From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
If our grandparents had Westerns, our parents had buddy-cop comedies, our babysitters had rom-coms, and our favorite seniors-when-we-were-freshmen had superhero movies, the genre that will define this particular microgeneration seems destined to be the dystopia. Though dystopian movies date back to the release of the cyborgian nightmare Metropolis, what was once a trickle of industrial ooze in the grand scheme of our cultural landscape is now a swamp.
Dystopian teen movies made household names out of Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley, and stories like The Giver and Ender's Game, once considered unfilmable, have made their way into theaters. Expanding beyond the horror and science fiction stories that have usually contained the genre, now there are dystopian romantic comedies — you can take your pick between love in a Hollywood zombie-meet-cute or at a European neutral-dystopia hotel. Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most hotly anticipated projects of the year ahead. And Atwood’s isn't the only old nightmare to seem new again: 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road was a critical and financial smash, and Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner have a remake and a sequel, respectively, looming on the horizon.
At least for now, dystopian movies are ubiquitous because they are reliably successful. For example, this month’s X-Men spin-off Logan has already racked up over $500 million globally — not bad for the 10th movie in a franchise series. So long as it’s possible for audiences to imagine a future that’s worse than our present, dystopias will always feel relevant as entertainment. But if their value as entertainment can be tracked in the reliable increments of dollars and cents, their value as political statements is harder to measure. Is Logan more important than prior X-flicks because we can read Logan’s run from Mexico to Canada as an allegory for American immigration policy? As filmmakers look ahead for a way to reflect — or even effect — social change in Trump’s America, are dystopias a reliable gateway from popcorn to politics?
Maybe no movie demonstrates the political murkiness of dystopian storytelling more than The Matrix, one of the most influential franchises of the genre. The Matrix follows the story of Neo, a hacker who wakes up from a false reality to find that human beings are kept asleep by the anesthetizing pleasures of life as we think we know it by robots who wait to harvest us for fuel. For the rest of the Matrix franchise, we watch as our literally woke heroes fight in bullet time to wake the sleeping masses and hopefully save the future of humanity.
The Matrix series was written and directed by the Wachowski sisters, who at the time were not yet public about their gender identities. Though both Wachowskis prefer to remain out of the public eye, Lilly Wachowski acknowledged the effect that publicly transitioning has had on their movies in a speech she gave to the GLAAD Media Awards in 2016. “There is a critical eye being cast back on Lana’s and my work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing, because it is a reminder that art is never static.”
Watching The Matrix with the lives and work of the genre-bending Wachowski sisters in mind, their influences and their intentions don’t seem so far off from their queer pulp work on Bound or Sense 8. Prior to filming, they requested that their star Keanu Reeves read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, a work of postmodern philosophy that claims society’s reliance on mass media has trapped humanity in a copy world made of relentless symbolism. Baudrillard, in typical philosopher fashion, refused all association with the blockbuster upon its release, but the seeds of his social critique remain visible if you want to see them. Neo frees himself from the glossy world of ad-friendly images to enter the true steampunky future, where the necessities of life are more base and presumably more real. Neo’s power as the predestined hero of the new world is unleashed by the support and love of a diverse community of rebels. This team of tender cohorts includes a love interest played by Carrie-Anne Moss, whose pale and disaffected beauty is maybe intentionally rivaled onscreen only by that of Keanu Reeves. And beyond the shared androgyny of the movie’s stars, the Wachowskis expand the queer potential of their story by drawing attention to the physical experience of life as an embodied being. In The Matrix, your body is the measure of true reality, and the key to invincibility is the understanding that the boundaries of life exist only in your mind.
But if the Wachowskis provided the materials for a queerish socialist reading of their movie, the meaning that critics and audiences have taken away from The Matrix’s high-wire act has proved less stable than the movie’s evergreen popularity. The Matrix was a massive hit following its release in 1999, and then Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, wearing their own leather trench coats, shot up their high school in Colorado. In the frenzy to understand motivation for the Columbine attack and its copycats, op-eds sprang up around the country questioning whether the movie had inspired the so-called Trench Coat Mafia to mow down their teachers and peers.
Over time, the Columbine panic faded. The Trench Coat Mafia was dismissed as an urban legend, and studies disproved the feared link between violence in media and violence in action. But the problem of interpreting The Matrix has only adapted to the political challenges of our time. On the very same video that shows Lilly Wachowski authorizing queer reinterpretation of her work, one comment on YouTube reads, “The Wachowskis have fallen victim to their own blue pill and are stuck in the Matrix.”
In the book that inspired The Matrix, Baudrillard theorized that the fall of society into simulation followed a progression: Images start as a representation of reality, but the final stage of simulation is a realm of meaningless equivalence, where images relate to each other independent of any prior relationship to reality. In a freaky mirror to Baudrillard’s theory, whereas the old misinterpretations of The Matrix at least had the decency to mask the Wachowski’s framework of real and unreal, now the movie’s misinterpreters supply their own values to a conceptual structure they’ve managed to keep wholly intact. The Wachowskis set out to make a movie that reflected reality as a simulation, and reality responded by expanding the simulation to include its reflection.
The pill theory that now politicizes The Matrix can be traced to the movie’s pivotal moment of choice. Morpheus, the leader of the rebels, finds Neo in the matrix and offers him two pills. The red pill leads to reality and the struggle against the false world, and the blue pill allows him to continue on in literal and metaphorical slumber. Neo chooses the red pill. Now, in a perverse denial of the trans women who made The Matrix, some factions of men’s rights activists have latched onto both the color and the concept of the red pill as a metaphor for their fight against mass media and its affiliated threat of American feminization. In this topsy-turvy world, Neo’s red pill leads to the same fight against oppression and lies, except Neo is a hero for hypermasculine ideals. For the members of the forums that fuel the red-pill phenomenon, that the writers and directors of The Matrix would advocate for a different interpretation of their own work only serves to prove the power of their theory. The institutional power that lies behind the blue (liberal, feminist) pill is so threatening, they seem to think, that even the people who created the metaphor have been lost in the search for true meaning. In our new, not-at-all-fictional normal, dystopia is in the eye of the beholder.
The interpretive problem that has faced The Matrix demonstrates the difficulty of attributing political power to movie dystopias. If books give writers the ability to hone their readers’ understanding by explaining what they are NOT saying as well as what they are, movies eliminate that editing process by relying on a shorthand of pictures and symbols. In the process of translating between images and ideas, The Matrix can become either a queer utopia or a fascist guidebook. Even 1984 can be remade as an Apple ad. Future dystopian filmmakers, beware. Removed from an explicit connection to concrete events, your metaphors will be used against you. As a social prescription, a red pill can be diagnosed to treat anything.