Cinema and ideology: Dystopia at the end of capitalism

Spanish writers Teresa Cabrera Sánchez and Hugo Cuevas Soria consider the overwhelming negative futurism that characterises modern film. Why are these messages being pumped out, and how can we offer some rays of light amid the gloom?

What are the latest series and movies you’ve seen in recent years? Probably among your answers will be titles such as Black Mirror, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld or The Walking Dead. All of them, great productions, enjoy enormous popularity on platforms such as Netflix and HBO. Dystopia is fashionable. If we investigate other audiovisual producers, we find even Disney is at it — Wall-E, aimed at the little ones, or for teenagers, producer Lionsgate offers us The Hunger Games. From Japan, entering the anime world, we can enjoy Psycho-pass. Nor is Spain’s own cultural scene exempt from dystopia — director José Luís Cuerda has dedicated his 2018 film Some Time Later to this genre, just as Atresmedia is about to release The Fence.

We might think that the film industry has found another televisual seam to mine, since, as we have seen, we are currently hyperstimulated with dystopian themes. If we ask ourselves why, we receive a quick response — the world we live in is not very hopeful. But let’s analyze more deeply.

The film and television industry, in its most commercial version, is never depoliticised. There is always an interest that promotes it, an interest that is projected from top to bottom. It is enough to recap its history: the anti-communist cinema of the cold war with works such as Doctor Zhivago (based on the novel by Borís Pasternak) or the robotics and science fiction cinema that prepared us to be a society that accepted the implantation of technology day by day, with enthusiasm, as the labour markets demanded. Examples could be Knight Rider or Back to the Future; the cinema of entrepreneurs like The Pursuit of Happyness. It’s the lure of success that extends the false neoliberal ideology of meritocracy, as well as a cinema that lionises the exploits of billionaires and false philanthropists such as Steve Jobs: One Last Thing

Finally, at a time of systemic crisis, when tensions between world hegemon the US and aspirant to the throne, China, intensify with Trump’s sanctions on Huawei, the latest HBO show Chernobyl has appeared — a series that aims to remind us of the tragedy that occurred in Ukraine during 1986, offering a stridently anti-communist perspective and narrative, typical of the cold war. All these examples have attempted to mould social opinion. 

Dystopia in the present moment

Once the performative function of cinema is understood, we must ask ourselves, where does this growing interest in dystopia come from? Is it a collective response in the face of an uncertain future or, rather, from an industry with political and propaganda purposes?

The future will always be somewhat uncertain. In fact, if the predictions are of any kind to inform us of the conditions of the present, it is no coincidence that the great work of George Orwell, 1984, was written during the reconstruction of a Europe that in less than half century had suffered two world wars. Nowadays, it is logical that social, western opinion becomes pessimistic: from an ecological point of view, the capitalist system has collided head-on with the material limits of the planet. 

We live surrounded by plastic, the polar caps are melting and there are increasing water shortages along with rising temperatures, predicting a catastrophic outlook. Movies like Mad Max are the harbinger of where this situation can lead us. In economic terms we are witnessing the greatest inequalities in the distribution of wealth in history — According to Oxfam, 0.7% of the world’s population owns 45.2% of global wealth. The Hunger Games and their society organised around capitol-districts are redolent of this. 

On the political level, we witness a drift towards the extreme right. Given an inability to understand and predict our world, options such as Donald Trump in the US, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Matteo Salvini in Italy are seen as attractive responses. It seems that despite having a lot of information we have reached a ceiling: wars that generate millions of refugees, inequalities of race, class, gender … All this because above all, the material is the basis of our socio-economic system. The Handmaid’s Tale meets all these premises, especially in its view of gender — Gilead is presented as an eco-fascist alternative society of the most frightening kind. 

Lastly we run into the values-technology combination. The advances made over the last few decades have been enormous, both positive and negative: from 3D printers promising to create food, clothing or buildings in record times, to facial recognition systems that put our privacy at risk. Therefore we cannot help asking ourselves: Will we know how to put it to good use? Will it contribute to improve life? 

If we take a look at chapters of Black Mirror, Westworld or Psycho-pass, we can see how the abuse of technology relegates life to the background, in order to maintain an economic system. Which can lead to an eternal chill.

In the above context, it is not surprising that our favorite series are impregnated with a political ideology for propaganda purposes. The political need to create a social opinion that adapts our society to the coming changes is essential. How? Through three performative maneuvers:

First, offer an explanation for the current crisis situation (economic, social, ecological …) in which the responsibility is individual, not systemic. This is a discourse broadly reflecting that of economic elites in the face of the last financial crisis in Spain — the culprits of crisis are individuals who have lived above their means, not the system that promoted these trends. 

Secondly, the normalisation of undesirable situations for any human being, such as cuts to our rights, precariousness, economic inequality, new consumption habits due to scarcity. This normalisation occurs through a constant downpour of images of specific situations. For example, the first time the news showed images of migrant boats shipwrecked in the Mediterranean dismayed us, stirred and angered, until little by little, image after image and day after day, we are able to view these events as natural. Another example would be in the increasing publicity over insect-based food products, pushed as being good for ecofriendly, vegetarian or even vegan diets … it is possible that in the future, a part of the population will change their habits, but such change will not be produced by a matter of values ​​(environmentalism, animal consciousness …) but rather a question of induced class. Our elites will continue to enjoy their usual waste. 

Third and last, eliminate the idea that other futures are possible. Every alternative to the future that is offered to us is different, but they all have something in common: the loss of our freedoms.

Crisis as a window of opportunity

Every crisis involves the questioning of a system, either in its material or immaterial scope. Given the possible situation of collapse that is presented to us, the perspective from which we view it can make a difference. We can limit ourselves to being mere analysts of a murky present that becomes murkier every second or, on the contrary, we can see in that collapse an opportunity , the ideal context for thinking about alternative utopias. 

Let’s start by asking ourselves what meaning we want to give to the word “utopia”. Imagine a wonderful future every day. The problem lies in the abyss that separates its own reality from that future, assumed as an impossibility. At this point, we recall a conversation from Mad Men, set in the 1960s. In the scene Rachel Menken tells Donald Draper how she studied the etymology of the word utopia in college. The Greeks had two words eutopos that means “good place” and utopos that means “the place that cannot be”. 

While we are accustomed to using the word utopia as a beautiful but impossible idea, by taking advantage of this situation we can establish as its main meaning instead “the good place”. In this scenario we not only imagine beautiful future places, but structure the steps might be to get there. In this situation, suddenly, the way opens for genuine productions with directors, actresses and other professionals in the film industry making shows that consider how humanity can fight against climate change, implementing different measures in all parts of the world. Films about how social consciousness (class, race, gender, orientation, animalist, environmentalist …) is faced with a harmful economic system for the vast majority of the world’s population and which begins to give priority to life, leaving Finance aside, looking for a world in which everyone has the same value as beings. 

The protagonists of such shows, rather than teaching us to accept dystopia, might instead help guide us along the path we need to travel, and make us aware of the importance and background of each step.

Teresa Cabrera Sánchez and Hugo Cuevas Soria.
@TcsAmelie and @CusoHugo


This article is an edited machine translation from a Creative Commons article at Torpedo Magazine  — any issues let us know!