­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Dystopian movies chart the rise of Apocalypse capitalism – part 1

In this long read Phil Hearse examines the world of the dystopian and the rise of Apocalypse capitalism.


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The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed

William gibson

Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.

Philip K Dick

William Gibson is the doyen of modern dystopian fiction. His first novel, Neuromancer (1980), widely regarded as the start of the “cyberpunk” sub-genre, predicted the Internet and coined the term “cyberspace.” Several of his stories have been turned into movies, including Johnny Mnemonic and New Rose Hotel. Talking about his 2015 book The Peripheral, now a TV series on Amazon Prime, he said that maybe we should stop thinking about the apocalypse as a single event and consider it as multi-causal and perhaps taking a prolonged period of about 40 or 50 years. The interest, he says, is in what the rich and powerful are prepared to do to the rest of us to come out of it intact. 

This fits well with the idea of a long apocalypse, perhaps beginning with the 2007-8 crash and deepening the global crisis of the economy, states, the environment, all aspects of human life, including mass starvation and repeated pandemics, indeed all social relations—the Four Horsemen bundled together and lasting decades and cascading towards civilisational catastrophe.

The long period of Apocalypse capitalism might be dated from 9/11/2001, of course, and it is equally valid to see both the attack on New York and Washington and the world economic crisis as heralding the new age. What is not valid is to try to explain everything that’s happening solely with the political theories of the 1960s, let alone those of 1917.

The only thing mitigating an apocalyptic perspective is the ability of the poor and oppressed, of the international workers’ movement, of the environmental movement, and all those fighting for human rights and dignity to impose our priorities against those of the billionaires. Olivier Besancenot’s repeated presidential campaigns summed it up with a brilliant slogan that should be revived: “our lives are worth more than their profits.”

Gibson’s insights help explain the huge impact that science fiction has within our culture and the primary place that dystopian sci-fi holds. Sixty years of real-life human space exploration have ignited the science fictional imagination, and computer graphics have enabled a much more convincing portrayal. As we shall see, imaginary futures, or alternative universes, can be used to say something about the present-day apocalypse—about contemporary disaster capitalism. This talk led by the late Mike Davis just before he died is a brilliant explanation of “Apocalypse capitalism.” Davis is absolutely scathing about the “COP” conferences and their ability to bring about any amelioration of climate change.

First and foremost, a health warning. What is being said here is not that most modern science fiction movies are ideologically progressive across the board. On the other hand, some of the subgenres, like “Superheros,” are almost by definition reactionary. Many sci-fi movies involve huge dollops of sexism, and many of them have racist stereotypes, like most contemporary Hollywood movies of any genre. I am arguing that many contemporary movies reflect the world’s descent into Apocalypse capitalism, and the best of them like Elysium, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Children of Men hold up a potential future to critique aspects of the world we live in. Many have implicitly or explicitly progressive things to say about the climate crisis and social decay. There is a mixture of reactionary tropes and themes that are obviously compatible with an anti-capitalist viewpoint. The balance between these things exists even within franchises. So, for example, the second Avatar film, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” revolves around the redemptive role of the nuclear family in a way that the first Avatar movie does not.

Children of Men

Multiverse movies, in which people “travel” between here and usually dystopian alternative universes (including later versions of this one), have been popular among writers and producers because they allow them to imagine anything; no one knows what really happens in alien civilisations, if such things exist. Key texts in this genre include Inception, His Dark Materials, The Man in the High Castle, Planet of the Apes, Donnie Darko, the Philadelphia Experiment, and the recent “absurdist” movie Everything, Everywhere, All the Time. In fact, this latter film is more than “absurdist,” it is completely stupid. If this is what Chinese youth are watching, then the future is less bright than I thought. In this category, the TV series Dark Materials (iPlayer) and Man in the High Castle (Prime) also stand out as dystopian triumphs.

