Friday, 17 June 2011

A Love For Dystopias

I love a good bit of dystopian fiction, especially when it’s set in Britain. I love tales of resistance and revolution against oppressive regimes. I love people taking on seemingly over-whelming forces in order to stand up for what they believe in. I love tales about the power of ideas and the people brave enough to believe in them; a caveat to that is that, like I’d guess the majority of people, the love tends to be limited to those standing up for things I also consider worth fighting for.

It is for that reason that I wanted to dedicate a blog post to two films which didn’t quite make it into any of my “favourite film” blogs but are ones I consider amongst my favourites.

There’s something about seeing dystopian tales set in Britain that just engages me; in both instances they are stories of what takes place in Britain while the world as a whole is falling apart and the way in which governments and people respond to a new, darker world. In both films Britain is ruled over by a oppressive government which has adopted isolationist, conservative and frequently bigoted policies.

The first, and critically probably the better, of the two films is “Children of Men”. Released in 2006 and directed by Alfonso Cuarón the film is a loose adaptation of P.D. James’ science fiction book about a world where every woman has, over a period of years, become infertile, leaving the human race facing an ever dwindling population and the real and genuine threat of the extinction of our species.

In the film there are hints at wars and sickening policies waged supposedly in the interest of solving the problem, but the film is set at a point where humanity has to an extent accepted it’s impending demise and, without the motivation of leaving the world a better place for children, become crueller and more selfish. The protagonist in the film, Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist now tired and disinterested, is the archetypal unlikely and unwilling hero. He is, through his ex-wife Julian (Juliane Moore) dragged back into opposition of the government and a number of groups that range between freedom fighter and terrorists (almost always a distinction dependant on your particular perspective) by some dramatic events, but throughout the film his acts of heroism are far from the over blown and there are no big rousing speeches. He is simply a man, roused at least partly out of his cynicism by a cause.

The dystopian England is brilliantly realised with the borders closed, the millions of refugees who fled to the country during the early years of the crisis being rounded up as illegal immigrants and the government functioning as a police state. There are harrowing shots of illegal immigrants locked in overcrowded cages passed by citizens who clearly now feel this is normal. The scenes towards the end of the film in a city sized “Refugee Camp” where immigrants are sent is incredible with Cuarón capturing the idea of hundreds of different nationalities living together in poverty but something resembling harmony, united by their hatred of and feeling of betrayal towards the British government they believed would save them.

Within the refugee camp scenes is one moment which is simply incredible filmmaking, a 7 minute sequence where Theo runs from building to building in the middle of a full scale insurrection is made to look as if done in one continuous take; I’ve read around a bit and it seems it definitely wasn’t just one shot, but I’ll be damned if I can find anything resembling an edit there. The camera sweeps around the action and by avoiding dramatic cuts, makes the audience so much more immersed in the action.

It’s powerful stuff and I think at least part of the appeal of films like ‘Children of Men’ and other UK based dystopian stories is that it presents a situation we’ve watched hundreds of other nations face, where the government no longer protects the people but instead attacks them, where democracy has become a dirty word and military dictatorships the norm. We’re lucky that in England, no matter how much you may despise Labour or the Conservatives, we’re never confronted with the extremes that make up most dystopian societies but they’re not just some product of a melodramatic writer’s imagination, you only have to look at the history of the past century of human existence to see countries where there were people who rose up in opposition to powerful governments; whether talking about the resistance fighters and partisans across Europe during World War 2, the revolutions in Eastern Europe during the end of the 80s or the Arab spring that is still going on as I type. It is, like all cinema, a vicarious thrill, something you on some small level want to experience, but know you’re actually grateful you are unlikely ever to have to.

The other dystopian film I want to write about is ‘V for Vendetta’. Now this lacks some of the subtlety and film making nous of ‘Children of Men’ but I still consider it one of my favourite films for a number of reasons. It is, like the other film, based on a previous source novel, in this case Alan Moore’s graphic novel.

There are some fantastic, if knowingly over dramatic speeches throughout about the need for political freedom, about the power of ideas and the importance of good men and women willing to stand up for them. There’s no one over-arching explanation for what has happened in the world of ‘V’ but references are made to a nuclear war and a number of disease epidemics that have swept the world with the UK having one of the few “functioning” societies left. A fascist party called Norsefire, led by High Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt in excellent form as ever) has swept to power, rounded up opposition and put them in concentration camps, especially targeting homosexuals and immigrants, and have created a police state with curfews and near constant surveillance.

It is against this backdrop that ‘V’ is introduced, a mysterious anarchist who always wears a Guy Fawkes mask and has his own personal reasons to want to topple the government beyond just a belief in what is right. He’s a fascinating anti-hero, voiced particularly well by Hugo Weaving, who speaks in grand, eloquent monologues and backs that up by blowing up buildings and assassinating key party figures who were responsible for some of the worst atrocities the party had committed.

We see ‘V’ for the most part through Evey Hammond’s eyes (Natalie Portman), a 20 something year old girl who lost her entire family because of the party but who, due to feeling powerless, has just settled into a routine of living her life without direct opposition. However when V saves her from a gang intending to rape her, she becomes embroiled in his plans, sometimes willingly but at others coerced, to fight back against the government.

There are some great action sequences, a depressingly believable portrayal of a fascist Britain and some fantastic speeches about freedom and justice, even if they’re not the subtlest.

So I’d advise you watch both, ‘Children of Men’ is grittier and despite the similarly grim stories, much darker than ‘V for Vendetta’ so let that guide the decision of when you watch either film.

Today's song features in 'Children of Men' but is also just a classic song.

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