Big-screen dystopia: the timeless allure of worlds gone wrong


In every new relationship comes that critical moment when you screen your favorite film for the other person, and by God they better like it. (Never in life has this worked out well for me. The Last Temptation of Christ, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Synecdoche, New York have all failed to move the mark, and I am persistently alone.) For my first boyfriend, that magical movie was Kevin Costner's The Postman. Set in 2013 (16 years in the future for 1997 audiences), the film imagines a ruined landscape in which a series of world wars have annihilated all society and infrastructure. The remaining few survivors struggle to feed themselves while rogue bands of armed men ravage the countryside, seeking to consolidate power by enslaving the weak.

A few things about this boyfriend: In every situation, he scanned for danger and looked to itemize opportunity. I was one of the first customers for his burgeoning weed enterprise and, in fact, that's how we met. He rolled up his eighths in carefully taped-shut sandwich bags and offered two-for-one sales on Tuesdays. His father kept an arsenal in the basement of his home. Boyfriend watched The Postman with the rapt attention of someone ready—and really quite eager—for an apocalypse. "I plan to stockpile and sell cigarettes," he told me, dreamily. (This was back in 2002, when enough people still smoked to make that a viable business plan.)

All this month, perhaps not unrelated to the presidential inauguration, the Roxy is showing films that portend a bleak and terrifying future as part of its series "Dystopian Dreams." (Lest you get your hopes up/down, I should warn you that The Postman is not one of those films.) Everybody loves a good dystopian film, and imagining how we alone would triumph when the odds are so stacked against us is a big part of why. We all consider ourselves experts on how society works, how dysfunctional it can be and who's to blame for everything that's gone wrong.

Paradoxically, dystopian films are often weirdly apolitical. In the case of the most common reasons for a ruined future—widespread disease, nuclear war, environmental disaster or a combination of all three—it's easy to nestle your own belief system into the why of it. Liberals can imagine that humanity's bellicose ways destroyed us, while conservatives can assume that we were done in by tactical errors or a bureaucratic inability to fight back. We are often united in these basic misunderstandings.

One exception may be Mike Judge's Idiocracy (2006), which offers a plainly partisan lesson about the dangers of stupidity for future generations. It's both funny and frightening how the prospect of a dysfunctional government run by a monster-truck-driving president in an American Flag doo-rag may have proved more prescient than previously supposed.

When we imagine a world gone wrong, always there's this fantasy that somehow we can use the opportunity to rebuild something cooler, but rarely does it happen that way. A few malevolent masterminds inevitably swoop in and ruin the party for everyone else. In George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, water shortages have led to an amphetamine-fueled oligarchy in which the people are forced to submit or probably perish. Mad Max represents the lone hero intent on existing outside the system until, ironically, circumstances force him to take on allies in the form of Furiosa and other misfits to best a greater evil.

To me, there isn't a better dystopian film than director Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (2006). The year is 2027, and the world has fallen into chaos because mysteriously, and for the last 20 years, people are no longer able to make babies. Elementary schools are overgrown with wildlife, and all the major countries have folded except England, thanks to a militaristic, totalitarian rule of order. Like zombies, the people can't be sure if they're being punished by science or by God. But unlike the overused living-dead trope, there's no scapegoat for the humans to turn their rage against—just one another. Children of Men creates a realistic and terrifying near-future where we still have to work office jobs as the world crumbles around us. It doesn't get too tricky trying to guess future fashion trends, although the aging hipster nurse with dreadlocks and an eyebrow piercing is a nice touch. We may have the Star Wars franchise to thank as a primary influence for Children of Men's astute details about cars with slight technological enhancements that still look dirty and abused because rebel factions don't have time to run through the car wash.

In retrospect, the parallels between Kevin Costner's now largely forgotten and critically mocked film The Postman and my first relationship are poignant and many. At just under three hours and a little over two months, respectively, both the film and the relationship ran a tad long—to offer just one example. It's embarrassing that Costner directed himself as another exalted, "reluctant" hero who delivers both the mail and hope, but for lovers of dystopias, there's still a lot to admire in the film. Will Patton's role as an English teacher turned evil dictator offers a powerful example of how the right circumstances can catapult an otherwise unlikely figure into a position of great and inexplicable power. Fans of Trump can probably get behind a story like that.

Tom Petty shows up playing himself as a man leading a successful gang of peaceful settlers who don't let guns into their community. There's something in this movie for everyone.

The Roxy screens Children of Men Thu., Jan. 12, Delicatessen Thu., Jan. 19, and Blade Runner Thu., Jan. 26. 7 PM.

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