Libertarians with their love of natural rights tend to be extremely sensitive to the horrors evoked in dystopian works of art. One would presume that Statists find totalitarian dystopian art to be akin to fairytales that end “happily ever after,” but that is another story entirely. The following are ten great dystopian films that all Libertarians should see. Some end triumphantly for the cause of liberty and some … not so much.
1. V for Vendetta
Movies are notorious for being inferior to their source material. However, James McTeigue’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel V for Vendetta surpasses the greatness of its source material by contemporizing the graphic novel’s fascistic themes into neoconservative ones. The film skillfully depicts the totalitarian dangers of the modern surveillance state and the libertarian Lockean theme of opposing a state that has lost its right to rule by oppressing the people it is meant to serve.
Unlike the Neoconservative Batman, V embodies a libertarian hero who is unafraid to stand up to the totalitarian regime. Director James McTeigue and producers the Wachowskis (of The Matrix fame) were brave to adapt a film that might be considered subversive in the Post-911 world where the state is worshipped as the only means of protection against terrorism and other (often) phantom threats.
V’s televised speech is among the most moving of movie scenes for any liberty lover. Strong performances by Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, and John Hurt along with masterful direction and cinematography make V for Vendetta one of the greatest graphic novel adaptations. Unlike too many libertarian themed films, this one actually triumphed at the box office.
"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."
Many avowed progressives are libertarians even if they do not realize it. The brilliant Joss Whedon is a prime example of this. The auteur behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Serenity” has often presented libertarian themes whether intentionally or not. From Buffy opposing the Initiative – a neoconservative military group that sought to indefinitely detain demons and use them to create weapons – in season four of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to Angel and his gang fighting the good fight against demonic legal firm Wolfram and Hart – representative of the corporatist powers that hold the true reins of power in the world – Whedon has always seemed like a libertarian waiting to happen. His deep mistrust of the government makes statism a poor fit for him.
Serenity – the theatrical sequel to short-lived television sci fi cult classic “Firefly” – is an old fashioned “space western.” The film depicts the roguish Captain Mal Reynolds and his band of petty criminals who find a noble cause to pursue when they decide to protect River Tam – a young woman with a secret that could bring down the totalitarian Alliance government. Like the United States government which employs fluoride in the drinking water and psychiatric drugs to control the people, the Alliance has tested a chemical compound to suppress aggression in human beings. With disastrous results.
As with any Whedon production, Serenity mixes philosophical ideas with humor and engrossing action sequences. Whedon’s most recent big budget Avengers adaptation made more in its first few hours of release than Serenity made in its entire theatrical run. Pity. Serenity is one shiny masterpiece.
Take Fahrenheit 451, mix in 1984, and then sprinkle in some kick ass action sequences with fight scenes that make those in The Matrix seem trite, and you have Equilibrium. The film is far superior to most sci fi action films, yet somehow managed to make just over $5 million at the domestic box office. And yet that sci fi crapfest with Jar Jar Binks made over $1 trillion?
In the futuristic city-state of Libria, the government has decided that the devastating Third World War was caused by human emotion. In order to “protect” the people, the government mandates that all people must take the emotion suppressing drug Prozium – basically Prozac but not Prozac as the film’s producers would hardly have enough money to defend against a lawsuit from the corporatist leviathan Eli Lilly and Company. In addition to Prozium, the government of Libria censors and destroys any art or other materials that might potentially inspire emotions. Christian Bale plays John Preston, a government agent who is part of a martial arts trained group that enforces the laws against “sense offenders.” Unlike in his role as Batman, Bale does not need to wear a silly latex fetish costume with a cowl or speak in a bizarre voice. Preston is a widower with two young children. His wife had been executed as a “sense offender.” When Preston forgets to take his daily dose of Prozium, he begins to experience emotions. Preston aids the Resistance against the government and begins a path to redemption that is surprisingly moving for an action film that features “gun fu” and a katana fight scene.
