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.
The Weinstein Company
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.
Embassy International Pictures
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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