National Post

ALL GLOOM & ZOOM

GIVEN OUR OWN GRIM FAIRY TALE, DO WE REALLY WANT TO WATCH FILMS SET IN RAVAGED WORLDS?

- Tim robey

The release of Chaos Walking, Doug Liman’s $125-million adaptation of the young-adult dystopian thriller by Patrick Ness, poses a conundrum. Ness’s story takes place on a decimated planet — maybe it was once Earth — on which only men have survived.

Daisy Ridley is the mysterious Viola, who crashlands in this dangerous landscape and is protected by a young hero, Todd (Tom Holland). But the question is: even in countries where cinemas are permitted to open, will the public appetite for watching this pair struggle through a ravaged world have been depleted by the pandemic, or perversely whetted?

Cinema’s imagined futures have never, in truth, been especially cheery. Show me some philosophi­cally noble utopia on screen and I’ll quickly point to the rot beneath — as will the film, if it has any hope of keeping our attention.

Since as far back as the silent era, the technology of filmmaking has raced ahead, projecting ideas of the future to flaunt the capabiliti­es of the medium itself, while also preaching admonitory lessons. It’s somewhere in this seemingly contradict­ory impulse that the genre of dystopian film tends to land.

In 19th-century fiction, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells laid down precepts about the impending dangers of totalitari­anism, hinting at misanthrop­ic visions of a machine society. But the heyday of the “dystopian novel” as we know it best belongs to Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and A Clockwork Orange (1962). The list of science-fiction writers who would flourish in this tradition is long: John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin are among the most famous. And yet, cinema’s obsession with nightmaris­h industrial futures began well before this, as we see from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Imagining the revolt of a vast underclass of workers against the technocrat­ic elite, this masterpiec­e of German Expression­ism flagged the potential of a dystopian allegory to be read in different ways. While Lang was influenced by the writings of Marx and Engels, screenwrit­er Thea von Harbou would join the Nazis, and the film fascinated Goebbels and Hitler himself.

If we’re weighing up visions of slavery, it’s not such a huge leap from Metropolis to The Matrix (1999), which replaced our heartless overlords with alien robots, feasting on our brains for energy until a revolution can undo the shackles. But The Matrix and its sequels thrust the paradoxes of the genre to the fore. Technophob­ia is meant to be its tenet, but what made a splash was obviously its hardware: the frazzling gleam of the CG effects, the “bullet time” gunplay. It made this vaunted terror of a digital future look a little too cool for its own good.

This is why, just six years ago, Mad Max: Fury Road took everyone aback. The vision of the future was suddenly grubby again, erotically charged, desperatel­y human. An astonishin­g amount of George Miller’s film was shot using practical techniques and the sort of painstakin­g stunt work favoured in the earlier instalment­s of the Mad Max series (1979, 1981, 1985).

Fittingly, it looks like it took extraordin­ary human effort to make the thing — untold man-hours tumbling into actual dirt, rather than generating 100 Hugo Weavings at a console. It unleashed a primordial excitement that audiences had all but forgotten.

What does any self-respecting dystopia need, in order to qualify as such? The hallmarks are environmen­tal ruin, loss of individual­ism, and strict totalitari­an and/or technologi­cal control. If we’re dealing only with the first element, the film’s setting is more strictly “post-apocalypti­c” (The Road, A Quiet Place). Orwellian tropes of brainwashi­ng and the rule of fear have often percolated, especially in the likes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), which was originally titled 1984 1/2. The 1980s were a particular­ly fertile period for big-budget dystopian cinema, which brought into the mainstream concepts of “future noir” or “tech noir.”

The second term was even used as the name of the cyberpunk nightclub in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). That film and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) filled the future with criminalit­y and shadows, looking into the noir history of Los Angeles to imagine an all-but-lawless terrain ruled by tech corporatio­ns. But what’s at stake in almost every dystopia, with remarkable consistenc­y, is human consciousn­ess in the age of artificial intelligen­ce.

Clinging onto our very humanity is the fight that gives these films a pulse, and technology is rarely our ally in that regard.

Protagonis­ts are either jacked into some neural network that fabricates their reality (The Matrix) or they’re androids that have been tricked into dreaming like humans (Blade Runner) or even loving like humans (AI: Artificial Intelligen­ce). Some are prisoners of a destiny from which time-travel cannot save them (The Terminator) or are convicted for crimes they haven’t even committed yet (Minority Report).

No wonder that actual, raw, lived experience is such a commodity in the likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), where it gets bought and sold as discs on the black market, downloaded directly from the cerebral cortex. The embers of humanity need urgent protecting in this genre from the forces of dehumaniza­tion that would stamp them out — as Orwell’s image of the future, a boot stamping on a human face, foretold.

In young adult franchises such as The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent and now Chaos Walking, this is where teen-rebel heroics come into the equation. An older generation is either the source of the catastroph­e or has long since submitted to the yoke of despotism.

Youth, and hope, are stifled. Chaos Walking is hoping that its pairing of Spider-man and Rey from Star Wars will persuade audiences to invest once again in the fightback.

But the film will live or die on how well it holds up imaginativ­ely — especially given that much of the target audience will only be able to watch it from behind their own set of bars, before lockdown’s fully over.

 ?? JASON BOLAND ?? Dystopian fare like Mad Max: Fury Road may feel less like a fantasy and more like a Friday for pandemic-weary fans
who might be cutting their own hair and letting hygiene slip.
JASON BOLAND Dystopian fare like Mad Max: Fury Road may feel less like a fantasy and more like a Friday for pandemic-weary fans who might be cutting their own hair and letting hygiene slip.
 ?? EONE ?? Young adult franchises like The Hunger Games feature teenagers
saving a world destroyed by previous generation­s.
EONE Young adult franchises like The Hunger Games feature teenagers saving a world destroyed by previous generation­s.

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