The dystopia genre has enjoyed a lot of attention the last decade with hits like The Hunger Games, Blade Runner 2049, and Automata as a few examples. To me, a dystopian film is set in the near future with a focus on society more than technology. In my late teens and early 20s I loved reading the cyberpunk genre which often was a dystopian view but also focused on technology as a carrier of the film, like the more recent Ready Player One does. So dystopian and cyberpunk often blend to me and is more about the focus and story that may set them apart.
One thing common in dystopian movies is the breakdown of society, typically at the hands of a tyrannical government that does not see all citizens as equal. In The Hunger Games, society was segregated into districts that enjoyed more or less comfort. Soldiers from the capitol enforced the rules and made sure that impoverished districts stayed that way while demanding their citizens provide resources and play in games to the death, for the entertainment of the wealthy. Even the trip to the capitol in a train showed the gap with extensive platters of food, the likes of which some contestants had never seen in their life. Their homes were in a district surrounded by fences with the penalty of death for escaping. Medical care was basically non-existent in some districts and there was no way to challenge the system as democracy and voting were a thing of the past.
Similar elements can be seen in many movies including Equilibrium, Divergent, Elysium, Code 8, and the classic Fahrenheit 451 which was recently remade. We see aspects of these fictional societies in our own and it makes the movies more compelling.
We see governments becoming more authoritarian, the wealth gap widen, and millions of people being left behind. Little bits here and there keep adding up and we don’t notice the slow boil until it is too late. But I have to wonder, when does our own society reach the point that it can be considered dystopian?
I think dystopia has arrived.
During the last year, the political climate has reached critical levels as tens of millions have become disenfranchised in one manner or another. With COVID-19 devastating the entire world, even so-called “first-world” countries like the United States have seen record levels of unemployment, over-burdened food banks, over-populated prisons rocked by the pandemic, disenfranchised voters waiting half a day to vote, hospitals over capacity and turning away patients, freezer trucks used as temporary morgues due to overflow, and record levels of eviction and unhoused families. I can’t think of a book or movie that portrays it, but the “homeless sweeps” enacted in many cities are straight out of a dystopian nightmare.
The rapidly growing ad-hoc homeless encampments we see in cities are growing steadily which can increase risk to residents and businesses. Home-owners perceive their risk of becoming a victim of crime increasing and lobby to have them removed from their neighborhood. As the homeless are forced to live in tents set up in the right-of-way in front of half a million dollar homes, resentment grows. If this continues we will see a boiling point happen and there might be a homeless uprising. What do they have to lose? Jail or prison isn’t ideal by any means but it does give them shelter and food which are jeopardized every day.
Protests rocked the United States leading many cities to have government buildings and businesses boarding up windows, hiring security, while many are going out of business as the uncontrolled pandemic ravages communities. We’ve seen more fences going up in protest areas, around public space, and even around police stations.
The central element to dystopian literature and film is the tyrannical government that looks out for the upper class and has little to no concern for the rest of society. That can certainly be increasingly seen in U.S. politics the last decade and even now, congress is arguing about giving citizens a $2000 stimulus after struggling to pass a $600 payment. Meanwhile the bills are bundled with other legislation and proposals that do everything but help citizens. As certain elements of the government seek to consolidate power the level of resentment and protest increases significantly, as we saw. This has led to stand-offs and clashes between angry tax-payers and disreputable police.
This becomes cyclical as protesters become more organized and police become more militarized. The methods of law enforcement began blending with military tactics long ago and in many cases local police have become almost indistinguishable from soldiers. Police departments have been purchasing military equipment for years, giving them both offensive and defensive gear including vehicles that are overkill.
Even without gear that is considerably overpowered, police departments have the outward appearance of not taking their oaths to heart. Thousands of videos of incidents in which police used excessive force on protesters and journalists flooded Twitter in 2020. The disproportionate and indiscriminate killing of minorities have added a level of anger and contempt we haven’t seen before. Demands range from simple reform to accountability changes to the total abolition of police departments.
Think about your favorite dystopian book or movie and what aspects of that society make it dystopian in the first place. Compare those same attributes to what we have seen in the United States in the last twelve months. When you do, you might reach the same conclusion that our society has crossed the line and we live in the dystopia we have paid to enjoy through fiction until now.
So again, I think dystopia has arrived.