Get your bleak on: dystopian cinema

I don’t know about you, but when I even think about seeing the upcoming film THE ROAD, based on the novel of the same name by the brilliant Cormac McCarthy, my shoulders sag a little. Post-apocalyptic America, lawlessness, cannibalism, and a vulnerable family? It’s heavy! Embrace the darkness here:

Seeing this trailer recently in the theatre, I then Netflix-ed a few futuristic down-and-out sci-fi thrillers, and began to think about the distinct shape of the dystopian movie. Why and how is this form unique?

A good place for me to start was by watching more., a blog devoted to tracking Hollywood gossip, had a good list of the top 50 dystopian films of all time as rated by Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB combined. They call dystopian content “a world undesirable with poverty and unequal domination by specific individuals over others. Dystopian films often construct a fictional universe and set it in a background which features scenarios such as dehumanizing technological advancements, man-made disasters or class-based revolutions.” A good solid evening of entertainment! I was surprised by how many films I’d actually seen from the snarkarati list, including ROLLERBALL, which was on late the other night and did not disappoint.

ROLLERBALL (1975, dir. Norman Jewison) features America in 2018 as a nation controlled by powerful corporations. The very sexy James Caan is the star athlete of the ever-popular Roller Ball blood sport, and when the corporate owner of his team pressures him to retire, he rebels. Chaos ensues.

This is fairly typical dystopian content, but what about form?

I watched a few others, including two recent films: CHILDREN OF MEN (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuarón), and BLINDNESS (2008, dir. Fernando Meirelle). One observation — this type of film requires significant exposition, or, setting up the ‘world’ of the movie, devoting an extraordinary amount of screen-time to literally explaining the state of the world and, often, the events that led to the disarray. This is the fun part – imagining dark scenarios of doom – but is atypical in that in most film genres, the screenplay tackles exposition in the most economical of ways, whereas the dystopian film seems to embrace stretching the exposition just as far as it will bend. In both CHILDREN OF MEN and BLINDNESS, the plot kicks in late – at the one hour mark for BLINDNESS. There’s a full sixty minutes of clarification: An unknown disease is striking ordinary citizens with blindness, and inside a quarantined asylum, Mark Ruffulo and Julianne Moore have created a fairly functional society. The major plot-based disruption only ensues when a gun-toting, maniacal Gael García Bernal seizes power from our heroic couple.

In addition, I noticed that filmmakers make up for this longer expositional stretch with distinct approaches to style. Because the clarification often requires the use of fairly banal tropes (ie ‘the newscast’ of what the heck is going on), directors push extra hard to make the expository experience a filmic one. In BLINDNESS, this involves the use of the extreme close up, the quick cut and blown out footage. View the trailer here:

In CHILDREN OF MEN, it’s a beautifully roving camera, including a one-shot scene that will blow your mind, a muted color palate with rich blacks, and gorgeous production design. When the plot does kick in, it basically becomes an extended chase that’s heart stopping. (Here, the plot begins much earlier than in BLINDNESS, but still supports long dialogue scenes wherein many story points are explained).

Here’s the trailer: