Dystopia: I want to go to there. I have a real soft spot for dystopian visions of the future, or of the parallel present. Who wouldn’t? Utopia is clearly never going to happen. And if it does it’ll be based on credit, which never lasts. As a general rule – and I’m basing this on sci-fi films rather than sci-fi novels, as I’ve hardly read any – if things look bright in any given future, then things are about to go very badly wrong. Look at Logan’s Run. Or Westworld. Or The Island. Or Metropolis. Or, right now, look at Elysium at the cinema, or Oblivion on DVD.
Elysium first. Out on 21 August, it’s the hotly-anticipated follow-up to South African Neill Blomkamp’s sleeper hit District 9, which was also dystopian, in that it allegorised apartheid by way of a lower caste of aliens, disparagingly known as “prawns” and kept in a Johannesburg township by the administrative human master race. With a much bigger Hollywood budget to play with, it’s interesting that Blomkamp has stayed within his discomfort zone and created another sun-baked dustbowl shanty world, this time Los Angeles in a future when the earth has become largely uninhabitable; meanwhile, the 1% – as they are not called – are safely ensconsed in a revolving space station designed like an architect’s brochure of luxury gated living. (Star-gated, if you will.)
As a bleak and arid vision, Blomkamp’s is clever, as it accentuates divides already in place in our own unequal society: the poor are getting poorer, and the filthy rich filthier and richer. Elysium, the ultimate rich person’s retreat, even hangs in the air, visible to the majority who can never afford to zip up there in a little spaceship. (It’s fascinating, too, that in Oblivion – another exhausted earth, this time wasted by war, and with its oceans being industrially sucked up to create energy – a controlling space station, the pyramid-shaped Tet, also hangs in the air. I think I’m right in saying that, in both films, a spaceship ride to both Elysium and Tet is a 20-minute hop.)
Matt Damon is the everyprole in Elysium; he knows that the 1% get to lie in special pods that cure all known diseases, which is why he so wants to get up there; on this, the story hinges. We want him to get there; we identify with the 99%. In this sense, as with District 9, it’s a socialist film. The proletariat are always the heroes in dystopias, the workers who rise up. Maybe this is why I like these films so much; even though they have a musclebound hero (and Damon is pumped up to the point of looking like Stretch Armstrong), which cleaves to the old right-wing Reaganite 80s action-hero orthodoxy of one man saving the world – without help from Big Government, right? – they usually lead the downtrodden to a better world. I won’t say whether he does it or not, as that would be a spoiler. But you’ll root for him in a film that’s actually more interesting as a concept than as a film, as in the third act, it follows one too many sci-fi action presets.
Oh, and corporate America is the bad guy, once again. This happens a lot, and almost suggests that such films are not made by corporate America. (To be fair, Blomkamp’s is a co-production with money coming from Canada, Mexico and South Africa, as well as the US.)
Oblivion is also a thoughtful film, and with less metallic, Transformers-style action to bog it down and make it feel generic. Adapted from his own apparently unpublished graphic novel by writer-director Joseph Kosinski, it really is a like a graphic novel on the screen, with stunning production design, and gorgeous vistas, albeit ones set on a sucked-dry earth, awaiting the final departure of the last few humans. The race is not unsatisfactorily represented by Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s seemingly perfect couple, who live in a giant iPad on a stick above a scorched earth that looks like Iceland, where much of it was evocatively filmed, with CGI bits of recognisable New York sticking out of the top of it, recalling Planet Of The Apes, of course.
It’s hard to go into too much plot detail, partly because there are a number of key structural and temporal twists, and partly because it’s way too complicated. The story is well told, and Melissa Leo is key, even if her character only appears in a tiny screen on Riseborough’s touch-screen coffee table, as she represents the smiling face of authority up on the aforementioned Tet. Again, it speaks of our own time, as in flashbacks we see New York as it once was, and shows how fragile “civilisation” is. It’s more sombre than Elysium. Things get blown up, and shots are fired, but the more memorable scenes are quieter, more existential, and set in landscapes that seem to go on forever. Unlike Elysium, there’s not much city.
Although Cruise and Riseborough are frankly beautiful and serene, they are still the everyproles, technicians working on mankind’s final exit and maintaining robot drones, which protect and serve, with firepower. (Oh yes, it’s a short thematic hop to Obama and his unmanned weaponry in those drones, surely, especially as this is post-war.)
Nobody wants our own future, or near-future, to pan out like Elysium or Oblivion, with all-out war or all-out profligacy laying waste to the planet, even if some of the gadgets look nifty. You can keep those. Me? I feel trapped enough by the dystopian present. Especially on days when I feel like I already live in a one-party state, where the totalitarian government holds ordinary people in contempt and would willingly wipe a whole caste out if it thought it could get away with it in the media.
I recommend both films (Oblivion, the longer of the two at just over two hours, is out on DVD on 19 August), especially if you’re a connoisseur of futures that are so blighted, you’ve got to wear protective suits.