Yet again, dystopian film is all the rage. This is certainly not the only time in which dystopias have held sway. But never before has the genre been so lucrative. The Maze Runner, The Divergent Series, and The Hunger Games have all soared at the box office, attracting legions of viewers from across the world.

Precisely because it has become so popular, dystopian film begs further critical reflection. Why have dystopias been making a comeback? What are these films selling us, and why are so many of us buying?

Dystopian film is an exceptionally imaginative genre. It can provide a perspective into social, political, and economic settings that are quite distinct from our own. Or, conversely, it can inspire us to consider the darker sides of our own context and what it could turn into in a hypothetical, not-too-distant future (think, e.g., of environmental disaster movies). But does dystopia close off our imagination about ourselves, in the present?

Within these films, revolution and social transformation are often the dramatic conclusion of an epic battle between good and evil, the repressed and the tyrannical. A common trope is the heroes triumphing, against all odds, over the seeming impossibility of an uprising to build a more liberal-democratic order. But what about outside these films? Do dystopias have the opposite effect?

Of course, the answers to these questions are not uniform across time and space. They depend, in large part, on the context in which the films are viewed—especially whether the dystopian discourse resonates with the experience of the audience, or if it is seen as something Other, something fantastical, imaginary.

In totalitarian settings, where the prevailing context is regularly identified in these films as the dystopia that must be negated, this discourse can be a powerful catalyst for rebellion. It gives viewers a critical symbolic language to distance themselves from the existing structures of power, government, and economic management, so they can engage in practices to bring about a more liberal-democratic alternative. It’s no wonder, then, that dystopias, in both literature and film, have historically been subject to censorship and have even been banned altogether.

Yet the same may not hold elsewhere. In liberal democracies, dystopia may be a force for maintaining the status quo. In a recent Jacobin article, for instance, Marlon Lieber and Daniel Zamora argue that while The Hunger Games series seems poised to inspire anti-capitalist revolution, it in fact promotes a neoliberal capitalist ethos. More generally, dystopian film defines traditional liberal ideals and representative democracy as a utopian end, and in so doing, mollifies viewers, slaking their thirst for something radically different. After all, why would we want something different, when we already have utopia?

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Critical theory offers a useful lens for viewing the impact of dystopian film on our willingness and capacity to participate in radical political change. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno present a damning interpretation of the role of culture—everything from art to radio to music to film—in late modern capitalism. They use the term “culture industry” to describe the intimate connection between cultural production, industrial production, and the production of ourselves.

From their perspective, the culture industry does not simply produce commodities for our consumption; it, more fundamentally, produces us—as laborers and consumers. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the liberal economic dream of the rational individual participating freely in the market is a myth. People are themselves products, and as such, are not free, rational beings but objects of capitalism.

Our interests and preferences—even our needs—are not of our choosing; they are manufactured and “forced upon” us. “There is nothing left for the consumer to classify,” Horkheimer and Adorno write. “Producers have done it for him.” Everything “is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry.”[1]

Even if we don’t recognize it, we experience the effects of the culture industry in our everyday lives. Just think about modern-day advertising and product placement on the Internet. When we visit a website, for example, there are usually several block ads that seem tailor-made for us—and that’s because they are tailor-made for us, based on complex algorithms designed to detect the patterns of our individual browsing history, our likes and dislikes. We don’t have to choose the products we want; they are selected for us. Or, rather, we are chosen and molded for the products.

The culture industry is pervasive. It limits the scope of our imagination. It suppresses our critical thinking. It informs who we are, and it shapes our actions. It is also working on us and through us continuously, even in leisure, like when we watch films. As Horkheimer and Adorno put it: “Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanization has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself.”[2]

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All of this may seem abstract and theoretical—perhaps even hyperbolic. But it leads to important questions not only about how we consume culture but also in what ways culture limits our ability to make change. If we are mass-produced by the culture industry to perpetuate late modern capitalism, if our core needs and desires are shaped by market forces, then we will have little drive to transform the existing system—we are integral to it, and it is integral to us.

This approach, more specifically, helps us critically examine the role of dystopian film in different contexts. Dystopia plays a vital part in the reproduction not just of free-market capitalism but liberal democracy as well. Viewers are bombarded with imagery and symbols that ultimately serve to reveal the dangerous elements of totalitarianism while at the same time reinforcing the opposite. All things that are defined as Other—repressive government, absolute rule, groupthink—must be negated and transformed into a utopia resembling liberal democracy.