4. Fight Club
Fight Club is another film whose greatness outshines its source material. And even Chuck Palahniuk – the author of the novel on which the film is based – agrees. A box office failure, Fight Club has steadily gained a large group of admirers and has worked its way into the all time top 10 of user rated movies on the Internet Movie Database. The script by Jim Uhls, the acting by Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter and every single supporting player, David Fincher’s direction, and the score by the Dust Brothers are all – a in a word – perfect. The combined efforts of these great artists produce a different kind of dystopia – a dystopia that IS our present world rather than some fanciful futuristic society.
Fight Club is subversive, violent, fascistic, anarchistic, Freudian, and postmodern, but at its heart it is a simple love story. However, its soul is libertarian. The Narrator overcomes his conditioned corporatist consumerism, tames his violent fascistic and collectivist inner impulses, becomes a self-actualized and enlightened individualist, brings down the banking system, and gets the girl. Words cannot do the film justice. So, all that can be said is that if you have not seen Fight Club, see it NOW. IF you have seen it, watch it again. And again. And again.
Michael Radford’s adaptation of Orwell’s classic dystopian novel creates a viscerally bleak depiction of a totalitarian England that is at once nostalgic and futuristic yet still contemporary. The film – as well as the novel – is a primer on totalitarian collectivist techniques which governments use to control their people. It sets the mood of despair and paranoia that police states create for their oppressed citizens.
John Hurt – who would later play the villainous Chancellor Sutler in V for Vendetta – skillfully portrays the bland minor government bureaucrat Winston Smith. The wonderful Richard Burton gives his last great performance as O’Brien – and makes up for the campy alcohol infused performance that he gave in the mindnumbingly strange but nonetheless compelling Exorcist2: The Heretic.
Radford presents hallmarks of Orwell’s novel – Newspeak, telescreens, continuous warfare, and the “Two Minutes Hate” – in an evocative manner and creates just the right tone. The film slowly immerses the viewer into the bleak world of ever-present totalitarianism. Burton’s revelation of the motives of the Party is chilling, and the final scenes are as haunting as the original prose of Orwell.
Andrew Niccol’s 1997 sci fi masterpiece starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman presents a more gentle form of totalitarianism. Gattaca is a world where eugenics and genetic engineering have produced two distinct classes of human beings – “valids” who are engineered to be intellectually and physically superior and “invalids” who are naturally conceived human beings. Although genetic discrimination is forbidden by law, “invalids” are typically relegated to menial jobs.
Hawke plays Vincent Anton Freeman (obvious name symbolism much?), a bright an ambitious “invalid” who dreams about becoming an astronaut. Due to informal genetic discrimination, Vincent must use the DNA samples of Jerome Eugene Morrow, a paralyzed “valid.”
Part underdog story, part dystopian fantasy, and part murder mystery, Gattaca raises complex and disturbing philosophical issues concerning eugenics and Transhumanism. Is the world portrayed in this film the “brave new world” where we are headed? If so, will a new biological social divide be created and lead to even more unrest in society?
7. Minority Report
The 2002 Steven Spielberg directed Tom Cruise blockbuster vehicle Minority Report – based on a short story by the inimitable Philip K. Dick – presents a dystopian society that is perhaps a more frightening and realistic possibility for the future than even 1984. Truth is often stranger – and scarier – than fiction and many of the sci fi technologies presented in this film are seemingly only a short time away from being developed by DARPA and unleashed on the American public.
Tom Cruise stars as Commander John Anderton, police commander of Washington D.C.’s controversial new “PreCrime” Force. Using genetic mutant “precogs” who can predict murders before they occur, Anderton and his colleagues arrest potential murderers before they can commit their crimes. Those guilty of “PreCrime” are placed without due process into a perpetual state of suspended animation where they experience bliss. Due to the success of the program, D.C. – which is now among the “murder capitals of the nation” – has been murder free for six years. When the “precogs” predict that Anderton will murder a man that he has never met within 36 hours, he must go on the run in order to figure out who has framed him and why it was done.
