dystopia

The Zero Theorem

Warning: This article is best read after having seen all the films in the title. Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is widely considered both an extension and revisitation of the dystopian themes the director so spectacularly explored in Brazil. Gilliam’s newest has even been categorized as a third part of a trilogy of dystopian science fiction satires – or, in Gilliam’s words, “Orwellian triptych” – following Brazil and 12 Monkeys. While Gilliam in interviews resists notions of a planned trilogy portraying future systems of control over almost thirty years, the Orwellian triptych carries remarkable similarities beyond these films’ driving conceits and Gilliam’s signature wide angles. The films of this trilogy portray individuals attempting to find truth and meaning beyond the dehumanizing systems in which they live, yet each protagonist is overcome by a sort-of predetermined fate and ultimately victimized by the alienating forces of technology. But the films of this trilogy are as notable for their stark differences as they are their similarities, and The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam fashioning his most discomfitingly ambiguous funhouse mirror of our present future yet.

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HER

There are two things that are probably beyond contestation about Spike Jonze’s Her: It’s a critical darling (as evidenced by its many rave reviews, its presence on end-of-year lists, and its continued haul of awards season recognition), and It has an immersive, thoroughly realized vision of an unspecified near-future. It’s hard to think of a science-fiction movie in recent memory as invested as Her in what the future will look like, feel like, dress like, and what effects this will have on something as intrinsic and everyday as human relationships. But beyond these two points, there is much to be found that’s worth debating in Jonze’s film. Her diverts from science-fiction’s tradition of painting an overtly dystopic future of constant surveillance and centralized control familiar to any Philip H. Dick fan, yet as sleek, inviting, and even beautiful as the film’s immaculate surfaces and evolving technologies are, there seems to be an insidious coldness and emptiness that lies beneath the surface, a sense that something is lost between the glass walls and mobile devices that separate people in Jonze’s Los Angeles.

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Culture Warrior

Most dystopian science-fiction narratives feature stories in which a protagonist experiences a process of ‘waking up,’ transitioning from a state of blind ignorance to one of newfound enlightenment. The protagonists of The Matrix (1999), Brazil (1985), and the ur-text for dystopian futures, George Orwell’s 1984 (and its numerous film adaptations), all feature primary characters who transition from a state of passivity and complicity in an oppressive and manufactured society and transition to a newly critical, empowered state of being in which they are able to see beyond the veil of ignorance and witness the world for what it ‘really’ is for the first time. These protagonists are made capable of seeing beyond the structures of propaganda and carefully constructed illusion that they previously accepted to be objective reality and develop a political impetus in direct reaction to their previous state of complicity and ignorance. As someone previously uninitiated to the world of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (I hadn’t read any of the books prior to seeing the film), what struck me most about Gary Ross’s adaptation is the spin it puts on the typical ignorance-to-enlightenment narrative of dystopian science-fiction.

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