Bored and hungover watching TV on Saturday night, I switched over to More4, which was showing various famous and infamous Channel 4 programs under the Channel 4 at 25 season, and saw the 1985 Max Headroom TV movie was on. Looking it up on IMDB today, I was a little surprised to find out that it was only made to provide a back story for the Max Headroom character who appeared on a music video show. The movie itself, while baffling, was a great-looking piece of work, mixing drama and dark humour in a portrayal of a gritty, run-down future that hardly seemed dated at all.
This got me thinking; why do so many of the best dystopian visions of the future come from the 1980s? I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and of the film adaptation of 1984 done in the same year. Both were distinctly British takes on a dark future, picturing a world where nothing worked and authority was either malevolent or incompetent (or both). Rather than the sleek surfaces and outward-looking optimism of 1950s sci-fi, inspired by American postwar prosperity and the Atomic Age, these dystopias seemed based on the austerity of Britain in the 1940s, as Orwell clearly and intentionally did when writing 1984. Added to this, the Thatcherite 1980s, with their celebration of laissez-faire capitalism and growing gap between rich and poor, created unease over a possibly unequal and unstable future society. It was a time when the country was changing, so people projected their anxieties into the future, enlarging them to fit the canvas of science fiction.
Do the anxieties of our own age (of terrorism, environmental disaster, demographic timebombs) get as good a presentation? While a number of contemporary works have tackled the threat of Islamist terrorism and war in Iraq, the only truly effective vision of a future based on such dark themes is Alfonso Cuaron’s blistering Children of Men. The film’s central plot device – an outbreak of infertility dooming the human race – can be read as a metaphor for mass disillusionment in the face of a world in such bad shape that life loses all meaning. The most frightening vision of a possible future where we refuse to believe in the future anymore.