Road to Dystopia

Brave new worlds from We to V: A brief history of political future shocks

It might have taken a while, but the dystopian movie our political miasma has been demanding for six years has arrived: V for Vendetta. Despite being directed by an ex-A.D. newbie, based on a 1980s comic series, and oversold with inspired Langian poster art, the movie looks from here to be nothing less than a hot meteor landing in the neo-imperialist swimming pool. Could this be the first anarchist blockbuster, embodying the essential contradictions of mass-culture capitalism by spending at least $70 million (including promotion costs) on a celebration of righteous insurrection and terrorism? Such is the scar tissue created by 9-11 that two years ago V for Vendetta would've died on the deal table; today, after the Bush administration has propaned the fields for WWIII, it's almost politically correct.

Anti-utopian fiction might be the baldest, most high-octane form of political protest our cultures have ever devised; comparatively (not that they don't share DNA), satire, absurdism, historical dramas, and invasion thrillers are wimpy competitors. A quick look at the history, however, reveals that it is a brand-spanking-new genre, created by the 20th century's distinctive nexus of industrialized life, rising corporate power, truly global reach, and heretofore unseen military destruction. Apparently, the notion of battling a future state that exercises ideological control over its citizenry had not occurred to anyone before WWI—the centuries-old class system still cogged, most workers drudged with at least a memory of self-sustenance lingering in their family brains, and culturati like H.G. Wells and William Morris were busy conceptualizing positive utopias that would solve mankind's innate conflicts.

Still, in the first two decades of the century, the dystopian idea birthed itself in reaction to two such utopian-power manifestations, in essential philosophical combat but otherwise indistinguishable: Marxism, which however persuasive about battling capitalistic alienation and materialism still seemed to be a monolithic attempt to de-individualize each of us, and Walter Lippmann's American revolution in population control via public relations, which convinced the nation en masse to waste itself on the war, and has convinced it to condone and pay for scores of other cataclysms, iniquities, and profiteerings since.

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    Force from above squeezes out the juice. The Soviets provided the first and best model, and so novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (1920) became the genre's first full-on pioneer work, a portrait of a mechanized society living in transparent glass, where it is believed that happiness is incompatible with freedom, and where life's actions are prescribed down to the minute, even the pace and rhythm of chewing food. Completely censored in Russia during Zamyatin's lifetime, We inspired the European speculations of quasi-Stalinist totalitarian homogenization that followed: Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's Metropolis (1927), Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Rand's Anthem (1938), Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1940), and Orwell's 1984 (1949).

    Since then, dystopias have been primarily popular in and enabled by times of imperial stress, not counting the Brit film version of 1984 (1956), produced and sanitized by the CIA. If the Cold War was an otherwise fallow period, the Vietnam hellfire heated things up in European cinema, which spawned Alphaville (1965), The Tenth Victim (1965), The Year of the Cannibals (1970), I Love You, I Kill You (1971), etc. Eventually, the Brits assembled a year-bound remake of 1984 (1984) that did not require the CIA's intervention to summon a rebellious sprig of hope.

    The Soviet paradigm forefronted a fear of ideas—as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), filmed by François Truffaut in 1966. But in the U.S., whose casualties in Southeast Asia were tallied on the evening news each day, the madness of social oppression was usually exercised over more concrete matters—self-advancing technology (novelists Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, et al.), overpopulation (Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, filmed as Soylent Green in 1973, and the parental-angst movie Z.P.G., released in 1971), generation-gap rancor (1968's Wild in the Streets), bloodsport as distraction (1975's Rollerball, among others), etc. Ironically, it may have been George Lucas, with THX 1138 (1971), who painted the most crystallized vision of crushed dehumanization since Zamyatin, a market mistake the emperor-to-be would not make again. International loner prince of the hellacious social scenario, Peter Watkins pounded away on the global system Lippmann helped create in a trilogy of unsparing films—Privilege (1967), The Peace Game (1969), and Punishment Park (1971)—that were so savage in their critiques that even the Nixon and Harold Wilson administrations couldn't get them sold at the peak of counterculture activism.

    In the years since, of course, Marx's system failed and became irrelevant as speculative fiction. But the accompanying escalation of Western complacency and "manufactured consent," and the lack of high-flying anti-authoritarian parables, have only indicated Lippmann's success. (We did see lingering Orwellianisms like Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, both 1985; the parodic 1997 Heinlein adaptation Starship Troopers; and Andrew Niccol's '97 genetic anxiety attack Gattaca.) With our president's approval ratings at Nixon-during-Watergate levels, could V for Vendetta be a bomb-happy trendsetter, a high-profile reconnoiterer for the new underground? A new age of dystopian fervor could be dawning: Dick's A Scanner Darkly and Next are due this year and in 2007, respectively, and a remake of Fahrenheit 451 has been announced. Ideas, as Vendetta's masked avenger puts it, are bulletproof.

     
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