The March 19 release Repo Men is about a near-future in which organ transplants are simple, commonplace procedures and citizens can save their loved ones or prolong their own lives on a payment plan. Unfortunately, the moment customers fall behind on their dues, the Repo Men hunt them down to take back what’s owed—no matter which body part it is. The trailers for the movie are clever, but it’s been done before and it’s probably not a particularly interesting addition to the dystopian future canon. For this week’s Listicle, William Bibbiani and I (Julia Rhodes) bring you some of our favorite, or at the very least most memorable, versions of the dystopian future in which sci-fi predicts we’ll all be living shortly. (Then again, “The Jetsons” took place in the 2000s, so where are our flying cars, eh?)
CITY OF LOST CHILDREN (La cité des enfants perdus) (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1995)
Jeunet & Caro collaborated first on the wonderfully weird, surrealist Delicatessen (1991). They directed together again with City of Lost Children, a deliciously irreverent and bizarre tale of a future in which the government has lost control and the mad rule the world. The film tells the strange story of Krank (Daniel Emilfork) and his cloned sons (Dominique Pinon playing six roles) who were invented in a lab by a mad scientist (along with a dwarf princess and a “poor, migraine-ridden” brain floating in a tank). Krank cannot dream, and he believes if he steals children’s dreams he can slow his accelerated aging. When his henchmen kidnap little Denree, though, they incur the wrath of One (Ron Perlman), a strongman who might be able to take down the whole operation.
The movie opens on a lovely Christmas Eve: a child watches gleefully as Santa climbs out of the fireplace. Suddenly another Santa’s boots hit the floor; soon the room fills with sinister Santa Clauses swigging from flasks while a reindeer’s dung splats on the floor. Too much of a good thing can be terrifying. Indeed, the whole film is like an irreverent nightmare; gorgeous chartreuse and crimsons dominate the movie’s world, a dank, sodden city through which poisonous-looking canals weave like veins. Backed by Angelo Badalamenti’s music, this future is fascinating enough that you almost want to go visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.
American Ron Perlman, playing a literal gentle giant, had to learn his lines in French but did not understand the language during filming–though you don’t pick up on that watching the movie. Krank’s henchmen the Cyclops advocate giving up your eyes in favor of creepy computerized hearing and sight devices. The Octopus, a pair of middle-aged, black-bobbed twins, run a circle of orphaned pickpockets in a Dickensian subplot. The cinematography is fraught with fisheye lenses and beautiful, strange scenery. City of Lost Children is really a classic tale of good vs. evil. The forces battle over children, or more specifically, dreams–for what future do we have if we cannot dream? A fair bit of dystopian science fiction focuses on a future in which children can save humanity, which brings us to my second Listicle choice for this week…
CHILDREN OF MEN (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Children of Men also appeared in CLR’s Top Ten of the Decade list. It takes place in a not-too-distant future (2027) in which humans can no longer reproduce, effectively ensuring our extinction. A group of activists transports the last pregnant woman across the country where she can deliver in relative safety—wreaking havoc with each step. The film is full of sudden explosions, unexpected loveliness, and inconceivable cruelty. My friend Keith, who passed away one year ago March 17, told me the movie gave him flashbacks to his time in Iraq. Any film that can cause such a visceral reaction is, in my book, a valuable addition to its respective genre.
At the beginning of Children of Men, the last child on earth (aged eighteen) dies suddenly, leaving humanity with no hope for the future. Chaos and desperation rule as people flail about for ways to keep the world moving. Former spouses Theo (Clive Owen) and Julian (Julianne Moore) help transport pregnant Kee (Clare Hope-Ashitey) to safety. When Kee prematurely gives birth in the middle of a warzone, Theo leads her through the center of a battle with the howling newborn in her arms. The cry of a baby is something to which humans are innately programmed to respond, and in the midst of chaos, the wailing of one innocent child is enough to halt the world.
There are a number of scenes that will strum on your nerves. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Cuarón’s strikingly beautiful films A Little Princess, Great Expectations, and Y tu mamá también) helps create a muted, oppressively dark world in which characters have little to hope for. What’s truly striking, though, is that the actions of both protagonists and antagonists are completely plausible. If we could no longer procreate, the world would disintegrate into hellish chaos, and to watch it happen before your eyes is one of the saddest, most exhilarating movie experiences to date.
CHERRY 2000 (dir. Steve De Jarnatt, 1987)
It’s a little hard to imagine Cherry 2000 being made in any decade other than the 1980s. This highly under-rated and criminally underseen film by Steve De Jarnatt (better known for directing the pre-apocalyptic cult classic Miracle Mile) stars David Andrews (“From Earth to the Moon”) as Sam Treadwell, a normal guy living in a dystopian future whose beloved sex robot breaks down in the film’s opening scene. The only replacement models for his specific brand of sex robot – a “Cherry 2000” – are in the lawless wasteland known as “Zone Seven,” so he hires the feisty “tracker” E. Johnson (Melanie Griffith in cherry red hair – not a coincidence) to help him get there and fight off the hordes of murderous self-help enthusiasts who rule the area. Somehow, the movie’s even better than it sounds.
