Utopia in Popular Culture

Aeon Flux:
Fans of this animated cult-classic are sure to understand why this show has made the list. In the futuristic setting of the show, events revolve around an ongoing conflict between two societies. On the one side, there is Brenga, a police state run by the autocrat Trevor Goodchild. On the other is the anarchist state of Monica, where the show’s main character – Aeon, a Monican agent and spy – comes from.

Much like the world of the Cold War, these two sides are locked in an ongoing state of detente, where espionage and skirmishes take place back on both sides. The border region between them resembles that of Cold War-era Berlin, where a massive wall separates the two and those trying to cross are either shot or cut down. In one particular episode, people who are missing limbs were a focal point, demonstrating just how many people have fallen victim to the border defenses.

This is a common feature in the story, as it seems that the people of Bregna (known as Breens) would like very much to live the lives of Monicans. Its for this reason that one of Aeon’s duties as an agent is to make regular runs into Bregna to get people out through a series of underground passages. It is also suggested that it is precisely because Monica has no official representatives that it is impossible for Trevor Goodchild to deal with them. He does not seem to understand how their society works, and therefore cannot bribe, threaten, or intimidate them into a peace settlement.

Avatar:
Here is a perfect example of the traditional Edenic civilization being threatened by the evil progress-driven bad guys. Though it was not my favorite movie by any means, it’s undeniable (aka. blatant) utopians themes are quite clear. In short, the Na’vi live a peaceful, contended existence with their environment, and are even telepathically linked to a planetary intelligence known as Eywa.

Borrowing elements from Native American lore, the Gaian hypothesis, and the concept of an ecological utopia, Cameron created a world where paradise was to be found by anyone with appreciative eyes. Whether it was their communion with animals, the trees, or Eywa, the Na’vi elevated the concept of living in harmony with their environment to literal levels.

Demolition Man:
Again, we have what is often classified as a dystopia, but which is made so because of its apparent utopian elements. Set in the not-too-distant future of San Angeles – the mega-city formed from the merger of LA and San Diego – the story revolves around the social experiments of one Dr. Raymond Cocteau.

In addition to being the man who invented the cryo-stasis prison system, which was central to the plot, he is also the man who pioneered the San Angelans “utopian” way of life. In essence, this way of life is bereft of violence, crime, and drug use. The people live what can only be described as a peaceful and contented existence, believing that everything that came before them was characterized by violence and brutality.

The price tag was high, to be sure. People are no longer allowed to swear, play contact sports, own guns, or eat anything remotely unhealthy. Violent and/or sexual entertainment has also been banned, as has real sex. However, the people of San Angeles seemed to accept all this based on the state of society prior to Cocteau’s “revolution”.

The proliferation of violence, chaos, drug use and venereal diseases pretty much left them thinking they had no choice.  Such is the nature of utopian engineering, in the end, where people willingly surrender certain aspects of their lives in order to achieve something better. Much like collectivization, the banning of money, or the elimination of monogamy.

Futurama:
This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always felt that anyone who loves science fiction can’t help but notice the classic themes and elements in this show. Usually this takes the form of dystopian elements – suicide booths, career chips, the tax monster, etc. However, at other times, some decidedly cheery and optimistic tones make it in.

For example, in one particular episode (season 1, episode 8: “A Big Piece of Garbage”), Earth finds itself being threatened by a massive ball of garbage. They deduce that only a similar ball would be able to deflect it, but unfortunately, no garbage exists. Everything on Earth is now recycled, used cans are recycled to make robots, and used robots are used to make cans. Nothing goes to waste, which is why Fry must teach them how to litter!

And then again, in season 6, episode 2: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela”, Leela and Zapp Brannagan land on what appears to be a mysterious, Edenic planet. Here, Leela and Zapp begin living freely as if they were Adam and Eve, which includes shedding their clothes, talking to a serpent, and living off the land. Of course, it was all a ruse by Zapp who once again just looking to get Leela in the sack, but the illusion was complete!

