Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | May 22, 2014

Dystopias

(Below are minor spoilers — mostly related to settings — for Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Divergent, Logan’s Run, and the third X-Men film.)

1. Tyler Cowen highlights a segment of this interview with Neal Stephenson, in which Stephenson talks about the conceptual blinders and biases of the people who control the money at studios and production companies — i.e., the people who ultimately decide what movies, TV series, and video games get made. He discusses the enthusiasm for dystopian settings and plots:

[I]t is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

As a counter-example, you might look at AVATAR, in which they actually did go to the trouble of creating a new planet from whole cloth. This was far more creative and visually interesting than putting dirt on the Empire State Building, but it was also quite expensive, and it was a project that very few people are capable of attempting.

My reactions:

First, as we’ve discussed, movie-going crowd today likes dystopian settings because they are reminiscent of high school, etc.

Second, the destruction of iconic landmarks is a movie shorthand for conveying a sense of the gravity of a situation. I think that just about every alien invasion movie made since World War II includes a picture or scene showing the destruction of the Eiffel Tower; this is a quick visual cue that lets the audience know, “Things are not going well in France.” And, because some in the audience have personally seen the Eiffel Tower of the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben, the destruction of such real-world landmarks punches and registers in a way that the destruction of Alderan or Caprica does not.

But, of course, to achieve these connections and emotional results, the movie has to use real-world places and structures. Hence the use of dystopias. Mr. Stephenson isn’t all wrong here, but I would say that it’s as much about giving the audience a point of connection as it is about saving cash.

(As to whether audiences really need these points of connection, I am skeptical, just as I am skeptical that younger audience members really need or even want some young hero character with whom to connect, like Wesley Crusher or the 10-year-old Annakin Skywalker. But I think I have more faith in audiences than many studio executives. Then again, it’s not my money on the line.)

Third, I was thinking the other day, after watching Godzilla, about which cities producers choose to destroy in movies, especially sci fi movies (broadly defined). Reading Stephenson’s meditations triggered those meditations again. New York has traditionally been popular, from Fail Safe to Independence Day to Cloverfield. And most of those views of a destroyed Statue of Liberty (overdone by this point) harken back to the 1968 Planet of the Apes. Independence Day and Logan’s Run both feature a destroyed Washington DC, as do many other movies. And Los Angeles seems like a popular target for giant monsters and alien invaders. (I am focusing on US cities and American films here, in case that isn’t clear.) That said, I think that Hollywood may be branching out, just a bit:

  • Godzilla went outside the box a little bit by locating the destruction in Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. This was refreshing in the sense that the more cliched choice would have been to have the monsters head for Los Angeles. (I believe the characters visit a post-nuclear-war San Francisco in at least one adaptation of On the Beach — allowing for a view of a destroyed Golden Gate Bridge — and Magneto tears up the Golden Gate Bridge in the third act of X3: X-Men United, but those movies aside, I cannot think of any disaster movies that focus on San Francisco.)
  • Divergent is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Chicago.
  • The Walking Dead features a post-apocalypse Atlanta.

It’s a start.

2. And, along these same themes, Wired has a list of “The 10 Most Important Dystopian Books and Films of All Time,” along with a list (toward the bottom of the post) of runners-up.

It’s a fairly conventional list, all-in-all. Older works, mostly, which is to be expected: it would be difficult for more recent books and movies to have great influence, and harder to observe or measure that influence.

I was surprised to see Asimov’s I, Robot on the list; I don’t usually think of that story collection as dystopian, although one could make a case for the ninth and last story in the bunch. Similarly, I had never thought of Kafka’s The Trial as dystopian — that work seems more surrealist than we typically expect in dystopian fiction, I suppose. I don’t think District 9 belongs in the Top Ten. (I think the author may have a bias in favor of Neill Blomkamp, since Elysium wound up in the runner-up list.)

I was pleased to see Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale make the Top Ten list. The inclusion of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (the first installment of an unfinished trilogy) was unexpected. (The cynic in me says that Mr. Maloney and the Wired editors were coming to the end of their list and realized that they had a very pale, very male collection of authors. But I’m sure that’s just silly thinking.) Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth are in the runner-up list (as is Ursula Le Guin), but not in the Top Ten.

Arguably conspicuous in their absence: Heinlein, Orson Scott Card (does Ender’s Game count as a dystopia? maybe not), Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas (?), The Walking Dead, World War Z (the book), Frank Herbert’s The White Plague (probably not that influential, on second thought), the comic book series Y: The Last Man, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Are all zombie stories treated as a separate category?)

3. Speaking of dystopias, post-apocalyptic settings, and New York, it has surprised me that no one (to my knowledge) has ever done a film treatment of Stephen Vincent Benét’s 1937 short story, “By the Waters of Babylon.”

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