The cause of the dystopia is somewhat vague. The film takes place in the very far away year of 2017 (ahem), after a conflict known as “The Border Wars” has apparently depleted almost every resource. Sam works as a recycling executive at a market in Anaheim, in which citizens fill their shopping carts with useless junk and stand in line for hours to exchange it for currency. It’s a boring job but Sam’s lucky to have it since 40% of Americans are unemployed. Yet the most oppressive aspect of Cherry 2000’s dystopia isn’t the economic crisis or even the huge portions of the country that have fallen to anarchy. The real problem, and the aspect of society that ultimately turns Sam into a rebel we can cheer for, is the bureaucratic evolution of courtship.
After Sam’s sex toy breaks down we see why he gravitated towards automated companionship in the first place: The dating process now begins with extensive paperwork officiated by personal attorneys (which include a young Laurence Fishburne). The activities for a “standard one night arrangement” are agreed upon in advance and include such possibilities as “dinner, full sexual encounter, complete penetration and an optional episode in the morning.” (You gotta watch out for that Oral Clause. It “seems a little sticky.”) Love, and indeed any genuine human interaction, has become a commodity to be preserved at all costs, and in fact may be the one possession people have left to barter with. Later in the film, Sam encounters an ex-girlfriend who is now the villain’s main squeeze. She’s self-obsessed and domineering, which also helps explain Sam’s perceived need for a submissive romantic possession of his very own.
Over the course of the film Sam embarks on Road Warrior-esque adventures with Melanie Griffith’s “E” (one of her most charismatic roles) and encounters a series of characters engaged in dysfunctional submissive/dominant relationships, which Sam – again – thinks he wants, but of course he has a lot to learn. His relationship with Johnson develops into a healthy romance between respected equals by the end of the story.
The film has a unique take on the dystopia by focusing on the downfall of human interaction as opposed to the downfall of democracy or the unchecked rise of technology and/or capitalism. It also gets bonus points for Tim Thomerson’s wonderful performance as Lester, a progressive homicidal maniac whose pep talks to his team of raiders include lines like, “Keep the sun out of your eyes and be yourselves,” “Be friendly yet firm; don’t break anything, especially you,” and of course, “Remember gentlemen: Life is an adventure!”
DEMOLITION MAN (dir. Marco Brambilla, 1993)
Sometimes it’s hard to determine exactly how a dystopia came about in a particular science fiction story. Wouldn’t it have been really difficult to convince everyone in the world to take the emotion-suppressing drugs in Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium, or to make them line up to be mediocritized (my word) in Bruce Pittman’s Harrison Bergeron? (A film which, by the way, is a wonderful adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut story that I would be discussing now if it were on DVD.) But in Demolition Man the oppressive rise of the fascist city state is easy to comprehend, partially because it is still in its infancy but mostly because an outside observer can easily see why all the changes seemed like a good idea at the time.
Replacing costly prison systems with cryogenic stasis chambers that subliminally rehabilitate criminals, criminalizing firearms and even outlawing unhealthy foods like salt (like they’re trying to do in New York right now) are clearly ideas that began with good intentions but by the time mass murderer Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) escapes from his parole hearing and commits the first murder in Southern California in many years (and the next several dozen as well) they have almost completely crippled society’s potential for self-expression and cultural advancement. (There is no new music in the world of Demolition Man, and the most popular “oldies” are all short, catchy commercial jingles like “Armor Hot Dogs.”) Since none of the hundreds of police officers in “San Angeles” are equipped to deal with a single violent offender they are forced to thaw out John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), the police officer who captured Phoenix in the first place but recklessly got dozens of innocent civilians killed in the process.
The u-/dystopia of Demolition Man was the brainchild of one Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne) who quickly and predictably turns out to be the reason for Simon Phoenix’s sudden escape. It turns out that there is an underground resistance to Cocteau’s teachings but ironically Cocteau’s success has left him with nobody capable of doing the dirty work necessary to complete his social coup d’état, so he tries to manipulate Simon Phoenix into assassinating the charismatic revolutionary Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary, his breakout role). But before long we realize that a society based on repression cannot withstand a single rampaging id, let alone the dozen or more that are unleashed by the action-packed finale in which even Sandra Bullock (who gets some of the best lines in the film) equips herself admirably.
The message in this very funny and well-produced action film is that without the freedom to destroy itself humanity’s potential is very limited. Pretty heavy stuff from the director of Excess Baggage and the star of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot!, and a great film that has only recently been receiving some well-deserved retroactive critical acclaim. Demolition Man is definitely a film that belongs in the Schwarzenegger Presidential Library.