Controlled and Totalitarian: Sci-Fi’s Pessimistic View of the Future

A futuristic figure

What will the future look like?

Since the optimistic earliest work of science fiction movies, notably, A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Méliérs, movies categorized as such have been suggesting the state of possible future societies as well as imaginative new technologies, not to mention monsters and aliens. I point out that future societies described in these movies are mostly dystopian ones, rather than utopian, although some of the stories have positive endings in order to satisfy a movie audience.

Utopia and Dystopia

The criterion that differentiates dystopia from utopia may vary depending on the movie analyst’s viewpoint. Some could claim that even a free and wealthy country can be categorized as a dystopia if the people living there cannot have a positive attitude and mindset, which will lead to a negative result, the opposite of a happy life. What is such a life? The PERMA Model describes it.

The PERMA Model was developed by respected positive psychologist Martin Seligman and was published in his influential 2011 book Flourish. PERMA, an acronym for a model of well-being, proposes five building blocks of well-being and happiness:

  • Positive emotions: feeling good
  • Engagement: being completely absorbed in activities
  • Relationships: being authentically connected to others
  • Meaning: purposeful existence
  • Achievement: a sense of accomplishment and success

However, since I believe most sci-fi movies take an opposite view, I shall focus on their self-evident dystopia and, in particular, totalitarianism.

Table 1 is a short list of sci-fi movies that deal with a future society under totalitarian control. This table excludes sci-fi movies not focused on the totalitarian organization of a future society even though the situation is set in the future. This is the reason why A Clockwork Orange, Time of the Wolf, and  Futureworld are not included.

Table 1. A tentative classification of dystopian sci-fi movies.
Happy Ending Unhappy Ending
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang 1984 (1956) by Michael Anderson
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois Truffaut THX-1138 (1970) by George Lucas
Logan’s Run (1976) by Michael Anderson ZPG (1971) by Michael Campus
Soylent Green (1973) by Richard Fleischer
1984 (1984) by Michael Radford

Dystopia in the Real World

As a movie lover who watches one or two movies a day, I have found it difficult to find sci-fi movies that describe a utopia. One reason for the imbalanced proportion between utopian and dystopian movies might be the historical facts of human civilization, in which there have been many totalitarian and autocratic societies. We can remind ourselves of such cases as Germany under the regime of Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao Zedong, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and even more (and that’s limiting the list to World War II and afterwards.)

Most movies are made to entertain audiences. Sometimes, however, serious themes, such as the nature of dystopia, will be adopted as a way of raising the consciousness of people about their own futures, providing a “possible” view of days to come so they will be able to avoid the circumstances that will lead them again into dystopia.

How Can Dystopia Become Possible?

Some dystopian movies include an explanation of the process by which the society has come to accept such a regime. For example, 1984 refers to a nuclear war, Soylent Green mentions a population explosion and the consequent shortage of food; ZPG and Logan’s Run also refer to a population explosion. Metropolis and THX-1138 do not have such causes, hence the audience is placed into an unexpected situation from the beginning without any explanatory narrative.

So, how were the real-world totalitarian and autocratic societies mentioned previously made possible in the real world? They are cases in which an older regime was destroyed and people believed in propaganda—that a better society would come about. This belief delivered controlling power to a totalitarian leader. Today, many of the countries mentioned previously are more democratic, which seems to suggest that a totalitarian society is a transitional state before the eventual emergence of a democracy.

This leads to the next question: is democracy the final form of society that will last forever? If we think about the near future, with the likely circumstances of an energy crisis, the shortage of underground resources, the dwindling food supplies, a population explosion, and the cost of upgrading developing countries, it seems reasonable to think the entire world will be thrown into turmoil.

Table 2. Negative aspects in dystopian sci-fi movies..
Movie Domination Propaganda Behavior Monitoring Mind Control
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang Rich
1984 (1954) by Rudolph Cartier Party Hate! AV system, spy Special device
1984(1956) by Michael Anderson Party Hate! AV system, spy Special device
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois Truffaut Firefighters Waste books! People
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrik Hal Robot
THX-1138 (1970) by George Lucas Government What’s wrong! People Red capsule
ZPG (1971) by Michael Campus Government No babies! Flying object
Solaris (1972) by Андрей А. Тарковский Solaris Though mind Solaris reads the mind
Soylent Green (1973) by Richard Fleischer Government Eat Soylent Green!
Logan’s Run (1976) by Michael Anderson Government Life must end at 30!
1984(1984) by Michael Radford Party Hate! AV system, spy Special device
Solaris (2002) by Steven Soderberg Solaris Though mind Solaris reads the mind

Dystopia and Future Technology

From the viewpoint of user experience, it would be good to focus on the development of devices and systems to achieve positive objectives, like those described in the PERMA Model. However, we should also consider how the future devices and information/communication technology (ICT) can be used to control society, which would lead us into a negative life experience. Table 2 shows how domination, propaganda, behavior monitoring, and mind control are described in several dystopian sci-fi movies. Domination concerns social organization and is less related to ICT. Future technology may be related to propaganda and mind control, but here I shall focus on behavior monitoring. Regarding this aspect, ubiquitous technology will be one of the plausible means to achieve the controlled totalitarian society.

The following technologies are available now and will be reinforced in the near future. They all have the potential to deliver information to those in control of governments, systems, communication networks, and other devices:

  • Mobile devices such as laptops, tablet PCs, and smart phones equipped with a global positioning systems (GPS) that can send the location of the device user.
  • Internet-related devices that give personal information such as preferences, political attitudes, social groupings, and other personal information to those in control.
  • Small chips, such as RFID and IC-tags, implemented in many varieties of personal and professional objects that will send the location and handling information of the object (or the person) to people in control.
  • Video cameras set up at various places in and out of homes, businesses, government buildings, travel system stations and routes, and commercial shops of all kinds.
  • Satellite, airplane, and vehicle reconnaissance collections that provide the detailed pictures and specific locations of particular objects and people.
  • Biometrics, including physiological, psychological, and behavioral measures, that provide information about, and accurate identification of, any person.
  • Scene analysis and pattern recognition that analyze the pictures taken by organizations, governments, and individuals that will give sufficient information to identify people, places, and objects in almost any environment or location.

When such technologies are in the hands of those who have a strong will to control people, the world drifts quickly and inexorably to a state far worse than those described in dystopian sci-fi movies. To wake us up, to help us prepare for the future, we can learn much from sci-fi movies—even the most dystopian—about the possible future state of the world. Then we, as the audience, can and should utilize that information to stimulate our good-natured imagination to navigate better alternatives.

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