Blockbuster Existential Angst

Cultural anxiety behind mass of dystopian films and TV shows
September 10, 2014 Updated: September 10, 2014

Dystopian movies aren’t new. From Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis (1927) to The War of the Worlds (1953), and Blade Runner (1982), they’ve long been a staple of cinema.

What is new is the rise in popularity of these films and the veritable slew of them in recent years. Nightmarish futuristic visions of human misery are now regular blockbusters. 

The volume of dystopian films raises questions about why audiences are drawn to this kind of screen angst.

Over the course of the last 20 years, movies with dystopian themes have been appearing more frequently. While there were approximately 130 film releases in this category during the 1980s, the number already sits at 175 for the 2010s, and will likely reach at least 300 by decade’s end. 

These movies play on, and act out, conventional dystopian fears about a world made wretched by totalitarian regimes and cyber technologies; destroyed by man-made environmental disasters, rampant violence and disease; dominated by extreme social inequality; and even subjugated by robots, apes, or aliens. 

That said, recent releases cast a particularly disturbing shadow over our imagined future, both by their accelerated appearance and the fears they draw on: loss of identity, infertility, and extinction. 

Movies preoccupied with the loss of identity, such as the Divergent series (about the complete erasure of individualism), and Never Let Me Go (about the breeding of humans solely as organ donors for transplants) quite obviously ask, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ ‘What does it take to belong, and what is the price, or the punishment, for otherness?’ 

Such uncertainty about the definition of humanness is perhaps understandable in an age of prosthetics, DNA-altering treatments, and cloning, not to mention the exponential increase in the use of mind-altering drugs such as antidepressants—now taken by nine percent of Canadians, the third-highest rate in the developed world—and the proliferation of ‘new’ mental illnesses. In particular, the latest (fifth) edition of the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the primary classification and diagnostic tool of the American Psychiatric Association, has been criticized for ‘creating’ diseases that fit the available drugs.

What is more, identity markers that have long joined us to larger groups, such as the nation, are also being erased. Sweeping globalization—including the spread of English as the global lingua franca, the international media reach, and the border-crossing indiscriminate energy of social movements such as the LGBT that invite over-identification (by disregarding distinguishing factors aside from the movement’s focus)—have led to a mind-numbing sameness. The ‘new’ normative behaviour is characterized, especially for young people, by identical clothing, use of gadgets, and forms of speech. 

Current films both reflect and generate underlying anxieties. This year’s The Giver, for instance, released just weeks ago, takes place in a society dominated by sameness, in which colours, feelings, and so on, have been eliminated, because they were thought to cause disharmony. People’s memories are erased to ensure their loss of individuality, and children are bred by designated birthmothers—an arrangement that precludes fertility for all others—who deliver genetically alike offspring.

Infertility scenarios escalate the identity crisis: identity is extinguished when humans die out. One current TV series, The Lottery, is set in a future world devastated by an infertility pandemic. No children have been born in several years, and all hope for saving humanity from extinction rests on 100 lab-created human embryos. A lottery is held to select the birthmothers, and the ironically-named Department of Humanity conducts inhumane experiments on the few existing children, who have been taken from their parents. 

Similarly, the high-profile series Extant (whose title in the opening credits ominously changes from “Extinct”), with Halle Berry in the lead role of Molly, features a human-looking but unhuman robot child (who also “feels” himself to be different) created by Molly’s scientist-husband and designed to fill the void of the couple’s inability to conceive. Meanwhile, astronaut Molly, though supposedly infertile, was impregnated while on a space mission by a clearly fertile, and possibly malevolent, extraterrestrial being—perhaps boding extinction for humankind.

Aspects of this scenario are no longer futuristic, at least as far as the West is concerned. Western Europe’s fertility decline, for instance, has resulted in zero population growth during the 1990s and a decline since 2000. Furthermore, the fact that dystopian films like The Hunger Games and Divergent are written for and consumed by young people raises questions about the bleak future they foresee for themselves.

Societies should carefully consider the kind of world they are creating through the commercialization of powerful drugs, ethically dubious technologies, and rampant consumerism. 

Christa Thomas, PhD, has taught and published on film and cultural studies. She blogs about the mothers, wives, and daughters of Canada’s Confederation at

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.