Between pandemics, ecological catastrophes, nuclear threats, transcontinental migrations, If it continues like this … Which is the title of a well-documented essay by Mauro Gervasini subtitle: «Cinema and dystopian science fiction» (Mimesis) which tells how some great films, almost always of literary derivation, often by author, just as often of pure genre, have managed to transform the vision of a future worse than the present into a shared and globalized imagination, from the silent Metropolis by Fritz Lang, expressionist year 1927, so futuristic, to starting from the idea of the vertical city, which constitutes the model for so much modern science fiction cinema, up to the sagas of Mad Max and the Matrix. The plot is always the same: how I delude you into making tomorrow’s world better than it is today, even more so, the best of all possible worlds. The unfolding varies at will, sometimes with disturbing (pre)visions. Example: «All the mammals of this planet instinctively develop a natural balance with the surrounding environment, which you humans do not do. You settle in an area and you multiply, you multiply until every natural resource runs out. And the only way you know how to survive is to move to another rich area. There’s another organism on this planet that does the same thing, and do you know what it is? The virus. Humans are a widespread infection, a cancer to the planet: you are a plague. And we are the cure.” Year of the first Matrix, space-time 1999.
Dystopia (or also anti-utopia, counter-utopia, negative utopia), that is: representation of an imaginary reality of the future, but predictable on the basis of present trends, where totalitarian or barbaric political-social and technological structures are imagined and a scary existence. Among the upcoming horrors: The Village (2004) written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, where the “elderly” (billionaires) segregate young people to protect them from the pitfalls of the contemporary world; The Circle (2017) by James Ponsoldt from the novel by Dave Eggers, set in a world dominated by a single all-encompassing social media; or our Mondocane (2021) by Alessandro Celli set in a militarized and post-Orwellian Taranto.
Reading the world through cinema (or literature) is always a useful operation: it helps us understand in time the mechanisms, and the relative distortions, which govern the societies in which we live, and warns us of the dangers. But why, now, do it precisely through dystopian cinema? Gianni Canova explains it in the preface: «There have been recent eras that have recounted themselves with crime and gangster movies, eras and decades that have spoken of themselves above all with science fiction, others that have found their most appropriate language in the war movie or in the carefree comedy. Ours, on the other hand, is the time of dystopia. Even in a context unaccustomed to attending genres such as the Italian one, dystopia asserts itself as the narrative truly capable more than any other of capturing and giving shape to the spirit of the time, its anxieties and fears, its ghosts and our fears”.
And Mauro Gervasini, film critic, historical signature of the weekly FilmTv and selector of the Venice Film Festival, is very good at telling us about the time of dystopia as a long, distressing, spectacular film, 140 pages long, four chapters and a hundred cited works, from Akira to War Games. The prequels are obviously the absolute classic Fahrenheit 451 by François Truffaut, 1966, and Orwell 1984 directed in 1984 by Michael Radford, and the spin-offs many cyberpunk films and various TV series (on which, however, it was decided not to dwell). In between, a journey through time where dystopia can be yes in the future (mostly, and it’s even maybe a pacified future, where the repressive power has already eliminated all deviance, as in V for revenge by James McTeigue, 2005 ; by the way, does the cult phrase «Security has a price, and it’s called freedom», remind you of something?) but also in the present (in the saga The Purge we are in and around 2022, while in the extraordinary Children of Men by Alfonso Cuarón the year in which no more children are born is around the corner, 2027), or even now in our past, like 1997: Escape from New York (1981) by John Carpenter.
Economic crises, nuclear holocausts (the post-atomic that in the wake of The Day After arrives in Twelve Monkeys, 1995, up to the Australian saga of Mad Max), ecological and demographic cataclysms (from Snowpiercer to Interstellar), excessive power of political oligarchies -financial (In Time, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, 2011, where time is money as never before), pandemics (the list is long: 28 days later, Contagion, Time of the Wolves by Michael Haneke, 2003, but also the Italian TV series by Niccolò Ammaniti Anna…), the excessive power of machines (from the virtual addiction of Strange Days, 1995, to Matrix of course, but also to Her, 2013, up to Mother/Android by Mattson Tomlin, 2021) . Cinema shows us all the worst possible futures. And you, which one do you choose?
Then it can happen that dystopia, (fanta)History, chronicle and prophecy meet. It happens in Atlantis, written and directed by the Ukrainian director Valentyn Vasjanovyc, acclaimed at the Venice Film Festival in 2019. The story of a veteran of the war in Donbass, which has just ended, who after the closure of the foundry managed by a multinational in which he works (announced through a spokesman who appears on a suspended screen like Big Brother from 1984) chooses to return to the conflict zone, a devastated no man’s land, to join a group of volunteers who are recovering the bodies buried in mass graves, among unexploded mines and remnants of an inextinguishable horror. But perhaps there is also a glimmer of life… The film, shot in the surroundings of Mariupol, the most battered city in eastern Ukraine after the Russian attack in February 2022, was shot in 2018; the so-called “low intensity” conflict in Donbass started in 2014; the director imagines it finished in 2025 with tremendous aftermath in the bodies and psyches of women and men, but also in the poisoned ecosystem. Meanwhile, a war in the heart of Europe is still going on. And it’s not cinema.