I have recently conceived an interest in the Utopian movement, both as unrealizable idea nevertheless still worth striving towards, and at the same time as a potential blueprint for working toward a society less prone to economic meltdown, coercion by corrupt elites, and the twin scourges of global poverty and warfare.
As an entree to discussion of this topic, I elected to opt -- as I so often do -- for the 'Bread and Circuses' approach . So, herewith, and submitted for your consideration, I offer my picks for the Top Five Utopian Movies of All Time.
I should mention that the scope of this article intentionally rules out the classic dystopian movies (although I may return to that them later). At the moment, I am interested in the strictly Utopian...although I understand that -- just as Eden by necessity required a serpent -- all Utopias are required to carry the seeds of their own destruction, and always meeet a dystopic end.
Call it a convention of the genre.
Metropolis can be considered only partially a Utopia, because from the very opening scene it is apparent that the incredible and futuristic lifestyle enjoyed by the elites is only made possibly by the toil of a virtual slave-underclass of workers who keep the gleaming machinery of the Metropolis running. The film was co-written by film-maker Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea von Harbou, and "stars Alfred Abel as the leader of the city, Gustav Frohlich as his son, who tries to mediate between the elite caste and the workers, Brigitte Helm as both the pure-at-heart worker Maria and the debased robot version of her, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the mad scientist who created the robot".
The class-struggle theme of the movie still resonates strongly today. In fact, to Americans experiencing the current financial meltdown, it may seem very telling, bringing into sharp relief the vast gulf between the societal elite and the debt-slaves required to service that elite -- a gap with which of the world is all-too-familiar with, and one many Americans are just noticing now. Nevertheless, it is very much a product of its time, produced in the decade following the Russian Revolution, and at a time when social justice concerns were being debated throughout Europe. While the sets and architecture connotate the future through the media of German Expressionism, Modernism and Art Deco, much of the technological philosophy of the film appears derived from the thinking of the Italian Futurism movement led by the artist Fillippo Tomasso Marinetti:
Futurism was the first attempt in the 20th century to reinvent life as it was being transfixed by new technologies and conceive of a new race in the form of machine-extended man.
4. Logan's Run (1976)
Sometime in the 23rd Century... the survivors of war, overpopulation and pollution are living in a great domed city, sealed away from the forgotten world outside. Here, in an ecologically balanced world, mankind only lives for pleasure. freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide everything.
There's just one catch.
Life must end at thirty, unless reborn in the fiery ritual of carrousel.
Logan's Run seems to be a rather cliched, and slightly silly 'feathered" image of the future. A chase movie set in a domed sci-fi fantasy city. But since science fiction so often offers us an alternative lens at which to view ourselves and our own societies, is it possible that Logan's Run offers a lesson for us today?
At least one commentator thinks so. In only one of a series of essays commenting on Logan's Run, media commentator Ken Sanes' Transparency Now discusses "the meaning of Logan's Run: society's power brokers as infantilizing pseudo-parents":
The computer is depicted as a parent and the internalized image of a parent in a mind, and as a con artist, authority figure, political leader, media manipulator and a source of culture. It is also a form of technology. It does what all of us do: it constructs a world in which its child-subject-customer-audience-victims can live and die. It surrounds them with a physical setting that creates an alluring world and blocks out everything else; it plants stories in their minds that define what is real; implants value judgments that make questions and challenges seem like deviations and signs of abnormality, and uses all this to control them. It uses its power to construct their reality and it constructs their reality in ways that uphold its own power, all the while telling its subjects they are never to question. As in the family, what is allowed to be said and thought is surrounded by a circle of anxiety, with sandmen to annihilate those who turn questions into actions.
So what is seemingly the simple story of a man and a woman rebelling against their society's norms and being hounded for it until they break out to discover a new truth (Peter Ustinov?) is at its heart much more. In Sanes' interpretation, it is a visible representation of the literal helplessness in which today's average society member is held, trapped like a fly in amber by an aggregation of ease, instant gratification and distraction, and all accepted in exchange for assuming a complete and infantile dependency on the power elites.
At first glance, this treatment of Robert Rimmer's 1966 novel, would appear to be an odd choice for inclusion in this list, but then again, it's my list, so I've kept it in, for reasons that I hope will become clear. Like the novel, the movie revolves around a unique experiment in co-education, social engineering and human sexuality being conducted at Harrod College at the height of the Free Love movement.
This social experiment encourages premarital living arrangements and is totally committed - not mere lip-service or public-relations hype - to getting young men and women to think and act for themselves.
