We hunger for dystopian sci-fi


The Hunger Games is hot.

And with it, so is a future of global misery and oppression.

Since 2009, there have been more than two dozen films with dystopian themes — stories of far and not-too-distant future societies in which the mass downtrodden live out their bleak, meager existence until a hero/savior appears to change their fortunes.

Typically, these stories include a government/police state run amok with power and corruption; dehumanized citizenry mired in poverty, disease, and general hopelessness; and the mega-wealthy upper-class minority indifferent to anyone’s plight but their own.

This isn’t the Tomorrowland of Disney World.

And somehow these tales of tragic hereafters are raking in big bucks at the box office.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second film in the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novels about a teenager’s struggle for survival and freedom in an oppressive future world, has generated more than $500 million worldwide since its mid-November release. Earlier this year, the dystopian-themed Elysium and Oblivion each made more than $285 million globally, while The Purge grossed nearly 30 times its $3 million budget.

Sex sells at the movies, and — for now, at least — so does doom and gloom.

Some of science fiction’s most acclaimed movies featured dystopian settings: 1927’s Metropolis, 1966’s Fahrenheit 451, 1971’s A Clockwork Orange and THX 1138, 1982’s Blade Runner, 1985’s Brazil, and more recently, 1999’s The Matrix, 2002’s Minority Report, and 2006’s Children of Men and V for Vendetta.

So what is it that’s increasingly drawing audiences to these stories of despair and oppression?

The answer, according to Matt Donahue, a popular culture instructor at Bowling Green State University, isn’t particularly encouraging.

Essentially, we as movie-goers are attracted to dystopian films because we relate to them and take comfort in the fact that the fictional future we see on screen is worse than our present reality.

“It’s a way for the public to perhaps escape their everyday world and make them feel good after seeing how screwed up things are in the future,” Donahue said. “They walk out of the movie theater and say, the world isn’t as screwed up as it is in The Hunger Games.

“I often view popular culture as a reflection of the society we live in. We have a lot of dystopian popular culture themes going on in films, television, literature, and comic books. Some of that, subconsciously or subliminally, is telling you what’s going on in the present.”

He said dystopia as a trend, particularly in American film, blossomed post-Sept. 11, 2001, with the rise in globalization and public awareness of the increased government monitoring of our daily lives through cell phone and email conversations, and even Internet searches. And let’s not forget the Orwellian proliferation of surveillance cameras throughout our cities.

“There is this sort of dystopian element to society right now, like the NSA monitoring telephone calls and the Internet,” Donahue said. “There are numerous examples in mainstream news and alternative news that are beginning to shine a light on some of this stuff.”

If nothing else, he said, dystopia as a genre creates an “awareness for people” as to what is and what is not going on in our world.

“A conspiracy theorist would say [these movies] are preparing a society for what’s happening in the present and what can potentially happen in the future,” Donahue said. “I think the hard-core reality is that a lot of these things are not going away anytime soon.” 

Contact Kirk Baird at or 419-724-6734.