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri:
There’s a reason this game is one of my all-time favorites, and that is because it’s so inspired! One immediately gets the feeling upon playing this all the way through that a lot of classic sci-fi elements went into the making of it, as well as genuine cultural, sociological and scientific research.

For starters, there is the concept of colonizing a new world and the social experiments that it naturally will entail, which is in keeping with KSR Mars Trilogy. Each faction in the game represents a different take on engineering the perfect society. There are the humanitarians, the believers, the Gaians, the hive-mind people, the free-marketeers, the militarists, and the rational empiricists.

What’s more, the technology tree that is featured in the game contains many options for social engineering, the intended end result of which is a perfect society in one form or another. These include Thought Control, Cybernetic, and Eudaimonic, three basic visions of utopia which are dependent upon repression, post-humanism, and a utilitarian, social welfare approach meant to enrich the lives of as many people as possible.

There’s even the option of achieving transcendence, which is one of the victory condition’s of the game. This is achieved by merging with Alpha Centauri’s planet-wide organism, becoming part of its mass consciousness and ensuring a sort of quasi-immortality as it were. This is considered the biggest and best victory option since it ensures planetary peace, as opposed to conquering all the other factions, united them, or cornering the planet’s energy market (the three other victory conditions).

Star Trek:
When it comes to commercial sci-fi, Star Trek pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to utopian elements. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or its subsequent spinoffs, it was clear that humanity had reached a state of technical and social perfection thanks to advances made in science and technology, not to mention good old fashion optimism.

For starters, the United Federation of Planets was an egalitarian democracy where all member races were entitled to representation, a constitution guaranteed extensive rights and freedoms, and all wants and needs were addressed thanks to replicators, abundant energy, transporters and warp technology.

And of course, numerous references are made to the fact that Earth is crime free, all known diseases have been cured, and troublesome things like poverty, slavery, exploitation, inequality and human drudgery have all been eliminated. No real explanations are given as to how, but its clear it happened by the 22nd century.

Star Wars:
Though not a utopian series by any stretch of the definition, there are some tell-tale aspects of the franchise which warrant examination. For example, though the bulk of the story takes place during the “Dark Times”, when the evil Empire rules, numerous allusions are made to a time before the Empire where things are described in somewhat idealistic terms.

For example, here is how Obi-Wan describes the role of the Jedi in the good old days as follows: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” In addition, it is also made clear that the Old Republic was governed by an interstellar democracy known as the Galactic Senate. Between the Jedi and the government, things like slavery, conquest, blatant racism, genocide, and all other forms of behavior common to the Empire were highly illegal.

In having this era of peace and relative prosperity to compare their current circumstances with, Lucas was able to drive home the point of how the Empire was illegitimate and had seized power by unjust means. It also made the heroes current predicament seem that much more emotionally involved.

Wing Commander:
Calling to mind such franchises as Star Trek and Man-Kzin Wars, the Wing Commander series takes place in the distant future when a semi-utopian humanity is engaged in a war with a militaristic foe. As with the violent Kzin, the enemy in this series known as the Kilrathi, are a race of feline anthropoids.

Governed by a strict hierarchy and warrior code, the Kilrathi are driven to war and conquest and have been fighting humanity for generations. Though no formal description is ever made of the Earth government or human customs, many hints are given that suggest that the Terran Confederation is governed by the comparatively enlightened ideals of humanitarianism and democracy.

For instance, in the first Wing Commander it is said that Kilrathi do not place the same importance on alien life as the Confederation. Evidently not, since conquest, slavery and genocide seem to be par for the course for them! In addition, several alien species are allies with the Confederation, usually for the sake of mutual defense against the Kilrathi.

And as with Star Trek, the bad behavior of the enemy species is held in contrast to the comparatively peaceful and egalitarian behavior of humans. And as always, this is designed to illicit a point about history and human nature.

Conclusions:
When it comes to popular culture, there never seems to be a shortage of inspired science fiction elements. This is true of movies, television, and the gaming world. However, I can’t help but notice just how more common dystopian movies, shows and games are. For whatever reason, it just seems like tales of dark futures are much more popular. Is it because dark futures seem more realistic, or might it have to do with the proliferation of dystopian literature in the last century or so. Either way, believe me when I tell you that examples of modern utopian sci-fi franchises were much harder to find. No wonder Neal Stephenson challenged the sci-fi writers of the world to come up with something cheerier!

