Callum Mckenna weighs in on all things dystopian and whether film can be a vehicle for social revolution.
You can tell a lot about a culture from its taste in cinema. After all, films are escapism in perhaps its purest form, so they must be a fairly good indicator of what it is a society is trying to escape to, or indeed escape from. It used to be that westerns were some of the most popular films around, implying people were becoming disillusioned with big cities, perhaps longing for the freedom and adventure of a life on the frontier. Later, when fears about climate change and a lack of renewable resources started becoming more widespread we looked to the stars. Sci-fi films were a manifestation of our hopes that all of our problems could be solved with new space age technologies that would whisk us away from our dying planet. Looking at recent films then, we can infer that what people most want to escape from now is their government.
The rise of ‘dystopian’ films in the last few years has been hard to miss. Titles like The Giver, Divergent and of course The Hunger Games have gained massive amounts of popularity, and they all take place in a very similar setting. They show a future in which society has become very clearly split between a wealthy and decadent authoritarian elite and the downtrodden, poverty stricken masses. The protagonists of these films are all teens or young adults who make a stand against their oppressive overlords and show people that there is a fairer way to live.
It’s not difficult to work out why these films have gained so much popularity. Wealth inequality in western society has been on the rise for years now, in the USA it has more than doubled in the last decade, and people are noticing. To a young person trying to find a place in the world, it can seem pretty unfair. Now we get to see that indignation reflected when we watch Katniss Everdeen flip a middle finger to the Capitol with all their money, fancy hair and bad spelling. These films show that the idea of radical socio-economic change is becoming much more appealing to the younger generations, especially when that change involves swirly beard patterns, exploding arrows and Liam Hemsworth’s jawline.
It’s not just young people that find this idea appealing, however. Donald Sutherland, who plays Hunger Games villain President Snow,says he only took the role because he believes that the series will inspire people to change. In fact, he likened the film’s protagonist Katniss Everdeen to Joan of Arc, and even went so far as to say that The Hunger Games had ‘the possibility to be the most influential American film since [he] can’t remember’. That’s a very bold claim, but then again the film does carry a very bold message.
Interestingly, most of these films involve some form of trial inflicted upon young people by the ruling regime, whoever it may be. Hunger Games obviously has the hunger games, Divergent has every young person undergo a terrifying hallucinogenic drug trip to determine which faction of society they get placed in and Maze Runner has a big maze. Or something. I actually didn’t watch that one, but the trailer made it look pretty intense. This suggests that young people feel like they’re forced through a kind of gauntlet before they’re accepted and deemed worthy by society, and it’s interesting to speculate what that might be. It possibly represents university, several years of work to achieve a degree in something more often than not entirely unrelated to your future career, but a lot of people won’t hire you without one. It might also reference trying to make your way in an increasingly crowded job market, taking out the competition Hunger Games style, but instead of swords and poison berries you use nepotism and fake references.
So the question is, will anything come of it? Will these films inspire an entire generation to revolution? In this writer’s humble opinion they probably won’t. In fact, they might have the opposite effect. We watch these films instead of starting a revolution, they make us feel like we’ve accomplished change through identifying with the characters. Every time we watch one we come out of the cinema a little less angry with our world because we just saw theirs get better. Plus, it seems kind of ironic that despite the message, the people benefiting from these films in the real world are movie stars and production companies. But maybe I’m wrong, and maybe we’ll find our Mockingjay. How good do you think Russell Brand is at archery?