Apocalypse capitalism is the latest stage of neoliberalism. It presages a further collapse of the last remnants of the welfare state in advanced countries and the total collapse of mid-20th century developmentalism in the Global South.

Theoretically, Apocalypse capitalism is best explained in a series of books by WI Robinson, including Global Police State, Global Civil War and Can Global Capitalism Endure? Robinson has taken Marxist political economy to a new stage, integrating “militarised accumulation,” “digitalised capitalism” and the way that capitalism treats the huge number of refugees and migrants as a “surplus population,” dehumanised beings capable of being sucked into the workforce and then expelled again, according to the whims of the transnational capitalist class and the diktats of the market and increasingly brutalised state apparatuses.

Alfonso Cuarón’s movie Children of Men, based on the book of the same name written by legendary crime writer PD James, shows a world where no new children are being born. Britain is one of the few countries with a government that still functions—albeit a brutal fascist government—and there are many so-called “illegal” refugees who are either imprisoned or executed if they are found. The story is set in 2027, which leaves four more years to go. Despite the violence, to my mind, this is one of the most potentially realistic dystopian Britains—if the progressive forces lose all along the line.

Also set in a Britain under fascist dictatorship is James McTaigue’s “V for Vendetta” (Nathalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, John Hurt). Even if you haven’t seen the film, you will recognise the mask, sometimes worn by hackers and anticapitalist demonstrators. The movie is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. It really belongs to the superhero genre, which will be discussed in Part 2 of this article. Here we should note that although V fights against the dictatorship, there are reactionary features to this character, and his methods of struggle, like all superheroes, are literally fantastic.

A creepy fascist dictatorship is also on view in Fahrenheit 451 (1966, starring Julie Christie and Cyril Cusak). The fire department’s role is to start fires, primarily of books and the secret libraries they house. A key form of resistance is for people to learn a book by rote and then join the resistance in the woods, so that even if all copies are burned, the book persists. When Julie Christie joins the rebels, each resistor is introduced by the book’s name. A particularly scruffy individual says, “Hello, I’m The Prince by Machiavelli. As you can see, you can’t tell a book by looking at its cover.”

Over the last decade, science fiction and reality have been brought together in the notion of “singularity,” which in this usage[1] is about how humans will merge with artificial intelligence. In Ray Kurzweil’s use, “singularity” refers to the point where humans and artificial intelligence effectively merge. We will be able to genetically modify humans to integrate them with artificial intelligence and replace defunct organs with implants. Humans Mark 2 will live longer lives and have much greater problem-solving and memory capacities. That’s the Kurzweil theory, at any rate.

Blade Runner 2049 and William Gibson’s novel Idoru feature protagonists who become infatuated with characters who are in fact just virtual people, with computer-generated holograms and engaging voices, linked to massive computer data to replicate a female human.

The mother of all dystopian science fiction onscreen is Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner (Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Rutger Haur, Harrison Ford). In addition to dealing with the issue of artificial intelligence and androids, the movie foresaw a situation, already underway in some parts of advanced hi-tech capitalism, of massively developed technology alongside environmental catastrophe and infrastructure collapse.

Blade Runner

In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (Jodie Foster, Matt Damon, 2013), ecological catastrophe and social breakdown have led to the bourgeoisie extracting themselves from life on Earth and decamping to an artificial moon called Elysium (the Greek and Roman name for “heaven”). This is the ultimate gated community. From time to time, poor and desperate Earth dwellers try to break into Elysium to access its health care and living standards. Jodie Foster plays the defence minister who gives the order to shoot down the illegal immigrant space ships. The obvious metaphors and similarities between Elysium and real life show that the book is against capitalism. Which Blomkamp openly espouses, and is also on display in his movie District 9.