Demolition Man

Ah yes, another classic guilty-pleasure movie! At least, that is my enduring opinion of this film. When I first saw it as a surly teenager, I thought it was a good shoot-em-up. As I got older, I recognized the satirical elements in it – or rather, the attempts at them – and concluded that they fell short. Now I know for a fact that there are those who disagree with me on this point. Hell, there are even some who might say that this movie was a smart, satirical take on the PC age or an re-imaging of Brave New World for the early 90’s. I, however, don’t happen to be one of them! While I did get the allusions to BNW, I simply cannot bring myself to see how this film could possibly be compared to the brilliant and seminal work of Aldous Huxley. But as usual, some background info is needed before I get into all that.

(Background—>):
Ultimately, Demolition Man was a story about social engineering and control, but at the same time was marketed as an action movie. Fittingly, Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes were brought in to the play the leads, both of whom were A-list action stars at the time. In the end, this combination of action-satire received mixed reviews, with Gene Siskel gave the movie a thumbs down for its violence and Ebert (as usual) praising it for it’s “satiric angle”. Rotten Tomatoes rates the movie as “fresh” with a 63% approval rating while on Metacritic, the movie scores a meager 34/100. In addition, Hungarian sci-fi writer István Nemere claimed the movie plagiarized the vast majority of his novel Holtak harca (Fight of the Dead), which was published in 1986. Regardless, audiences seemed suitably impressed. The movie did make over 50 million domestic, and 150 million foreign. Unfortunately, the director, Marco Brambilla, has gone on to do very little since. If this was the high-point in his career, all I can say is “tough break, man!”

(Content—>):
The movie opens in 1996, on a Los Angeles that is literally on fire. The opening scene where the Hollywood sign is burning is a pretty good indication that society has gone to hell at this time. It’s possible that it was even meant to call to mind the LA riots of 92. Enter John Spartan (Stallone), aka. “The Demolition Man”. At the movie’s opening, he is on his way to bust a domestic terrorist with the equally ridiculous name of Simon Phoenix (Snipes). The latter has commandeered a building and is holding hostages while his men are in a standoff with police. Meanwhile, Spartan, air cavalry-style, jumps from a helicopter, shoots some guys, and then takes down Phoenix in a hand to hand fight. But of course, the building was wired to blow, and the whole place goes up just as Spartan jumps out with Phoenix over his shoulder. Seems blowing shit up is what he’s famous for, hence the nickname!

Then, after the blow-up, the clean up crews find dozens of bodies – apparently, the remains of the hostages! Spartan claimed they had to be somewhere else since he did a thermal scan on the place and saw only Phoenix’s own men, but dead bodies don’t lie! Alas, he and Phoenix are both sentenced to cryogenic freezing for their crimes, since in this day and age (only three years from when the movie was released!) the penal system is no longer in use. Criminals are put in deep sleep and have their brainwaves altered using synaptic suggestion (kind of a neat idea!). His freezing scene is little more than an excuse for Stallone to show off his ass, but whatever.

Okay, first impressions? Well for starters, nothing about the opening sequence is believable, and the hints its dropping are pretty damn obvious. For one, the images and action call to mind things like Beirut and Baghdad more than downtown LA, the tracer fire alone in the opening shots are clearly meant to make us think of a war zone. And last I checked, police didn’t have access to military helicopters or were cleared for aerial insertions. But this is the future right? Sure, but only three years from when the movie was made! Did they expect society to go to hell in that amount of time? Well, it IS LA… Oh, and another thing about the tracers: with all the flak they were putting up, how is it the one thing they didn’t seem to be firing at was the one helicopter that was flying above them? Ah, who cares?

