Tag Archives: dystopia

The Watchmen

Zack Snyder is  well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.

The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the  ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.



What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts –  but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.

More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.


The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.


So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.

Rors chiaroscuro

He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.

rors unmasked

He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts  a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)

Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)

Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.


The Hunger Games

Teen film and fiction gets a bad press. A sort of reverse ageism means that audiences often assume that anything aimed at teenagers must necessarily be stupid. They’re often right, of course, but then that’s pretty much true of all things aimed at anyone (Sturgeon’s Law famously opines that ‘Ninety percent of everything is crap.’ I’ve always found that to be a  reasonable estimate, whether applied to film or anything else.) So, it’s not unusual to see a lot of teen-interest film being dismissed without much of a fair viewing. Twilight suffered a little from this – the books are truly awful, but the first film, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, did enormously well at the box office (it remains the biggest opening ever for a female director) but garnered some pretty horrible reviews. And yet, it wasn’t bad; it was darker, slower, than we might have expected and the performance from Kristen Stewart in particular was a million miles away from the usual toothily upbeat pap we often get from American film aimed at teens. The whole thing felt like a pretty good, slightly depressive teen romance to me (with some nonsense about vampires chucked in.) Not a great movie, but certainly not a terrible one. But, it’s aimed at teenagers – teenage girls, particularly, which often makes it even more likely that it’ll be dismissed as mindless garbage – and so it perhaps did not get even the limited praise it was due. (It did, however, make somewhere in the region of infinity billion dollars, so I assume that nobody involved in the making was too devastated.)

The Hunger Games, the franchise which is presumably supposed to fill the hole left by the end of the Harry Potter and Twilight series, seems to be enjoying a more positive reception than Twilight, and rightly so, because it’s a vastly superior film. Directed by Gary Ross, it’s a good piece of dystopian sci-fi which deals with themes of friendship, love and loyalty in a way that isn’t patronising and which doesn’t shy away from the nastier elements of its subject matter.

Set after North America has been wholly transformed by civil war, the plot centres on 16 year old Katniss Everdeen. She ends up being entered for the Hunger Games, a battle to the death televised for the entertainment of the population. Each district in the country has to send one boy and one girl to the Games, and the victor is promised fame and wealth. The Games are held as a punishment and reminder of an uprising by the now-extinct 13th district. Katniss’ fellow representative from her district (the dirt-poor coal mining district 12 – they are very much the underdogs) is Peeta, a baker’s son who, perhaps unsurprisingly, quickly falls in love with Katniss. It is quickly clear to everyone that, while Peeta has little chance of winning (particularly against the ‘Careers’, a particularly ruthless group of contestants who are highly trained and expected to win), Katniss’ skills as an archer mean she is in with a strong chance.

katniss archer

There’s a lot to like about the film. In terms of characterisation, we are very much focused on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. James Berardinelli notices ‘a role reversal… he’s a capable damsel in distress to Lawrence’s heroic knight errant.’ That is, it’s Katniss who does all the stereotypically male things; she fixes the problems, protects weak people and is the most competent and active member of the group. We can perhaps see the influence of Alien in this privileging of the female characters; it’s good to see that after Ripley and Buffy (and not Bella) it seems pretty normal to have a female take the lead in an action movie. And she does a very good job; Jennifer Lawrence got particular praise for her performance in the film.

But there is some depth to these characters, which is not always the case in films made for teens. Part of the nature of the Games is that competitors need to attract the support of sponsors who can help them in various ways; in order to attract such support, they need to make themselves likeable, and Peeta realises that one way to do this is to pretend that he and Katniss are a couple. Throughout the film, its unclear how sincerely they feel affection for each other; this is a love story too, but there is a little twist, a little darkness and ambiguity to it, which adds some depth and weight to the relationship.

Generically, the film is a hybrid – on one level it’s a teen drama with all the conventions in place. We view events from the point of view of a teenager with a troubled family background who is forced to move to a new place and an unfamiliar and difficult situation. (Both Twilight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, probably the two best known teen dramas of recent years, work the same way.) We see Katniss struggle with issues of loyalty, family, love and responsibility. We see her grow up and learn to make difficult decisions more easily, to ‘play the game’, literally and metaphorically.

