We Did it to Ourselves: The Root Cause Doctrine

One of the keys to unlocking the dystopian ethos can be found in what I will call the root cause doctrine. Within any dystopian film, regardless of the sub-genre, there is a point either within the film or within the film’s history where something went wrong. That is, there is a problem which has given rise to the dystopian world which we are viewing. Simply put, the root cause doctrine is concerned with the assignation of blame for that problem.

There are many different forms which the inciting incidents giving rise to the dystopian world may take: plagues, wars, totalitarian regimes, corporate control, natural disasters, technology run amok, or even general societal acceptance of bloodsport as a common every day occurrence. Regardless of the particular form which the dystopian trigger takes, the common thread throughout is the root cause. Whether due to greed or a hunger for power, a government or a corporation, a nation or an individual person, the root cause is always a human cause.

This may seem at first to be a simplistic notion. Surely it is not a groundbreaking hypothesis to venture that a dystopian world is one which we have created for ourselves. But the point of this doctrine is that humans are the root cause of the dystopian ill, to the exclusion of all other causes. Where the dystopian trigger is caused by the mythical, the mystical, the supernatural, or the extra-terrestrial, it can thus not be rightly called a dystopian film. True, any such film may still contain other elements which are in and of themselves able to be viewed as dystopian, in some manner, yet the film itself will fail in this classification. Why must this be the case? Because one of the most important features of a dystopian film is that we did it to ourselves. Whatever the crisis, whatever the struggle, we did it to ourselves. Whether in the end human will triumphs over adversity, or humanity fails to overcome, crumbling towards extinction, we did it to ourselves. We did it to ourselves, and have no one else to blame.

In order to better understand the limits which the root cause doctrine describes, it would seem beneficial to compare sets of movies, some of which the root cause doctrine will allow as dystopian, and others which it will bar from the categorization as a dystopian film. Within each set, the limits that this doctrine proscribes will thus become apparent.


The first and in certain ways easiest set of films to examine are those films with a seemingly dystopian landscape and which involve extra-terrestrial beings. The inclusion of alien life forms in the overall plot of a film should not in and of itself bar the film from being considered as a dystopian film. However, what is important is an examination of the genesis of dystopia present in the film. Essentially, the question that must be asked is: are the aliens responsible, as the inciting triggers, for the dystopian world depicted, or are they merely passengers? Alien life can play a crucial role in the plot, but if it is the root cause of the world’s dystopian sheen, then the root cause doctrine would suggest that the film is not in fact a true dystopian film. While the film could still contain some of the same overall message of endurance, faith, indomitable will, or futile resignation, without some form of human failing at its core, the film’s focus will always be more about us vs. them, rather than us vs. us.

One of the best examples of a dark, grim, futuristic film that fails to achieve a dystopian categorization mostly due to its reliance on aliens as the central foil is actually the 1979 film Alien (and, to be fair, the various sequels which followed). Alien takes place on a distant planet, and is all about the struggle that the human crew has with the savage, bestial aliens. The mining ship is certainly bleak and dreary, and Earth is a desolate wasteland, but just because the film takes place in a dystopian future does not automatically move the film into the realm of dystopian fiction. It really is a shame to have to be dismissive about Alien, because it truly is one of the greatest alien-horror/thriller movies of all time, and between the stylings of Ridley Scott as director, and H.R. Giger’s mind-blowing alien designs, one of the most visually stunning movies of the era.

While Alien took place in distant space, and only involved a small group of humans, what about something closer to home like, say, planet earth? Films such as 1996’s Independence Day or 2005’s War of the Worlds depict worlds ravaged by alien invasion, governments toppled, populations decimated, and general chaos. Compare the apocalyptic destruction present in these films with the historical devastation of the worlds in Mad Max or The Postman. The earmarks are similar: massive, global death and destruction, wherein the survivors must fight to re-establish control and struggle for survival. But the extra-terrestrial origins of earth’s plight set these films apart. Like in Alien, these films focus on humanity’s struggle against an outside force, rather than placing humanity as a focal point of blame as the root cause of civilization’s downfall.

With any film such as these, there is still ample opportunity to examine the human conditions of power, greed, control, unity and division, love and hate, but it always occurs against the backdrop of an outside force. While alien invasions are certainly powerful plot tools, and can certainly convey a rich, symbolic commentary on human interaction, they also provide a very focused, very well-defined enemy, a foe to be rallied against.

