Dystopian films are famous for presenting outrageous, typically end-of-the-world or post/pre-apocalyptic scenarios. While many viewers look at these films and see them as fun, sometimes scary adventures with their exciting, fascinatingly dangerous ideas, a closer look at the issues in these films reveals something about the societies they were made in. As a whole, there are certain things that we, as human beings and as a society, generally fear.
While there may be general shared fears among individuals – things such as fear of heights, clowns or spiders – there are also more deep-seeded psychological or existential fears that reside within all of us. Such things could include the the body turning against itself, the fear of advancing technology, and the fear of death or that human existence as a whole will cease to exist someday. These types of social and existential anxieties are what make dystopian films so unique and so utterly fascinating.
One of the most relatable and most common fears presented by dystopian or post-apocalyptic films is the fear of the body turning against itself. The thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded by something foreign that we cannot control, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. This fear is what gives zombie movies that fear factor that gets people rushing to see them. However there are more reasons people may fear the body than just the idea of the undead.
In films like Never Let Me Go (2010), the main concern of the characters is that their bodies are created for the sole purpose of being taken apart; they have their organs taken from them so they can be donated to the wealthier people who pay for it. A similar theme comes up in The Island (2005), when the clones escape once they realize that their existence is temporary, and that they were only created so the higher class could continue to live healthily while they are harvested for organs.
The fear that the audience relates to, interestingly enough, is not the anxiety of being unhealthy or dying that the higher social class receiving the donated organs experience, but the confusion and anxiety that stems from the victims of the system. The audience can imagine what it would be like to go through life knowing that they do not have real ownership of their body. Or perhaps it is that they can not imagine it, and that is what makes it so frightening.
Yes, the characters are in control of their bodies physically and, to some extent, have free will, but in the grand scheme of things their fates have already been decided by the higher-ups. And this, to the audience, is what causes the societal anxiety – the fear that sometime in the future they may not be in complete control of their bodies, or their fates. Another popular theme that comes up in dystopian films is the anxiety of advancing technology, and the possibility of it overthrowing or becoming more intelligent than humans.
This kind of dystopian theme can come in many different forms, some films being more light-hearted, like Her (2013) and Wall-E (2008) while others are more serious, like Gattaca (1997) and Transcendence (2014). What makes the use of technology in dystopian films so popular and effective is that we live in a world where technology is constantly advancing, and becoming a bigger and bigger part of everyone’s lives.
The new Netflix Original show Black Mirror (2011) takes this dystopian idea of technology and uses it in a variety of different ways, some of which take place in the futuristic or apocalyptic settings audiences are used to seeing, but others that take place in modern day or more realistic settings. By using technology in more mundane situations and modern societies, Black Mirror is able to show the dangers that technology can present to us now (or in the near future), and that it is not just something we have to be wary of in the future.
However the most interesting thing about Black Mirror is its ability to make the devices and services presented in the show look desirable. It is easy to watch the show and find yourself idly fantasizing about having access to some of the technology the characters use, even as you see them used in horrifying ways. This is one of the more brilliant things the show does; it does more than blame technology for our problems like so many people like to do, and instead it deals with the reality that no matter what technology we may possess, our problems remain human.
It reminds us that technology probably won’t enslave us, but it will definitely change us Another film with the presence of strong societal anxieties is Children of Men (2006). This film shows what life would be like in a world where females are no longer fertile, as well as exploring the anxieties of immigration and overpopulation. The fear of immigration is not something society is new to; whether because of resources, loss of jobs, the threat of terrorism, or a combination of all three, there always seems to be some sort of discourse over the topic of immigrants.
This film does an excellent job of taking that fear that already resides within society, and creating a world that is terrifying not only because of its apocalyptic environment, but because there is the possibility that it could potentially happen in real life. Other films, like The Hunger Games (2012), do this as well; proposing societies with totalitarian governments and corrupt leaders, things that our world already has, but twisting them to the extreme.
Added to this taking of a fear that already exists in society, Children of Men deals with the fact that humans cannot imagine not existing, or if they do it causes panic, if not denial of the inevitable. A world where women are no longer fertile would also mean the eventual end of humanity, which is a fear in and of itself. This fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist,, is a more fundamental way to express it than just calling it “fear of death. ” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all humans and it is the basis of many dystopian films, even if it is not the most evident.
The beloved zombie trope so often used in dystopian films and TV shows like The Walking Dead (2010) banks on this existential fear; although they may portray the main fear as the danger of the zombies, or the fear of becoming a zombie, the deeper fear is the idea that whatever is causing the zombies – be it infection, disease, or being raised from the dead – will eventually take over the entire human population, and that there will be nothing left but these shells of humans. In a world like this, there would be no one left to make their lives and histories matter.
And this, really, is what makes us fear the extinction of the human race. Human beings are incredibly narcissistic creatures; we believe that we are the most important beings on the earth, that we are what existence revolves around. Without human history, human inventions, or human experiences, what would be the point of existence? When dystopian media presents the idea that the human existence is small and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, it brings up that existential fear that we so often suppress and try to forget about.
All of these films explore the fears and anxieties that society, or even humans as a whole, experience during our lives. Whether people realize it or not, it may be these elements that make the dystopian films so interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps the ability to watch these scenarios play out on a screen in a work of fiction helps alleviate some of the anxiety, allowing audiences to tell themselves that it could not actually happen because it is only fiction, and thus allowing them to choose to ignore it.
Or perhaps it provides an outlet for people to discuss the possibilities of these situations really happening, and what they would do if they were faced with them, which would provide catharsis. Either way, dystopian films have, and perhaps always will have audiences running to see them because whether we realize it or not, we are all drawn in some way to experience the sometimes outrageous, sometimes blood-chilling worlds that have our own social anxieties embedded within them.