In his most recent column, Jonah Goldberg writes about liberals’ fear of a Trumpist dystopia, making the point that short of hysteria, fear can be a useful thing, as can understanding others’ fears. I have no issues with his main points, but have additional thoughts on his passing observation that dystopianism is nothing new and that “Hollywood has been running through practice scenarios of doom nonstop from its founding.”
Using the admittedly imperfect Wikipedia list of dystopian films (which arguably manages to be both under- and over-inclusive), a couple of things tend to leap out.
First, the genre really does not take off until the 1950s. This makes sense. The first half of the 20th century was just too dystopian in reality to turn dystopianism into entertainment.
Second, the biggest and most memorable films in the genre otherwise make a cultural impact during times where America is feeling a sense of disorder and malaise. The “golden age” of dystopian cinema (if that’s not an oxymoron) stretches from 1968’s Planet of the Apes (and its sequels) through the pre-Morning-in-America 1980s, which gave us Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Escape From New York (and arguably Blade Runner).
In between, particularly in the early 1970s, Hollywood produces the classics of the genre, including The Omega Man and Soylent Green (both starring PotA‘s Charlton Heston), A Clockwork Orange, Silent Running, A Boy and His Dog, and cult fave Zardoz. The crop from the mid-to-late-70s includes Logan’s Run, the brill remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and dystopian bloodsport like Death Race 2000 and Rollerball.
The mid-80s to mid 90s produces a steady stream of dystopian films — or dystopian-adjacent films — but not too many great ones, and not too many with impact in the popular culture. Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brazil, They Live, Gattaca and Dark City are good, but lack the cultural footprint they should enjoy. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the weakest of the franchise. Demolition Man and first two Terminator films are not, strictly speaking, dystopian in setting. RoboCop may be the strongest popular dystopian film of the period.
Aside from The Matrix, the “silver age” of dystopian movies really comes in the post-9/11 period and coincides with not only those attacks, but the decline in institutions that follows the mismanagement of the war, the Great Recession, and the Not-So-Great Recovery. It’s quite the deluge.
Minority Report comes early (and, like the Matrix series, was probably in the works before 9/11), but 2005 produces The Island and Serenity, 2006 produces Children of Men, Idiocracy, and V For Vendetta, and 2007 produces I Am Legend (a remake of The Omega Man). Other 70’s dystopias, including Planet of the Apes, Death Race and Rollerball, get remade or reimagined (PotA well, the others not so much).
Nolan’s Batman films are set in a dystopian Gotham City, and Watchmen is squarely in the genre (depicting a more dystopian version of the 1970s, for that matter). Wall-E brings dystopia for the whole family. Then there are the big franchises: Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner, and even The Purge produce multiple sequels. Mad Max: Fury Road is hailed as a return to form.
And this is just dystopian movies. One could also look at disaster films or paranoid political thrillers as examples of Hollywood projecting America’s sour and mistrustful moods onto the big screen during the 70s and the post-9/11 era. It’s also notable that the current “golden age of television” was dominated ratings-wise by The Walking Dead.
If Hollywood’s output during the Nixon and GWBush administrations is any guide, we may expect Tinseltown to try to ride the dystopian trend further, perhaps with more timely and “woke” themes. Whether they succeed will likely turn on the success of the economy, as the market for dystopia turns bearish as the market turns bullish. In this regard, show business and the reality TV President have a shared future.
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