Dark futures and cyberpunk (Part Two)
By Mark Wegierski
Cinema and Television Examples
The proto-dark-future film was, of course, Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) (loosely based on Karel Capek's play, R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (1920)), which has wielded enormous influence in many areas of society and culture. (One need only look as far as rock-videos, from Madonna’s Express Yourself to the Spice Girls.) Much of the sense of "dark future" is created through architecture and cityscape. The following quote illustrates certain interesting sociopolitical dimensions: "...immediately after the Russian Revolution, a new artistic and architectural style sprang up [in the Soviet Union], called Chicagizm, based on the notion of a new city in a new world without a past" (from the interesting but quirky book by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisited (Washington, D.C.: Regnery-Gateway, 1990, p. 430)). One can think of the 1920s skylines of New York and Chicago, the former which appears in Metropolis. The rise of modernist architecture and decorative art trends, typically Bauhaus, Art Deco, the International Style, and, finally, postmodernism -- played an enormous part in the construction of future visions. Indeed, the dark future cityscape is inconceivable without the skyscraper. As the century progresses, mediascape/soundscape is added to cityscape, and "information overload"/"media barrage syndrome" as well sociopolitical postmodernism emerges. Such things as style, edge, mood, atmosphere, or ambience are an important aspect of this vision. (One thinks of the name of a lesser-known 1980s rock-group, Ambient Noise.) Probably one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made -- which interacts with so many of these discourses -- is Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).
Burgess' A Clockwork Orange was controversially filmed (extreme violence portrayed in an artistic, semi-celebratory way) by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. Some prominent movies of the 1970s included Soylent Green (1973) (admittedly a travesty of Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), but perhaps its dark twist about cannibalism as the outcome of overpopulation, is well-aimed), Rollerball (1975) (set in a corporate-ruled world, where violent spectator sports are used to channel the population’s discontent and aggression), and Logan's Run (1976) (clearly derived from a concept similar to that of Brave New World). There was also a weaker television series based on the film.
The movie Silent Running (1971), although set in space, pointed to a dystopian Earth, where "everyone had a job", but the only wildlife left was in a few large "space domes" in deep space. The seriousness of the conservation theme was undermined somewhat by the unbelievability of the premise (i.e., that the last wildlife on Earth would be moved far off-planet, and then uncomprehendingly ordered destroyed).
Ridley Scott's original Alien movie (1979) (alien design, H.R. Giger) and Outland (1981) (portraying the brutalized life on a mining colony near Saturn), could be seen as rather akin to Blade Runner. There was a wave of somewhat similar movies (of greatly varying quality) in the 1980s and 1990s, notably, Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop; Terry Gilliam's Brazil; Robert Longo's Johnny Mnemonic (based on William Gibson's early short story); Judge Dredd, based on the comic book; Freejack (with Mick Jagger as a bounty hunter); Total Recall (corporate dystopia on Mars); a portrayal of the millennial turn, Strange Days; and Tim Burton's new Batman epics. Burton's vision was largely based, of course, on the breakthrough graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller, with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley -- widely available in a 1986 DC Comics trade paperback edition (covering the original Books One to Four) -- with a pithy introduction by Alan Moore. The 1980s Max Headroom British made-for-television film and American television series, set "twenty minutes from now," could be seen, like the others, as participating in the so-called "air-conditioned nightmare" of "the near-future." Ironically, Oliver Stone's The Wild Palms television mini-series (1993) (derived from the comicseries in DETAILS Magazine), was buried in popular perception by the hockey playoffs! Very few persons bought The Wild Palms Reader (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993). Among the interesting print spinoffs of the Alien/s movies, is Aliens: Colonial Marines Technical Manual, by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood (edited by Dave Hughes) (New York: HarperPrism/HarperPaperbacks, 1996).
The movie Millennium (1989), which involved the always problematic concept of time-travel, nevertheless raised the disturbing prospect that the Earth will become so polluted that it will be virtually unable to sustain human life, even with the most sophisticated technologies.
One can also notice the films Escape from New York (1981), and its 1990s sequel, Escape from L.A. They presented a very authoritarian U.S., where, for example, Manhattan Island is a walled-off penal colony for the country’s violent prison population. The movie Tron (1982), set more or less in the current-day period, was interesting only because it represented one of the first big-screen, big-budget American films exploring the idea of "virtual reality" or "cyberspace", i.e., what "life" might look like "inside" a computer.
Three 1990s movies exploring virtual reality are The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, and EXistenZ.
The very popular Mad Max film series made speculation about a post-apocalyptic (typically, post-nuclear holocaust) world very widespread (and influenced the décor of many dance clubs). The Tank Girl comic and movie (also set in Australia) is obviously derivative of it. WaterWorld could also be characterized as, essentially, "Mad Max on water." A fairly campy 1980s treatment of the "post-apocalyptic" theme is Streets of Fire, with its rock-music soundtrack.
The surprisingly well-produced children's television series, Captain Power, and the Terminator movie series, showed the scenario of evil machines literally taking over the Earth.
Another television series with a cyberpunk feel was The New War of the Worlds.
A clever satire on both utopia and the dark future was the 1990s movie, Demolition Man.
Finally, in the near-future, technothriller genre, there is the 1990s television series La Femme Nikita, based on the French and (the later) American movie.
A somewhat earlier 1990s television series, was TekWars (based on William Shatner's fiction-writing efforts), which tended to become increasingly light entertainment, despite the cyberpunk premise.
In the U.S. 2000-2001 television season, there premiered two shows with a cyberpunk feel, based on the premise of a take-over of the U.S. by a military government – Dark Angel, and Freedom. Of these, Dark Angel proved quite popular, while the Freedom series was quickly cancelled.
Another variant of the dystopic genre are depictions of near-future (often nuclear) conflicts. Red Dawn (1984), portraying a bunch of American teenagers fighting as guerillas against an invading Soviet army, was a film very much in the spirit of certain sectors of 1980s sensibility. In this same period, there was the highly absurd depiction, in a television mini-series, of a postwar America under Soviet occupation. It was highly characteristic that America was shown in the best possible light (i.e., life in the countryside, in "the Heartland" was portrayed -- which appeared far more traditionalist than it does today). The action took place in small towns and with beautiful scenery in the background. The Soviets were curiously mild -- which seemed highly unlikely. "Special occupation units" (commanded by a Nordic-looking German), with black uniforms and helmets also made an appearance -- so there was once again a return to World War II stereotypes. Persons of Eastern European descent would view the plot with incredulity. How likely would it be, that the Soviets would consent to the elimination of their shock-troops by the American partisans, while the army of the post-American puppet-state would arrange with the partisans the delayed arrival of support to the shock-troops, in order to give the freedom-fighters time to finish them off? It would be safe to assume that the show's producers had not read, in regard to these sorts of matters, a single serious historical work.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.