The 00s in Film: Dystopia in the UK

“And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there?”
-V, V for Vendetta

“And now one for all the nostalgics out there. A blast from the past all the way back from 2003, that beautiful time when people refused to accept that the future was just around the corner.”
-Unnamed radio announcer, Children of Men

“He Who Seeks Revenge Should Dig Two Graves.”
-Revengers Tragedy

If I had to pick one recurring theme that defined the cinema of the “aughts,” it would be “dystopia.” And if I had to pick one recurring setting for that theme, it would be the island of Britain.

Not since 1984, or perhaps even 1984, have so many disasters befallen poor Albion. Sure, New York City has been invaded by aliens, flooded and frozen, or otherwise depopulated a number of times this decade. But these films were hardly subtle—the focus was either on the disaster itself or on an individual in his (and usually "his") struggle to survive it. By contrast, British writers and filmmakers have since the end of the Second World War drawn from a trope, termed by some as the "cosy catastrophe." Instead of being world or civilization ending, the cosy catastrophe turns the spotlight toward society, and how it copes during and after the crisis. This, combined with Britain acting as a foil for the United States or the West at large, has opened the door to examination of the aughts.

The “cosy catastrophe” can be a wonderful device for delving into of sociology and individual psychology. This stands in contrast to the more common Hollywood disaster films, where any message is inevitably overwhelmed by the action contained within. To quote Slavoj Žižek, from watching these kind of films “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on Earth than a much more modest change in [global] capitalism.” For example, a film like The Day After Tomorrow, which featured the destruction of the northern hemisphere via “super storms” brought on by climate change, is unable to get out any worthwhile message at all. All the characters are completely two-dimensional; only the storm itself—the ostensible antagonist of the film and rendered in three dimensions thanks to CGI—is memorable. And the irony of Americans fleeing south to Mexico and Europeans fleeing across the Mediterranean to Africa and the Middle East is only fleetingly amusing, since it is likely that climate change will produce the opposite result and no context is given by the filmmaker.

Instead, the cosy catastrophe allows for a deeper exploration of the fears that have accumulated during the 2000s, whether creeping authoritarianism (V for Vendetta), a pandemic (Doomsday), bioengineering (28 Days/Weeks Later), or some combination thereof (Children of Men). Sure, the first film of the aughts set in a dystopian Britain was nothing but an excuse to fight CGI dragons (Reign of Fire)—though it did feature the best character acting of Matthew McConaughey's career—but the decade also featured an excellent adaptation of a Jacobean revenge tragedy set in a dystopian future Liverpool (Revengers Tragedy).

Most of these films feature a duality that makes them rather interesting to watch. The plague that infects and "zombifies" the populace in 28 Days Later is ironically unleashed by eco-terrorists who were seeking merely to free chimpanzees from a laboratory. In Revengers Tragedy, the protagonist embarks on a quest to avenge the murder of his wife; even though the man he seeks to kill is the dystopian ruler of Liverpool and by all accounts a terrible person, vengence will be his own downfall. V for Vendetta, if a bit obvious in its delivery (it's still more nuanced than the 9/11 kid mentality that dominated the U.S.), prepared viewers for reflection on the new norms of the War on Terror. This came together in what—in my humble opinion—is one of the best films of the decade, Children of Men. The film is an excellent personal tale of redemption, with Clive Owen's character embracing hope and responsibility, while trying to navigate between the military and a terrorist group called the Fishes, each ruthlessly trying to fulfill selfish goals. But, as Žižek comments, the real story is in the background: a decaying society of increasing authoritarianism and consumerism, illegal immigrants detained with the methods of Guantánamo Bay, soldiers and terrorists causing collateral damage to those they claim to want to protect. In fact most of the posters and video displays (two of which are featured here) reflect memes present our society already—"Avoiding Fertility Tests is a Crime" mimics posters in London and are reminiscent of posters I have seen in Florida ("Pirating Music is a Crime"), while "Report all illegal immigrants. Suspicious? Report it" can be familiar to anyone riding the New York City subway or DC Metro ("If you see something, say something").

There is much more that could be said, but these films act as a projection of our guilty conscience during the aughts. Anti-immigrant hysteria, ultra-nationalism, terrorism paranoia, fears of bioengineering and GMOs, and increasingly authoritarian politics have found expression in these films. That is why I nominate "Dystopia in the UK" as the lasting film theme of the decade.

p.s. One might consider 2002's Equilibrium for this grouping as well. Though not explicitly set in Britain, it stars a number of British actors and tackles similar themes (authoritarianism, perscription anti-depression drugs, terrorism) pertinent to our decade.

p.p.s. Full disclosure: I never saw 28 Weeks Later, and only caught 20 minutes of Doomsday on TV. In my defense, it was a stupid movie, hence why it need not be discussed here.

1 comment:

  1. In America, overwhelming and pervasive memes from Hollywood and TV series like '24' seem to have dispensed with the need for deeper insight into problems of our age. Look at American disaster/apolcalyptic flicks from the last 20 years: the running messages seem to fall in line with federal policy throughout the 2000's- that is, it requires everyone to keep their emergency boots on: that we are under a constant state of attack from outside forces we cannot understand. Providing no allegorical insight into our world, they only reinforce a sense of powerlessness in the face of chaos on a grand scale. Do we cower in awe of the storm, rendered helpless? Directors as of 'Day After Tomorrow' seem to suggest that's all we can do.

    Great article!