Academic journal article CineAction

The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia Films

Academic journal article CineAction

The Capitalist and Cultural Work of Apocalypse and Dystopia Films

Article excerpt

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We are living in a dystopia. Our world is the capitalist aberration dystopia films depict. In his essay regarding the Canadian horror (and semi-dystopian) film Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997), Angel Mateos-Aparicio reports that "French philosopher Jean Baudrillard ... has argued that the 'real' world has become utopian and that fictional models provide an experience of what reality has actually turned into." (1) Mateos-Aparicio goes on to observe that Cube addresses "postmodern anxieties about the nature of contemporary social relations, the purpose of political structure, and the consequences of the predominance of capitalistic economy as the organizational principle of human relations." (2) Indeed, much post-modern cinematic narrative has been preoccupied with apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian fantasies that closely reflect aspects of our lived reality. These three categories are closely related in their ideological underpinnings. Certainly they share certain characteristics, not the least of which is a representation of the repressed anxiety regarding the potential fall of capitalist culture. All are concerned with horrific visions of a world in which patriarchal capitalism has been either annihilated or corrupted, and all three function as warnings or harbingers, cinematic realizations in the tradition of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, of what must be changed and what must be protected in order for patriarchal capitalism to survive. However, dystopia film does not inherently require there to be an apocalypse, and these films have a closer relationship with fantasies of utopia than do the other two categories. This paper seeks to distinguish the boundaries between films categorized as apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian and to examine some of the most iconic cinematic artifacts in each of the categories to differentiate their parameters and to explore in detail dystopian film through the prism of cultural theory, to better understand the cultural work that specifically dystopia cinema does. The last section elucidates the different cultural work effected by dystopia films that were produced before 9/11 and the more contemporary films In Time (2011) and The Purge (2013).

Elizabeth Rosen succinctly describes the fundamental characteristic of dystopia narratives: utopia "comes at an unspeakable cost." (3) However, the fact that dystopia film presents an ersatz reality that is ostensibly worse than our own works to ideologically mask the fact that the horrific side-effects of capitalism in these otherwise utopian worlds ganged agley are representations of capitalist relations that already exist. Dystopia film is primarily concerned with the social conditions inherent to patriarchal capitalism in which the narratives simultaneously expose and reproduce social and economic contradictions in an ideological process of repressive tolerance. Dystopia cinema appears to criticize the damaging effects of self-indulgent capitalism while positing fantasies of class integration. These fantasies offer romantic justifications in which the altruistic tendencies of two characters resolve class contradictions in a narrative trajectory that ostensibly transcends capitalism and all of its evil, greedy commodification. Decadepost-9/11 dystopia films such as In Time (Andrew Nicoll, 2011) and The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013) are significant contemporary examples due to the way in which they realize explicit capitalist axioms. In Time literalizes the capitalist axiom that time is money, while The Purge effectively dramatizes the commodification of violence in the convention of horror cinema. What these films have in common is the way they operate in a process of neo-Marxist repressive tolerance to criticize the aspects of capitalism that contradict romantic mythologies in an ideological effort to reconcile these contradictions with a valorizing fantasy of romance and revolution.

Neo-Marxist cultural theory remains an effective framework in which to understand the cultural work accomplished by apocalyptic and dystopian narratives, especially in the context of widely distributed media commodities such as blockbuster cinema. …

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