What is Dystopian? A Note on Classification

In the last 120 years of filmmaking, literally hundreds of thousands of films have been made. Out of that vast ocean of material, we’re considering a few hundred films as constituting… what? A genre? Not necessarily. The beauty of the dystopian film is that it need not be confined to a single genre. Could it be comedy, horror, drama, action, thriller, sci-fi? Absolutely. A dystopian film can be any one or any mixture of genres. So what does it take to be considered a dystopian film? In many ways, attempting to classify a film as dystopian is redundant, because often times a film is dystopian if it feels like a dystopian film. So in compiling my list of films, what was I considering? These rules of classification are my own, defining my own scope for what is to be considered a dystopian film. No rule is absolute, and others would certainly disagree with the way in which I am either broadening or narrowing what they consider the dystopian filmset to include, but that’s ok, because this isn’t their system.

First of all, a dystopian film is generally set in the future. It doesn’t really matter if the time period is 5 years in the future or 500 years in the future, one of the core tenets of what makes a film truly dystopian is its visionary sensibility. A dystopian film is something which can transport the viewer into a potential future, no matter how plausible or implausible, probable or improbable. Sometimes a dystopian film will go back in time first, in order to change a monumental event in the recent past, or insert one that never occurred, and “recalculate” the trajectory of civilization’s future history. Even when a film looks solely forward, it’s often not long before certain historically important events within the dystopian world occur in the film viewer’s past as well, especially when the dystopic future is not projected too far into the future, the film watching public very quickly surpasses the film’s own timeline. It’s not just about timing, but rather about the filmmaker’s intention towards future projections at the time of filming.

The second quasi-mandatory criteria is evidenced through a purely linguistic interpretation of the very word dystopia. By definition, a dystopic world is quite literally a bad place. Quite often this is interpreted as a grim future, dirty, dark and unimaginably awful. Yet other times, the future has been envisioned as the exact opposite of gritty and dark, and has instead been portrayed as antiseptic and devoid of character, a whitewashed veneer of opulence to hide humanity’s loss of freedom or control. Regardless of whether the particular film is gritty, antiseptic, or a bizarre cross between the two, it is neither neutral, nor uniformly enjoyable. This criteria takes in the post-apocalyptic tale just as well as it takes in the anti-utopian totalitarian tale.

A third litmus test that will be applied quite often is centred around blame. That is, a truly dystopian future is one that we brought on ourselves. It’s not about the paranormal, or about alien invaders, it’s about human actions. This could take the form of a controlling, totalitarian regime, natural disasters brought about by human interaction with nature, government experiments with germ warfare, or enslavement by technology we ourselves created. This criteria is not as broadly recognized as the first two, but it is an important distinction to draw, nonetheless.

The notion of trajectory can be used to tie these broad criteria together. Dystopian films generally contain within them a cautionary tale to some degree or another, taking some thought or concern from modern times, and projecting mankind’s actions into the future to create a dystopian world which will result from our own modern actions or inactions. The dystopian film is about “what happens next” if a course of action is followed or allowed to flow unchecked. It is not always blatant, and it is not always the focus of the film, as we will see, but a good dystopian focuses on this trajectory, tying the dystopian world to our own.

To truly understand these criteria, it is just as important to consider what they set aside, as it is to consider what they include. For example, when we consider that a dystopian film is set in the future, this includes a film like Alien has a similarly alien-centric plot, but is set against the sort of bleak, grim vision that we will come to associate with a dystopian world. However, the grim future of Earth is not central to the stor, such that the world of Alien may in fact be dystopian, but the film uses this merely as a backdrop. War of the Worlds depicts a decimation of the world’s population on par with many other dystopian films, yet we cannot consider that to be dystopian as it is purely about alien invasion.

The distinction can be somewhat fuzzy, as the mere presence of alien life itself would not disqualify a film from being dystopian in nature, but generally speaking a movie which is about aliens, especially one in which the aliens are the root cause of calamity, is generally not dystopian. Contrarily, Starship Troopers will be considered here as a dystopian film based on the totalitarian undertones on earth and throughout the military campaigns as a whole. Even though the “bug” aliens provide the central conflict around which the film is based, the dystopian character underpinning it all is clear and prevalent.

Just as most films with aliens would fail to qualify, so too would most films with zombies. It is difficult to call a film which deals with the paranormal or the mystical dystopian, and the living dead certainly fit here. There are, however, a number of films which could certainly fit within the zombie sub-genre of horror films and yet still qualify as dystopian. The first to come to mind is 28 Days Later, and its sequel 28 Weeks Later, which fit the bill, but the ‘zombies’ in those films were actually living humans infected with a virus, not the undead. Resident Evil and its sequels have a similar exception, with the evils of the Umbrella Corporation thrown in to counterbalance the actual existence of undead. Then there is the series of remakes of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, the three most notable of which are 1964’s The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, 1971’s The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and most recently I Am Legend with Will Smith. Each of these have dealt somewhat differently with the zombies/vampires created by worldwide plague, but overall work on the same principle as the other films mentioned here. By contrast, a more typical zombie movie like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, has as its focus the horror created when the dead reanimate, but may still count as dystopian. Even though many movies tie this to government experiments, or toxic waste, or some other human foible, the paranormal bump-in-the-night cast tends to outweigh any dystopian element present. However a broader view of the world, particularly a longer term view, may give an otherwise mystical reanimated zombie film some dystopian credibility. This is one sub-genre where a hard and fast rule is simply not possible.