More interestingly, though, is the film’s status as a piece of dystopian sci-fi; a film which constructs a pessimistic view of the future. America as shown here is deeply divided, antagonistic and subject to the fascistic rule of a population by a privileged minority. Dystopian sci-fi is, arguably, not about fears for the future so much as it is a reflection of the present. Suzanne COllins, the author of the original books, said that she was inspired to write the stories by the experience of flicking between reality television shows and coverage of the war in Iraq. The confusion of reality and media fiction (perhaps related to Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra), and the increasing wealth gap between the top and bottom levels of society, are all recognised as causes for some concern in contemporary society; it’s refreshing to see that the film does not shy away from the slightly more difficult aspects of its chosen genre, and that it doesn’t simply borrow the dystopian diegesis in order to communicate the very cliched platitudes about friendship and self-empowerment which so many films, particularly those for younger people, seem to be limited to.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the film, indeed, is the representation of class struggle and tension. The games are very much for the entertainment of an effete and pampered urban upper class who live in the Capitol and who are complicit in representing the chance to die for their entertainment as some sort of privilege. The rulers, as Roger Ebert points out, are ‘… painted in broad satire and bright colours. Katniss and the other tributes are seen in earth-toned realism’; it is clear that we are supposed to be contemptuous of these ridiculous, spoiled people, who often appear to be more like children than adults (a representation strongly influenced by HG Wells’  The Time Machine, a vision of the future wherein humanity has evolved into the childlike, useless Eloi and the brutal but effective Morlocks; that is, the upper and the lower classes.)


Powerful binary opposition is created between the rulers and the hardy, independent people of the other, rural, districts (this opposition between urban and rural lifestyles goes back to Shakespeare and further); yet, despite their silly fashions and seemingly superficial, effete ways, we see how ruthlessly they hold on to and exploit the means of production throughout the land. Ruling them is the sinister, misanthropic President Coriolanus Snow, and when we listen to his utter contempt for the participants in the Games and, by extension, for everyone in the country, we see how such divided societies are founded upon real contempt and inhumanity, and how working-class people are manipulated into actively working against their own best interests (a facet of class inequality and hegemony identified by Antonio Gramsci.)


Katniss, perhaps, has the personal fortitude and magnetism to correct this; the most powerful moment in the film is when, having seen another of her peers die a bloody death, she makes a three-fingered salute, a mark of affection, strength and fellowship with those of her own class, at the camera, and in so doing starts a riot among those in her district who are watching her on television.


This puts her in direct opposition to President Snow; the same powerful low-angle shots, the same militaristic behaviours and iconography, the same ability to command crowds. We are being set up for a huge struggle for dominance between these two people and all that they represent – old, male hegemony versus youthful, female rebellion. THis is absolutely the stuff for dystopian sci-fi; a genre which shows us visions of our possible futures and raises the idea of resistance to those futures.

So, a film which does about all you can ask for – one on level, a thrilling action film, and on another, a powerful example of dystopian sci-fi, complete with political subtext. By any standard, this is a good film, and it shows that fiction intended for young people can be sophisticated, layered and satisfying on a number of levels.

Expressionism Round 2: Robocop Vs Metropolis

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is certainly not so obvious an ‘Expressionist’ as Tim Burton, but it’s not too difficult to trace the influence. Verhoeven has had a wide-ranging career, working in TV and Film (and Bible Studies, at a very high level!), in Dutch and English, and across several genres. He’s also made very well received films (Turkish Delight, Robocop, Total Recall) and at least one that was hated to a level which made it a cult in its own right (Showgirls – really, don’t bother.)

