Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

In David Christopher’s essay, “The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia Films”, he proposes a political distinction between dystopian science-fiction and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic sci-fi: “the fall of capitalist culture in apocalyptic narratives and its full realization in dystopian ones” (57). Nonetheless, Christopher mutually ties these subgenres to a reactionary capitalist ideology, arguing that they either encourage “repressive tolerance” (a term quoted from Herbert Marcuse) by purporting to display social decay that has not yet come to pass, or legitimize values of capitalist reform or reconstruction (58). However, an examination of numerous examples within these subgenres reveal that these arguments for ideological trends are subject to considerable crossover and contradiction: in Christopher’s line of argument, to depict a pessimist dystopian vision is to imply to an audience that such a thing has not or cannot come to pass, while to depict reform codifies capitalism as the correct governing ideology. In the latter case, the audience would have to recognize the on-screen world’s parallels to reality, an awareness which the former case precludes. What’s more, not all films in these subgenres even take place within a capitalist setting. The ideological problems that affect the dystopian and post-apocalyptic subgenres, therefore, are more complex and varied than Christopher gives them credit for. However, many of these films still possess a reactionary strain that muddies or contradicts their attempts to problematize contemporary social and political constructs. In this essay, I will explore the political distinctions between dystopian and post-apocalyptic films, propose what links the politics of their fantasies beyond the reform of a pre-canonized capitalism, and provide example of how such films navigate (or fail to navigate) socially subversive narratives within a genre whose productions are often beholden to commercial interests.

First, it will be useful to establish that it is not necessarily useful to form a dichotomy between post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinema. The emergence of a harmonious, equality-based society in a post-apocalyptic setting is unheard of in science-fiction, relegating the vast majority of new-forming civilizations to dystopian status. Second, the defining political structures of dystopia ought to be defined. A broad assessment of such structures suggests that the defining parameter of dystopian society is the impression of halted progress — that scientific development and advanced technology have either moved entirely out of the reach of the lower classes (except to control their behaviour and exploit their labour), or stopped altogether. In both cases, a bureaucratic or tyrannical ruling class usually plans or emerges to capitalize on this technology gap, be it through methods of technological design, obscurement, or enforced scarcity. As dystopian narratives progress, their protagonists become more aware of and opposed to their social condition, and seek to remedy it either by seeking personal interests or attempting subversion. The outcomes of these narratives can be categorized into two contradictory conclusions: a pessimistic one wherein the characters’ efforts prove futile, whether they are hopelessly under-equipped or their ideological opponents too diffuse to meaningfully damage; and an optimistic one where heroes emerge and pose a legitimate threat to the the established order of the dystopian system(s), or overthrow it altogether. While most narratives often opt for the latter arc, they seldom form coherent or convincing solutions to their oppression. From the early landmark of Metropolis onward, resolutions of complex social problems in dystopian cinema have often been arbitrary, reactionary, comically platitudinous, or all at once (as in Metropolis’s moral pronouncement: “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart”). The chilling effect that such endings have upon whatever groundwork for subversion may have been laid before them does much to support the view that dystopian science-fiction films are a subtly anti-progressive subgenre.

Ridley Scott’s Alien is an especially potent example of my proposed acid test for dystopian science-fiction as defined by halted technological progress for lower classes. In it, a crew of blue-collar labourers on an industrial space barge called the Nostromo are prematurely awakened by their unseen and unheard corporate masters in order to procure a dangerous alien specimen from the surface of a nearby planet. This arrangement is striking because of how completely removed the crew members are from their superiors: they receive orders from a computer, are constantly working to maintain their spaceship’s inner workings, and, unlike most spacefaring sci-fi, they almost never receive any kind of help from the high tech industrial gadgets and machinery around them. The crew is isolated from their technology even when they are within it. This hostile isolation is constantly reinforced by visual metaphors of the film’s production design, and by the plot itself. For instance, when the crew members crawl through the ship’s ducts, the sharp circular teeth of the ventilation doors make a knife-like scraping sound as they open and close around the character moving through them. Later, when a plan goes awry and the final surviving crewmember Ripley tries to reverse a self-destruct sequence, the computer arbitrarily refuses.

