The Impact of Cinematography on Portrayal of Dystopia in Film

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

It is in the creation of dystopian film that universal issues of a political, social and cultural concern are made more widely relevant and accessible to a contemporary audience. The value of such dystopic representations of society derives from the filmmaker’s ability to timelessly comment on changes and faults in the world of technology, politics, religion and power, irrespective of the contexts from which they originated. The literary power of contemporary film over that of authors is in its powerful visual ability to entertain the inherent warnings of the dystopic paradigm to a larger, mainstream audience. This thesis examines the power of cinematography in demonstrating to a universal audience the timeless representation of culture and society, politics and power in the dystopian film.


The enduring power and universality of the contemporary dystopian film arises from its ability to divulge the real-world failed attempts at constructing new worlds, emerging from social, political, historical and cultural catastrophe. This paper examines the parallels that transpire between futile utopian visions in the dystopic film, and the ever-present global efforts to resolve the aftermath of political instability and failed technological experimentation. In the last three decades, numerous papers have been dedicated to defining the dystopic film as its own distinct cinematic genre, as well as examining the connections between dystopian films and modern literary tradition. I will explore the success of contemporary dystopian films in their widespread communication of the aftermath of each’s collective context/contextual upheaval, and how political, social, cultural and historical calamities are approached in film.


Dystopian conspiracies have long found themselves in the presence of an increased audience and popularity amoung the young adult genre of literature, yet it is through the visual representation of film that contemporary audiences are more likely to entertain the warnings of the filmmakers over that of the author. Such ascendancy of the dystopic film is in its powerful visual ability to appeal to a larger, mainstream audience. Whilst the dystopic film is more likely to entertain global audiences, films of this genre additionally are applicable to universal audiences as they attest to political, social and cultural positioning of the period and of the past. Through multimedia and the visual storyline, the warnings that dystopic films caution have a greater impression on viewers, and concurrently allude to events of political and social upheaval in a timeless manner.

What Is a Dystopia?

The dystopian film imagines a way of life that is set in direct contrast to the way things actually are, in an attempt to warn or presage frustrations with the world as it is. American academic and professor of political science Lyman Tower Sargent terms dystopia as “generally oppositional, reflecting… a desire for a better life,” [2] in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through totalitarian, technological or moral control. Most scholars define a dystopia by its exaggerated worst-case scenarios that make effective criticism of current or ensuing political systems, social rules and trends.

Two forms of the dystopian film are identified by Chris Ferns: a dictatorial/fascist narrative characterised by restriction and chaos, and the latter which is more concerned with self-fulfilment and individual freedom. Also known as anti-utopia, dystopian films “deal in perfect societies, the only difference being whether they attach a plus or minus sign.” [3] Yet it is not the dystopian film itself that is the whole. Rather, dystopian narratives/literature should be regarded by their historical, political, cultural and social contexts. Robert Collins’ commentary on the purpose of dystopian texts clarifies the classic influences of global pessimism and repression on dystopian fiction: “Fictional dystopias are almost always cautionary tales warnings of where our political, cultural and social surroundings are taking us.”

According to this argument, the dystopian impulse in contemporary film to depict faults in the world’s historical, political, social and cultural contexts is a response to the global aftermath of capitalism, oppression, war and the failure of a utopian ideology. I will argue in this paper that the critical logic of the dystopian film genre is that the imaginative society is driven by an economic regime reflective of the world we live in, and that the people are directed and shaped by a cultural regime of blatant interpellation.

The Failed Creation of a Utopian Society

The distinguishing feature of the dystopian film that differentiates it from its utopian counterpart is the nature for the narrative to follow the protagonist as he or she navigates within the dystopia, allowing insight into the desolate world of the characters without explicitly disclosing the societies’ motivations and purposes. Jonah’s motivation to find an escape route from his community in 2012 film The Giver, as well as The Hunger Games’ (2012) Katniss, Jordan and Lincoln’s escape from their futuristic sterile colony in The Island (2005), Tris and Four’s rebellion against the plot to destroy divergents (Divergent, 2014), and the search for Thomas’ freedom in The Maze Runner (2014) accelerates from the character’s desire to leave society behind and forge a new and uncertain path. The definitive success of all these protagonists reveals the flaws inherent in each film’s authoritative and totalitarian control, as well as the failure of the government in “preserving the dystopia against its dissidents.” [4] Casey Holliday’s thesis on the reality of dystopian fiction poses the question: “Why, then, has the utopian promise of a better life been overshadowed by the theoretically dystopian consequences of such an attempt?” In today’s postmodern age, any attempt offered by the government to have more control over the lives of its citizens has been excessively criticised, despite the success of the utopian genre being dependant on such considerable control.

In the last century, an increase in the production of dystopian film is attributed to the failed utopian states of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, as well as China and North Korea’s attempt at subsuming utopian ideals into their systematically oppressive states. A prominent theme of Hitler’s Nazi Party’s hegemony was restoring Germany to its former ‘greatness’ by spreading ideology of racial purity through a ‘perfect Germanic race’. Adolph Hitler publicised this in his phrase “Make Germany great again” and he cited it as one of the imperatives of his political movement. 66 years later, film director Michael Bay in his Contemporary dystopian film The Island (2005) testifies to Hitler’s focus on the ideal human condition through Dr. Merrick’s definition of the human organism, “The product of three billion years of evolution. Perfect in every way…” The society’s emphasis on greatness and perfection echoes that of German Totalitarianism during Hitler’s Third Reich where racial purity was at the forefront of German social motives.

