x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Why is the world always ending at the movies?

Dystopias have always been popular, never more so than right now. We analyse the roots of the trend

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Murray Close.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Murray Close.

If you're planning on a trip to the cinema anytime soon, prepare for some bad news. Don't worry, your local multiplex is fine. It's just that when you get there, it's more than likely that the film you'll see will paint a dark and disturbing picture of the future for planet Earth.

This year, the massively popular The Hunger Games is at the forefront of a wave of new Hollywood dystopias. That film - which depicts a future where teenagers must participate in a televised battle to the death - took US$155million (Dh570m) in the US alone on its opening weekend, a record for a movie opening outside the summer.

It will soon be followed by remakes of two dystopian blockbusters: a new instalment of the Judge Dredd story, called Dredd, and an updated version of Total Recall, set in a world where rival superpowers battle for supremacy. That's not all: last year the director Ridley Scott announced he is working on a sequel to one of the most famous dystopian movies ever: Blade Runner.

These films revel in the bleakness of the future they present - and yet they are an easy sell with audiences. So what is behind the trend?

It's long been observed that Hollywood's output indirectly tracks wider economic and political circumstances. The famous 1956 film version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Fourcame at the height of the Cold War and US fear of Soviet totalitarianism. Indeed, most mid 20th-century dystopias - from Fahrenheit 451 to Logan's Run - tended to feature an overbearing, dictatorial state that crushed the human spirit, a trend that lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

However, dystopian movies of the noughties, such as 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, often expressed anxiety over the environment.

Seen in this context, the dystopia presented in The Hunger Games - based on the teenage fiction novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins - is telling. This movie is set amid the ruins of a future North America - after the collapse of the United States - in which only a few isolated population centres remain, subject to poverty, disease and brutal violence.

It's easy to discern in The Hunger Games, then, not just a reflection of our hard economic times, but also a rumination on the broader fears that currently grip the American consciousness.

The past few years have been a period of fierce party factionalism, popular anger - embodied by the Tea Party and the Occupy movement - and damaging corporate unruliness; and all this against a backdrop of Chinese ascent and America's consequent relative geopolitical decline. These are deep-running anxieties that politicians cannot articulate directly. Instead, they filter into Hollywood.

With hard times set to continue, Hollywood will keep on creating dystopian futures. Those without an appetite for the despairing should choose their cinema trips carefully. Or stay at home with a DVD player, and a copy of The Hangover Part 2.