Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.92.3: Dystopia’s Children (a movie review essay)


I probably come off as a bit of a pest with my insistence to my grandchildren that they need to read more books (and write more, but that’s a subject for another posting).  I am willing to buy books for them, even if they aren’t what I would regard as great literature.  Recently, one of my twin granddaughters asked me to buy her Divergent, by Veronica Roth (2011) a book that like the Harry Potter books, is part of a series of YA (“young adult”)* lit that sells very well when it strikes the right market chords. So, because I had the book sent directly to my granddaughter from Amazon, I checked out (from Netflix—what would I do without the Internet) the movie of the same title that was made of the story. I watched it last night (Okay, I used the fast forward button a couple of times).

Maybe that was a little like spying on my granddaughter, but you should know that I have a somewhat academic interest in movies and other media** that goes along with my concern about what media is influencing my grandchildren.  Consequently, I have been forcing myself to watch some of this contemporary post-apocalypsism genre, some of which has an added interest for me in that it or they involve settings that are urban in character. The city, in these films, is often a place of post-nuclear holocaust desolation or in which climate change or profligate uses earthly resources (Oblivion,2013), in which the foremost of the social and physical infrastructure have been destroyed or rendered useless and in which what is left of society must reestablish or relearn social norms and modes of control governance that have been obliterated.

The logline of Divergent is: “In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in [Wow! Just like a bad Junior High experience]. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents [good name for a rock band], Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late [Sorry, it’s already too late].

This is a genre that has deep historical roots. Think the slave rebellion of Spartacus; think Hugo’s Les Miserables; think Orwell’s 1984.  There are a good many others, but these should suffice to indicate that Divergent is about a society that is cleaved with a Manichaean blade, a society that is defined by crisp lines between good and evil, that are populated by groups of “haves” and “have-nots,” of the controllers and those who are controlled, of those who lives live lives of luxury and comfort, and those who are destitute and, typically, of territories occupied by these disparate cohorts that are separated by barriers of walls, or even space, and in which There are highly militarized police forces that are controlled by the rich and powerful, to retain that physical separation.  In this film, which couldn’t be more predictable if Nostrodamus was sharing your popcorn, there is the requisite cute young couple that falls in love despite the numerous gratuitous CGI-enhanced violence scenes that are devised for the videogame generation.

 “Games” seems to be an emergent trope for this genre.  There are The Hunger Games series of putatively YA books-to-feature films, equally as juvenile (in the pejorative connotation of that term) with silly, cartoonish characters and plenty of gratuitous violence and sappy relationships, pitting the kids against one another to rescue their home districts (in Divergent the kids must join “factions” in some boneheaded vocational ceremony in which they drip some of their blood and leave their parents forever, but in fact are trading oversight for institutionalized authoritarianism).  Video games are, of course, a staple of this generation and substantial portions of these movies are devoted to scenes of violent confrontation with all sorts of high-tech weaponry that amount to little more than a transference of the video game to the feature film. (These are definitely the scenes that I fast-forward through.)

By the way:  what is it with the emergence of the “dicta-bitch,” my neologism for the former Academy Award winning actress who gets (probably a nice –paying) role in these films as a dictator?  Is it some sort of revenge against the “tiger mom,” or just some anti-feminist theme that casts Kate Winslet as the “uber-chick” in  Divergent, and Jodie Foster as the tyrannical bitch in Elysium (but Tilda Swinton is quite amusing channeling Margaret Thatcher, and with a hilarious dental apparatus, in Snowpiercer, 2013).  But the over-controlling dictator mommies are assisted by those two other features with which the target audience would feel deprived: computers and drugs.   Computers are everywhere in these films, and indeed they would be impossible to make without them, but we see them as the two edge sword of high technology, especially when they are used (sometimes with the assistance of implanted chips) as a means of surveillance, monitoring and behavior control.  Drugs are more often used in a sinister manner for behavior control.

