Discussion of Utopian and Dystopian Films
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Tumultuous time often bring about works of greatness and it is undoubtedly fascinating to explore the quintessential product of the times. The various dystopian/utopian films discussed in this essay have captured the zeitgeist of the different eras; from the unsure emergence from the Cold War, to the trepidation of new age technology, these science fiction films have been a staple of U.S box office throughout the ages. So what makes dystopian/utopian films so irresistible to film-makers and audiences alike? For one, they are often portrayed as allegory universes that are so wildly different from our own and yet sharing certain elements that are uncanny, which can be assuring or disturbing. Although admittedly, there are more interest in portrayals of grimy and dark futures and utopian depictions are few and far in between.
Ironically, many a literary world building start off describing a perfect, engineered society where people were seemingly content, before the creator reveals authoritarian elements that will inevitably thrust the world into a dystopia. Famous examples include A Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Most work ends with a positive ending that promises hopes of rebuilding a better world. This process of chaos creation and ending with a satisfying resolution is a reliable blueprint for success because it resonates well with the readers and audiences. Overcoming devastating problems can be relatable for everyone because we experience those on lesser scale in our everyday lives. And who doesn’t love a story with a happy ending?
More importantly, speculative films such as dystopian films often offers glimpses of how and why societies go awry and functions as a comparison to our current sociopolitical culture. In our contemporary culture, there are even more aspects of the human condition to consider and one of the most important considerations in the 21st century is our inexplicable relationship with technology. In this paper, I will attempt to analyze the themes in the films Forbidden Planet, Her, Bladerunner and The Day the Earth Stood Still and how the changes in the portrayal of technology in these films lead to a greater understanding of our humanity and also our changing relationship with technology. I will also refer to some journal articles and books that can help contextualize the rhetoric of ethics in technologies and their depictions in the films.
In Forbidden Planet, there is a changing portrayal of technology throughout the film which makes this film interesting to examine. At the start of the film, we are presented with a positive experience with advanced technology through the introduction of Robby the robot.
The robot is equipped with many useful tools that eliminates the need for household chores. More importantly, the robot is self-sustaining and is completely loyal to its human masters. The audience is lured into this false sense of security that advanced technologies are safe for general consumption. However, the film will slowly betray this initial presentation by introducing conflicts surrounding this alien technology. We learn that the Krills were made extinct through their over-reliance on their own advanced technologies. This danger was further amplified through the constant presence of an unknown creature that is seemingly invisible and deadly.
We would later learn that the technologies became malevolent through Dr. Mobius suppressed subconscious, or more commonly referred to in the film as the Id. The Id serves no master because it is the manifestation of our deepest desires. As such, we know that there is no apparent way to rein in our subconsciousness, and the only other way to destroy this threat is to destroy the technology that gives form to the malevolence of our subconscious. As such, at the end of the film, there is undoubtedly a sense of unease in that technology can one day betray us through means that might be unknown. This fear of technology that is conveyed in the film is not surprising given the time period the movie was filmed in. It was made in the 1950s when the Cold War was ongoing and fear of technologies was exacerbated because the public has little notions of the powerful sciences behind closed doors.
The technologies that the Krill possess could be seen as a metaphor for hydrogen bombs that were invented and feared because of its untold power and the unknown intentions of those who controls this weapon. Many people feared what might happen if we were to temper with a level of technological awareness that we are not yet emotionally mature enough to countenence. Another reference in the film is the name of the first doomed ship that visited the planet, “Bellerophan”. Bellerophan was the Greek demi-god that sought to scale the heavens. His attempt was foiled by Zeus who sent a gadfly that dropped the Bellerophan’s pegasus from the sky.
