The Cynicism of Dystopia

May 3, 2010

Last night I watched the film Equilibrium with several friends here in the building. It was my first time watching, and I’ve been grappling with the implications of the movie’s dystopian world. Usually I like to give movies and filmmakers the benefit of the doubt when I’m working through the philosophy behind the pretty moving pictures. (Unless that filmmaker is named Michael Bay. In that case, I assume that any profundity present is there on accident and should be ignored. Hell is Michael Bay explaining Michael Bay movies while you watch Clockwork Orange style.) I’m not really sure how much leeway I should extend to the writer/director of Equilibrium, though. The ideas are half-baked– which is why I’ve spent so much time grappling with them– and mostly abandoned at the end for the obligatory sweet! action! scenes!*

Briefly: Equilibrium is set in a 1984 style future. Humanity is controlled by the Tetragrammaton council, headed by a figure called “Father,” in the wake of a devastating Third World War. (Yeah, that’s a Biblical reference. Maybe they’re trying to critique religion? Can’t really tell.) After the conclusion of the war, world leaders decided that human emotions were the cause of all the crazy in the world and decided to eliminate said emotions. To facilitate this, they enforced the regular injection of a chemical called Prozium which deadens the emotions. Anyone caught not taking Prozium is a sense offender and is incinerated. Christian Bale plays an enforcer of the law who misses a dose of Prozium, begins to experience emotion, and attempts to take down the system.

The world portrayed is a very orderly one, in classic dystopian form. It’s pretty much a carbon copy of 1984/Brave New World. (Itself the ultimate critique of Le Corbusier’s more totalizing visions.) Because of the effects of Prozium and the constantly broadcast propaganda, the people living in the city the film takes place in are complete automatons. I’m sympathetic to the idea that diversity and color in human society are good things– in fact, that’s pretty much exactly what I think (monotony bad, diversity good)– which prevents me from rejecting this outright, but I wonder if it doesn’t get human psychology wrong. (Disclaimer: I don’t have a psychology degree. I’ve already talked with Ali some about this, and I suspect that Nate and Emily will have something to contribute.) One of the crucial dimensions of human existence that emotion allows is empathy. Without the ability to experience emotion, we would lose the ability to empathize. We’d all be sociopaths. Ali didn’t think this would be a problem, since we wouldn’t experience anger, either. We’d just be numb, making it easier to control us.

I’m not so sure. It seems more likely to me that society would just descend into anarchy since no one would care at all about anyone else. Or, we’d get an Ayn Rand style world. Neither of which I want to live in. Another possibility that occurred to me was the idea that emotions are key to human decision making. I ran across this idea in a Radiolab. (The exact episode escapes me right now.) The basic idea is that emotions let us actually make decisions because to attempt to make “rational” decisions would immediately render us completely indecisive. Maybe this side-effect of emotion deadening would be mitigated by the constant propaganda telling people what to think/do in the world that Equilibrium posits. I don’t know.

Finally, the view that the movie presents of emotional human nature in opposition to the emotionless totality of Libria is incredibly cynical. The whole reason that the Tetragrammaton council killed emotions is because they made humans violent. (A contention belied by the fact that the council is ruthlessly violent in the enforcement of its laws.) The best thing the “resistance” can come up with to oppose the council is… wait for it… armed insurrection. As the movie ends, the resistance rises up and slaughters the enforcers of emotionlessness. The vision here seems to be, “Sure emotions make us violent, but it is better that we can choose to be violent than to have choice removed from us.” I suppose that’s a valid philosophical conclusion to reach.

I think that human choice is just about the most precious thing in the world, so, again, I have a bit of sympathy with this view. I’m disappointed that the filmmakers couldn’t come up with an idea better than this, though. But then, if they had come up with a more nuanced view we wouldn’t have had the sweet! action! scenes! There’s also a degree of honesty here: Rather than tearing down their dystopia and replacing it with a utopia, the filmmakers decided to show an imperfect future that was better than one in which people had no choice. (If they thought about it that hard.) Still, I can’t help but think that this hole in the morality of the film is due to the need for more fighting and explosions, rather than a vision of the worth of emotion. In the end, it just leaves the film seeming really down on humanity.

With emotion: lots of killing. Without emotion: totalitarian government. Enjoy!

*The action scenes are ok. Gun Kata’s pretty cool, but not nearly cool enough to carry a movie.

2 Responses to “The Cynicism of Dystopia”

  1. Gotcha, I see what you’re saying now. The sad thing is we see this being played out in film after film. Unjust leaders are overthrown through violence. Can you imagine a Matrix, Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars with non-violent resistance?

  2. Jon said

    I guess that’s the thing though, the oppressing nation/force/country has to have some empathy or morality that non-violent resistance can awake within them. Whereas England eventually succumbed to the non-violent resistance of Gandhi and others I think it was because, buried under their hard-on for colonization they still had some semblance of right and wrong and being able to see themselves as oppressors is one of the things that made them stop being such huge dicks. In the movies that have been named (Matrix, LotR, Star Wars) the oppressing nation KNOWS that they are oppressing and murdering and they are completely fine with that. Also, they are completely self-sufficient. Where England needed support from other countries and had to back down once other countries that also had moral compasses put pressure on them, the Empire, Sauron and the robots are all without that outside pressure.

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