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Tyranny on Screen
The more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.
Utopians may be loosely defined as those who have lost touch with reality and so build castles in the air—and, however inadvertently, hell on earth. The Utopian mind eschews traditional notions of individual rights, the intractability of human nature, and the balance of power, in pursuit of a perfectly crafted Stability. The counterpoint to Utopia is the “dystopia,” the society that has fallen into near chaos due to war, overpopulation, or plague. A state of siege exists between the governing powers and the populace. There is no disguising the ugliness, the oppression, the restraints even on marital love and, of course, reproduction. Free thought is in chains.
Cinema has been in love with dystopian story lines since its earliest days: for example, Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis, released in 1927. A sensational cinematic achievement, Metropolis has influenced many of the films on the following short list of cautionary tales that still have much to say to contemporary audiences.
A controversial, bizarre, and eye-popping dictatorship of the inefficient, where the masses are mollified by consumer kitsch and obsessed with plastic surgery.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a daydreaming bureaucrat who, when not fashioning himself a dragon slayer with wings, is trying to exonerate an innocent man who was executed because a fly literally got into government paperwork. Among the many obstacles facing the would-be hero is the fact that he is hopelessly in love with a woman (Kim Greist) who may or may not be part of a terrorist resistance group. Can Robert De Niro and his bag of tricks save poor Sam? Is there a way out of this place? Directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame.
Based on the classic novel by George Orwell, the film captures the monochromes and world-dreariness of Oceania, a totalitarian realm superintended by Big Brother. It is here that Newspeak eviscerates vocabularies so that ideas subversive of total Party control cannot even be conceptualized. Winston (John Hurt) works for the Ministry of Truth and spends his day lying about the past. It is during Hate Week that Winston falls in love with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), who yearns for a future free of Big Brother. Caught in the middle of an assignation, Winston and Julia are taken into police custody. Brought to Room 101, Winston is confronted by O’Brien (Richard Burton), who proceeds to redirect his love away from Julia and toward Big Brother, by way of a personalized form of torture. The quintessential depiction of “a boot smashing a human face forever,” 1984 remains the gold standard of dystopian storytelling for its gruesome depiction of statism run mad.
Fahrenheit 451 
Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman whose job is not to put out fires but to light them—in order to burn up books. In this imagined future, books are seen as an ever-present menace, capable of putting socially disruptive ideas into the heads of a populace dulled by drugs and endless TV. But Montag grows curious about the objects of his fires, especially after meeting Clarisse (Julie Christie), a free thinker who quickly becomes an object of his desire. The fireman soon starts reading, and his colleagues come for him. Will he relent, or take his stand with a growing community of “living books”? Based on the classic novel by science fiction legend Ray Bradbury.
Dark City 
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub one evening to find the corpse of a woman ritually murdered, as well as a cop (William Hurt) on his tail for several more murders he cannot remember committing. He soon comes to the realization that he’s been living a lie, under an identity imposed on him by the Strangers, a group of otherworldly beings responsible for the Dark City—a construct that undergoes regular reassembly. Murdoch refuses to embrace the false reality and, determined to find his real home, literally punches a hole in the world. Where will the “truth” ultimately lead him? Is the lie the only reality there is? A neo-noir thriller with monumental set design, Dark City would pave the way for another alternate-reality classic: The Matrix.
This smart and timely look at a genetically driven future pits the freedom of parents against the state’s desire to produce only genetically “gifted” babies. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) was conceived naturally and so is susceptible to a variety of ailments that make him an inferior genetic specimen, thus chaining him to a menial desk job. Only when he exchanges identities with a genetically engineered “valid” does he have any hope of realizing his dream of space travel. But can he still beat the genetic screening tests—and win the heart of Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman), who thinks herself unworthy of his supposed genetic superiority? Gattaca is worth repeated viewings as contemporary debates about genetic testing and determinism continue.
The Trial 
Imagine a world in which you are accused of a crime that is never given a name. To whom can you turn for help? Orson Welles’s brilliant adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1914 novel was a peek into the totalitarian future that awaited large swathes of Europe. Yet Welles reimagines it as a kind of black comedy, even altering the ending, from the personal to the apocalyptic. Josef K. (Anthony Perkins), a bank functionary, is visited one day by two men who arrest him for a nameless crime. Thus begins one man’s labyrinthine journey to nowhere. Neither his lawyer (played by Welles himself) nor his family can come to his aid. The Trial melds Welles’s unique camera virtuosity with Kafka’s cosmically grim vision of one man’s inner struggle to make sense of the absurd.
Soylent Green 
It is 2022 and the world’s population is bursting at the seams. Natural resources are depleted or polluted, and desperate populations are force-fed a green wafer called “Soylent Green,” supposedly a nutritious plankton culled from the oceans. But when Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) investigates the murder of an executive of Soylent Corporation, the manufacturer of Soylent Green, he unravels a conspiracy and learns a secret so horrifying that it drives his good friend Sol (Edward G. Robinson) to a state-sponsored suicide. Will Thorn have time to reveal the truth to the masses before he gets swallowed up by the “machine”?
Anthony Sacramone is managing editor of ISI Books and Modern Age. His work can be found at anthonysacramone.com. Follow him on Twitter @amsacramone.
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