The idea that art reflects the concerns and hopes of the society that produced it is nothing new. It’s probably even a cliche. However, it was on my mind recently as I’ve been catching up with the recent TV adaptation of ‘Twelve Monkeys.’ Based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name, it tells the story of a time traveller trying to prevent a virus outbreak that, in the future, will decimate the world’s population.
Watching ‘Twelve Monkeys’ got me thinking about what appears to be a trend for films and television to depict the future as being well, frankly a bit rubbish. The trend seems most marked in films targeted at teenagers. ‘The Hunger Games’ series is probably the most successful and well known current example, while we can also add the ‘Divergent’ series and ‘The Maze Runner’ franchise to that list as well. It’s also worth noting that all three examples are adaptations of successful young adult novels, which shows that pessimism about our future can be found on the bookshelves as well.
Of course, it’s nothing new. ‘Blade Runner’, released in 1982, (an adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) is, for many film fans, a touchstone when it comes to dystopian science fiction. For anyone familiar with Philip K Dick’s work, (even from just watching the many film adaptations), there are the common themes of technology’s impact on mankind (very rarely positive) and the battle to preserve something human in the face of opposition, either from the state, the law or often technological advancements.
‘Total Recall’, ‘Minority Report’ (both also based on Philip K Dick stories), ‘Logan’s Run’, ‘In Time’, ‘The Terminator’ franchise, the ‘Robocop’ films, ‘Elysium’, ‘The 100’, the recent Channel 4 series ‘Humans.’ These are just a few examples off the top of my head of films/TV shows that present a cautious picture of the future, where technology has had a questionable impact upon mankind.
Even if it is a cliche, the argument that art can tell us much about the society that produced it is a compelling one, and slightly worrying when applied to this situation. This is because, if we take even just a few of the examples above, it presents a picture of a world that has taken a metaphorical look into the future, and what it has seen isn’t good.
It then begs the question: why? Why are we so pessimistic about what the future holds? Perhaps looking at what’s going on in the world may provide a clue as to why the dystopian future seems to have such a hold on the imaginations of writers and filmmakers. It is common for future-set stories to be a commentary of the times in which they were produced, so taking a look at what’s in the news may provide a reason for all the dystopian pessimism.
For example, Alan Moore’s ‘V For Vendetta’, which tells the story of a future United Kingdom ruled over by a fascistic, totalitarian state, can be seen as a product of the Thatcherite era, where there was concern at the policies of the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, while ‘Watchmen’ by Moore and Dave Gibbons, reflects the fears of nuclear conflict that were prevalent during the Cold War.
Therefore, art that is set in the future can be said to say more about the present than any concrete ideas about the years ahead. It’s not hard to pick a list of current concerns. Terrorism, economic uncertainty, global warming, crime, state control versus personal freedoms. In short, it’s no wonder that we are so negative about what the future holds if the present is anything to go by.
Looking at the dystopian nature of films like ‘The Hunger Games’ and The Terminator franchise also suggests that not only do we fear for the future, we don’t give ourselves much hope of then making things better. Take ‘The Hunger Games’ as an example. Without spoiling things, the conclusion of the trilogy implies that there isn’t that much difference between the tyrannical Capitol and the rebels, which leaves heroine Katniss Everdeen disillusioned. Was the fight all in vain, if at the end of it, the rebels are just as bad as the Capitol regime?
Mistrust. Uncertainty. These are common themes, and very telling as to what we think about the future: there are no easy answers, with the lines between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ blurred to the point where no one can be trusted. It’s either that or a future dominated by wars against powerful enemies, where victory is far from assured.
It’s tempting to see this as symptomatic of an increasingly godless world, one where we can’t agree on much except that things aren’t right, though we are completely at a loss as to what to do about it. To take this atheistic thinking to its natural conclusion, if there is nothing at the end of life, if this is all there is, then there is no hope. Not just for now, but for all time.
In this light, it’s no surprise that dystopian stories are so popular across a range of art forms, from films and books to video games like the popular ‘Fallout’ series and the forthcoming ‘The Division.’ It’s all very revealing about what this world thinks about itself: the problems are many, the solutions are few and far between, and the future is far from bright.