In the essay “Triumphant Technology and Minimal Man: The Technological Society, Science Fiction Films, and Ridley Scott’s Alien”, T. J. Matheson suggests that, while most science-fiction that casts a skeptical eye on technology’s usefulness is “presented either as a misused tool of some evil or misguided human (or otherwise sentient) agency or one that has become dysfunctional,” (217) Alien’s claustrophobic technological setting removes any overseeing human influences and, as he quotes from Jacques Ellul, shows that mankind is “all the more the slave of abstract ones.” (219). I believe that this reading is a near-miss. The crew of the Nostromo serve technology because the latter has been designed for that function by the unseen administrators of the corporation. Instead, technology’s role as an abstracted mediator for labour and enforcer of the ruling class’s will is used to emphasize the contemporary estrangement of the exploiter and the exploited. Such is the totality of the company’s self-removal from its labourers that even their sole representative among the crew is an artificial construct, an android planted among the crew’s ranks without their knowledge to remind them of their contractual obligations and ensure that they are carried out. Instead of the romantic space of heroic figures sent on glorious missions across the galaxy, space is envisaged as an ideal ghetto. Unlike Metropolis, Blade Runner, and other urban dystopias, which symbolically distinguish the rich and the poor by their occupation of a high or low vertical placement in the city’s architecture (Andrew Milner, 267), Alien uses the locational abstraction and isolation of space to emphasize the technology gap’s role in modern ghettoization. (Ridley Scott went on to invert this arrangement in Blade Runner.)

In spite of the triumph of sole survivor Ripley over the murderous life-form brought on-board, her situation at the end of the film does indeed seem to “make an optimistic interpretation of Alien virtually impossible.” (Matheson, 227) Ripley defeats the creature by strapping herself into a chair and blasting her foe out into the vacuum of space, guaranteeing its death by torching it with the ship’s engine as it spirals away. As she prepares for slumber in an escape shuttle, Ripley narrates that “with a little luck the network will pick me up” — a promise of, at best, further subjugation, and at (a likely) worst, an endless drift through space, from which the only plausible rescue is the the “little luck” of a greenlit sequel. Either way, as she drifts off to sleep, victory has been earned through a moment of mechanical control that is inconsistent with and contradictory to the themes of the film thus far, seemingly dictated more by the commercial imperatives of a happy ending than a logical working-out of the film’s technological class struggle. Under the framework of halted scientific development, The Matrix’s perfect simulation of urban America in the 1990s would seem to suggest that the masses are already in an ideal state to be placated and system(at)ically exploited. When we meet Neo, he is kept largely ignorant to the truth of his surroundings and his own importance through a matrix of intellectual control that need not enter the realm of science-fiction to seem plausible: drug culture, an anonymous position in a dull office, and a ubiquitously encouraged submission to authority are among the tools that convince Neo that both he and his world are unremarkable. But the most insidious control of the human race by machines (who, this time around, really are an inhuman force of power) is the utter obscurement of the true development of technology, through technology. The bodies of all human beings are, in fact, being harvested for energy in pods built by machines. To placate them, the machines place each unwitting person’s consciousness in an elaborate simulation of the 21st century, from which certain humans have escaped and formed a rebellion (disconnecting returns them to the “real world” of the late 22nd century). Such a system of oppression requires a hefty dose of philosophically tinged pseudo-science (e.g. “The body cannot live without the mind”); nevertheless, the central metaphor of The Matrix is clear: before oppressive systems of control can be overcome, it is necessary to reject the prevailing paradigms entirely in order to see and contend with the truth. However, the Christ-allegory of Neo’s resurrection at the end of the film does not tie this notion to contemporary issues of biopolitics and capitalist malaise, as the narrative has up to that moment. Instead, there is a sudden increased reliance upon mysticism and religious allegory that distances the film from real political import. The question of precisely which intellectual paradigms must be shattered to overcome our dystopian fate seems to be beyond the imagination of the Wachowskis; in spite of the preponderance of religious and philosophical allusions scattered throughout the film, the breadth of ideological readings it has inspired might be more indebted to the surreal inscrutability of its key moment of resolution (Smith’s quick dispatch at Neo’s hands), a moment whose intellectual disjuncture with the rest of the movie is thrown into even sharper relief by its root in a conventional heteronormative coupling that miraculously inspires the peak of the hero’s power. The Matrix imagines and rhetoricizes rebellion, but against the abstract sprawl of the machines’ technological oppression, it is seemingly powerless to offer anything short of a miracle as an answer. The gap, it would seem, is too profound to close by practical tactics or intellect.

However, The Matrix’s final moment of peril offers a perhaps-unintentional asterisk to this failure of ideology and imagination. After unplugging from the Matrix, the rebels reawaken in the real world as their ship is breached by sentinel machines. To stop them, they use an electromagnetic pulse, an on-ship weapon that immediately wipes out the functionality of any electronics in range. The caveat of such a weapon, however, is its double-edge: it nullifies its user’s technology as well. But, as Trinity explains in an earlier scene, “It’s the only weapon we have against the machines.” This leveling out of technology by force may be the only method of subversion that has achieved intellectual and narrative credibility in dystopian narratives, and it finds its clearest expression in post-apocalyptic films. In these movies, a breakdown in power structures lessens the technology gap between the powerful and their dissidents. The latter party’s ability to triumph over oppressors and would-be oppressors often derives from the reduction of this gap. In The Matrix, the “real world”, in spite of its tasteless food and scorched climate, has been so thoroughly devastated by war that even the machines are apparently desperate for a renewable source of energy, necessitating the harvest of human beings as a means of survival. It is here that victory against the agents of oppression seems most plausible and tangible; the technology gap is largely one of ontological influence, and once that influence has been broken down, there seems to be no clear advantage the machines might have over the humans, who can procure multitudes of knowledge with a split-second neural download. Instead of pursuing this possibility, the film seems to suggest that the mystical idolatry of Neo’s effortless manipulation of the illusory Matrix is the path to liberation.