There is plenty of real empirical reference and resonance for this genre.  Today’s news is dominated by the domestic issues surrounding the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and by the protests and occupation of the students in Hong Kong.  The confrontations with the police, the tear gas, the pepper spray, the wielding of batons are almost interchangeable.  The Blacks of Ferguson adopting the “hands up” gesture, the Hong Kong students wielding umbrellas.  Each group feels oppressed by larger, impersonal, societal forces that keep them marginalized in the political process and have the authority and means to detain or even kill them should they provide sufficient threat to the established power structure.  Police and para-military brutality are further common element.  (I will deal with this part of the subject in a subsequent essay.)  There is also the growing dystopian reality of climate change and the negative prospects for employment that assail the consciousness of this generation of moviegoers. Dystopias tend to make for more interesting and active drama,  but one begins to wonder at the effects of the cognitive connectivity of dystopian movies with the constant drumbeat of negative news and prognostication which the Internet funnels to this generation.

 For my generation this is not necessarily a new phenomenon.  I was only a few years older than my granddaughter when I first read Orwell’s 1984 and was quickly inspired to move on to Huxley’s Brave New World.  Like H.G. Well’s Time Machine, which does deal in part with youth and rebellion (or the lack of it), these works were much more profound and insightful and they have been burgled extensively by films like Divergent and The Hunger Games.

There is always something refreshing and using children as protagonists against overbearing adult force and its failures.  But what are the prospects when it seems that human beings have not done all that good of a job learning to live together in the 200,000 years they have been around. And every time they edge a little bit closer the there are more of them to deal with, and the resources that are available for them to share our largely fixed and diminishing.  Having never been good at sharing, and better at using every social or metaphysical institution available to find reasons for one group or another to take more of its share, we have advanced better as self-interested greedy bastards.  Against this historical reality is, the message of loving one’s neighbor and the golden rule have been treated with the height of human hypocrisy. No silly notion that we are the highest expression of the animal kingdom is bullshit, and the assumption that the universe earth and the universe were created and put here entirely as a preamble to our eternal salvation the expression of arrogance.

Fifty years ago kids the age of my granddaughters would have been binging on Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books and their movie fare would have been of a similar benign form.  There are no doubt many comparisons that could be made between those days and the present, but one that glaringly protrudes to my eye is that the fantasy world being presented to today’s youth is dominated by a militarized mentality that conjoins with a philosophical notions that society is not only a game, it is essentially a zero sum game.  There are winners and there are losers, victims and survivors, the rulers and the ruled, the individual versus the system.  Maybe this is what you get  in a world where second amendment rights are paramount,  where the prospects of climatological and/or economic collapse seem imminent, where you are a commodity niche, and Facebook, Amazon, Google and your own government know more about you than you know.  If it’s a world in which the parental generation has already screwed things up royally it is difficult to blame the kids for their alienation.  The dilemma for them is to find a way to construct a brave new world for themselves without having to employ the same technologies and philosophies that created the one they inherited. Judging by many of the movies and books that are being made for them they are not quite like flowers sprouting in a compost heap.


©2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.2.2014)

* Actually, it seems that the reason some of these titles do so well is that there are a lot of  “young adults” who are not so young that like to read this stuff as well; but I am not one of them.
**[shameless plug] James A. Clapp,  The American City in the Cinema, Transaction (2013)
 **I can hardly recommend better if you want a good laugh at every stupid cliché that can be attached to this genre of film that you submit yourself to Ender’s Game (2013). Rent, do not pay full price for a film that features Harrison Ford with his almost perpetual “this is how I look when I am getting a prostate exam” face as the  guiding figure for a kid they cast who  looks like a leftover from Harry Potter movie,  but is going to save the Earth from alien invasion. Ender’s Game is about 90% video game, the other 10% being sententious bullshit dialogue between Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley tattooed up to look like a Maori Ghandi.   On second thought, don’t even bother renting this movie; rent Spaceballs (1987).