Insurgent, the second film in the Divergent series based on the novels by Veronica Roth is killing it at the box office. It’s the latest in a series of recent films based on the idea of a dystopian future. Though it’s the go-to genre for young adult films and novels, the idea of a dystopian future has fascinated writers, filmmakers, and audiences for decades. We spoke to John Quackenbush, who has a PhD in theoretical physics, about the genre, for which he has a special love.
Quackenbush received a Special Emphasis Research Career Award from the National Center for Human Genome Research to work on the Human Genome Project, spending two years at the Salk Institute and two years at Stanford University working in genomics and computational biology. He’s worked at The Institute for Genomic Research, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Harvard School of Public Health, and currently works on the reconstruction of gene networks that drive the development of diseases. He also founded and directs the Center for Cancer Computational Biology at Dana-Farber, which provides broad support for genomic data analysis. With his colleague Mick Correll, he co-founded GenoSpace, a company that has developed advanced enterprise software tools to support genomic research and precision medicine. In 2013 he was honored as a White House Open Science Champion of Change for his work in making large-scale data available, usable, and useful. Check out his top five dystopian films below.
Why are dystopian futures so interesting? Because if we had a bright and sunny future, movies would be no fun. A good narrative in any form builds on conflict and if we’re going to project into the future, then we probably don’t want to write a story about simple human drama. We want that future to be part of the drama, and that typically means there has to be some element of the future that would present a challenge that we wouldn’t necessarily see today. Those challenges might be metaphors for the problems of today, or today’s challenges taken to an extreme, and they have to challenge some fundamental aspect of our human nature, but it’s the future that gives us license to invent new scenarios—even if it is a primitive future after the collapse of society.
So my five favorite dystopian films? Well, if you look at the list, I think you’ll see a common thread as nearly every one leads us to ask questions about what makes us human.
1. Blade Runner
We have an advanced human society, but one built on slave labor with replicants, synthetic humans engineered to carry out labor in extreme environments in space and then die after four years. A group of replicants, led by Roy Batty, return to Earth to seek an extension on their lives and are hunted down by Blade Runner Rick Deckard who is sent to “retire” them. In the end, after watching Deckard retire his companions, Batty can kill Deckard but instead saves him, then speaks about the wonders he has experienced and dies. It is an amazingly moving moment in film and one I can still watch over and over.
In a future where one’s genetic background determines what he or she can do, children are genetically engineered to afford them with opportunities throughout their lives. Vincent Freeman is conceived naturally “in-valid,” whose genetics condemn him to menial jobs. However, Freeman has aspirations to be something more and, with a little help from a genetically gifted but flawed and, now, paralyzed “valid,” Freeman is able to beat the system and escape Earth as the navigator on a mission to Titan. In the end, it is an uplifting story that reminds us that we, not our genes, define our limits.
3. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
In a post-apocalyptic world, the rules we think of as normal just don’t hold any more. While some people might want to carve out a bubble of what we would think of today as normalcy, there are more than enough people who are willing to revert to “might makes right” and take advantage of the weak. But ultimately, one man willing to make a stand can make a difference. This is the theme in so many dystopian visions of the future—from Rollerball to The Walking Dead. The Road Warrior just did it with amazing style—I wanted to be Mad Max.
4. A Clockwork Orange
This is another film where a single individual makes a difference. Only here it is the anti-hero. Alex is a sociopathic thug who leads his gang of “droogs” to commit heinous acts of “ultra-violence,” including rape, robbery, and general mayhem, all the while indulging in his love of Beethoven (and especially “the glorious ninth”). But once he is caught and sent to prison, the real villains appear in the guise of the government and prison officials who use an inhumane experimental psychological conditioning protocol to rehabilitate him. Despite reviling Alex, you cheer when hearing Beethoven lets him break free from the mental prison into which he’d been placed.
5. District 9
It was difficult to choose a fifth film when there are so many. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which is the grandfather of them all. Robocop, in which the humanity of a single man overcomes a scheme to dehumanize him and creates a fascist future for everyone. Children of Men, where again, a single man gives all in an attempt to rescue humanity. Alien, where Ripley, one of the greatest film heroines of all time, is the sole survivor of a corporate plot to bring a near-indestructible alien creature back to Earth. There are so many.
But District 9 has a special place in my heart. It is an amazing critique of apartheid (and every other effort in history to place one group in dehumanizing ghettos) set, in all places, the townships outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. An alien ship arrives over Johannesburg in 1982 and inside are discovered a group of sick and malnourished aliens with little to connect them to the advanced culture that created their technology. Imprisoned in segregated District 9 for nearly 30 years, the aliens are treated as sub-humans and, when violence erupts between them and those surrounding them, they are to be forcibly moved to a new internment area. Wikus van de Merwe is appointed to lead the relocation, but he is accidentally exposed to a compound that causes him to begin to change into an alien himself. It is only then that he discovers the depths of the evil to which the government has subjected the aliens. Escaping, he is aided by the aliens, and eventually helps an alien and his son to escape to the mother ship and leave Earth. What will happen when they return isn’t clear, but one hopes that there is an alien Nelson Mandela who can convince the aliens to treat us better than we have treated them.