Why is cinema so eager to present a dystopian view of the world and yet so reluctant to depict its opposite, asks Peter Wix
It’s a strange place we live in, where dreams of ideal societies and great improvements for the general good occupy so little space in the collective imagination. However you introduce such thoughts into the conversation, people seem to possess a Utopia detector. You will be attacked for being ‘Utopian’, for daring to bring to mind something that might improve the lives of everyone but which would, rather awkwardly, require the approval and efforts of a majority.
Wax pessimistic about the way things are going, paint the future as dark as you like, and you’ll get people coming over from the bar or the deli counter to join in. No one ever puts you down for “getting a bit dystopian”.
Despite great Utopian literary works being kept alive, cinema has preferred to portray and celebrate dystopias – and with great success. There seems to be no screen version of William Morris’s News From Nowhere, nothing but obscure documentaries on Thoreau’s Walden, and nothing for B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two. Though it influenced thinkers and writers such as Gilles Deleuze or Unamuno, not even the dystopian elements of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon have warranted a movie version. And Aldous Huxley’s Island, with its decentralised economics, drug use for enlightenment and sexual rites for adolescents, has failed to inspire interest from the world of cinema.
The nearest we have are, perhaps, Frank Capra’s visions, notably the Shangri-la of Lost Horizon (1937), but this is, well, pretty much lost beyond the horizon. e society that works for George Bailey in Capra’s eternally loved It’s a Wonderful Life may be a sentimental ‘Utopia’ but it is built on the example of one man’s behaviour. If we all behave like Christ… yes, we get the Christian Utopia, which is rather too vague a prescription to fit the genre.
Dystopian movies also tend to be about one hero’s fight against the evils of society. Lang’s Metropolis sets the tone. There have been hundreds since, most pursuing that simple formula (Soylent Green, Brazil, Planet of the Apes… Mad Max; some conform to the ‘escape-from-dystopia’ category (Fahrenheit 451, Children of Men, Logan’s Run…). Occasionally, as in Boorman’s Zardoz, there’s something to get hold of, the reflection, for example, that an extreme bisexual utopian community with eternal life could be so boring you would live craving death.
It may be that visions of society working perfectly are just too boring for a film audience. Is the established narrative of movies dependent on the tensions involved in delivering safety from fear, and order from chaos?
Surely, though, the educational experience of absorbing ideas about free food and energy, shared resources and a return to nature should now stop boring us. Are Utopian books boring? Where is the film that makes you say “I want to live in that Society”?
In the shit we find ourselves today, such ideas should stimulate us, just as they did in Britain through J.B. Priestley’s 1942 play They Came to a City, a vision of a socialist future released into cinemas in 1944 and which, I venture, played its part in the Spirit of ’45 which brought such social changes in Britain and the world. You might find this film only through a seller on iOffer; even YouTube can only offer a brief clip courtesy of a tribute to one of the film’s former variety actors, and a full amateur dramatic version of the play, voice only.
Admittedly, neither the play nor a piddling budget made for a very dynamic film. But from a time when people needed hope and were asking what they were fighting to have once the horror and sacrifices were over, we have a document of Utopian cinema we should be taking better care of.
Was there a socialist vision people dared to hope for in 1944, and which They Came to a City represents? How many were fighting because of the fear of a Hitlerian dystopia? Which is greater, the fear or the longing? And what does it say about us that we seem to prefer the fear and battle of dystopias to the hope and promise of a paradise?