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Why Does Hollywood Think We Live in A Dystopia?

Why Does Hollywood Think We Live in A Dystopia?

“I answer to the system,” Benoit Blanc apologizes sadly.

It’s a demoralizing moment in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Benoit Blanc has just exposed the admired entrepreneurs, politicians, scientists and influencers of society as a corrupt set of liars and thieves who run the system to protect their ill-gotten gains and shield them from harm. And Benoit Blanc can’t stop them because they run the system and the system protects them. This is the dystopia Benoit Blanc lives in, and director and writer Rian Johnson tells us we live in it, too.

Hollywood seems convinced that we live in a dystopia. Nearly every other movie and show seems intent on portraying our modern society as one that is run by secret conspiracies of powerful villains controlling and oppressing us.

Whether its blockbuster franchises like The Matrix or Transformers, Oscar winners like Parasite or Shape of Water, politically edgy satires like Veep or Don’t Look Up, prestige horror films like Get Out, or Nope, military thrillers like the Mission Impossible franchises, feminist manifestos like A Promising Young Woman or Don’t Worry Darling, Christian movies like the God’s Not Dead franchise, not to mention more traditional dystopias set in the near future like The Hunger Games, The Purge and A Handmaid’s Tale — the list goes on and on.

The idea that we live in a wretched dystopia is practically the only story being told in our modern society. This theme is not lost on critics, who often praise these movies for the very reason that it reflects their views that we live in a fundamentally dystopian society.

The irony of all this is that while Hollywood seems convinced we live in a dystopia, our world is probably the least dystopian it has ever been. An easy Google search can show that based on most measures, our world is getting better — not worse. The world is so good that psychologists write pieces to explain psychologically why we feel like life is worse than it is.

What’s more, this progress is because of the fundamental institutions that make up our society, not despite them. Experts largely agree that our modern systems of government, respect for property rights, mental health, free press, capitalism, Christianity, science, climate change — all of these fundamental building blocks of our modern world that are so reviled in our movies are the reasons the world is so good.

So why does Hollywood insist on portraying our world as a dystopia? Where did Hollywood’s love-affair with making movies about how we’re all living in a dystopian nightmare begin?

According to Merriam Webster, dystopias are “an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives.” In books and movies like 1984, Brave New World and A Clockwork Orange, dystopias were fundamentally evil and oppressive societies to their core that represented a dark vision of what our world could become if our society went the wrong way. These horrifying alternate realities typically took place in the near or far future, or in other worlds very much like our own, that we could one day become. These stories were etched into our collective psyche of nightmare scenarios for our world that we must fight to prevent ourselves from becoming.  

The implicit assumption of these stories that are warning our society to not become a dystopia is that our society is not presently a dystopia. And this made sense for most Americans in the 20th century. We were the good guys fighting against the evil fascist and communist regimes that would take over the world if we weren’t there to stop them. Many of these stories were written as critiques of Nazism and communism themselves.

Even as America confronted its own societal evils of institutionalized racism and sexism, it was still hard for most Americans to truly embrace the idea that our own society was dystopian when the actual dystopia of the Soviet Union loomed large on a daily basis. In this environment, Hollywoods portrayal of dystopias reflected that reality.

But all that changed when the Cold War ended. Having defeated its foe in the Soviet Union, America could no longer define itself against a clear villain and claim to be the hero fighting to save the world from it. Deprived of an outward threat, thinkers and artists finally had room to look inward at the flaws and failures of their own society.

Something else was also happening in American society: mental health, which had declined from the 30s to the 90s, showed little signs of improving, and, indeed, continued to get worse. America had supposedly won the war against its enemies, gone a long way in addressing racism and sexism, and largely disarmed the possibility of nuclear holocaust. If things were so great, why were we feeling so bad?

A new kind of dystopia arose to answer that question: the “Red Pill Dystopia.” 

Red Pill Dystopia (a term of my own invention) took off in the late 90’s/early 2000s with the success of movies like The Truman Show, The Matrix, Fight Club and V for Vendetta. What made these dystopias different is that the dystopian society that the heroes fought against was our society. 

Every Red Pill Dystopia story featured heroes who–like their audience–lived in a society (our society) which they thought was free until they discover the secret group of evil men who are running their lives and oppressing them. These heroes find a mentor who exposes them to the truth of modern society and trains them to dismantle the systems oppressing them and society. The villains of these well disguised dystopias vary, though their methods of control are ubiquitous.

Red Pill Dystopias became a worldwide phenomena. People started religions based on The Matrix, college students plastered Fight Club posters in their dorm rooms, protestors and “hacktivists” adopted the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta. Being red pilled became a term for “awakening” to larger political truths. And it’s no surprise why. Red Pill Dystopias were far more relatable and appealing to their audiences than the dystopias of yesteryear were since they were set in the world of the audience, tapped into the frustrations of the audience had with that world, and made them believe that they could be special, important heroes by fighting and defeating The System.