Our attempts to gain access to knowledge beyond our understanding seems to always to end with tragedy. Even Dr Mobius, the man who possess such great knowledge cannot harness this technologies, what hope do the common man have? No one man can use this power wisely, because, as the Captain Adams puts it succintly at the end of the movie, “we are, after all, not God.” However this presents itself as a dilemma because there is no doubt that humans will one day attain this level of technology, and yet if only God can be allowed to have this power, what is the solution? This interesting reference to monotheism also reflects our relationship with technology throughout the ages.
Bronislaw Szerszynski illustrated the fraught nature between technology and religion brillantly in his journal Technology and Monotheism: A dialogue with neo-calvinist. He points out that the scientific revolutions in the 16th and 17th centuries were a point of convergence instead of divergence, because proponents “changed the meaning of theological language in a way which would incorporate Him into the empirical world” However, this sentiment did not continue since the “understanding and place of the human arts alter radically”, when “the loss of a supernatural reference for either salvation or wordly power, the ends and purposes of the quasi-salvational project of technology came to be understood in purely technical ways”. Therefore, the question has to be asked.
What is technology saving us from? From our inherent destructive ways that is often heralded in religion? Is technology serving the same purpose as religion? There are obvious similarities, in that we are always striving to create a better place for ourselves, our search for our own definition of utopia give rise to incredible technologies that rivals the tales and promises of religion, and without regards for faith. However as Szerszynski concluded, “our passage through the long arc of monotheism has increased the power of technology, but has at the same time diminished our capacity to understand their power… Alienated labour, unanticipated ecological consequences runaway… ” In our search for the promised land, there are unintended consequences. Is this God’s way of saying we should stop trying to use technology to attain godlike levels of power? This seems to be exactly the cautionary tale that Forbidden Planet is preaching.
Forbidden Planet is not the only film that embodies Cold War paranoia with overt religious undertones. It shares many similarities with The Day The Earth Stood Still as both films were sci-fi films that served as a cautionary tale for the dangers of technologies. In The Day The Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu arrives in Washington DC with an important message for the denizens of Earth. However, he was greeted with an ambiance of fear and armed threats. Quite understandably so too, because the 1950s was marked with pessimism and discontent as the U.S is just stepping out of the shadows of WWII and right into the frying pan of the Cold War.
The ambiance of fear can be felt in every corner in the film, right from the start when the quick militarization in response to the alien spaceship appearing and the jittery soldier shooting Klaatu accidentally. The paranoia is further amplified when the world leaders refused to meet Klaatu, and he rightly stated that, “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.” Even though the fearful reaction can be seen as reasonable due the time period Klaatu arrived in, however, as a literal outsider of our world, this fear is irrational and unreasonable to Klaatu.
What is even more fearsome is the creature Klaatu brought with him, Gort, the intimidating robot that stands ominously in the background. Given the context of the cold war, it is only natural to compare Gort to the threat of nuclear power. They are both the ultimate deterrent since a nuclear war will most likely destroy Earth and so can Gort. Finally, we begin to understand the intent of Klaatu; The plan for world peace and perhaps utopia is only achievable if everyone agrees to be policed by an impartial intergalactic space race that is mindbogglingly technologically advanced.
Any form of aggression will be met by force that will guarantee extinction. As Klaatu warned, ‘Your choice is simple, join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.” While it is unclear what the present course entails, interestingly, many of Klaatu’s proposals and quotes are remarkably reasonable and sensible. Many scientific journals have parroted similar sentiments. In particular, Sovereignty and Nuclear Weapons: The Need for Real Sovereign Authority Rooted in the People’s Global Expectations about Survival, Peace and Security by Winston P Nagan and Garry Jacobs warned that “the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war still represent the single greatest threat to global peace and security, human health, well-being and the environment of our planet.” Even so, we have insisted on keeping nuclear and other highly advanced weaponry in the name of protecting our sovereignty.
The article also mentions several more times that nuclear weaponry remains humanity’s greatest existential threat. While I agree that nuclear weapons or any other highly advanced weapons are quite literally existential threats to our survival on this planet, however, it is important to remember the reason why they were created in the first place. There is no cure to man’s inhumanity to other man. The creation of nuclear weapons were a response to escalating tensions during the war and that is the fact that cannot be changed.
