Hobbes in the City: Urban Dystopias in American Movies

By Halper, Thomas; Muzzio, Douglas | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2007 | Go to article overview

Hobbes in the City: Urban Dystopias in American Movies


Halper, Thomas, Muzzio, Douglas, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The year is 2032. The state is your nanny. Anything that is not good for you is illegal: beef, drugs, alcohol, sex, cigarettes, fattening foods. You get fined for cursing. Though there is an underground underclass, most people are so mellow that there is virtually no crime, and the few criminals are never violent.

This is the Southern California megalopolis of San Angeles in Demolition Man (1993). In 1996 renegade cop John Spartan captures psycho drug lord Simon Phoenix, but not before being held responsible for the deaths of twenty or so hostages. Both men are sentenced to cryonic imprisonment, where they are to be rehabilitated to mend their ways. During their frozen slumber, Los Angeles merges with San Diego and Santa Barbara after the "big one of 2010" to become San Angeles, a metropolis made blissful by the rule of a self-styled benevolent despot, one Dr. Cocteau. "The people," he says, "just wanted the madness over," and what he wants is "to create the perfect society-San Angeles will be a beacon of order." The doctor's only problem is an underground rebel, the libertarian leader of the Scraps, who from his lairs in fetid sewers and tunnels struggles to bring back the good old days of high fat, nicotine, and open pornography. When Phoenix escapes, kills seventeen San Angelenos, and allies himself with the Scrap leader, Spartan is defrosted to eradicate the menace. Lighthearted mayhem and murder ensue.

Nearly everything about San Angeles is extreme. Its expanse is gigantic. Its rulers are oppressive. Its outlaws are evil. Its technology, above all, is stunning and omnipresent. It is what is extreme about San Angeles that draws us to it, much as we pay special attention to persons who are seven feet tall or have mauve hair. The city of extremes, the movie suggests, may be the city of the future ... and the extremes are all negative.

In the movies, of course, the extreme is typical: actors are proverbially handsome and beautiful, explosions approximate the Big Bang, chases are heart pounding and ear splitting. In place of the ordinary, where we live our ordinary lives, movies present the extreme. It is no wonder, then, that cinematic cities of the future are extreme.

Why, however, are the extremes almost never positive-that is, utopias? Utopias represent ideals, that is, endpoints, where nearly everything that ought to be done has been done. The problem with all utopias is stasis; the problem with all utopia movies is boredom. Movies need movement, change, and conflict, whether emotional or physical. Hence, the appeal of the standard dystopian scenario of a brave band of brothers (and sometimes sisters) in combat with their hellish world.

The reel city of the future is Hobbesian. Its dystopias generally are of two kinds: one portrays cities as places of chaos and disorder, whose inhabitants live in a state of nature where none is safe from the depredations of their fellows. The other depicts cities as Leviathans, imposing order and stability in response to the ineradicable human drive for security.

Utopias and America

"In the beginning," declared John Locke, "all the world was America" (319), and in America, the future has nearly always looked good. America, a new country in the New World, often biblically described as a new Eden or a new Jerusalem (Pike) promised a new beginning for what de Crèvecoeur famously called "this new man" (39). Hope, adventure, opportunity-everything pointed to the potential that lay somewhere over the rainbow.

In the years before the Civil War, a few idealists, drawing on Christian or European socialism, sought to establish small scale communities that they fancied could serve as models of justice and harmony for the larger society. These included the well-known religious communities of Hopedale, Brook Farm, and Oneida, as well as Robert Owen's New Harmony and the Fourierist North American Phalanx. None of these Utopian experiments was attempted in cities. …

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