One of the more light hearted sequences in Adam Curtis’ complex and mesmerising film “Hypernormalisation”, illustrates his suggestion that filmmakers helped enable the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by creating a “pessimistic mood”. Around an hour and forty minutes into the film he essays this idea using a fantastic montage of disaster movie clips set to Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”. As crowds stare in horror, a variety terrors pour from the skies delivering impressive destruction to eye catching landmarks. Amidst the chaos Curtis silently brings up a caption remarking that all the films were released before 2001. It’s fun but of course the correct response is, “so what?”
This is the worst example of the odd spurts of over eager soft logic that needlessly puncture his spell of peerless certainty. Why do we make films about forces coming to destroy our civilisation? Because stories need drama. Why is civilisation represented by famous buildings? Because iconoclasm is impressive. Yes, this does mean aliens and film producers share the same reason for choosing their targets as the terrorists do, but implying any other link is spurious. Despite having seen “Independence Day” everyone alive at the time was still very shocked when the twin towers came down. Far from being pessimistic most of the films used end with the world saved and America free. In a clearly overlong film you start feeling Curtis is deliberately pointing up the flaws in his style to make a metatextual point about the nature of information and authority.
Nevertheless it’s harder to shake the feeling that a more truly pessimistic cinematic genre has some case to answer for creating self-fulfilling prophecies of doom. The image at the start comes from the opening of Paul Michael Glaser’s 1987 sci-fi classic “The Running Man”. It’s been doing the rounds recently, understandably since the dystopia it depicts is scheduled for next year. However, the image spiked a couple of weeks back in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory, a result that clearly left many feeling “The Running Man” was suddenly becoming weirdly prescient, and not just for its vision of a society dangerously obsessed with reality TV.
The ’80s saw a slew of sci-fi movies which were hopelessly bleak and also effortlessly cool. The dystopias they imagined were reflections of contemporary fears but mainly just great settings for dramatic conflict. In a police state it’s easy to raise the stakes with each unjust swing of a truncheon and simple to heighten the drama by dragging a minor character off to the mind probe. But a dystopia isn’t only paradise for lazy writers, as “Blade Runner” showed, it’s a designers dream. The only thing that’d make me want Snake Plissken life clock more is if they got the “I’d buy that for a dollar!” guy from Robocop to sell it.
Visually, stylistically, these future visions have inevitably influenced our contemporary world. Have we grown too used to the bleak feel of their ideas as well? Have sci-fi movies normalised our gradual creep towards a socially and economically divided, authoritarian surveillance state run by corrupt and self regarding bullies? Or have the demands of drama simply dulled our ability to think positively about the future? When we hit 2015 there was mock-fury about our failure to create a hover board, but the following year when nearly half the population of America failed to vote, no one complained that we were supposed to be living in an ideal democracy where the informed desires of each citizen were algorithmically meshed to produce a government that perfectly represented the balanced needs of the nation – because no one has ever made that story interesting.