Fast forward to 2032. San Angeles (Los Angeles and San Diego merged after the Big One), is a peaceful, sterile, happy-faced place where violence is obsolete, swearing is illegal, and everything and anything unhealthy has been outlawed. But we quickly see that there is dissent; underground people’s who spray paint messages of resistance here and there and occasionally conduct raids. Enter Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock in her debut action role), a young cop who is curious about the past and longs for some action. Hm, no ironic foreshadowing there! In any case, in what appears to be a mix-up, Phoenix is awakened over at the cryo-facility for a parole hearing. In a scene that definitely tells us something is up, he escapes from his cage, kills the guards, escapes from the facility and begins spreading chaos in his wake. And when the police confront him, Phoenix whoops out some badass martial arts skills and kills a few. The police are frightened, and for good reason!

Naturally, they appeal to the man who runs things in San Angeles, Doctor/Dictator Raymond Cocteau (played by British actor Nigel Hawthorne), who just happens to be the inventor of the cryoprison as well. He says “do what you will”, but its clear he’s got something up his sleeve. The cops got nothing, and its clear they are unequipped to deal with such a violent criminal. But it just so happens that someone on the force is old enough to remember the man who brought Phoenix down the first time… John Spartan! They commence defrosting, and some expository dialogue lets us know some pertinent facts: the merger that created San Angeles, the Big One (which coincidentally claimed Spartan’s wife), and the fact that smoking, alcohol, red meat, contact sports, salt, etc etc are now illegal. A brief encounter between Spartan and a swear monitor also lets him know that swearing results in a fine!

Now this is a part of the movie I actually liked. It’s been established at this point that the new age folk are completely helpless in the face of a violent convict. They fear and revile Phoenix, but they’re impressions of Spartan are not much better. Essentially they think he too is a barbarian, in part because he’s a convict, but mainly because of where and when he comes from. This is a realistic touch and something that’s consistent throughout the movie. However, this is still an action flick and things quickly move to the first post-thaw confrontation between the two titans, and at a museum of all places! Seems Phoenix went there to find a gun, which is the only place one can even see a gun in the future. Spartan shows up, and two begin using the museum guns to shoot at each other. Yes, it seems the guns in this particular museum are kept loaded. Uh… okay! Makes absolutely no sense, but okay…

Phoenix escapes, and runs into Cocteau outside. He tries to shoot him, but cannot and is forced to flee. At this point, we are made aware of the fact that there’s some sort of conspiracy between them. Prior to this, it was obvious that someone has been pulling Phoenix’s strings since he got out of cryogenics. He’s obsessed with the name Edgar Friendly (played by Dennis Leary), another absurdly named character who just happens to be the man running the dissidents. What follows is some filler and background scenes where Spartan is invited by a seemingly grateful Cocteau to dinner (at Taco Bell, the only restaurant to survive the “franchise wars”!) he is subjected to more bigotry from the San Angeles folk, and is in the right place at the right time to stop a band of Friendly’s men from raiding the restaurant for food. Afterward, he and Lenina go back to her place where she asks him to have “sex”, which consists of wearing helmets that simulate sex-related sensations. Seems real sex has been banned due to STD’s! Bummer…

Anyway, irked and unable to adjust to this new form of “sex”, Spartan retires to his flat and begins looking at security footage from the museum. Upon seeing the clip where Phoenix couldn’t shoot Cocteau and the short conversation that ensued, he becomes highly suspicious. He looks up Phoenix’s file and finds that in addition to being thawed “accidentally”, he was programmed for mass destruction. Remember the bit about synaptic suggestion? Well, it seems that while Spartan was encouraged to knit (no joke!), Phoenix was encouraged to kill! At this point in the movie, things begin to revolve around Cocteau as both Spartan and Phoenix take turns confronting him. Spartan does so to get answers, but is told to get lost and that he’s going back into the freezer. Phoenix does so to find out why the hell he was thawed and why he’s been programmed. You see, in addition to being fixated on killing Friendly, he can access any computer in the city and seems to instinctively know his way around. He, in turn, is told everything, as is the audience!

