Apocalypse Now

Monday, 26 May, 2014

I was stepping out of the Jam Factory Cinema in South Yarra, having just watched the first Hunger Games film. As the small weeknight crowd dispersed into the flashing lights of Chapel Street, deciding if they were Team Josh or Team Liam, a man shuffled slowly through them. Dressed in rags, beard unkempt, he was clearly homeless.

We had just watched a film about a horrifically unequal world in which the wealthy few live luxurious lives whilst the poor masses suffer grinding poverty. And then we stepped outside, and found a world that is much the same: a world in which one per cent of the global population owns almost half of global wealth, and 85 individuals own more wealth than the poorest three billion. And yet, where we had condemned the injustice we saw on screen, we looked the other way as the homeless man shuffled between us on Chapel St. He slipped by unperturbed and, continuing on his way, disappeared into the night.

In recent years, Hollywood has churned out a slew of dystopian films. Films set in nightmarish worlds, in horrific visions of the future, or twisted versions of the present. Films like The Hunger Games, In Time, Never Let Me Go, and more recently, Divergent and Transcendence. Each offers a chilling vision of the depths of human depravity, and just as Orwell’s 1984 did in its time, they offer a stern warning to the world: do not end up like this.

But how many more dystopias must we see on screen before we realise we are living in one?

In the 2011 film In Time, people stop aging at 25, but the day they turn 25 they develop a strange digital clock on their forearm counting down one year to their death. In this horrifying world, time is currency: people earn extra time to live by working, but they also pay for everything with their time. The world is run by time barons who live for millennia in luxury, extracting time from the poor who barely live past 26. The protagonist, played by Justin Timberlake, is inspired to bring down the system when he discovers the horrible truth: there is enough time for everyone to live long lives, it’s just not being shared.

Well here’s our dirty little secret, Earth: on this planet where one billion people are starving, there is enough food to feed the planet 1.5 times over. There is enough money to eradicate extreme poverty, and yet six million children under the age of five die needless deaths every year. In wealthy countries, by comparison, people regularly live to 100. Money can buy over a century of life. Australia’s life expectancy is 30 years longer than many parts of the world, and that’s not even mentioning the gap between Indigenous Australians. We may not have our lifespan ticking away in a cyborg-style clock on our forearms as they do in In Time, but every other aspect of that fictitious world is in fact very real. While the poor suffer and die needless early deaths, the rich lord it up.

Why is it that we can comfortably condemn injustice when it is in another world, but not when it’s rife in our own? Is it the same impulse that allows us to casually condemn the cruelty of the Holocaust, and yet blithely elect a government whose explicit aim is to torture people in island prisons until they leave us alone? It seems evil is always easiest to denounce when viewed from a distance.

And how is it that we can identify so closely with the brave protagonists of these films, and yet ostracise those same heroes in our own society? When Katniss stands up to the Capitol she is a hero, but those same characters who challenge the system in real life are called radicals, traitors, communists, and terrorists. Nelson Mandela, for example, was called all of these things by the leaders of the developed world up until his release from prison.

The parallels between the on and off screen worlds are unfortunately too obvious to ignore. The constant stream of dystopic visions of Earth to which we are exposed should no longer be seen as warnings of what may happen in the future. They are reflections of our world now.