Since the film was made, there is little to suggest that this threat has diminished. Therefore, it is doubtful that post-humanism can offer a better answer. Just like in Forbidden Planet, our subconsicous greed is and will remain the biggest threat to our own humanity, not technology. Even in The Day The Earth Stood Still, there are many scenes that demonstrates man’s greed for materialism and power. As seen from Helen’s boyfriend, Tom, his obssesion with the diamonds and his willingness to abandon Helen to achieve fame and glory from exposing Klaatu is a direct contrast to Klaatu’s altruistic message of peace. This display altrusim is not without good reasons too.
The theological overtones is obvious in the film. Klaatu introduces himself as Mr Carpenter, a biblical reference. Once again, the theme of turning away from technologies and placing faith instead in religion is played out in this film, similar to Forbidden Planet. Klaatu’s description for utopia, a world of peace, can only be possible if they place their trust in him, and not in man-made technology.
An analysis of a more contemporary film is needed to better understand how our relationship with technology has changed over time. So far, we looked at 2 similiar films in the same era that has similar moralistic values that can be readily observed throughout the film. Bladerunner is a more challenging film to delve into due to the many thematic developments throughout the film. The film is set in a futuristic world that seemed to be highly industrialized.
The open sequence of smoke stacks spewing flames and the dark and gritty shots of the city is intended to convey a sense of oppression. The many colored neon billboards and ads that dominates the cityscape signifies that a high level of coporate capitalism, and this manifest itself throughout the city through its worst characteristics; urban decay, overcrowding and pollution. Therefore, it can be argued that through its portrayal of a dystopic setting, Bladerunner is a social crique of advanced capitalism. Technology is now capable of producing replicants, bioengineered beings that are capable of emotions and can only live up to 4 years.
Immediately, this gives rise to the issue of the ethics involved in genetic engineering. The replicants are introduced as dangerous beings as the audience learned that 4 replicants are on the loose and shown with a sequence of a replicant shooting dramatically at a human administering the Voight-Kampf test, a test that can detect if the test taker is a replicant by observing minute biological responses to questions designed to invoke emotional reactions. Even the invention of this test shows technological dehumanization, a theme that is slowly built upon throughout the film. The replicants also stand for capitalism’s oppressive features and, to some extent, a rebellion against exploitation.
The Tyrell Corporation invents replicants so as to have a labor force that will perform difficult and dangerous tasks. Similarly, capitalism today makes individuals into machines disciplined to fit into the labor system. Ironically, the replicants carry out a rebellion that has a more humanistic connotation, while most of the human characters seem to submit to corporate domination and lead a very dehumanized life. Therefore, this challenges our understanding on what is human and this is a theme that will be echoed more prominently as we learn of the traits that replicant possess.
Replicants have a keen awareness of their own longivity and fear of dying. These are also shown as distinctively human traits, along with knowledge of one’s past. The replicants treasure their faked pictures of early life and their programmed memories of earlier events. They are characterized as being especially fond of pictures of their childhood and families. This is given an ironic twist too, as these human traits are what that differentiates between a normal human and a replicant.
Replicants are the ones who values these mementos, perhaps overly so, and this became a weakness that Deckard exploits as he is able to track down the rogue Replicants with their pictures. Another very humanistic trait that the replicant value family values. On their own, the replicants form surrogate families, and the film ends with Rachel and Deckard’s forming a couple. And as the replicants become aware of their limited life spans, the fear of death drives them to seek a longer future in order to reconcile with their faked memories and to spend more time with one another.
The drive for living a meaningful life is another very humanistic trait and sadly enough, when Roy learns that this is impossible, he murders the corporate president Tyrell. When Roy discovers that Deckard has killed his female replicant partner, Pris, Roy becomes inundated by very human feelings of love and loss and rage at Deckard.