the oppressed people have no delusions about their terrible situation. So when our hero stands up and says "Fuck this shit," it's only a matter of everyone grabbing those pitchforks and bum-rushing the cleanest-looking faces.
I know it sounds crazy-obvious that the people stuck in a hellhole society would no longer wish to be in that hellhole, but in terms of the plot, it hardly makes for a logical or terrifying film. Suddenly, we have to wonder why it took so long for the government to be overthrown, and why a single individual can make such a huge difference when everyone else was equally angry the whole time. Older films, like the original Mad Max, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Warriors, and Planet Of The Apes, were the polar opposite. They were told from the perspective of a few sane individuals caught in a world where the mob mentality was against them. Usually, the horde was pro-tyranny, and the struggle tended to be the hero's personal journey of realization and escape. Extra points if they started out being oppressive dicks themselves, as in Fahrenheit 451 and Logan's Run.
The most effective tool against tyranny: blondes.
The deeper into hopelessness these films started, the more powerful the hero's marginal struggle to get out. This is why we loved watching Neo learn his powers in the first Matrix, but hated watching him indifferently use them to pummel agents in the subsequent films. There's nothing emotionally cathartic about exploding CGI bodies of Hugo Weaving -- at least, in terms of revolutionary satisfaction. But like every modern version of this genre, we can't leave it at the one hero finding hope ...
Modern Dystopias Always End Happily
The first Matrix movie ended ambiguously, with Neo flying over a still-enslaved world, smashing to credits as he farted out Rage Against the Machine through the clouds like a goth Rocketeer. Then we spent two more films following the convoluted robo-war, which resulted in a happy peace treaty between civilizations. Because God forbid a modern sci-fi movie end without turning into a Tolkien novel.
It's not even a spoiler to tell you that franchises like The Hunger Games and Maze Runner have happy endings, because that's every dystopic movie now. And if anyone tries to break the monotony, we feel cheated and betrayed.
Ask your friend who stopped talking to you after you forced them to watch Snowpiercer.
But whatever happened to dystopian films that existed as cautionary tales, not epic fables? You know ... ones where the oppressed don't always come out sparkly, and the totalitarian government isn't always defeated? Sometimes, like in Planet Of The Apes, THX, or Logan's Run, the happiest ending is the one where the good guy barely makes it out of a still-f'ed-up society. That was certainly more refreshing than the endings to Brazil and Nineteen Eighty-Four, where no one was the winner.
Audience sanity included.
The point of showcasing a precautionary bleak future was to veer society away from the ideology villainized in that story. The same way we tried to "scare kids straight," these films and books presented a world so hopeless that the only logical solution was to prevent them from ever happening in the first place. We can avoid a nuclear holocaust by dismantling our arsenal before it's too late. We can prevent the robot apocalypse by curbing our hubris toward A.I. We can prevent a Day After Tomorrow climate shift by pursuing a greener world today. Right?
... or we can jerk it while a tidal wave somehow solves all our problems. Because even 2012 ended with our heroes cruising to salvation on a boat of smiles.
At least they'd never do a Terminator movie with a sappy "ride off into the horizon" ending, right? Right?
If you're trying to figure out why this shift happened, consider that The Matrix was made in 1999, its sequel in 2002, and what happened to America between those years. The '90s had obsessed over that dark, hopeless world where only a fart of light was able to make it through. Films like 12 Monkeys, Waterworld, and Gattaca kept with the idea that no one person could stop the injustice or peril of its universe. It was a depressing-ass message that nobody wanted to stomach during an ongoing war and economic recession. And so we got The Hunger Games -- a colorful action-packed world in which the revolution is fought and won with steampunk weaponry and cake-making skills.
Because modern dystopias are no longer about preventing disaster, but hoping we can overcome the ones that already happened.
David is sorry for making The Hunger Games more depressing to think about than it already was. You can reach him on Twitter.
Also check out 5 Things Movie Dystopias Get Wrong About Dictatorships and 5 Reasons 'The Hunger Games' Is Creepier Than You Think.
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