The difficulty of solving such problems with a film borne of heavily financed, commercially-motivated production is understandable, and few franchises exemplify this better than George Miller’s Mad Max series. Each entry is directed and co-written by Miller, and serves as a different perspective on the breakdown, re-emergence, or redemption of dystopian power structures. The first three films each offer their own diagnosis and consequent ideological response to the moral turpitude of post-apocalyptic dystopias: cynicism (Mad Max), pragmatic survival (Mad Max 2 or The Road Warrior), reform and flight (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The fourth entry, Mad Max: Fury Road, offers an especially well-considered depiction of both a dystopian power structure and its means of rehabilitation. The film takes place decades after war has obliterated the Earth’s landscapes and left them as deserts so barren that a tyrant called Immortan Joe is barely able to scavenge enough technology to take power. However, with a smattering of cars, weapons, and simple machinery, Joe recruits a small army of zealous worshipers, sculpts out a lair in a massive butte, and claims exclusive control of its precious resource: an aquifer, the only known clean water supply in the region. Joe induces widespread thirst and starvation, and he emphasizes the technology gap between him and the masses in every way he can, especially through conspicuous consumption: his method of dispersing water to the people is through massive, impractical waterfalls that splash and dissolve into the dust below, and his car is formed by two Cadillac Coupe de Villes. But unlike Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which takes place mostly in a reconstructed society called Bartertown that is ruled by scheming capitalists, the regime of Fury Road appears to be a sort of neo-medieval, patriarchal theocracy, where the resources necessary to labour are so scarce that slavery becomes a position of privilege. In Fury Road, we see a perpetuated distinction between a self-sufficient community with its own internal hierarchy and exploitation (flowing downward from the Immortan to his army and “wives”), and the foreign masses, given enough to guarantee survival and fealty but not enough to permit strength. Thus, the film emphasizes its technology gap as a means of enforcing class difference via control of production, artificial scarcity, and military authority, but it does not do so in a capitalist framework.

However, that gap is meager compared to the aforementioned examples of Alien, whose exploited labourers have no practical control over technology and their superiors are absent, or The Matrix, wherein human beings have no knowledge that any significant gap exists at all, let alone that they are being oppressed. The revolt against Immortan Joe that constitutes Fury Road’s central narrative thrust is arguably only plausible because a capitalist regime has not yet had time to take root. The film can therefore be said to effectively criticize and subvert patriarchy and theocracy, but not capitalism. Unless, that is, we incorporate the film’s backstory into this reading, when capitalism destroys itself and all but annihilates life on earth over “oil wars” and “water wars”. So the laying of groundwork for Fury Road’s triumph over an exploitative society comes at a heavy price indeed, and that’s before the death and carnage that constitute its appeal as an action blockbuster have taken place. Even then, the film concludes with a revolution, but stops short of proposing a new socio-political order; its heroes rise to power, but we do not have the opportunity to see how they distribute and exercise it.

Thus, the pessimism or inconsistency of dystopian and post-apocalyptic science-fiction cinema’s criticisms of capitalist exploitation and other social injustices would seem to be more a consequence of those systems’ tenacity than an inherent ideological complicity of the subgenre. If the subgenre has a unifying political premise, it is that oppression is most effectively enabled by advancing oligarchical control of technology and stymying the population’s access to it. Conversely, it is most effectively resisted when that gap is closed. While the most convincing of these films tend to emphasize an extraordinary loss of life — and even civilization — as the precursor to political upheaval, more often than not their resolutions are simpler and more optimistic. Ironically, these endings may work to quell any sense of dissent against oppressive social systems that the audience may have developed. By pandering to audiences with facile solutions to dystopias, they encourage a complacent and misdirected attitude of unfounded hope. The ending of Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic sci-fi farce Brazil provides a salient argument against this trend in dystopian cinema: for a moment, it seems to adopt an optimistic ending, as the protagonist and his love interest drive away from the endless tangle of the city’s machines and institutions into a green-hilled horizon. Then, he is suddenly revealed to be merely hallucinating this false ending. In reality, he is still strapped to his chair in a torture chamber, destroyed, hopeless, and smiling.


 Christopher, David. “The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia Films.” Cineaction 95 (2015): 57–58.

 Milner, Andrew. “Darker Cities: Urban dystopia and science fiction cinema.” International journal of cultural studies 7, no. 3 (2004): 267.

 Matheson, T. J. “Triumphant Technology and Minimal Man: The Technological Society, Science Fiction Films, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.” Extrapolation 33, no. 3 (1992) 217–219


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