Fear of a Dystopian Future

12 December 2013. Filed under category Film.

A “dystopia” is defined as a community or society that is undesirable or frightening.  It is a common theme in science fiction where a writer wishes to set challenges for a protagonist.  Mostly, it is a lazy plot device that has been done to death.

During two long haul flights in a row between NZ and the UK I had some time to kill and watched Elysium and After Earth both of which have elements of a dystopian future.

Warning plot spoilers follow – although I tried to keep it fairly general!

Elysium can best be described as “total shit”, while After Earth is better but has a fundamental plot flaw as vast as the distances across space being travelled in the film.

Post-apocalypse Los Angeles must be the most unimaginative backdrop for a film ever, and this is the basis of Elysium where Matt Damon gets himself made into a cyborg after a near fatal dose of radiation, in order to get a ticket to a rim-world (the Elysium of the title) orbiting Earth where advanced medical technology will be able to cure him.

The film has some worthwhile themes of sacrifice for the greater good, but the general premise is quite lame.  The amount of resources and technology it would take to build a giant orbiting rim-world (the concept of which is otherwise plausible) would be so high that you may as well have solved the environmental problems that caused you, the rich people, to leave Earth in the first place.  I would have preferred more scenes on the rim-world itself and some character development for its inhabitants rather than just casting them as the evil elite that abandoned the Earth to a semi-functioning society with lots of ghettos.

Jodie Foster is one of the evil elite with bare bones character development, although at one point had a hint of compassion before being stabbed in the neck.  Her English accent was terrible so it was no great loss.

There is the formulaic lost love with a dying kid character that is difficult to sympathise with because it seems straight out of the scriptwriter’s handbook for how to try and emotionally manipulate the audience.  Seems a bit farfetched that everyone of the rich elite on Elysium seems to have a magic “cure-all diseases and disfigurements” pod in their house but yet there is not one of these on Earth itself.  Really?

Matt Damon does his best but this was never going to be Shawshank Redemption in space.

After Earth is slightly better as an overall film, I think.  While it does sometimes seem like Jaden Smith only gets good roles because his dad is involved with the project, I did quite like his performance.  There was a realism to his terrified teenager trying to impress his father (in the film and real life) character.  The central theme is very simple: journey to activate distress beacon in the other half of your disintegrated spaceship before your oxygen supply runs out.  Avoid being eaten by nasty predator which you brought to the planet in the first place on aforementioned disintegrated spaceship.

There were a few set up scenes early-on that really didn’t make much sense, other than the old “we had to leave Earth because we ruined it and move to a new planet where we then get attacked by aliens” chestnut.  The bad guys are shown in montage as creatures “bred to kill humans” that, having now read the plot summary on imdb.com, were apparently used as weapons by an invading alien army (I can’t have been paying attention to that bit in the film itself).  There is zero plot exploration of these malevolent aliens and what motivates them or even how the war is going.

The creatures the aliens breed apparently “see” by sensing a pheromone associated with fear.  OK.  But a boyhood memory of Jaden Smith shows him being hidden by his sister under a glass canopy to avoid being killed by the monster, because it couldn’t smell the pheromone….which led me to think “why not just give your warriors sealed suits so the fear pheromone is not emitted and therefore they are invisible to the alien creatures?”  That is a gaping hole in the story.

The plot device in the film for how to avoid being seen is far more convoluted: Will Smith, the greatest commander ever, has mastered his fear so he does not emit the pheromone and can easily kill the monsters; it is called “ghosting” apparently.  To be a cool ranger/warrior guy you have to learn how to “ghost” like Will.  However, that takes lots of training and you still might fuck it up and be chomped, a sealed suit or any number of other technological solutions would be far easier.  Also, I am no fan of firearms, but in the film the rangers insist on using cutlasses with retractable blades rather than a BFG you can nail an alien with from twenty paces.  I can’t suspend my disbelief that high up.

Will Smith’s character is a hard ass father that is portrayed as fearless and without much emotion in general, not just when fighting with aliens.  My first thought on this was – if the guy is so fearless he is probably a psychopath or at the least not a very good parent (anyone with a kid knows how terrifying it can be worrying if your child is going to be hurt).  However, there is a good scene where he explains that overcoming fear is about the present – basically accepting the possibility of death in most cases.  However, don’t confuse controlling fear with being reckless and ignoring danger.  There was something philosophically useful in there somewhere.  I liked it at the time.

The emotional hook of the film is in the relationship between parent and child and the slow build of respect.  It’s not an especially realistic scenario (how many crash-landing-on-an-alien-planet-that-turns-out-to-be-Earth scenarios have you been in) but the theme is engaging enough.

I just wish I hadn’t realised about the sealed suit thing because that has kind of ruined it for me.

Where was I going with this?  Simply, the realisation that movies set in dystopian universes are getting really tired.  For once I would like to see a story where we realise the damage that is being done to Earth and then use technology to propose sensible solutions, rather than divert that technology to something hopelessly inefficient.  The Earth has a billion years at least before it becomes naturally uninhabitable due to the sun expanding – but even that could be solved by technology! E.g. move it further out to a new goldilocks zone – so most science fiction to date is very defeatist in this respect.

Surely one film can be made that has a positive and achievable prediction of the future?  It only has to be a backdrop to the story; you could still have a hero overcoming some kind of personal demon.  And rippling muscles where appropriate; there’s nothing wrong with that.

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