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Controlled and Totalitarian: Sci-Fi’s Pessimistic View of the Future

A futuristic figure
What will the future look like?

Since the optimistic earliest work of science fiction movies, notably, A Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Méliérs, movies categorized as such have been suggesting the state of possible future societies as well as imaginative new technologies, not to mention monsters and aliens. I point out that future societies described in these movies are mostly dystopian ones, rather than utopian, although some of the stories have positive endings in order to satisfy a movie audience.

Utopia and Dystopia

The criterion that differentiates dystopia from utopia may vary depending on the movie analyst’s viewpoint. Some could claim that even a free and wealthy country can be categorized as a dystopia if the people living there cannot have a positive attitude and mindset, which will lead to a negative result, the opposite of a happy life. What is such a life? The PERMA Model describes it.

The PERMA Model was developed by respected positive psychologist Martin Seligman and was published in his influential 2011 book Flourish. PERMA, an acronym for a model of well-being, proposes five building blocks of well-being and happiness:

  • Positive emotions: feeling good
  • Engagement: being completely absorbed in activities
  • Relationships: being authentically connected to others
  • Meaning: purposeful existence
  • Achievement: a sense of accomplishment and success

However, since I believe most sci-fi movies take an opposite view, I shall focus on their self-evident dystopia and, in particular, totalitarianism.

Table 1 is a short list of sci-fi movies that deal with a future society under totalitarian control. This table excludes sci-fi movies not focused on the totalitarian organization of a future society even though the situation is set in the future. This is the reason why A Clockwork Orange, Time of the Wolf, and  Futureworld are not included.

Table 1. A tentative classification of dystopian sci-fi movies.
Happy EndingUnhappy Ending
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang1984 (1956) by Michael Anderson
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois TruffautTHX-1138 (1970) by George Lucas
Logan’s Run (1976) by Michael AndersonZPG (1971) by Michael Campus
Soylent Green (1973) by Richard Fleischer
1984 (1984) by Michael Radford

Dystopia in the Real World

As a movie lover who watches one or two movies a day, I have found it difficult to find sci-fi movies that describe a utopia. One reason for the imbalanced proportion between utopian and dystopian movies might be the historical facts of human civilization, in which there have been many totalitarian and autocratic societies. We can remind ourselves of such cases as Germany under the regime of Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, China under Mao Zedong, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and even more (and that’s limiting the list to World War II and afterwards.)

Most movies are made to entertain audiences. Sometimes, however, serious themes, such as the nature of dystopia, will be adopted as a way of raising the consciousness of people about their own futures, providing a “possible” view of days to come so they will be able to avoid the circumstances that will lead them again into dystopia.

How Can Dystopia Become Possible?

Some dystopian movies include an explanation of the process by which the society has come to accept such a regime. For example, 1984 refers to a nuclear war, Soylent Green mentions a population explosion and the consequent shortage of food; ZPG and Logan’s Run also refer to a population explosion. Metropolis and THX-1138 do not have such causes, hence the audience is placed into an unexpected situation from the beginning without any explanatory narrative.

So, how were the real-world totalitarian and autocratic societies mentioned previously made possible in the real world? They are cases in which an older regime was destroyed and people believed in propaganda—that a better society would come about. This belief delivered controlling power to a totalitarian leader. Today, many of the countries mentioned previously are more democratic, which seems to suggest that a totalitarian society is a transitional state before the eventual emergence of a democracy.

This leads to the next question: is democracy the final form of society that will last forever? If we think about the near future, with the likely circumstances of an energy crisis, the shortage of underground resources, the dwindling food supplies, a population explosion, and the cost of upgrading developing countries, it seems reasonable to think the entire world will be thrown into turmoil.

Table 2. Negative aspects in dystopian sci-fi movies..
MovieDominationPropagandaBehavior MonitoringMind Control
Metropolis (1927) by Fritz LangRich
1984 (1954) by Rudolph CartierPartyHate!AV system, spySpecial device
1984(1956) by Michael AndersonPartyHate!AV system, spySpecial device
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) by Francois TruffautFirefightersWaste books!People
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley KubrikHalRobot
THX-1138 (1970) by George LucasGovernmentWhat’s wrong!PeopleRed capsule
ZPG (1971) by Michael CampusGovernmentNo babies!Flying object
Solaris (1972) by Андрей А. ТарковскийSolarisThough mindSolaris reads the mind
Soylent Green (1973) by Richard FleischerGovernmentEat Soylent Green!
Logan’s Run (1976) by Michael AndersonGovernmentLife must end at 30!
1984(1984) by Michael RadfordPartyHate!AV system, spySpecial device
Solaris (2002) by Steven SoderbergSolarisThough mindSolaris reads the mind

Dystopia and Future Technology

From the viewpoint of user experience, it would be good to focus on the development of devices and systems to achieve positive objectives, like those described in the PERMA Model. However, we should also consider how the future devices and information/communication technology (ICT) can be used to control society, which would lead us into a negative life experience. Table 2 shows how domination, propaganda, behavior monitoring, and mind control are described in several dystopian sci-fi movies. Domination concerns social organization and is less related to ICT. Future technology may be related to propaganda and mind control, but here I shall focus on behavior monitoring. Regarding this aspect, ubiquitous technology will be one of the plausible means to achieve the controlled totalitarian society.