This discussion does begs the question: could a film be set in a future in which there has been an historical devastation caused by alien invasion, and where the contemporary world resembles the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max, The Postman, or The Stand or where the rebuilding has resulted in an iron-fisted totalitarian regime reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Logan’s Run or Brazil, and where the alien presence either no longer exists, or is at most a peripheral consideration, completely removed from the determination of the new world order…and thus be considered dystopian? It is certainly an interesting idea. It would seem that to follow this train of thought, one could take the position that, while the original alien invasion did provide the catalyst for global destruction or reordering, the lack of a continued alien presence or threat would put the reigns squarely back into human hands, and any failings after that point could still be said to have a human basis. In this way we can begin to understand that it is not the mere presence of alien beings that would remove a film from the dystopian realm, but rather humanity’s relationship with the root cause of the eventual dystopian world. Where alien life displaces humanity as the root cause of catastrophe, the categorization fails.

A prime example of a film which not only contains aliens but is in fact dependent on them, yet can still be considered a dystopian film, is Starship Troopers. While for some, simply having Paul Verhoeven (Totall Recall, Robocop) direct a movie may be enough to suggest a dystopian connection, let us not forget that he also directed Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Starship Troopers is of course based on a Robert Heinlein novel and depicts a futuristic world, set with fascist overtones, which is attacked by giant bug-like aliens, prompting the militaristic society to fight back. On its surface, the movie is about fighting some truly gruesome aliens on a far away planet, but the core civilization that forms the basis for this story provides us with a fantastic study in a fascist, totalitarian dystopia. Were the alien bugs removed, the story would naturally not be the same, but the dystopian underpinnings of the global society would remain. Hence, though the aliens here certainly provide the necessary foil for the film’s plot, they are not a critical element in providing the dystopian trigger. Humanity, in this case, has made its own dystopian bed, regardless of the alien attacks which eventually give rise to the military mobilization and actualization of the fascist imperative.

Similarly, the cyberpunk plot of The Fifth Element revolves around alien visitors, and includes alien life as a normal part of the world, but it is the nature of that world irrespective of the alien presence that gives rise to the dystopian classification. We see no real reason to consider alien forces the cause of any part of the dystopian world surrounding the main story.

Zombies & Vampires

Just as alien invasion films reveal a hit-or-miss relationship with the dystopian categorization within the sci-fi genre, zombie films reveal a similar relationship within the horror genre. At first blush, it is easy to dismiss any zombie film from the dystopian class based on the very existence of a mystical, fantastical force required to animate the dead. And if the genesis of zombies in films had remained a mystical, magical force, that is pretty much where we would end. There have been a variety of different branches of so-called zombie films, however, that have made this more complicated.

The first branch of zombie films for us to look at is the updated classics. This doesn’t just mean remakes like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, though this is a perfect example of the grouping. Films within this branch are typically focused on the classic reanimated dead, who are sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes weak, sometimes strong, but always hostile killers, bent on feasting on the living. In their modern incarnations, these films will often forgo the mystical origins of the zombie in favour of a man-made genesis, generally a government or corporate experiment gone awry. This human blame is thus the root cause here, but is there something more to consider?

Another branch, by way of comparison, is present in movies such as 2002’s 28 Days Later, in which a similar genesis can be found – scientists create a highly infectious Rage virus that is unwittingly released, which sweeps through the population. The difference between a film such as this and one such as Dawn of the Dead is that in the latter, the zombies are actually zombies…the undead! In 28 Days Later, the “zombies” are actually still living, breathing human beings. The effects of the rage virus are to turn them into inarticulate, raving beasts bent on death and destruction, and, far-fetched or not, there is nothing mystical or magical about it, not like the reanimation of the dead.

Between these two films, as representative of their respective branches of the modern zombie film, we can see countless similarities. Where it breaks down however is still in the root cause, which centres around an understanding of just how far we are willing to go in accepting what government or corporate scientists are able to develop. A virus which can infect with a single drop of blood and cause radical changes to a person, both mentally and in some ways physically may be at the outer limits of acceptance, but it is still within the realm of possibility, albeit in an exaggerated manner. A compound which can cause the dead to rise, reanimated, physically functional, and determined to kill, kill, kill, requires something more. In that case, attributing the cause to scientists is just the same as attributing it to a pissed off shaman, or incursion onto an ancient burial ground, invasion of a pharaoh’s tomb. Therefore the devastation of 28 Days Later can be seen as a dystopian allegory, whereas that of Dawn of the Dead remains simply a zombie horror film. The mystical or scientific nature of the zombies can act as a good default starting position, but depending on the surrounding context of the film, this assumption may yet be overcome.