The original Avatar (2009) includes a polemic against the evil corporation and the American military that backs them (clearly shown in this video). Set in 2054, with the natural resources of the Earth in crisis, the Resources Development Administration (RDA) mines the valuable mineral called unobtanium on Pandora, a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned humanoids who live in total harmony with nature. When the Na’avi fight back and the RDA attack spacecraft crash to the ground, they take on the role of 21st-century indigenous rain forest defenders with Vietcong determination and mass support.

I saw Avatar in a cinema where some UK soldiers and their families were in the audience. They walked out, shouting at the screen. Postmodern critics might want to discuss the unsubtle and reductionist metaphors here, but the US and UK militarists certainly get it and dislike it.

The evil corporation is at the heart of numerous dystopian movies, for example the original 1978 Robocop, but also the first (and by far the best) Alien film, in which the corporation attempts to bring some of the most vicious aliens, the most perfect fighting machines, back to Earth, as well as the Tyrell corporation in Blade Runner, the Soylent corporation processing human flesh for food in Soylent Green, and numerous others. Soylent Green, based on Harry Harrison’s novel “Make Roon! Make Room!” comes dangerously close to predicting some of the main features of Apocalypse capitalism, including global warming and water and food shortages. Like many writers, Harrison posed the absolute number of humans as the problem, not what is being done to them by global elites.

There is sometimes a nit-picking response to Hollywood movies on the left. Hollywood films are big business and one of the cutting edges of American “soft” ideological power, often based on the lives of the rich or affluent middle classes and far removed from the lives of the majority of the US population. But does that mean that these movies are automatically disqualified from saying anything progressive? Obviously not. [1]

In The City and the City, a BBC series based on the novel by China Miéville, and produced with his collaboration, the city—somewhere in the Balkans—is divided into two, apparently on the basis of religion. But the two parts of the city—Ul Qoma and Besel—overlap in the city centre and share some streets and squares in the “hatched” area. Citizens must stay on their side of the city—their side of the street or plaza—and this division is enforced by a joint oversight committee called “Breach.” People are trained from an early age not to see the other side of the street—called “unseeing.” Some reviewers have questioned whether it is really possible to prevent people from seeing what is directly in front of them. Of course it is—ask Antonio Gramsci or Karl Marx, for that matter. It’s called ideology.

The division of the city is contested by small groups of “unificationists,” who sometimes cross the border to hold joint anti-division meetings. Miéville is a Marxist and former member of the SWP.

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show portrays someone trapped in a TV soap opera, which he (Jim Carrie) imagines to be real life. Millions watch his every move, and he gradually discovers what’s really happening. The show’s director, Cristophe (Ed Harris), aided by Truman’s “wife,” Meryl (Laura Linney), controls the whole setting. The island where Truman lives is a real-life gated community called Seaside, Florida—a model dystopia for the affluent senior citizens who can afford it. Its architecture and lack of vibrancy (or young people) closely parallel Poundbury in Dorset, on an estate owned by King Charles III. The Truman Show fits Guy Debord’s theory of the Spectacle to a “t.”

In its sci-fi form, Seaside is watched by hundreds of TV cameras. Truman has a final confrontation with Crisdophe, which centres on choosing the dangers of real life against a comfortable but totally controlled life. The corrupt drivel of “reality” shows is an obvious target for Weir’s film, as is the way that surveillance is an inherent part of the spectacle of digitalised capitalism

Another BBC series, Noughts and Crosses, based on the novel by Malorie Blackman, portrays a world in which Europe has been colonised by Africans, who rule on behalf of the empire based in Nigeria. At upmarket cocktail parties, most of the guests are black, and most of the waiters are white. Rebellious white youth clash with the police, often white themselves, but with senior officers who are black. The series, filmed in South Africa, is slightly anachronistic because it shows direct colonialism and not contemporary neocolonialism, but this is a minor point. Even for hardcore anti-racists, it is still a culture shock to see black people controlling everything and lording it over their white servants.

