With speculative fiction feeling increasingly less speculative and more predictive, science fiction offers us a way to think about our present. In this playlist, Hannah Mueller presents some transcultural dystopia visions and food for thought.
The End of The World: Apocalypse from the Margins
The apocalypse has always been a popular scenario in science-fiction film. Yet the circumstances bringing about the end of the world on the big screen have continuously changed along with the shifting threats and fears human society has faced throughout the 20th century.
In the early 21st century, the end of the world increasingly feels imminent in a way it rarely did before. As climate change researchers predict impending environmental collapse, political crises bring about the implosion of seemingly stable nation states, and a global pandemic exposes the pressure points of countries across the globe, the end of the world is no longer just a figment of imagination, a mediated spectacle brought about by an alien invasion.
This ubiquitous undercurrent of catastrophic doom has also brought forth new cinematic narratives and images. Hollywood tales of the hypermasculine white hero singlehandedly saving the day, the world, and his estranged wife and children, are increasingly replaced by transcultural dystopian visions of disenfranchised and marginalized people fighting for survival and resources as the world around them slowly dies.
This playlist is dedicated to the smart and lovely students in my 21st-century Sci-Fi Film class at BGSU in Spring 2020, who set forth to study contemporary science fiction and got to realize, as the semester went on, that what we had approached as examples of speculative fiction had somehow become reality.
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, UK 2006)
Cuarón’s loose adaptation of P.D. James’ 1992 novel was a powerful piece of cinema when it was first released, but from the distance of 15 years later, it now appears downright prophetic: With uncanny accuracy, the film seems to anticipate the developments around Brexit, the mass detainment and abuse of refugees in Europe and the USA, and the newly increased public efforts to control and police women’s reproductive rights. Perhaps not coincidentally, the competing interests of different political groups all focus on a single Black woman, an African immigrant, whose body is treated as precious by various actors only because of the child she carries, a ‘miracle’ in this dystopian future where infertility puts humankind at risk of going extinct.
Available: On Amazon Prime Video (US and UK) and Netflix
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, South Korea/Czech Republic 2013)
The film’s premise of a perpetually moving train carrying the last surviving representatives of humanity across Earth’s permanently frozen surface hardly seems the most realistic scenario of how the end of the world might come to pass. Yet the train’s rigid social stratification, with the wealthy elite living a life of luxury in the front cars while impoverished workers survive on cockroach protein in the back, is one of the most chilling images of late hypercapitalism in contemporary screen culture. Through the characters’ goals and beliefs, the film subtly interrogates different political strategies of change – reform, revolution, accelerationism – and leaves the spectator with the uncomfortable message that there might be no way to change the system without putting the brakes on the entire train.
[Ed: The film is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige originated by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette and is currently a television programme, playing on Netflix in the UK and TNT in the US.]
Available: Included with Netflix, available through Amazon Prime Video
Mad Max – Fury Road (George Miller, Australia 2015)
The latest installment in the long-running Australian action/sci-fi franchise is a wild ride across a barren landscape that is worth seeing for the stunning choreography of its action and chase sequences alone. Yet the film is also a brutal parable on the hoarding of natural resources that invites comparisons to the exploitation of the global South. The gasoline-fueled engine, the car, is shown to be both monstrous machine and path to salvation – simultaneously responsible for the destruction of nature and the only way for the characters to escape. In this war over the means of survival, even the human body itself is turned into a natural resource that can be exploited, whether as breeding machine or as blood bank.
Available: Included with Live TV channel on Hulu, available through Amazon Prime Video (both in original colour and in black&chrome) in the US and the UK.
The Bad Batch (Ana Lily Amirpour, USA 2016)
We never find out what society looks like outside the prison compound in the Texas desert that provides the setting for this dystopian narrative. But the prisoners dumped unceremoniously into the fenced-off territory have already arrived at the world’s end. Amirpour’s second feature film is a somewhat imperfect work: at times its narrative meanders as aimlessly as the maimed protagonist wandering through the hostile desert, still looking for meaning in life even after her imprisonment has essentially put an end to it. But the world Amirpour has created for The Bad Batch feels new, raw, and utterly entrancing, managing to be revolting and alluring at the same time – just like Jason Momoa’s character Miami Man, the sexy cannibal, whom the protagonist cannot quite take her eyes off despite herself.
Available: Included with Netflix, available through Amazon Prime Video
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo, China 2019)
In comparison to the other films in this list, this one comes closest to the traditional big-budget disaster film. Yet The Wandering Earth, hailed as the first Chinese sci-fi blockbuster, is a must-see not only for its exceptionally gorgeous CGI images of outer space. Its narrative premise, based on a novel by Liu Cixin, is refreshingly original: As the Sun appears to die, humanity does not leave a now uninhabitable Earth behind, but instead turns Earth itself into a spacecraft by altering its course. Demonstratively rejecting the focus on a lone hero-savior figure and instead choosing to present the rescue mission as a truly global collective effort, the film also provides an interesting contrast to Hollywood’s tendency to let Matt Damon and Brad Pitt save the world one big-budget movie at the time.
Available: Included with Netflix
Pumzi (Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya 2009)
The only short film on this list is a mere 21 minutes long, but its worldbuilding is as rich as that of the five feature films. Kahiu’s afro-futurist story is a visually breathtaking, tentatively hopeful allegorical fairy tale and yet grounded in a detailed realism that is rare in (post)apocalyptic science-fiction cinema. In a technologically advanced West-African society that has retreated entirely indoors after the so-called Water Wars, water is the rarest of commodities, and the film shows painstakingly how the protagonist is forced to collect even the sweat forming on her skin in order to recycle it back into drinkable water. And yet, the dictatorial regime seems to have suspiciously little interest in improving the status quo and has outlawed dreams, lest someone might accidentally dream of a different, better future.
Dr. Hannah Mueller is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Bowling Green State University. She has published several articles on cultural representation and spectatorship in cinema and television. Her book on political conflicts in fan communities is forthcoming with McFarland.