A prime example of an exception to the starting assumption can be found within the Resident Evil films, the video game inspired-zombie fest. Once again we have a population (which varies in size as the movies progress) infected by a virus which turns them into zombies, more like in Dawn of the Dead than in 28 Days Later, as the infected dead rise once again. However, what Resident Evil does have is also a giant and rather ominous Umbrella Corporation, and a controlled dystopian-seeming world as a backdrop. Another interesting wrinkle that sets Resident Evil apart is the depth of explanation, between films and games, as to how the T-Virus actually functions on both living and dead hosts. Essentially, all mysticism is removed in favour of pseudo-science, thus allowing Resident Evil to straddle the line between dystopian viral apocalypse and old-school zombie horror. Another element in that sets Resident Evil apart from a film like Dawn of the Dead is that there is an ultimate struggle to save the world, and perhaps cure humanity, rather than the far more base theme of pure survival as is more commonplace in zombie horror films. For all three of these reasons – strong dystopian backdrop, scientific viral functions, possibility of a cure – Resident Evil can be categorized as dystopian, though with the caveat that it is certainly borderline in many respects.

An interesting illustration of the difficulty in determining a dystopian classification for horror movies of this ilk can be found by examining the various filmed incarnations of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 novel I Am Legend. The earliest adaptation came with 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, and starred Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, the seemingly last survivor of a worldwide plague, thanks to a mysterious immunity earned years earlier. The twist is that the victims of this plague reanimate nightly and come for Morgan. Morgan eventually finds that there are other people still alive, though infected and treating themselves with a serum to keep the plague under control. Morgan discovers that his blood can act as an actual cure, rather than a mere treatment, but is killed before he can reveal this fact. Flash forward to 1971’s The Omega Man, with Charleton Heston as Robert Neville. In this incarnation, the plague was caused by biological warfare and Neville’s immunity is borne of an experimental vaccine. Unlike the previous film, Neville battles light-sensitive mutants, rather than vampiristic zombies (or is it zombified vampires?). Neville again finds a small group of “norms” and sets about developing a vaccination plan, but is killed before final fruition, though he does pass on a serum before succumbing. Skipping much further ahead, we reach 2007’s I Am Legend, with Will Smith retaining the name of Robert Neville. The plot here follows The Omega Man fairly closely, with Neville once again immune, battling mutants, finding a small clutch of other survivors, developing a vaccine, and dying heroically but passing the vaccine on to the other survivors.

What makes this an interesting illustration is the fact that, while The Omega Man and I Am Legend both have the same sort of characteristics as 28 Days Later and can thus quite assuredly be looked at as dystopian films, the earliest incarnation of these films, The Last Man on Earth, deals with the supernatural (the vampo-zombs?) in such a way that it begins to look not at all dissimilar to Dawn of the Dead, or more accurately like some of the other classic zombie films from that same era, such as Night of the Living Dead and so forth. It would seem that the argument could go either way, that The Last Man on Earth is a mystical film, focused on supernatural creatures, or that it has a scientific basis and focuses on the remnants of a plague-ridden world. Which is it? Perhaps in light of the films which followed, and the inherent ambiguity of the first film, let’s consider it as well to be a dystopian allegory.

And Others…

Aside from vampires and zombies and aliens (oh my!), there are all sorts of other causes for grim realities, in future worlds, or simply parallel ones. Often times, a film will not necessarily fit within one of these more easily defined comparison sets, and will have to be evaluated purely on its own merits. Take for example 1986’s Maximum Overdrive. Does this fit into a Terminator-style rise of the machines dystopian story? No, it does not, because there is an outside cause. This isn’t about a dawning technological sentience, brought about due to mankind’s headlong rush into things unknown, humanity’s endless push for progress. Instead what incites the machines in this film is the alien power of the tail end of a mysterious comet. It is both mystical and focused on base survival, and therefore not dystopian.

