No better escape than a trip to the end of the world

If you truly want to know what scares us today, you only have to look to Hollywood's visions of tomorrow, says Francesca Steele

Cinemagoers, it seems, are obsessed with the impending downfall of mankind. Since Fritz Lang's Metropolis imagined a cheerless post-industrialisation future in 1927, Hollywood has churned out films detailing our demise by the bucket-load, from Brave New World and Blade Runner to War of the Worlds and Wall-E.

But while cinematic dystopias have been a Hollywood staple throughout the last century, the record-breaking success of post-apocalyptic teen bloodbath The Hunger Games has given them greater currency than ever before, replacing Twilight's supernatural mooning as the money-spinner du jour.

Acquisition departments have been snapping up adaptation rights to books featuring ominous future worlds, including Ender's Game, about children trained for war ahead of an alien invasion (Harrison Ford is already attached), Matched, where algorithms determine whom you must marry, and, most recently, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four – acquired by Ron The Da Vinci Code Howard's production company, Imagine.

The futuristic list goes on: this summer, a remake of the 1990 Arnie blockbuster Total Recall, about a man who has memories implanted, will also hit the big screen, followed by Dredd, where police rule futuristic Mega-cities, and Looper, in which hitmen track down targets from the future.

It's easy to understand the success of the teen love triangle element in The Hunger Games, but the enduring popularity of dystopias is less easily explained. Why are we so drawn to such bleak images of the future?

Michael Radford, who directed a previous film of 1984 starring John Hurt – released, appropriately, in 1984 – suggests that we love apocalyptic futures because they mirror the world we live in. "Dystopian films are about what we are afraid of right now. That's why we like them. Actually, whatever the era, we all have the same fear: the fear of losing our own identity. It's just manifested in different ways: industrialisation in Metropolis, the computer in The Terminator, politics or lack of privacy in 1984. They're all versions of the same thing."

Orwell himself made no secret of the fact that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not really about the future but about his 1948 present and pressing concerns about poverty, hunger and totalitarianism.

The screenwriters for the new Total Recall have unmistakably updated Philip K. Dick's story (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) for a more modern audience. Instead of post-space race trips to Mars, we have a world made up of two superpowers, Euromerica and New Shanghai, vying for power. Similarly in the world of online dating, Matched, where The Society picks your future mate via a computer, feels very much like a commentary on today's romantic uncertainties.

The dystopian films of the last few decades have become increasingly preoccupied with invasive technology. Minority Report, set in 2054, imagined a world of individually tailored advertising, where eye scanners pick people out of a crowd in shopping malls. Iris recognition was in fact already a reality – and the subject of some concern – in 2002, tested in airport immigration and cash machines. Similarly, in Gattaca, a 1997 film set in the near future, where regular screenings determine social class on the basis of genetic superiority, at a time when genetic engineering was coming on in leaps and bounds.

Even Metropolis, in which wealthy intellectuals in dazzling towers rule machine-wielding workers living in abject poverty below, was about "today" rather than "tomorrow". The film addressed the disconnect between the Weimar Republic and its people that later provided the perfect breeding ground for fascism, and the dangers of machinery, as Berlin became the most industrialised city on the continent. Would the new machines liberate the workers migrating to the cities in droves, Lang seemed to be asking, or would it condemn them to lives of drudgery?

Hollywood technophobia reached its zenith in the 80s and 90s, as personal computers became ubiquitous. Following on from Ridley Scott's incarnation of Philip K. Dick's rebellious synthetic "replicants" in Blade Runner, 1984's The Terminator envisaged a killer cyborg whose sole purpose was to destroy all human life. Thirty-two years (and three more Terminator installments later), and we have also had I, Robot, A.I. Artificial Intelligence and, of course, The Matrix. Not mere computers, but robots, artificial beings, whose humanity we may address, but who are, ultimately, a threat.

It is the uneasiness about things we don't fully understand that makes its way onto our screens, says George Starr, professor of literature and film at Berkeley University. "Dystopias are a stick to beat the present with," he says, citing the first film of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds in 1953 as an example. The film was released soon after the global superpower standoff of the Cold War had turned hot for the first time with the savagery of the Korean War. When it was later selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, it was applauded specifically for how it reflected "the apocalyptic paranoia of the atomic age."

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