The following technologies are available now and will be reinforced in the near future. They all have the potential to deliver information to those in control of governments, systems, communication networks, and other devices:

  • Mobile devices such as laptops, tablet PCs, and smart phones equipped with a global positioning systems (GPS) that can send the location of the device user.
  • Internet-related devices that give personal information such as preferences, political attitudes, social groupings, and other personal information to those in control.
  • Small chips, such as RFID and IC-tags, implemented in many varieties of personal and professional objects that will send the location and handling information of the object (or the person) to people in control.
  • Video cameras set up at various places in and out of homes, businesses, government buildings, travel system stations and routes, and commercial shops of all kinds.
  • Satellite, airplane, and vehicle reconnaissance collections that provide the detailed pictures and specific locations of particular objects and people.
  • Biometrics, including physiological, psychological, and behavioral measures, that provide information about, and accurate identification of, any person.
  • Scene analysis and pattern recognition that analyze the pictures taken by organizations, governments, and individuals that will give sufficient information to identify people, places, and objects in almost any environment or location.

When such technologies are in the hands of those who have a strong will to control people, the world drifts quickly and inexorably to a state far worse than those described in dystopian sci-fi movies. To wake us up, to help us prepare for the future, we can learn much from sci-fi movies—even the most dystopian—about the possible future state of the world. Then we, as the audience, can and should utilize that information to stimulate our good-natured imagination to navigate better alternatives.最早的科幻电影展示了未来社会可能出现的状态,以及富有想象力的新科技、怪物和外星人。这些电影中所描绘的未来社会几乎都是与乌托邦背道而驰的非理想世界。当人们缺乏积极的精神状态时,就可能会产生一个反乌托邦社会,即幸福生活的反面。科技应该关注那些能够带来积极效果的设备和系统的开发,而不是用来控制社会的那些东西。

文章全文为英文版초기의 SF 영화들은 가능한 미래사회의 모습과 상상의 신기술, 괴물, 외계인 등의 이야기를 던져주었습니다. 이런 영화들에서 묘사된 미래 사회는 유토피아라기보다는 대체로 디스토피아입니다. 사람들이 긍정적인 사고방식을 갖고 있지 않으면, 행복한 생활과 정반대인 디스토피아적 사회로 이어질 수 있습니다. 과학기술은 사회를 통제하는 데 사용되는 것이 아니라 긍정적인 결과를 성취할 수 있는 장치와 시스템을 개발하는 데 초점이 맞춰져야 합니다.

전체 기사는 영어로만 제공됩니다.Os filmes de ficção científica mais antigos sugeriram o possível estado das sociedades futuras, novas tecnologias, monstros e alienígenas imaginários. As sociedades futuras descritas nesses filmes são em sua maioria antiutópicas, e não utópicas. Quando as pessoas não têm uma mentalidade positiva, isso pode levar a uma sociedade antiutópica, o oposto de uma vida feliz. A tecnologia deve ser focada no desenvolvimento de dispositivos e sistemas para se obter resultados positivos, não aqueles que podem ser usados para controlar a sociedade.

O artigo completo está disponível somente em inglês.最も初期のSF映画は、未来社会の状況、想像に富んだ新しいテクノロジー、怪物や宇宙人を描いていた。このような映画で描かれた未来社会は、ほとんどの場合ユートピア(理想郷)ではなく、ディストピア(暗黒郷)だった。肯定的な考え方を持たない時、人は、幸福な生活とは逆のディストピアの社会を作り出してしまう。テクノロジーは、社会をコントロールするために利用されるのではなく、肯定的な結果を達成するためのデバイスやシステムの開発に注力すべきである。

原文は英語だけになりますLas primeras películas de ciencia ficción sugirieron el estado posible de las sociedades del futuro, nuevas tecnologías imaginativas, monstruos y alienígenas. La mayoría de las sociedades del futuro que se describen en estas películas son distópicas, en lugar de utópicas. Cuando las personas no tienen una mentalidad positiva, se puede crear una sociedad distópica, lo opuesto a una vida feliz. La tecnología debería enfocarse en el desarrollo de dispositivos y sistemas para lograr resultados positivos y no resultados que pueden emplearse para controlar a la sociedad.

La versión completa de este artículo está sólo disponible en inglés.