Natural disaster films, by and large, also fail to meet these criteria and therefore cannot be classified as dystopian. For the most part, movies like Volcano, while showing us examples of vital human failings, are still natural disaster movies, where humanity’s blame is decidedly removed from the causal relationship necessary for the categorization. Movies like The Day After Tomorrow include similar admonition’s regarding humanity’s, individuals’ and governments’ blindness to pending doom, but also gives humanity a nod for being a cause of the worldwide natural disaster. In addition, The Day After Tomorrow focuses on the aftermath of a partially decimated world. In this same manner, Deep Impact cannot be viewed as dystopian, but a movie set 50 years after near annihilation could possibly be identified as dystopian.

In a related way, a dystopian film cannot be too localized. The natural disaster in Volcano was localized to Los Angeles, while the weather shift in The Day After Tomorrow had devastating global repercussions. In 28 Days Later, the Rage virus (eventually) seems to have been isolated in Great Britain, but it is such a devastating situation, and in a broad enough area, that it certainly qualifies. Confine the outbreak to a single building, however, and you may have a different verdict.

A final note on mere classification is the relationship between a dystopian and a utopian outlook. As mentioned previously, not all dystopian films are about a dark, gritty or desolate world. Many times, a dystopian future will in fact have the gloss of a utopian future, one in which disease has been eliminated, where technology has lead to greater comforts, an end to crime, and human control over… everything. In these films, we are often shown the grit behind the gloss, the forgotten disenfranchised, the rabble which must be cleansed in order to maintain ‘perfect society’, the true costs of fascist, totalitarian control. Films in this stream of dystopian films range from Logan’s Run to Minority Report, AI (Artificial Intelligence) to Gattaca, and on, and will be discussed at great length.

Dystopian films themselves can be divided into a few rough sub-categories, based mostly on central plot elements. There are the totalitarian films, such as 1984, the plague films, such as The Stand, the post-apocalyptic films, such as Mad Max, the cyberpunk films, such as Johnny Mnemonic, and the human bloodsport films, such as Death Race 2000. No category, however, is intended to exist in isolation. Many, if not most, dystopian films will play with elements from multiple categories. Take 2008’s Doomsday as an example: a virulent plague destroyed most of Scotland, leaving it in a severe post-apocalyptic state – complete with post-apocalypto-punks driving Mad Max-worthy vehicles, and tortured death as public spectacle – meanwhile London slips ever further into a fascist police state, and our heroine sports some pretty cool gear, including a removable cyborg eyeball.

The definition of a dystopian film is necessarily broad and necessarily vague. Some argue that the classification of dystopia is limited to a social or political state. This in turn implies that timing is irrelevant, such that a film would be equally dystopian in the far future, or simply as a depiction of life in Nazi Germany. I reject this determination. A true dystopian film is one which is able to stand as a cautionary tale, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. While it is certainly true that not every film set in the future, every sci-fi film, every cyberpunk film, is dystopian, it is this cautionary tale element which can make them so. A dystopian film says “look what the world could come to”.

And it says it on a massive scale which is once again necessarily difficult to define. In 1984’s Red Dawn, the Soviets invade the good ol’ US of A, slightly in the future. It’s a movie about World War III. People are imprisoned, people die. But at its core, it’s a war movie. Likewise by restricting the dystopian category to prohibit undesirable futures rooted in the mystical, magical, mythical or miraculous, we uphold the role of dystopian film as cautionary tale. So we’ll shy away from aliens, and we’ll shy away from zombies, unless of course they are zombies borne of science, and even then it’s iffy. Some films, despite these prohibitions, still seem to fit the bill for a dystopian world (Reign of Fire, Dawn of the Dead), but if they are to be considered, they must be considered cautiously. Because they lack the human-based root cause – or are given a thin scientific gloss akin to “a wizard did it” – they may be stylistically dystopian and yet devoid of the underlying value. Even placing a film too far into the future and thus too far removed from contemporary society may (and I say may, not will) defeat a dystopian classification. Many sci-fi films may find themselves in this predicament.

One of the many difficulties in defining a single dystopian ethic is that there is no single dystopian ethic, but rather a multiplicity of styles and vantage points from which a dystopian film may come. This is why certain films may contain strong dystopian elements and still not have that all important dystopian feeling, and why others may rightly be called dystopian even though there is not a great deal outwardly dystopian about them. It is very difficult to compare a post-apocalyptic film (such as The Road) with a film about social conformity (such as Gattaca).

What is true about the alternate definition of dystopia as societal is that it is about the broader society. Some may be just political, some may be just social, some may be post-apocolyptic, but they must be broadly based. Harms must not be overly localized. Even localizing the problems to a single city, or single state is often too narrow. An isolated incident is too narrow, unless it is indicative of the state of the country/world overall, it should not qualify. This can mean that the incident is representative of the same thing occurring in other locations, or even simply that the state of the world allows for this kind of thing to happen, as in a film like Westworld.

In the articles that that will follow, these classifications will be used and further developed as different dystopian films and ‘sub-genres’ are explored. As will be seen, no one rule can be seen as absolute, nor merely quantitative. The discussion of dystopian films is indeed qualitative in nature, and the classification of dystopian films into sub-genres is not so different than the classification of a film as dystopian; there are no easy divisions, but rather each film will contain a variety of elements which can lead to its classification in a variety of ways. To this end, I have identified thirteen categorical distinctions that will help us mix and match our way through any dystopian film: Post-Apocalyptic, Cyberpunk, Rise of the Machines, Twisted Utopia, Totalitarian, Corporate, Undead, Medical Science, Pandemic, Global Warfare, Environment, Religious, and Bloodsport.

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