Hollywood loves to make money, and so narrative formulas that are successful duplicate themselves. Spy genre movies like Daniel Craig’s James Bond and Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible changed from stories about heroes fighting foreign threats on behalf of heroic Western democracies to rebellious heroes who could only save the day by going rogue against their corrupt governments. Jordan Peele took the Red Pill story into the horror genre with his movies Get Out and Us, which had black protagonists discovering how racist and classist their own society was. Even Christian films like the God’s Not Dead francise seem to fit into this narrative, seeking to expose a supposed strand of Christian persecution by secular liberals running the education system, media and government. 

But, then, there are superhero movies.

Superhero movies were poised to be the one genre that opened up a counter-narrative to Red Pill Dystopias. Superheroes tapped into the same desire to be a hero that dystopian movies did, but superheroes were about defending the world, not tearing it down. Villains were trying to destroy the world as it was because they saw it as unfair, and the heroes stood against them as defenders and restorers of that society. It could be argued that the villains of superheroes movies are the characters who would have been the heroes of Red Pill Dystopias.

But that all changed with Iron Man. Iron Man transformed the superhero genre by combining the superhero arc with the Red Pill Dystopia genre. Iron Man tells the story of Tony Stark, a man born into privilege, who discovers that the source of his wealth and privilege – that he thought was making the world a better place – was actually making the world worse and creating the villains from which he thought he was defending the world. Tony Stark, then, becomes a hero by renouncing the source of his privilege, dismantling the system that supported it, and removing the corrupt rich people who are perpetuating it. 

This narrative arc became the formula that defined the MCU: the hero discovers the source of their powers is an evil system they themselves are a part of and must fight to defeat. Typically, these movies and television series not-so subtly imply that these fictional evils represent real systems of oppression in Western society, like capitalism, the patriarchy, even religion.

With the Red Pill Dystopia narrative becoming a primary narrative of American entertainment it is no surprise to find it defining the narrative of political culture as well. As mentioned before, it became commonplace for young people to describe their political worldview as one where a few powerful people were controlling everything and causing all their pain. It is commonplace now to describe oneself as “red pilled” or “woke”, meaning that one has discovered the dystopian nature of our society.

Nearly every political movement today seems to be driven by the idea that we are all being oppressed by an evil cabal of powerful people: “the deep state,” big tech, the patriarchy, white supremacy, the media, the rich, etc. Many of the protest movements since the 2000s have explicitly adopted iconography of these “red pill dystopia” movies as representative of their worldview and politics, such as recent anti-capitalist protests wearing Joker and Squid Game masks at their rallies. 

The danger of believing we live in a dystopia when we don’t is that we might actually turn it into a dystopia by accident. Believing the world is getting worse is one contributing factor in the rapid decline in mental health. Believing our society is a dystopian nightmare has led many to political extremism, including domestic terror. It has caused unnecessary deaths due to reflexive distrust in institutions like medicine. It has caused people to try to dismantle the very institutions that have caused all this freedom and prosperity. And in a world already profoundly isolated, it has led us to see our neighbors as potential enemies. 

Red-Pill dystopia movies are not the root cause of our belief that we live in a dystopia; this is caused by a multitude of factors. But when almost every major Hollywood movie validates and encourages the lie that our present-day society is a dystopia, it crowds out other narratives in the popular imagination for us to build the story of our lives upon and make sense of our suffering, which gives the nihilists and extremists more power.

So what do we do about this? We tell a better story. One that’s more compelling than the one that Hollywood is presently telling, that also happens to be more true.

Happily, we already have one.

Studies found that there was only one group of people whose mental health didn’t get worse during the pandemic. And not only did their mental health not get worse, it actually improved: people who regularly attended church services.

The reason the church has such a dramatic effect on mental health is obvious: it offers people a better story. It makes sense of people’s suffering, and like Red Pill Dystopias makes them heroes in the struggle against the evil in the world, with a merry band of fellow soldiers.

But unlike those stories the church tells us that we aren’t heroes in defiance of the ultimate authority that governs our world, but in service of The King of The Universe, in a battle against the rebels against him, a battle which we are winning. We win that battle in a huge part by having friends, getting married, making art and writing books and working hard at our jobs and helping others and receiving help, all humble things that the church tells us are significant, because it is by them that we overcome the forces of darkness by building The Kingdom of God. And because they build The Kingdom of God, which lasts forever, even the most humble acts in service of that kingdom last forever too. Believe this story or not, it’s no wonder why this story is better for the soul than the one Hollywood has been peddling us.

The Glass Onion tells us that the crooks run the system and use it to oppress us, and the only way to beat them is to beat the system. But the truth is, flawed as it is, the world is getting better not worse, and the system is a good part of the reason why. Can it be improved? Yes. And it is. And it is a battle we are winning – not losing.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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