How about a film such as 2002’s Reign of Fire? At first blush – dragons attack civilization – it would seem right to discard this one out of hand, if for no other reason than as a rejection of the mythological nemesis. But as we move forward through time and witness the devastation done to civilization, the pocked world which humanity clings to, the landscape very closely resembles that of many other post-apocalyptic tales. The film even goes so far as to offer a succinct, pseudo-scientific explanation for the presence of dragons. So, mythical creatures, or plausible natural predators reawakened by mankind’s own blunder? Perhaps as with the Resident Evil films there is enough here to warrant a cautious classification as dystopian, with a similar caveat that the mythical elements of Reign of Fire leave it suspect, and not necessarily a good point of comparison for other films. In a way, this film is actually reminiscent of our hypothetical film regarding an historical alien invasion which has left a scorched earth, but no alien overlords, and the debate as to how that could be effectively dealt with. Of course here again the dragons are a continued presence, but the surrounding world certainly has dystopian features. The issue is of course always around this point of genesis, the root cause of the grim world consequence. Had the labourers unearthed a tomb, releasing a radically mutated plague that swept around the world, we could draw an instant comparison to The Stand and be happy with a dystopian classification. Had the labourers unearthed an ancient demon that set about to destroy the world, we would likewise set the film aside as mystical, too far removed in many respects from human causation to rightly be called a dystopian film.

Natural disaster films represent an area that generally does not fall within the category of dystopian films. While it can certainly be stated that many natural disaster films lack a requisite centre of blame, in that they are in fact natural disasters, the single largest factor that prevents the classification is the limited scope of the disaster. Firstly, natural disaster films usually tend to focus on a relatively small or contained area, rather than a global scale. Secondly, natural disaster films are by and large about the disaster, and do not move much beyond the immediate aftermath. Neither of these characteristics on its own would in and of itself disqualify the film it is attached to from being considered dystopian, but more often than not, this does seem to be the case. A film such as 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, regardless of the questionable science presented, involves world-wide cataclysm and the ensuing aftermath in a ravaged landscape, as well as a fairly direct assignation of blame placed on humanity’s mismanagement of the environment. A film like this hits all the right bases to be seen as a solid dystopian endeavour. Compare this to films such as Volcano, Earthquake, Dante’s Peak, Towering Inferno and countless other films that focus on discrete, localized disasters and lack a world-altering scale. Or compare it to a film such as Deep Impact, which certainly has a broader, well, impact, but doesn’t allow the disaster to come to full fruition, so the aftermath is not nearly so catastrophic as to give rise to a new world order.

One final branch of films to consider here are those which deal with the Apocalypse. That’s right, Big A, fire and brimstone, end of days-style Apocalypse. Films such as Apocalypse, Revelation, Tribulation and Judgement have some of the same dystopian elements as other films, but aren’t generally considered to be in the same dystopian category. Essentially, at the heart of any apocalyptic film based on any sort of religious mythology, there is a core of the supernatural, no different from any other film about revolving around the mythical, mystical or magical. The series of films mentioned above deal with the rise of the Antichrist, which means that the root cause of the centre of blame belongs to this mythical prophesied being. The mere presence of religion itself certainly does not act to prevent a film from receiving an approving nod into the dystopian classification. In The Stand, for example, faith is a central theme, as survivors are influenced into two very distinctive camps of good and evil, and the very hand of God seems to play a role. One of the big differences with The Stand is that this theme of faith is secondary to the role of humanity in destroying itself, and the presence of Flagg and the hand of God come on the heels of this devastation.

Culpability is a hard thing to truly nail down, physically, morally, or spiritually. When we say that “mankind is to blame”, do we mean that mankind is solely to blame, at every stage, and at every step? Having gone through this analysis, it would seem that the answer to this question must be “no”. There are many fine examples of situations wherein mankind is either not completely or not at all to blame for the initial calamity which paved the way towards a future dystopic world. However, in most of those cases, it can still be said that the role humankind played following the initial events are what ultimately led to the grim world which we find presented to us. That is, while humanity may not have caused the initial event, they can still bear responsibility for the world in which they live, and any ensuing problems which then arise. Thus, if the world were to be nearly obliterated by an alien life force, which then promptly – or eventually – left, humankind would still bear the responsibility for any inability to rebuild, even though they may not be to blame for the initial destruction.

Is the structure of civilization in reality a thin veneer, easily broken and scraped away? And if so, what lies beneath? If everything that we know and rely on were gone tomorrow, would we rise to the challenge and rebuild, or would we crumble and regress? These are some of the many questions which are raised by many dystopian films.

Perhaps Pogo said it best after all, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

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