Essentially, Cocteau tells him that he let Phoenix out of cryoprison and programmed to kill, be able to access any computer in the city and find his way around San Angeles with ease so that he would kill Friendly, the only remaining obstacle to him creating a “perfect society”. In exchange for this, Phoenix will get whatever he wants, and he even promises to put Spartan back in the freezer for him as “a guarantee”. Phoenix however, says he will take out Spartan himself, but will need the help of a dozen or so additional convicts from his past to complete these various tasks. For whatever reason, Cocteau consents and gives him his access to his old buds. Cue tense music!

Okay, two things! One, are we really to believe that this Cocteau fellow would thaw the most dangerous criminal of the 20th century just so he could deal with some meager political dissident? Why not hire some mercenaries from out of state, or out of the country? And its not like Friendly is a threat really! All he does is spray paint things and raid Taco Bells! Seriously, in what world is it smart to unleash a psychopath to deal with a simple political protester? That’s like unleashing a poisonous snake to deal with a rodent. Second, did he really believe he could control Phoenix simply by putting some kind synaptic block on him? Sure, Phoenix was unable to kill HIM, but what about everybody else in the city? Moreover, how was he planning on controlling him once he was finished with Spartan and Friendly? Cocteau had obviously given no thought to that since he had nothing in mind to offer him. Last, are we really to believe he would agree to thaw more psychos without bothering to take ANY precautions with them? With Phoenix he at least did something, but with these other guys, he does nothing! How stupid is this guy?

Alright, lets move on! Despite being told he’s going back into the freezer, Spartan is still walking around. He even leads Huxley and her partner Garcia (Benjamin Bratt) on a manhunt for Phoenix, a search which takes them into the sewers. Coincidentally, they run into Simon Friendly’s people, because the sewers are where he and his band of dissidents/thieves/scavengers live. Oh yeah, and they have guns too! They must have raided a museum at some point… Meanwhile, Phoenix is plotting with his psychos (duh!) to take over San Angeles society by killing Raymond and Spartan. After Spartan explains to Friendly what he thinks is going on (i.e. Cocteau wants to kill you and thawed a mass murdered to do so), Phoenix and his gang show up and a gunfight ensues. Spartan and Phoenix fight their way across town with an obligatory car chase, during which time Phoenix tells him that all those hostages Spartan allegedly killed in his capture attempt were already dead; or as he puts it, “Cold as Hagen Daas!” Well, as the Joker said to the Batman, “even to a guy like me, that’s cold!” Okay, nuff cold-related puns! Phoenix escapes again, and has his men kill Cocteau. Wow… didn’t see that one coming!

The police and Friendly’s scavengers then come together, with Spartan asking for their cooperation. They then march on Cocteau’s office where they find him dead and see that Phoenix and what remains of his thugs have taken to the cryogenics facility where they are planning on thawing all the convicts there. A final showdown takes place between Spartan and Phoenix and Spartan manages to (you guessed it!) blow up the place in the process! He escapes in the nick of time as the place is exploding all around him, all the while doing the Stallone signature grunt/yell. The movie ends with the uptight police chief fearing for the future, Friendly suggesting they all get drunk and “paint the town red”, and Spartan suggesting they find a middle path. Then, of course, Spartan kisses Huxley, and they agree to have sex the old fashioned way. Cue theme music by The Police!

(Synopsis—>):
Of the top of my head, I can think of several things that were good about this movie. For one, they actually did bring some satirical elements to the screen. The way the future citizens of San Angeles saw Spartan as a brute, for example. “Cro-Magnon”, “primate”, “caveman”; these are how they describe him, and to his face! And the paradox is quite clear: on the one hand, their values demand that they reject a man like him. On the other, they make them hopelessly dependent on him. Also, the nature of the “utopian” San Angeles society seems like a pretty fitting commentary on the PC age: how taken to its extreme, censorship and repression – even if its well-meaning – will lead to a society of stunted, helpless virgins. Though the entire plot may have been lifted from a Hungarian sci-fi novel, this aspect of the movie was kind of fitting given the year of its release. The early 90’s were kind of the dawn of the PC age, and it only made sense that there would be those who would want to warn people about the potential for danger before it had a chance to get in full swing!

