Dystopias in Contemporary Hollywood: A Young Adult Revolution
A small while ago you would be forgiven for wondering if the dystopian genre was shuddering to an end. These kind of dystopias – be it due to nuclear apocalypse, plague, or totalitarian governments – had generally been relegated to the edges of culture, but in those edges had arguably perfected itself in the past few years. In 2013 alone, Margaret Atwood finally completed her wildly popular Oryx and Crake trilogy with the beautiful MaddAddam, whilst the release of The Last of Us was hailed as the ultimate depiction of post-apocalytia. However 2013 was also the year that Hollywood figured all this out and appropriated it as its own. This was not a reprisal of the fairly epic dystopian classics from the 1970s (Logan’s Run, Soylent Green). As with most things in recent years, Hollywood treated the genre like a teenage boy on a first date, awkwardly grabbing the parts it thought it should and leaving everybody fairly unimpressed.
Of the dystopias that emerged in 2013, Elysium probably had the most potential. With big stars Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, promises of smart social and political commentary, along with an excellent viral advertising campaign (it’s better up there) it looked to be the big-budget incarnation we’d never needed, but would appreciate anyway. Sadly, with a cry of “it’s set in the future, we can do what we want!” the film worked in broad strokes with various plot holes. It has been met with a lukewarm reception. The film itself is very pretty and, for a big-balls action film, it’s fine, but the most satisfying part of viewing an alternative world not so unlike our own is the fine details. Any oversight in these details cause the whole facade to unravel, and claiming that someone whose face has been entirely and graphically blown off on-screen to still have brain activity is a mess.
It’s not just Elysium that fell a little flat. 2013 also brought us Oblivion and The Purge, both of which investigating pretty interesting looking dystopias, but didn’t seem to deliver what they promised. Oblivion, with huge names Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, looked absolutely awesome on paper (and in advertising). But, like Elysium, the reviews weren’t exactly raving and the film made just over $89million in the US. This may seem like quite a lot, but it means that the universally panned The Lone Ranger was much more successful than this supposed massive blockbuster. The Purge didn’t fare any better, taking only $64million (although there is a sequel in the works already).
One thing Hollywood did do right was the adaptation of The Hunger Games. The first Hunger Games book came out in 2008 and the first film in 2012 which started a slowly rolling stone which has definitely gathered moss. The success of the films is indisputable. Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence is currently Hollywood’s highest paid actress and is seemingly universally adored by the internet – a feat that’s very difficult to achieve. The first Hunger Games film grossed over $690million worldwide whilst the second, which is still in cinemas, is edging up to $800million.
The Hunger Games has come up against controversy in that the story has the same central event as Battle Royale, a Japanese book-then-film from the late ’90s. However the two use this form of televised battle and death to satirise two completely different issues, or at least have been interpreted as such. The satire within the Hunger Games is no secret. Watching the desperate suffer under constant surveillance for entertainment whilst an audience hope for fights and tension is normal; the stark and painful difference between those who can afford anything and those who can afford nothing is so accepted that watching Katniss’ disgust at the overindulgence of the rich is jarringly familiar. In the Hunger Games the smallest crime is met with the highest punishment – for the unexceptional individual. In a world where people who hang a glittery Hunger Games-themed poster as a peaceful protest are charged with terrorism, a dystopia like this becomes even more relevant.
So what’s next? Like it or not, The Hunger Games has changed everything for the next pop culture trend. Where Twilight brought us a thousand supernatural romance films based on Young Adult fiction, it seems the Hunger Games will do the same for dystopias. Bloomsbury recently opened their doors to submissions of Young Adult novels, dystopias in particular. Variety called Divergent – a YA dystopian novel that is coming to the silver screen this March – social media’s most anticipated film for 2014, suggesting that this new genre is just getting started. The new now is looking for actual heroes (who are, seemingly, often young women) whose interests are helping society, rather than accidental anti-heroes (who are usually grubby blokes) that end up saving the world without really realising or caring. If 2013 showed Hollywood that they’ve lost the art of science-fiction, it sure as hell surprised everyone by proving it isn’t just for grown-up men looking for Halo: The Film.
The hope here is that this new trend will be much less disturbing than millions of teenage girls wanting to bang dead people, but there’s much more to it too. Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow in the Hunger Games films, said in an interview with The Guardian that he wants The Hunger Games to stir up a revolution, and he might be right on the mark. Dystopias, as a rule, generally expose the fears of a society without explicitly pointing at them, such as Fahrenheit 451‘s examination of censorship written during the McCarthy era where censorship was a big deal. The Hunger Games shows us a 1% vs the 99% in an exaggerated, but still very recognisable, way. In the real world, any kind of dissent against this 1% is becoming outlawed (“occupational protest” is currently illegal on University of London campuses) and apparent police brutality is purportedly overlooked. Sutherland argues that what Western society needs now is a revolution, and if that’s inspired by a wildly successful Hollywood franchise then who are we to judge?
YA dystopias seem to draw popularity because they encourage a questioning of the norm. Sure, in Elysium Matt Damon’s character wasn’t a huge fan of the mass oppression, but he didn’t question it. In fact, the whole film is set into motion by his own selfish desire to personally survive, and (SPOILER!) he only ends up “saving” society kind of by accident. The Hunger Games, and evidently Divergent and perhaps further, has protagonists questioning authority. These dystopias may be cashing in on what many seem to dismiss as fangirl-phenomena, but if they have any of the satirical force of the Hunger Games we will possibly – finally – have a revolution on our hands.
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