In contexts where this dystopia rings true—that is, where it resonates with viewers as something similar to their own experience—these films can be a fruitful source of political revolt. They classify what counts as good and evil government, and they give viewers a symbolic language to resist the reigning system of control and domination.

In Thailand, for example, following a coup on May 22, 2014, protestors began using the three-finger salute of resistance seen in The Hunger Games to demonstrate their opposition to authoritarian rule. Perhaps unsurprisingly, under martial law, the Thai government, much like the tyrannical government of Panem in the films, was quick to eradicate all signs of uprising: they arrested student protestors, censored news media, and limited public gatherings.

The director of The Hunger Games movies, Francis Lawrence, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the Thai protests were both exciting and disconcerting: “Part of it is sort of thrilling, that something that happens in the movie can become a symbol for people, for freedom or protest.” He added, however, that “[w]hen kids start getting arrested for it, it takes the thrill out of it, and it becomes much more dangerous, and it makes the feeling much more complex. When people are getting arrested for doing something from your movie, it’s troubling.”

But Horkheimer and Adorno would urge us to dig deeper. Dystopian film does more than just provide a symbolic language that is employed outside the screen; indeed, for authoritarian regimes, it can be much more dangerous than that. Within totalitarian climates, dystopia actively produces in viewers what critical theorists call an “unhappy consciousness”—a fundamental discontentedness with existing conditions of life. It sends a shock to the core of all repressive systems, replacing the official narrative of a government satisfying the needs of its people and securing them from existential threat, with a revolutionary narrative of a people united in their dissatisfaction with the prevailing conditions of subjugation. This estranges the people from their government both on the screen and off. Part of why dictatorial governments suppress these opposing ideologies and quell acts of resistance lies precisely in the fact that these counter-discourses aim to bring about something more open and free.

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Yet if dystopia disrupts the closed system of authoritarian government, what does it do for viewers in liberal democracies? By extension, if dystopia spreads discontent with totalitarianism, what does it do for liberal-democratic principles? Dystopian film, I would like to suggest, can have the opposite effect on audiences whose experiences mirror not the dystopia of totalitarianism but the utopian end of liberal democracy.

In the setting of liberal democracy, instead of opening people’s eyes to the negative aspects of dictatorial rule, as with the student protestors in Thailand, these films engender a happy consciousness that tells viewers they should be content with liberal democracy. We are constantly reminded that in liberal democracies people are not under the control of a whimsical tyrant, and that we are guaranteed formal freedoms through the rule of law—what the heroes in these films desire and seek to produce through radical, and often violent, political action.

In the process of upholding these ideals as the ultimate end of political revolution, however, dystopian film actively promotes in audiences the very characteristics that it demonizes—lack of self-determination and independence of thought. It disabuses us of the need to think critically for ourselves and about ourselves. “Pleasure,” Horkheimer and Adorno argue, “always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown… It is flight; not, as is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.”[3] Subtly and insidiously, dystopian film convinces us that the wretched reality we see on the screen is not our reality, and thus, that we need not resist our present condition.

Above all, dystopian film closes critical discourse by conflating liberty (i.e., the formal, legalized right to act without restrain) with autonomy (i.e., the ability and inclination to do so). Films like The Divergent Series and The Hunger Games set up a stark distinction between the lack of freedom in totalitarianism and “true” freedom in liberal democracy, yet they do not take autonomy seriously.

We can see this, in particular, in the recurring theme of escape. Oftentimes, characters claim that they have no liberty while living under authoritarian rule. Death offers the only release from diktat. In Dark City, to take just one example, an ex-detective, Eddie Walenski, who sees the city for what it really is—a closed world, fabricated and tuned by The Strangers—admits that “There’s no way out,” except in death. He says this just moments before jumping in front of a speeding train. A similar line is said in the most recent The Hunger Games movie, in which Peeta laments that death may be the only way to be free from tyranny.

And yet, even as they make such remarks, their actions prove otherwise. Totalitarianism, to be sure, undermines formal freedom. But the heroes of dystopian film exercise great autonomy when they rebel directly against authority. They have the capacity for independent action precisely at the moments when they resist the powers that be and strive to fundamentally transform the structures of government.

Meanwhile, in liberal democracy we may be granted the right to certain liberties (e.g., the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and due process) that are not extended in dystopias, but we do not often act autonomously. At the same time that dystopian film encourages protest and rebellion through the autonomous acts of its characters, it undercuts viewers’ willingness to engage in autonomous political action in liberal societies. The abstract promise of freedom makes us feel comfortable in our own lack of sovereignty.

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Let me be abundantly clear: I agree that the totalitarianism depicted in dystopian film is disturbing, to say the least. George Orwell put it best when he envisioned dystopia as the oppressive boot of authority continually stamping down on the human face—forever. I would, however, question the notion that liberal democracy should be the ultimate negation of this dystopian future.

While liberal democracies are portrayed as a utopian end, in reality they are far from it. This is especially true in the aftermath of 9/11 and the “war on terror,” when security practices that were once regarded as exceptional—expanded presidential autonomy, heightened surveillance, detention and torture in black sites, the use of private military corporations, an increasingly militarized local police force—have largely become the norm.

In political theorist Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated, we find the clearest expression of the implications of these developments for liberal democracy in the United States.[4] Wolin asserts that political institutions have transformed according to a unique type of power—what he calls an “inverted” form of totalitarianism—which severs citizens from the policymaking process and effectively makes the leadership unaccountable to the demands of the people.

In contrast to traditional totalitarian states, like the ones often depicted in dystopian film—whose populations are mobilized by charismatic leaders to take command of the government, armed forces, and national economy through coercion—Wolin explains that governance in liberal democracy is only partly state-centric. Instead of pure absolutism, inverted totalitarianism is also marked by extensive corporate interests and military power. Only in combination with these elites have executive officials successfully demobilized the citizenry and abandoned democracy.

From this view, it is not simply dictatorship that plagues the dystopia of our world; it is something much more alarming. Governments have become unmoored from constitutional limits and the principles of democratic accountability. Even the formal freedoms of traditional liberalism have been eroded in the effort to eliminate all existential security threats.

“The result,” Wolin laments, “is an unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalizing tendencies, powers that not only challenge established boundaries—political, moral, intellectual, and economic—but whose very nature it is to challenge those boundaries continually.”[5] We no longer have a genuine democratic system in which the citizenry delegates powers to representatives and holds these leaders accountable to their political will; we have a democracy in name only—one in which the citizenry is actively managed and their political will is intimately connected with that of the state.

The genius of such an arrangement is that state power is not exercised through the brute coercion of dictatorship, as we see in dystopian film, but rather through methods that ensure the tranquility of the masses—“the depoliticization of the citizenry,” as Wolin put it—while appearing to defend and uphold liberal democracy.[6]

Accordingly, the representation of liberal democracy in dystopian film is not only misleading. But much more problematic is that it actively sets limits to viewers’ critical awareness of these real, historical transformations in state power, and to their imagination and willingness, their autonomy, to transform it. Dystopia, in short, undermines our ability to think of an alternative to traditional liberal democracy, let alone bring it about through political action.

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A deceptive sleight of hand occurs in all dystopian film, even if we don’t recognize it at first blush. Dystopia is defined as something Other, something that must be negated and transformed into its opposite—utopia. Utopia, as Thomas More originally defined it, means a place that is no place. It is an ideal form of community that does not exist but must be realized through mindful, concerted political struggle, and then continuously maintained through power.[7]

Depending on how the language, symbols, and imagery of dystopian film are employed, they can be potent catalysts for such change. When the dystopia is evoked to distance us from what is already in existence, it can open critical thinking and discourse to recognize what needs to be transformed. The trick for fomenting radical political change, then, is to realize that the dystopia is not an imaginary place but is this place. In other words, if we are to inspire revolutionary action, we must begin by recognizing that we act within a dystopia every day.

But when the utopia identified is already in existence, dystopian film serves not as an impetus for political change but as a part of the culture industry, producing and disseminating propaganda for liberal democracy—all the while appearing merely as entertainment, amusement. Yet as viewers, we are manufactured through these films to become mere characters of ourselves, waiting patiently, obediently, hopefully, for nothing to change.

In this way, visions of utopia lull spectators into satisfaction with the prevailing conditions of our own unfreedom, and liberal democracy is the most devastating utopian lie of all. Even as dystopian film shows inspired fits of social upheaval on the screen, it actively bets against it in reality. To turn a phrase from The Hunger Games on its head, our odds for producing fundamental political transformation may never be in our favor.

Our way out of this predicament is not to escape it through death but rather to face the absurd impossibility of change through continuous revolt. For, as the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus put it, only rebellion can bring about true autonomy: “One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity…. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”[8]

[1] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, translated by John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 2000), 124, 125, 126, respectively.

[2] Ibid., 137.

[3] Ibid., 144.

[4] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[5] Ibid., xxii.

[6] Ibid., 59.

[7] Thomas More, Utopia, translated by Clarence H. Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[8] Quoted in Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Book, 2010), 193.

 

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.