Written by Sam Kohn

Question: can you name a film set in the future where the world hasn’t gone to complete shit? Chances are, you can’t, because Hollywood’s (and our) obsession with the apocalyptic has been around for almost as long as movies themselves. Scared for the future? You’re not alone, and the craze shows no signs of slowing down. Let’s take a look back through the history books to see where it all began.

Back in 1927, German director Fritz Lang gave us the first great dystopia of the 20th century: Metropolis, a science-fiction set in a futuristic city where the privileged live in a beautiful and advanced utopia. The catch? Below them, the working classes are forced to work as slaves in squalid conditions, laying bare the class divisions that existed in post-WW1 Europe as the continent grappled with mass industrialisation and urbanisation. Fritz’s concept of the ‘haves’ living above the surface and the ‘have nots’ living beneath it had an enduring impact on pop culture, cropping up time and time again in movies like The People Under the Stairs, Us, and Parasite. And with the world now heading towards a global recession, we’re likely to see even more class dystopias that pit “us versus them” in the coming years. Good thing that’s the only problem we’re facing! 

Not. If we agree that dystopian futures are informed and fuelled by present-day anxieties, today’s writers should have no shortage of inspiration to pull from. Take the climate crisis. Open any newspaper and you’ll be reminded of the impending threat of catastrophic climate change but just how impending is it really? In 1973, Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green depicted a world where fruits, vegetables and livestock had gone extinct due to overpopulation and global warming. The solution? A staple, mass-produced food source made from sea plankton. The twist? “It’s people! Soylent Green is made out of people!” When was it set? 2022. That’s right: in 1972, screenwriters were predicting full-scale ecological collapse and state-sponsored cannibalism by 2022. And though things are bad right now, it’s important to acknowledge where we are not. Which begs the next question: why do dystopian stories continue to frighten us even when past predictions haven’t come true? 

As with most things, it comes down to the nature of fear itself. Anyone who’s ever experienced anxiety will tell you that the condition operates on a “what-if” basis, constantly fearing the worst and worrying excessively about what the future holds. Exam coming up? You’re going to fail. That big presentation? You’re going to choke. Ask them out? Don’t even think about it. These negative thought patterns have a name – catastrophizing – and the puzzling thing about them is that they can continue to plague us even though the imagined worst case scenarios rarely, if ever, materialise. But what happens when these day-to-day worries give way to general anxieties about the state of the world? Violence, government surveillance, artificial intelligence and the like. Well… film studios mine them for content to frighten us even more, of course.

For these reasons, dystopian movies should be seen as time capsules rather than mere exercises in doom-mongering; cultural artefacts that capture the zeitgeist (and fears) of the era in which they were made. Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, for one, came out at a time when Britain was experiencing a moral panic over what it deemed to be a hedonistic, nihilistic youth culture. The extreme violence depicted on screen viciously satirised the British youth, capitalising on these fears and traumatising a generation of adults in the process. On the other side of the pond, Robocop was released in 1987 following two decades of automation investment in the automobile industry, which decimated livelihoods across Detroit and the Midwest as manual jobs disappeared. The resulting crime wave, paired with Detroiters’ newfound fears around robots taking their jobs, set the stage for a new vision of dystopia – a walking, talking industrial revolution with guns for arms, a shiny metal suit and a penchant for justice. 

Indeed, it seems almost all dystopias can be linked back to some kind of socio-political context, and fans of the genre will be delighted to know they’re becoming just as popular on TV as they are in the movies. So popular, in fact, that it’s hard to name a single piece of media from the last few years that depicts a true utopia. The Purge’s supposedly crime-free society relies on one night of unbridled violence each year, Severance’s miracle solution to the work-life balance ends up having terrible consequences for all involved, and everyone and their mother knows that The Truman Show was fake the entire time. There is perhaps no better example of our culture’s obsession with dystopias than NBC’s sitcom The Good Place, where we spent an entire season before realising we’d actually been in The Bad Place from the jump. It would seem as though we see utopias as pipe dreams; elusive, intangible, and inevitably hiding something sinister under the surface. 

What does this say about the human psyche? And who or what is to blame for our collective cynicism? Could it be explained by the simple fact that humans are drawn to the morbid and the macabre? Or have years of consuming sensationalist news and entertainment left us with a negativity bias? There are no easy answers, but one theory is that our obsession with dystopias is to distract us from a much more disturbing thought: What if we already live in utopia? What if this is it? There’s a pretty strong case to say that this is as close as humankind is ever going to get, and that in itself can be a terrifying thought. Because if this is as good as it gets, where do we go from here? Are things going to say the same, or will they get much, much worse? Again, nobody knows for sure, but one thing we do know is that nobody seems to think they’re going to get better – just look at your TV.