Technological Innovation and Dystopian Futures

by Ana Cabral Martins

A dystopia is usually an imagined place or state that serves as a scenario of destruction or domination, typically a totalitarian state or an environmentally degraded one. It relates to the concept of utopia, which usually depicts an ideal society. Dystopian narratives tend to be constructed as metaphors through which we can ask questions or offer commentary on real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, or technology, or any form of contemporary anxieties about the future of the human race.

It is undeniable that new media and digitalization have transformed film. Not only have new media technologies transformed “the way Hollywood films are produced, distributed, and exhibited,” but they have also transformed the “aesthetic choices that are made with respect to a film’s visual effects imagery” (Pierson 10). To author David Marshall, that transformation has given way to a series of films that function as a herald of “possible futures through its dialectic celebration of technology through appropriation and negation of its possibilities through Delphic dystopian narratives. Through its appropriation of digital technology and special effects, cinema is now equipped to tell stories of the future in a way that produces a sense of wonder” (Marshall 86). For author Andrew Darley, this wonder is “caused by distinctive capacities of the apparatus itself: digital imaging is directly analogous in this respect to the cinématographe. The technology is the message” (Darley 53).

Digital cinema’s technological innovations are used in attracting and maintaining the audience’s investment in the form. However, in the same way that these technological innovations — mainly in terms of computer generated images and special effects — contribute to affective moments of “awe and bewilderment” (Marshall 75), they also contribute to fuel anxieties concerning the potential of the very same technology. Thus cinema produces film narratives that are both “ostentatious display and cultural critique” (Marshall 79). He argues that this dialectic is utterly schizophrenic since this critique, that several films employ — which centers on some form or another of technological dystopia — is coupled with a “celebration of the technical capacities of digital production and simulation” (Marshall 79).

Contemporary cinema yields a generous number of films that present dystopian visions linked to warfare, global warming, overpopulation, poverty, concerns over privacy and security, loss of will and individuality, oppression, technological dependency, racism, and classism.

In the 1990s, there was the Terminator sequel (1991) and The Matrix (1999). The Terminator film franchise is one of the most glaring cases of the “schizophrenic relationship to technology” that Marshall proposes. In James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the liquid metal of the T-1000 model (one of the watershed moments in CGI imagery’s history), was a technological achievement that was advertised as a reason to see this movie, which in turn clearly critiques: a dependency on technology, the eminent threat of computers and their ability to gains “consciousness” while also clashing together the concepts of analogue and digital or, at least, the older model versus the newer model. The mise-en-scène of both these movies (Terminator 2 and The Matrix) is constructed to provoke the audience’s awe in sight of the achievement of  the CGI images that compose their worlds (the embodiment of a discourse of wonder). These CGI images that are celebrated as technological feats, harbor in them “the expression of the threat of ultimate control that computers represented within our society” (Marshall 80). The Matrix film franchise (where the underlying narrative of the films is a dystopia of an entirely simulated world where humans are used merely as an energy source for a machine-dominated world) ultimately echoes the Terminator series: “The pleasure of the film for the audience, however, is partly the way it depicts the simulated world through the illusions constructed via CGI” (Marshall 81).

In the 2000s, there were the following installments of the Matrix trilogy (2003, 2005), Minority Report (2002), the third and fourth installments of the Terminator series (2003, 2009) and District 9 (2009) — in the latter, there are explicit themes at work of racism and xenophobia (in the form of speciesism). Technology is an instrument of domination and it is only through the acquisition of that which enslaves the oppressed that they can be set free.

In the 2010s, there is the 2012 Total Recall reboot (set in a clearly dystopian future, a significant departure from the less clearly dystopian 1990 original), After Earth (in 2013, a movie that centers on an idea of environmental destruction that was also present in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 film The Happening), and the Terminator reboot (2015). There is also Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013), a film that has similar themes as his District 9: in this case, classism, overpopulation and technology as wealth/health.

Technology is presented as having the power to enslave and set free (The Matrix, Terminator, Transcendence, Elysium), where there is a clear division between those who are “awake,” aware of circumstances that were unbeknownst to others, fighting back, and those who are not. It is often connected with the “haves and have-nots,” where technology is represented as both a byproduct of wealth (that, in Elysium, is also synonymous with health) and as an instrument of domination and segregation.

In the case of the Hunger Games (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) and Divergent (2014, 2015, 2016) franchises, there is a clear line between the domination/segregation created by the control of technology and the subversion necessary to rage against the dominant apparatus. Both dystopian societies are segregated ones. In the case of the Hunger Games, there is a technologically advanced metropolis that exercises control and oppression on the rest of the segregated nation. In the case of Divergent, instead of a regional segregation of the nation (as is the case in the Hunger Games), there is a segregation according to personality types where being different (i.e. not easily put into a single category) means being ostracized.

Through the spectacle of cinematic wonder, CGI contributes to creating these totalitarian worlds where there is usually some form of oppression or segregation, often related to the notion that “technology equals power” (even if it is in a bellicose way) — coupled with the criticism of passiveness of the collective and the power or lack thereof of the individual). The perspective of the critique/commentary is contrasted by the immersive experience provided by the technological apparatus of cinema (i.e. an apparatus of dominance itself, in the sense that it demands compliance).