Democracy has been replaced by authoritarian rule. All books, music and art deemed “inappropriate” are banned. Citizens are controlled by computers and/or robots. Free will is a thing of the past.
The best sci-fi and dystopian fantasies articulate the fears of a grim future America that’s terrifyingly close to the one we live in now, but far enough away to let our anxieties unfurl in the safety of an imaginary world.
Now that those frightening prophecies seem to be creeping closer to home, or perhaps it’s home that’s gradually slid in dystopia’s direction, television has responded with enough shows about the dark future to make professional conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones look like rank amateurs.
The disturbing worlds portrayed in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Mr. Robot” and “Westworld” aren’t all that far-fetched given that “deep state,” “private data mining” and “bots” are terms that now pepper our national conversation.
The latest such drama to plumb the depths of post-everything paranoia is HBO’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 sci-fi classic “Fahrenheit 451.” The film, which premieres Saturday, is set in a future America shaped by many of the same events that underpin Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel for which the “Handmaid’s Tale” series is based. Following a second civil war, Americans have been stripped of most of their rights. Books, films, paintings and other forms of individualist human expression are forbidden and Canada (once again) is the final destination on the road to freedom.
The fire department is now a militarized force that burns “graffiti,” which means everything from J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” to Mozart sheet music. Only state-sanctioned information (a.k.a. propaganda) is available, and it’s piped through one centralized internet feed called The Nine. Siri’s evil twin in this parallel universe is the all-knowing Yuxie. She’s with you all the time to ensure you’ll never look anywhere else for information again.
Mollifying drugs are dispensed to citizens daily, there are cameras in every home, and public space and slogans such as the familiar “If you see something, say something” are projected 24/7 on the sides of skyscrapers. Michael B. Jordan plays Guy Montag, a library-torching fireman until he switches sides and joins the resistance. His superior and mentor, Capt. Beatty (Michael Shannon), now must choose between love and state, and the state always wins. Jordan, who channeled an impressive mix of fury, narcissism and dejection as “Black Panther” villian Erik Killmonger, is less memorable as the suddenly woke Montag. He’s good, but who can compete with a bad guy in a cat suit? Instead, it’s Shannon who’s stellar as the cruel, conflicted and hypocritical Beatty.
“Fahrenheit 451’s” main problem stems from the fact that it jams a series’ worth of story into 100 minutes. It could have used more space and time to unpack discussions about free will and all that other stuff you didn’t learn in Philosophy 101 but could really use now. The film does succeed in taking on issues we face today — technology overload, too much information, tribal divisions, lack of privacy — and stretching them to the extreme. The totalitarian future it depicts, one that would have surely seemed fantastical back when the book was published, is all too plausible today: a culturally illiterate America, hooked on screens, mood-altering pharmaceuticals and emojis as a prime form of self-expression. Says one of the rebels who’s fighting against the surveillance state to preserve literature, “The ministry didn’t do this to us. We did it to ourselves. We wanted a world like this.”
No, we didn’t!
Thankfully, we can still vent our outrage on Facebook, in a post that never goes away, accompanied by a location-tagged selfie, alongside personal information, family photos, political rants, dating status — all of which we volunteered. And unlike the citizens in “Fahrenheit 451,” we still have our books — in print, on our phones and in our ear buds. When Montag discovers a dusty paperback of Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Undeground,” he’s astounded to find such advanced thought in such primitive form. As readers of the classic Bradbury story already know, however, the medium, it turns out, is not the message.
Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the best of all the “oh-my-god-this-could-totally-happen” dystopian programming out there. It imagines the aftermath of another kind of second American civil war, where a theocracy rules and all remnants of former civilization are destroyed. Journalists are executed, women are enslaved, borders are militarized, gay people are hung in public, neighbors turn in neighbors and, yes, non-sanctioned books and literature are banned.
Flashbacks show how society devolved, and it mirrors today’s headlines: women gradually stripped of their reproductive rights, women’s marches, government-imposed travel bans, mass shootings, growing religious intolerance.
Like “Fahrenheit 451,” “Westworld” dramatizes the ways in which technology alters human behavior, and what happens when an on-demand culture loses sight of real-world timelines and the concept of accountability.
The series, which was inspired by Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name, is set in an adult theme park where robots (hosts) cater to the whims of guests (humans). Top-dollar technology equals instant gratification, but guess what? There are pitfalls in giving humans too much freedom. They cherry-pick through the story lines and see only what they want to see, ignoring facts, truths and the bigger picture, until the park breaks out into its own version of a civil war. Absolute control devolves into violent chaos replete with gun-slinging robots and, now, mechanized samurai.
So just when we think America has hit rock bottom, which is a feeling of doom that usually sets in after a couple hours of masochistic cable news surfing, these grim sci-fi depictions show us we’re not there yet. The best of these cautionary tales as entertainment capitalize on the realities that could lead us there.
In “Fahrenheit 451,” the government ministry justifies why it’s plied citizens with alternative versions of American history. “It’s full of truths people can’t handle, so best to rewrite it,” says an authority.
And books are confusing, contend the authorities, because they contradict one another. “If you don’t want a person unhappy, you don’t give them two sides of a question to worry about.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)