There were also several funny moments I feel the need to acknowledge. Snipes manages to pull off the psycho quite well and has some downright funny lines. “Cold as Hagen Daas” was one, as was his Scarface imitation. Also, the joke about President Schwarzenegger wasn’t bad. One might get the impression that he and Stallone have some kind of agreement where they’re required to give a shout out to each other every few years. And how about the running joke about “the three seashells”? And the swear detectors were not just satirically apt, they were a pretty good comedic tool.

And now for the bad stuff… First off, the totally contrived, unthought-out nature of the plot! Again, are we really to believe some conniving future dictator would unleash a mass murderer to kill ONE MAN and expected he could control him? Wasn’t this guy supposed to be the leader of San Angeles and the creator of their entire way of life? Did he get to where he was by NOT planning ahead like this, or is he just this stupid? Also, the fact that people are able to get both guns and ammo in a future where there are supposed to be none made no sense either. I know, if you remove these elements, there’s no movie. But a few lines of dialogue would have patched this movie’s biggest holes, but no explanations were ever given! Hell, they could have even done a thing where Spartan and Phoenix were forced to improvise their weapons, showing how they had to resort to classic ingenuity in an age where mass-produced firearms were no longer available. I’m just saying…

There was also the small plot thread about John’s daughter that went nowhere in the movie. We learn that he had a wife and child before he went into cryosleep, and that his wife died in the Big One. But his daughter apparently survived and despite missing her, he doesn’t even bother to look her up. They do make a point of having Spartan say that he’s not sure if he wants to see her since she grew up in this new society and he fears she won’t be able to relate to him. But when Huxley offers to look her up, he says no and then the whole thing is just dropped! Seriously, if he had a daughter, I would think he’d want to reunite with her, and that this reunion would be intrinsic to the plot in some way. Say, for example, that after he’s finished killing Phoenix he decides to look her up and that’s how the movie ends; you know, as opposed to him and Huxley having sex and him learning how to work the damn three seashells! Or, she could even be central to the plot by having Phoenix abduct her in Act III in order to lure Spartan into a trap? Hell, either of these ideas would have been better than bringing the daughter up and then just writing her off like that. Why bring her up if she’s going to serve no purpose whatsoever?

Also, there’s the idea that this movie managed to adapt elements of Brave New World to the big screen. Sure, that was the aim, and the references were certainly clear enough. But that was the problem, in my opinion, and the reason for its failure. For one, the name of Sandra Bullock’s character is an obvious allusion to BNW. Her last name is Huxley (aka. Aldous), and Lenina is the name of BNW’s main female character (Lenina Crowe). And at one point, Phoenix even yells out, “Its a Brave New World” before firing off his weapon. Now that was just plain unnecessary! I mean, if you’re going for literary allusions, try some subtlety! Don’t just announce what you’re trying to emulate! It comes off as obvious, and its not like people aren’t going to make the connection anyway. In any tale of social engineering where freedom is being killed by soft measures, the inevitable connection is to Brave New World!

But then again, this was in keeping with what brought this movie down for me, which was its watered down character. Putting aside the fact that this movie was possibly a total rip-off, there were still the basic outlines of a decent plot before Brambilla and whoever else decided to turn it into an action movie got their hands on it. Once that was done, the potential for real satire and social commentary was pretty much lost. In the end, all that stuff just seemed like it was thrown in to give a feeling of depth to an otherwise cheesy action flick, which really wasn’t the case. The movie started out as a tale about a dystopian future borne out of the violence and chaos of the present, but was dumbed down in order to make it accessible to Hollywood audiences. And that’s a shame man! Consider how many otherwise decent movies or original novels have been ruined simply because of the director’s, producers and industry’s lack of respect for their audiences.

But that’s something for another time and I’m starting to get that preachy feeling again. And like I said, this really isn’t a bad movie, just one that requires a little brain-checking if you don’t want to come away disappointed. Overall, I’d say it belongs in the fun but kinda stupid bin, next to the other guilty pleasures that DON’T make you think!

Demolition Man
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Plot: 4/10
Direction: 7/10
Total: 6.5/10