By soleil Nathwani Jun. 17, 2016
Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium eerily resembles Mumbai’s skyline. Dystopian narratives only appear far-fetched. Strip away the costumes and elaborate sets, and we’re in trouble.
Last year, I went to see Mad Max in a diversion-ready frame of mind. As part cineophile, part film junkie, I inhabit both these worlds but art house cinema can sometimes be too serious an affair, so I reserve Friday nights for the popcorn movies. I crave the emotional balm of a happy ending, the rush of borrowed adventure, the antidote to “real life”.
But much to my dismay, I left the cinema, worse for wear, rattled with an eerie sense of doom. Judging from the chatter in the theatre, the audience seemed largely unconcerned that in Furiosa’s world, water is scarce and people are enslaved. Charlize Theron was simply a heroine who’d traded cape and tights for a badass shorn head and I was accused of taking the action too seriously. But was I, really?
If you’ve seen Mad Max you know that Charlize Theron masterfully plays the one-armed Imperator Furiosa. She’s hunted down as she crosses nuked terrain to save a precious cargo of women breeders from a tyrannical warlord. This is more than a bombastic car chase. The wounded female, who has to fight for her rights against a crazed oppressor, is a screaming warning symbol. Except that it’s less of a warning, and more hard truth. Take Malala Yousafzai, a present day Furiosa, shot in the head by the Taliban for fighting for girls to stay in school. It doesn’t end there. The human blood banks and captive women breeders of George Miller’s latest Mad Max installment are more fact than fiction. Organ trafficking is a booming business and while Hollywood and Bollywood try to close the gender gap, away from the world of the red carpet, the Islamic State is aggressively pushing birth control to maintain its supply of sex slaves and Boko Haram is strapping bombs on girls.
Movies that present a murky future capture the imagination and the box office these days, and switching off behind tubs of mixed caramel-cheese popcorn is a delusion we all need. After all, the world is a real shit show right now. What better distraction from all signs that we’re on a collision course than some post-apocalyptic porn? But what happens when the two insist on meeting time and again?
Let’s consider a more extreme example, The Hunger Games. I hear what you’re thinking – we’re not quite there yet, right? The world isn’t divided into poor districts controlled by the wealthy Capitol where children are forced to fight each other to the death in a filmed battle for the entertainment of the privileged.
Well, let’s start with that basic construct – countries in the Middle East have been ravaged either by powerful external forces or the repercussion of internal revolution and while the news media captures and at times cashes in on the reportage, we, the privileged, have the option to watch the fall out in the safety of our living rooms.
In Syria, thousands of children are trained in combat and are living amid violence. Refugees flee war-torn nations as their neighbours squabble over whether to accept them. It makes the Mockingjay storming the Capitol look like a cakewalk. The future presented in Panem of The Hunger Games isn’t distant; it’s just unevenly distributed across the world.
The future fantasy is no longer a getaway vehicle. And it’s not because our big screen yarn makers are uninspired.
As I watch these movies with chillingly plausible plotlines, I cling to a safe space between what is here and what we have time to ward off, in more obvious science fiction. Ex Machina, recognised as one of the ten best independent films of last year, appeared to be just the fix. The plot: Billionaire entrepreneur now living in seclusion invents an Artificial Intelligence machine to do his bidding. This hot bot, played by Alicia Vikander, ends up (major spoiler alert) stabbing her maker to death.
Even as I basked in the warm afterglow of the it’s-just-a-movie feeling, I read that a 22-year-old worker in a Volkswagen plant in Germany died from the injuries he sustained when he was trapped by a robotic arm and crushed against a metal plate. Truth, it appears, is more horrific than science fiction. The future has come to claim us.
In the good old days, when I watched Keanu Reeves in The Matrix realise that human beings are prisoners of those in power, there were no chilling parallels with Edward Snowden. I wasn’t worrying about the Zika virus when presented with human infertility in Children of Men. Blade Runner and Gattaca didn’t get me anxious about how we might make a mess of our ability to replicate the human genome. Now, I consider Elysium’s space habitat, home to the rich and powerful, a lofty distance from the poor, and it eerily resembles Mumbai’s skyline.
Dystopian narratives today only appear far-fetched at first glance because they are dressed to divert. Strip away the costumes and elaborate sets, and the message is crystal clear, we’re in trouble.
The future fantasy is no longer a getaway vehicle. And it’s not because our big screen yarn makers are uninspired. Modern-day horrors have outpaced their imaginations, so what they see becomes feast for thought. Suzanne Collins conceived The Hunger Games while channel flipping between reality TV and a newsfeed of the Iraq war. Fury Road stemmed from George Miller recognising the commoditisation of human beings. Alex Garland’s research on cognitive robots was the genesis of Ex Machina.
Some of the hotly anticipated films for this year and next indicate that fairy tales will continue to lose ground to cautionary ones. Scarlett Johansson will soon be seen as a cyborg cop navigating a world of cyber warfare in Ghost in the Shell. Luc Besson’s Valerian, which stars everyone from Rihanna to Ethan Hawke, has time-traveling agents trying to protect the human species from doom. And James Cameron’s announcement that four new Avatar movies are in the works seems to be a good sign that we should be thinking about life on another planet, since we seem to be doing a pretty solid job destroying this one.
For the eternal dreamers and the eternally deluded, there will always be a spandex superhero packaged in a dicey sequel and a scantily clad heroine singing in the hills, but for me, movies are no longer a happy escape.
The world is truly up shit creek and the bogeyman is going to hunt every last soul down, even those curled up in that back-row recliner seat in PVR. And no, it’s not “just a movie”.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York and Mumbai-based writer, journalist, and film producer. She believes that a good story is the most powerful antidote. She tweets @whats_cutting.