The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich 2004) pictures a sudden environmental collapse as the Arctic ice cap melts suddenly, causing a tsunami that hits the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Twenty years ago, many reviewers thought this was unrealistic and underestimated how the environment could suddenly go into total collapse. But as we go past numerous environmental tipping points that are making huge areas of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable and as glaciers worldwide melt at a rapid pace, this no longer seems so unrealistic.

The basic plot of The Day After has been reproduced endlessly in downmarket fillers, part of the huge amount of film product needed to sustain the ever-multiplying platforms—Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV, Disney, etc. The core of the Day After plot is that a dystopian event occurs, families flee for safety, families are separated, but they are reunited after much struggle, and the family triumphs. See the Greenland trailer to get a glimpse of this. The family as a redoubt against the ills of the world is everywhere now and challenging the individualistic hedonism of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

Films that are a slight variant of this are I am Legend and Finch, in which the protagonists wake up after apocalyptic events (a solar flare and a pandemic, respectively) to find themselves apparently the sole survivors. Both enjoy the company of man’s best friend, but Finch also has the company of a ridiculous robot, just what you need to stock your online movie platform (in this case, Apple TV).

Don’t Look Up, in which a huge asteroid is set to destroy the Earth, is a metaphor for climate change denial and attacks capitalist politicians and the media by ridiculing scientists and environmental activism. Different views that demonstrate the range of left-wing responses can be seen in the reviews by Ian Parker, on this site, and Ezra Brain, a theatre worker in New York. On the central idea in Brain’s piece—being “against subtlety”—I go with it 100%. You don’t have to make a movie version of Stalinist “socialist realism” to get across a blunt anti-capitalist message. Brain references the didactic work of Berthold Brecht, for example, Mother Courage, to illustrate how a creative work can have a wider significance enabled by unsubtle metaphors.

Don’t Look Up

Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in the 1930s, features the rise of a Chicago mobster and charts how he bullies his way to becoming the top gangster in the city. The most obvious reference to the present was Al Capone, but the deeper reference was Hitler’s rise to power. Another very unsubtle metaphor!

“What happens when we all die because something smashes into the earth?” films are at their most sophisticated in Lars van Trier’s 2012 film Melancholia (Kirstyen Dunce, Charlotte Rampling, Kiefer Sutherland). Here, dystopia is about mental anguish of the type that every terminal patient eventually goes through. As far as we know, nobody engages in looting or rioting as the end of the world approaches.

Many authors have argued that the first real science fiction story was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The technology it correctly predicted was electricity, although we have since discovered that the application of large amounts of electricity to the human body can have negative consequences. This posed the question, “What makes us human?” What is the core of “humanness”? The monster is rejected because of the way he looks, but he is articulate and teaches himself to read. Is he human?

Films and TV based on the issue of artificial intelligence and humanness include Ex Machina, Humans, the Terminator franchise, I, Robot, the Matrix, and many others.

An original take on this theme is the 2002 film Solaris. As his space vehicle orbits the eponymous planet, crew member George Clooney meets his former—and dead—wife, Natascha McElhone, on the station. She has been summoned from his mind by the planet itself. She doesn’t know who she is or who she is supposed to be. Is this real or just a figment of his imagination? And if it is the latter, does it matter if he falls in love with her again? Or is that just refusing to face up to the fact that nearly all love ends, one way or another, in grief? The story is based on a novel by pre-war Polish author Stanislaw Lem.