Minority Report represents some of the best work of Spielberg’s illustrious career. Its stunning presentation of futurist technology and arresting action sequences provide just the right amount of action flick “sugar” to make the philosophical “medicine” of the film go down smoothly. The horrors of “benevolent” totalitarianism are put on display and the philosophical issue of free will versus determinism is explored along with the ethics of “punishing” those who have not committed a crime but inevitably will.
If the future does make such technologies possible, should they be used? Are some technologies so pernicious that they should not even be employed for good reasons where such technology will provide great utilitarian benefits for society as a whole?
8. A Scanner Darkly
Austin, Texas native Richard Linklater has made some of the quirkiest and most eclectic films in recent years – including Waking Life, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunset. In his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, Linklater creates a surreal and paranoid world where covert government agents surveil citizens in order to fight the “War on Drugs.” In other words, it is like our world, only even more paranoid. Linklater employs the creative technique of using rotoscope animation over digitally filmed live action scenes to produce a look that is so distinctive that one wonders why more directors do not use it. Keanu “Whoa” Reeves stars as Bob Arctor, a government agent assigned to find the source of a new drug called Substance D. Robert Downey, Jr. and Woody Harrelson give wonderful comedic performances as Arctor’s two perpetually drugged friends. Winona Ryder also gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as Arctor’s potential love interest – a drug dealer who may be able to lead him to the source of Substance D.
The themes of a drugged out populace, omnipresent government surveillance, and ruthlessly pragmatic police procedures are effectively presented by Linklater. The rotoscope is a pleasure to behold and gives the film a surreal yet also somehow ultra-realistic feel. As an added bonus, talk show host Alex Jones gives an amusing cameo appearance as himself. Of course, Jones employs his bullhorn.
What if someone read Orwell’s 1984 while tripping on acid and decided to make a high budget Kubrickesque absurdist comedy loosely based upon it? Monty Python alumnus and gonzo director Terry Gilliam did just that when he made Brazil in 1985. While Orwell presented the bleak horrors of totalitarian bureaucracy, Gilliam presents the absurd humor of it.
Jonathan Pryce plays Sam Lowry, a low-level milquetoast government official whose clerical error leads to the arrest, torture, and killing of an innocent man with a name similar to that of a wanted terrorist. When a female friend of the deceased man appears on a government list as a person of interest and friend of a terrorist, Lowry attempts to make amends and fix the situation in order to save her life. Wackiness ensues.
Gilliam’s distinct direction is on display as always. Creative set designs and breathtaking cinematography give Brazil a unique and sometimes surreal look. Strong comedic performances by Robert Deniro, Bob Hoskins, and “Soap” and “Who’s the Boss” alumnus Katherine Helmond make Brazil more amusing than any dystopian film about a totalitarian regime has the right to be. If you think that 1984 was compelling but just needed a bit of black comedy, then Brazil is the film for you.
10. The Trial
Orson Welles adapted Franz Kafka’s chilling novel The Trial in 1962. Any film directed by Welles – the director of Citizen Kane – is worth viewing, but The Trial is particularly frightening. Anthony Perkins – of Psycho fame – portrays Josef K, a man who awakes to find that he is being placed under arrest. He is not informed of the charges, and he is also not taken into custody. Josef K. struggles in vain to learn the nature of the crime of which he is accused and only succeeds in learning that he has been condemned to death.
Welles succeeds in presenting a stark black and white surreal canvas on which to paint Kafka’s bleak existentialist themes of totalitarianism, capricious justice, and the learned helplessness of human beings under despotic regimes. Welles creates a waking nightmare from which we – like Josef K. – cannot escape, employing many inventive directorial techniques as he did in Citizen Kane. Perkins shows great range in the lead role and quickly dispels any comparisons to Norman Bates. He is an “everyman” yet there is something not quite right about him. In a sense one can project any real or imagined crime onto him, yet at the same time there is no doubt that he is guilty of no crime. Through him the audience feels both frustration at the totalitarian justice system of this imaginary world yet also an uneasy feeling of resignation.
The Trial is in the public domain, and may be viewed in its entirety at the link below.