"We'll be asking the hard questions...it's an adventure into the unknown", says Prof. Tenhausen. "Adultery, fidelity, exclusivity...are these words operative our our society? Can a free society remain truly free without a constant renewal of its values?"
The cast is anchored by an impossibly young Don Johnson, supported by an equally youthful Bruno Kirby. Even the ubiquitous Fred Willard makes a brief and unheralded cameo as a member of the improv troupe The Ace Trucking Company. When it was released in 1972, The Harrad Experiment was viewed as a pre-jiggly piece of softcore fluff; an excuse for 'undressed co-ed in the bathroom' moments. A turkey. And there's no denying that to 21st century eyes there are plenty of awkward moments. But looking back from where we stand today, it also seems brave, charming, naive....and containing more than a little truth. In its very naivete, it's an avatar of the Utopian nature of the Free Love movement, and by extension, the whole 60s youth movement. Of course, just like the flower power generation -- and to return to our garden of Eden analogy -- the conceit at the centre of the movie is doomed by a serpent, in this case the spectre of AIDs. For today's viewer possessed of the knowledge of what is to come, it renders the Utopian premise of the movie even more tragic. The Harrod Experiment is indeed a worthwhile film, rendered so by the passage of time.
It's just too bad about the soundtrack....
2. Things to Come (1936)
Directed by the great Alexander Korda and starring Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson, this film of the H.G. Wells classic tells the story of 100 years of evolution of British society, from decades of war, through a Dark Age and dictatorship and finally emerging to a full-blown global Utopia headquartered in Basra, Iraq and initiated by the Airmen of 'Wings Over the World'. As the Utopian society is poised to initiate space flight, a movement of people fearing the rise of technology revolt, but are soundly defeated, symbolically, by the blast of the rocket.
In its final third, Things to Come is a textbook example of Technological Utopianism, or the belief in:
technology -- conceived as more than tools and machines alone -- as the means of achieving a 'perfect' society in the near future. Such a society, moreover, would not only be the culmination of the introduction of new tools and machines; it would also be modeled on those tools and machines in its institutions, values and culture...
Technological Utopianism is the American expression of the Futurist ideas of Marinetti that we discussed earlier; and, indeed from the 1950s through the Apollo Era and to near the close of the Twentieth Century, often seemed to be the guiding philosophy behind U.S. ideals of unlimited growth. Today, however, we may be seeing the limits of that philosophy. Like the war-weary residents of Everytown in Things to Come, there even appears to be some danger that increasingly large numbers of the population might be willing to trade their social freedoms to a 'Chief' as depicted by Ralph Richardson in order to achieve security.
But are their Airmen out there to rescue us?
1.Lost Horizon (1937)
The great American director Frank Capra helmed this classic about a group of people fleeing the outbreak of war in an aircraft, which is then forced into the Himalayas, where they discover the Utopian llamasery of Shangri-la. Given that the term "Shangri-la" has since become synonymous with paradise, it will come as no surprise to those who've not yet seen this film that the llamasery is a veritable heaven on earth. Harmonious, isolated from the turmoil of the outside world, Shangri la is yet another example of an earthly Garden of Eden, whose inhabitants are blessed with a longevity so prolonged it is virtually indistinguishable from immortality. But -- you guessed it -- there is a catch. Once you've come to Shangri-la, you can never leave, as the travellers find when they attempt to escape with one of the residents -- the beauteous Maria. After several days of travel she becomes exhausted and dies, revealing her true age.
Adpated from the James Hilton1933 novel of the same name, the movie is wonderfully acted, passionately directed and beautifully designed. It lays out dramatically the price of aspiring to step outside of the human condition, and proves -- once again -- that Utopia is ultimately not to be realized-- at least not without a price. Nevertheless, in its Capra-esque way, it leaves us with the impression that Utopia can be attained, when, in a departure from the novel, the main character closes the film by returning to Sondra, his Shangri-la love-match.
The stories of many attempts to find all the bits and pieces edited from the movie over the years have become part of Hollywood legend, and perhaps none of the 'redacting' incidents is more germane to our discussion than the excision that took place in the years following World War II, when at the behest of the American government 27 minutes were deleted to:
downplay the supposedly Communist themes associated with utopia, as well as to limit the sympathy shown towards the Chinese
There you have it, Newsvine. My picks for the top five Utopian movies of all time. Can you think of any you'd care to add? And perhaps more importantly, is Utopia a goal worth pursuing?