It’s no surprise that the religious answer to “what makes us human” is our soul, the ghost in the machine, of which the all-too-destructible human body is merely the earthly appearance. However, any materialist’s understanding of humanity is that it is matter that has evolved to the point of self-consciousness. In principle, if it were possible to replicate such complexity, there is no reason that the “replicants” thus created could not be self-conscious and thus properly autonomous, with their own emotions. Even if we find out that only organic matter can reach the level of complexity needed for self-aware intelligence, there is no reason that organic matter couldn’t be made in a lab, even to the point where it becomes self-aware. Already researchers have created artificial human cells which have shown the capacity to link up in Petri dishes and learn

Among the many movies and TV shows based on the accession to humanness of robots is I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004). Robots are divided into “good” and “bad” according to the instructions their makers have built in. In a key scene, the good robot named “Sony” is accused of having murdered his maker, Dr. Alfred Lanning. Sony insists that he could not have murdered Lanning “because I loved him.” When Detective Spooner (Will Smith) says that robots don’t have emotions, Sony bangs the table so hard that he dents it. Spooner replies, “That one’s called anger”—recognising de facto that some robots indeed have emotions (it turns out that Sony is a higher specification than run-of-the-mill NS5 robots that can be made evil).

One group of cyborgs that definitely have emotions are the Nexus-6 replicants in Blade Runner. Limited to a four-year life span, they come to Earth to get an extension. When this proves impossible, they run riot. The “prediction” made by Blade Runner, a 1982 movie set in 2020 and only partially fulfilled, was the combination of a highly complex and advanced scientific and production apparatus and a morbidly collapsing civil society, in which it rains all the time. Never mind the details; Blade Runner’s prediction of social, economic, and ecological collapse is coming true.

The interaction between science fiction and science fact is self-evident. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the dystopia was often nuclear war or its aftermath. In 1964, two movies based on books with a near identical plot were released: Fail Safe, starring Henry Fonda, and the grimly hilarious Dr. Strangelove, produced by Stanley Kubrick and starring Peter Sellars in multiple roles.

The BBC produced Peter Watkins’ The War Game in 1966, a pseudo-documentary about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain that showed horrific scenes of mass death and destruction and the role of the armed police in shooting irradiated casualties and the imposition of martial law, commanded from the Regional Seats of Government that had been secretly constructed underground. The film, however, was deemed too dangerous to broadcast and was finally shown at the National Film Theatre in 1996, 30 years after being produced.

Authoritarian dystopias come in different flavours. Orwell’s 1984 is the hard version, with all-pervasive surveillance and state brutality, but Huxley’s Brave New World is the soft version, where the masses are kept in order with endless supplies of a tranquilliser called Soma. State agents roam the streets looking for depressed people who can be given the drug. 

In the 1975 version of Rollerball, the apocalypse—long-forgotten wars and social collapse—has given rise to a world in which US cities are controlled by “executives” of the big monopolies. So Houston is the energy city, Chicago is the food city, and so on. A combination of material plenty and brutal sports, endlessly relayed on multivision, keeps the masses in check. What they lack is freedom. This version of the film, the one with the politics intact, unlike its ridiculous 2022 remake, was made at the end of the great post-war boom, when a lot of Marxist thought focused on alienation rather than class exploitation and imperialism as the critical problem facing the oppressed. 

When the Energy City Chief Executive Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman) tells Houston’s star Rollerball player Jonathan E (James Caan) that he should retire, Jonathan smells a rat. Bartholomew is blunt with him: “Rollerball is a stupid game,” he tells him, “in which no one is supposed to be endlessly successful.” “The only thing we ask,” he says, “all we have ever asked is that people not interfere with executive decisions.” Like the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and Eastern Europe, anything that is the product of immense personal effort outside the system is regarded with suspicion. All attempts to bring down Jonathan fail, and the power of individual brilliance and individualism as a doctrine is preserved.

One of the most watched sci-fi televisions series have ben those based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4). This, of course, contains overt metaphors about the war on women, particularly the war on reproductive rights in the United States. Many people, including me, found going beyond Series 1 difficult, as the sequels contain mounting crescendos of barbarities against women. But there is no question that the Margaret Atwood novel and TV series have played an enormously progressive role in engaging millions of viewers and listeners with a stridently feminist story. Since the TV series started in 2017, 3.5 million copies of the book have been sold.