Hitler’s notion of the “Führer principle” [5] allowed him to coerce absolute obedience from the Nazis and the German population, this being a stage that would ultimately suit the long term goals of the Nazi regime; elimination of the ‘racially inferior’. The concept can be most succinctly understood to mean that ‘the leader’s word is above all written law’. Hitler used this ideology to govern foreign policy and wage a war that called for the elimination of Jews in Germany, and determine that his racially superior German population should rule permanently in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. His established ideology allowed the Nazis to operate outside the written law when necessary “to achieve the ideological goals of the regime, while maintaining the fiction of adhering to legal norms.’ [5]. His philosophy is the perfect example of how every imagined utopia helplessly becomes a dystopia.

Michael Bay’s The Island (2005) echoes the rise and fall of Hitler’s systematic racial purification and his aim to “Make Germany great again” through the construction of a simulacrum created by Dr. Merrick to generate and sustain human clones identical to their wealthy sponsors. The inhabitants of the clinical environment who live identical lives are closely monitored by technology designed to superintend vitamin levels of each body, and by management staff who oversee the duplication of human bodies, which addresses a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society. Dr. Merrick’s systematic creation of clones undifferentiated from their benefactors is epitomised in, “And, in compliance with the eugenics laws… all our agnates are maintained in a persistent vegetative state. They never achieve consciousness. They never think or suffer or feel pain, joy, love, hate. It’s a product, ladies and gentlemen, in every way that matters, not human.” Revealed is that the white-clad workers of the established ‘Utopia’ are agnates grown within a closed social system that maintains their optimum biological health for harvesting. The limited state of consciousness that the clones live in, aware of their functionality but without the capacity to question life, is derivative from Hitler’s concept of human perfection, sameness and providing for social superiors. It places protagonist Lincoln Six Echo in a role that allows audiences to question the probity of the radical division between workers and the sponsors, effectively emphasising the historically real conflict between politics and individuality.

Amoung other things, The Island represents Lincoln Six Echo’s (Ewan McGregor) diversion from ‘Sameness’ and perfection, as it pursues his development into an individual with matured dreams and desires. The contemporary dystopian film is an allegory for the inability to maintain a uniform society based on homogenous values, practices and beliefs as seen in history, particularly Adolph Hitler’s calamitous enterprise at creating an idealised Germany characterised by racial purity, flawlessness and superiority. Six Echo’s rejection of his society where all are identical, to follow his own path, encourages viewers to celebrate individual differences rather than disparaging them or initiating racist doctrines. Dr. Merrick’s reflection that, “After several years of trial and error, we discovered that without consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life, the organs failed,” is a constant warning that democracy and freedom should not be taken for granted. It is a dystopia characterised by the promise of remaking one aspect of humanity whilst enslaving the other.

Further arguable is that the explosion of contemporary dystopian films warning global audiences about abysmal, totalitarian governmental power is a direct result of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and his wiping out the diversity of German society. Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni emphasise the reasons for cinematic exploration of such resonant themes: “Clearly, the cinema ‘reproduces’ reality: this is what a camera and film stock are for.” [6]

In Michael Bay and Phillip Noyce’s visual response to the ways World War Two ignited worldwide concerns of racial and social uniformity, their films become a relevant spectacle as they are frighteningly relevant in its mirroring and warnings of the dangers of Totalitarian governments and fascist regimes. In their own way, the films represents the necessity to revisit a dystopian enemy, especially after the brutal realisation that mechanised genocide is and was possible. In fact, these films are so often revisited as entertainment that it has become the genre of dystopia in itself.

The reality of the contemporary dystopian film is that it represents the social, political, cultural and historical fears of humanity. Thus, the real-world failures of utopian visions such as Stalin’s Soviet Russia, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and the growing occurrence of abuse of technological developments as seen in the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb, are the means by which these films cinematically interpret their consequences and communicate warnings for the future. These unsuccessful attempts at creating a utopia in the past have left people scared of change and resistant to any political alterations to the ‘perfect’ democracy. Physicist Gregory Vieira testifies to the dangers of a failed utopia: “In this era of anti-ideology it appears that nothing is more offensive than the desire to make ideology concrete in an utopian vision.” He affirms that as the human species does not and cannot arrive at a utopian state, in that the natural tendency is to fall from utopian order into dystopian disorder.

Contemporary dystopian filmmaker Phillip Noyce in his 2012 film The Giver equates dystopia with a brutal Totalitarian regime. His emphasis on “Sameness” also echoes that of German Totalitarianism during Hitler’s Third Reich where culture, education, law and the economy all came under the Nazi regime of control. Jonas’ questioning in the film’s introduction exemplifies the warnings of a future wherein differences are debauch, “After The Ruin we started over, creating a new society… I didn’t want to be different, who would?… We lived in a world where differences were not allowed.” Following ‘The Ruin’, a colourless equal society is formed where all follow the rules established by the Chief Elder and the board of community Elders. Director Phillip Noyce’s tendency to only cast visibly Caucasian actors and actresses not only displays a confronting reflection on the global impact of mass genocide, but also reflects on a period of social and political concentration on the universality and multicultural nature of contemporary society. The Giver was released in 2012, a time when public consciousness about political correctness was at its peak, and a prominent debate of the time surrounded the value of celebrating differences between people versus the value of making everyone in a society conform and feel that they belong. The community in The Giver’s emphasis on “Sameness” can be seen as a criticism of the political tendency to ignore significant differences between individuals in order to avoid seeming prejudiced or discriminatory. At the same time, the society refuses to tolerate major differences between individuals at all: people who cannot be easily assimilated into the society are ‘Released to Elsewhere,’ a murderous process concealed by the Elders to obscure the abortive nature of the process.


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