Perhaps the best known (and best) films of those he made in English are 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers. Both of these, you might have guessed, are sci-fi movies, and to a film student, that’s almost without exception going to suggest a link back to Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927), the first feature-length sci-fi movie ever made. Both films are fantastic, but Robocop is perhaps the best and most typical of Verhoeven’s auteurship. He has a very characteristic blend of violence (Robocop had to be trimmed substantially before release), humour and social satire which shouldn’t really work but (usually) does.
The story is set in Detroit at some point in the future. The city, in a familiar representation for fans of crime film or dystopian sci-fi, is seen as a broken, amoral hell. where crime and brutality are the norm. Everyone we meet, just about, is either a criminal or a victim of crime.  Given Detroit’s current problems, this choice of location seems remarkably prescient.
The police force in this dystopian future have been privatised; they are run partially as a private enterprise and their bosses are eager to make developments which will both control crime and create new areas for profit. The idea of a robotic cop is introduced early (and hilariously, when the first prototype goes wrong) in the move. It’s just a matter of time until our protagonist Murphy shows up, gets killed and is reanimated as Robocop.
Already, there are several themes and devices here which are typical of dystopian sci-fi and which originate fairly obviously in Metropolis. The choice of an urban location, firstly, and more generally the establishment of a location and a diegesis which is defined by conflict. The urban location is easily enough explained; crime generally happens in cities, so it makes sense to locate films which depend on crime for their narratives there. More than this, however, there is often a suggestion that the city itself engenders crime, that urbanisation or industrialisation or capitalism are processes which corrupt and brutalise humanity and actually encourage crime. It’s pretty obvious in Robocop that the ‘legitimate’ businessmen, those in charge of the police force, are not much more morally grounded or more useful to society than the ‘proper’ villains; the profit motive, the thing which defines all of them, is an inherently wicked concept, opposed to ‘proper’ human values as represented by the unquestioning commitment to service shown in Robocop and his sidekick, Anne Lewis. The dehumanising effect of urban, commercialised life is shown in many ways; for example, the news broadcasts which intersperse the action tell us about terrible tragedies which are then dismissed casually by the smiling news anchor. As such, conflict in this world is not caused by ‘bad people’ (although the baddies in Robocop are very bad indeed) but by social processes. When the film was made, Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were pushing aggressively capitalist-friendly policies – deregulation and privatisation of various industries, for example – and reflection theory might suggest that  Verhoeven is commenting on that from a more socialist European context. It is perhaps telling that there was quite a crop of dystopian sic-fi films made around this time.
Secondly, Detroit in Robocop is shown to be two cities in one. The first locations we see include the police station, which is swarming with all sorts of criminality and harassed cops. This is the city at ground level; criminal, seedy and typically noirish. We are also taken to the opulent boardrooms and homes of the executive class, however, perhaps most obviously to see one of them snorting cocaine from the breasts of a prostitute (the same cocaine, presumably, supplied by the chief criminal gang in the film – again, we see the ties between ‘real’ criminals and the ‘legitimate’ business class.) The offices and homes of these people are spacious, airy, full of light: a direct contrast to the dark, noirish interiors of the police station.
Verhoeven is offering us a view of a deeply divided society, one split between bosses and workers, masters and slaves. Again it seems that Verhoeven is offering a critique of a capitalist society which encourages the success of a small elite at the expense of the rest of society. America is often described as a society free of British-style class divisions; in Robocop, we see that there is a class system in operation, but one predicated upon wealth rather than birth.
The final tie to Metropolis is thematic; the philosophical question common to this sort of sci-fi, and one which links us back once again to Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, is -what is a human? Where is the line between man and machine or man and monster? Murphy’s character arc is perhaps predictable, but it is compelling nonetheless – not long after his transformation into Robocop, he starts to remember aspects of his previous life – his death, first of all, but then his son, his wife and so on. And he gradually becomes less robotic – especially once his mask comes off and he looks and becomes more human  – certainly, more human than many of the actual humans in the film. We’ve seen this before, most obviously in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the replicants (the robots) are often more human, more alive and aware of the beauty and fragility of life, than the humans:
Obviously, the point is that humanity is being dehumanised and degraded, and this is, perhaps, the defining theme of all dystopian sci-fi. It’s commonly said that sci-fi reflects an audience’s fears for the future and that these fears often involve humanity’s increasing dependence on technology. Robocop, like Blade Runner, complicates that theme a little; it’s not technology that is the problem, but human greed.
So, three things; a dystopian urban setting, a vision of a divided society, and an examination of the nature of humanity. All of these, as I’ve indicated, appear first in Metropolis so a quick examination of that film should show more clearly exactly how Verhoeven is working in an expressionist tradition. In terms of location, Metropolis absolutely established the conventions for how cities are represented in dystopian film. The famous images of a city which is both futuristic and grim are amongst the most iconic from any film.
This is, predictably, more expressionist and less naturalistic than Robocop; in terms of verisimilitude, Verhoeven’s vision of future Detroit is pretty much just 1987 Detroit. Lang, on the other hand, has constructed an amazing futuristic vision. Metropolis was one of the most expensive silent films ever made, and clearly a large part of that budget went on the astounding sets. Locations tend to be huge, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them, and the iconography is all of mechanics and machinery.
Clearly, what capitalism was to Verhoeven, industrialisation was to Lang; a dehumanising, brutalising process which turns people into parts of a machine.
Moreso than in Robocop, we see how strictly divided this society is. Here the divisions are formalised and official, and they are exemplified by the comparison between the conditions the workers labour in and the lifestyle enjoyed by the spoiled ruling classes. Freder, the son of the city’s ruler, spends his time at the start of the film idling in a beautiful garden, a location which clearly contrasts the dark, enclosed factories and workshops inhabited by the labourers.
Finally, and famously, we have Lang’s thoughts on the division between humanity and machinery, delivered through the figure of Maria; a robot, built in the image of a dead woman, who is given another woman’s appearance in order to deceive the inhabitants of the city.
Confusion between the ‘real’ woman and her robotic counterpart informs much of the film’s action, right up until the point when the robot woman is burned at the stake. Thematically, it seems clear that Lang is warning us about an over-reliance on technology; the robot is used (like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Edward in Edward Scissorhands) by immoral people as a tool for evil. Indeed, the city itself depends for its existence on a central ‘Heart’ machine which, once destroyed, allows the entire city to flood. This dependence upon machinery, Lang suggests, leaves humanity both dehumanised (for the machinery itself demands consent maintenance, to the point where the population of the city are slaving permanently, reducing themselves to parts of that machine, simply to keep the city running) and vulnerable. There is a clear line between what is human and what is mechanical in this film; it is perhaps less thematically complex in this regard than Robocop.