The Handmaids Tale

The Road (John Hillcoat 2009) is set in a world where the Global North is covered in ash, which has killed most organic life, and in which refugees from the north try to make it to the tropics. We were told nothing about the causes of this catastrophe, which could be a nuclear winter caused by war or a Chernobyl-like nuclear accident, or it could just be an environmental collapse. 

There are dozens of such apocalyptic movies, many of them completely derivative and run-of-the-mill. Take the 2007 movie Flood (starring Tom Courteney, Robert Carlisle, and Jess Sarah Gils), whose producers have paid out for a strong cast but underinvested in believable special effects. A massive wall of water overcomes the Thames Barrier, and central London is flooded. That is very likely—the Thames Barrier will not prevent flooding in central London if global warming causes catastrophic sea-level rise. Then again, pandemic movies like Contagion, Outbreak, and 12 Monkeys actually underestimated the threat of pandemics to human civilisation, as demonstrated by the COVID crisis, a crisis that is far from over.

The movie Noah, in whose lifetime the original climate change threats to jumar civilisation occurred, has a quality worthy of its subject: dreadful. The only intriguing aspect of the Ark story is whether it was based on a recollection of a cataclysmic event at the dawn of human civilization, such as the massive flooding event that created the Mediterranean Sea, which was caused by rapid rising sea levels.

Then the ‘60s dystopia was often nuclear-war, or its aftermath. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 Clockwork Orange, based on a reactionary novel by Andrew Burgess, envisages a brutal and heartless Britain where Russian slang has invaded the language, probably a result of a war or at least growing Russian Communist domination of the West. The movie brings together many of the tropes of contemporary petit bourgeois paranoia – fear of the Reds, hostility towards the young (mixed with jealousy), contempt towards ‘pop’ culture etc.

The big breakthrough for science fiction came in the 1960s and early 1970s. Until then, science fiction was definitely a thing but very much a minority pursuit. Penguin Books, which dominated paperbacks then, had its own sci-fi section with brilliantly coloured covers. Western paperbacks and movies were on the way down and eventually almost completely replaced with science fiction, although this genre seems to be making a comeback—sometimes in the form of science fiction Westerns (the Westworld series and Out of Range). This later series revolves around the appearance of a large and apparently infinitely deep hole (probably 40 feet across) in a far-flung part of a huge ranch. We discover that people who fall down this hole reappear at different times in the near past or the near future. As far as we know, only two people have ever discovered this hole, and people who reappear at different times somehow avoid meeting their contemporary selves. And it appears that this programme will not be extended beyond one series, so we are left in the dark about what is going on or what this programme is all about.

It might be argued that I have cherry-picked dystopian movies to highlight those with potentially progressive content. It is true that a lot of them don’t have anything progressive about them but are a farrago of reactionary drivel. Take The Boys. Racism, sexism, and hypermasculinity are all present, along with massive violence. This kind of thing will be discussed in Part 2 of this article.

 Part 2 – Capitalist Superheros, the Wild Hunt, and Humans Murdering Aliens, coming soon.

Further reading

[1] Take Alfonso Cuarso’s movie, Roma. It's one of the first "art house" movies made by Netflix, which had only a very minimal release in cinemas in order to qualify for awards, which it duly got. Was Roma’s production a capitalist enterprise? Obviously. Was it socially progressive in its basic message? 100%. 

What about Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli? Same answer. The evil state or corporation ruining lives for profit is a recurrent theme of science fiction - evoking an implicit anti-capitalist message. What about The Queen’s Gambit (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of Netflix’s most successful projects, which features a woman chess champion who fights her 1950s repressive family and her brutal boarding school to achieve her ambitions and then refuses attempts by President Richard Nixon to use her as a piece of cold-war propaganda against the Soviet Union. Is this meant to be a literal account of a little-known campaigner, or is it the elaboration of an alternative past? Its left-leaning political message is clear.

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Phil Hearse is a member of the National Education Union and a supporter of the ACR


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