Strange Days New Year
Artillery Row

Dreams of dystopia past

At the end of a dismal year, consider the cult dystopias of the optimistic 1990s.

This year, Covid-19 restrictions forbid the usual New Year’s Eve celebrations and, with them, the likelihood of much communal catharsis at the end of a dystopian year.

1990s dystopias may yet resonate with a year of polarisation, plague, and ennui

The prospect of a nation of shut-ins ringing in 2021 in the glow of their screens recalls for this writer his 1990s Canadian youth, when a Toronto TV station, City TV, used to show a melancholy version of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner—an early cut featuring Harrison Ford’s hardboiled voiceover—every year on New Year’s. The 1990s, marked though they were in the west by post-Cold War triumphalism and Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, nevertheless produced an appetite for dystopian visions past, and for new experiments in the genre. Fukuyama revealed his own dystopian imagination when he lamented the era he foretold, warning of a sad, bored world without ideals, charged with “endless solving of technical problems” and “perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history”.

This evening, there is a case for delving into a marathon of 1990s dystopias that, though produced in softer times, may yet resonate with a year of polarisation, plague, and ennui.

Pre-millennial tech-transgression

Back in the 1990s, the notion of arriving at the year 2000—popularly thought of as the new millennium, though that was to begin in 2001—seemed ipso facto fantastical, like stepping into science fiction itself. The year 2000 was also attended by a hint of millenarian apocalypticism, largely owing to overheated speculation surrounding potential consequences of the “Y2K bug”. Strange Days, a lesser-known SF film that appeared in 1995, linked racial anxieties in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots—which followed the acquittal of four policemen filmed beating Rodney King, Jr.—with pre-millennial ones.

Strange Days: Lenny and Mace

The film, which takes place on New Year’s Eve, 1999, imagines the police murder of a rapper, Jeriko One, threatening to push L.A. over the edge. The film’s aimless white hero, Lenny Nero—sad, bored and without ideals—has been corrupted by too much entertainment and is not paying much attention. A disgraced former vice cop, he amuses himself with a new virtual reality device called a “squid”, which allows users to re-experience memories (their own or others’) neurologically. He anaesthetises himself with erotic memories of Faith, an ex-prostitute who loved him and left him, and trades other people’s transgressive experiences like drugs on miniature compact discs.

Lenny’s only principle is that he won’t trade clips involving rape or death. The squid devices are really an analogue for the then-unfettered internet (not mentioned at all) with its ability to expose users to a greater range of knowledge and experience, some of it disturbing or even criminal. Like the internet, with its military origins, the squids have been developed by the government, which has used them to replace police wires. Unlike the internet, they are banned to the public. For all the tensions afoot in L.A., no one, it seems, uses the devices to gain empathy. Vicarious sex and violence are the main draw. The technology, like pornography, appeals more to men than to women. Lenny’s only real friend, a black woman bodyguard and limo driver named Mace, loathes his lifestyle.

The optimism of the film feels more naive now than it did at the time

For all Lenny’s sinning—he justifies his trade by saying that everyone is interested in “the dark end of the street”—there’s something Christian about him. He has long hair and, when we see him in different homes at different stages in his life, there’s always a cross on his wall; he seems, for an ex-policeman, a little too averse to physical confrontation. He’s compassionate toward lost women, and learns that Iris, a frightened prostitute, was wearing a squid at the scene of Jeriko One’s murder, and has since gone missing. Jeriko’s killers come after Lenny, and he’s soon delivered another squid recording—with a scene that is no less horrifying 25 years on—of Iris being raped and murdered, which he is forced to experience from the killer’s point of view. The dark end of the street, indeed.

The turn of the (nominal) millennium finds Lenny on the moral brink as he squares off with Iris’s killer, and America on the civic brink, lest the squid recording reach the media before Jeriko’s killers are arrested. And yet the film’s vision is, like the 90s themselves, not particularly radical. Jeriko’ killers are mere bad apples in the LAPD, and if Mace can just get the clip to the strait-laced police commissioner, whom Lenny knows to be above reproach, the healing can begin—sealed, in fact, in Lenny and Mace’s New Year’s kiss. Lenny, presumably, casts his dodgy porn habits to the winds of a more hopeful future. The optimism, whether about faith in American institutions writ large, or men’s ability to resist vacuous fusions of sex and tech, feels more naive now than it did at the time.

The end of violence and the abolition of sex 

Fukuyama’s “museum of human history” appears in its most literal form in the 1993 action-comedy Demolition Man, in which the villain, an ultraviolent 1990s gangbanger named Simon Phoenix, freshly thawed out from a “cryo-prison” in a pristine 2032 megacity called San Angeles, goes looking for guns in a museum’s “hall of violence”. The film, made after L.A. riots—and partly inspired by a “Rebuild L.A.” TV campaign—did not consider the racial tensions surrounding the riots, but instead posited, ex nihilo, an ultra-safe, ultra-politically-correct future that Phoenix finds laughably “pussy-whipped”—a statement with which the audience is invited to agree—and sets out to exploit.

Getting to zero violence must have been some achievement. The film’s opening shot, dated 1996, gives us L.A. in flames, riots-style, and a violent showdown between a tough-guy policeman named John Spartan and the aforementioned Phoenix in his gangland fiefdom. When this results in the demolition of Phoenix’s warehouse lair and the death of the hostages he’s holding inside, the state splits the moral difference and sentences both men to be frozen in its new cryo-prison. But it is the purchase of a corrupt peace through cryogenics that costs society its vigour; when Phoenix awakes and begins killing people, the police panic: “We’re police officers, we’re not trained to handle this kind of violence!”

Demolition Man: socially-distanced sex

The police of the future have, naturally, no choice but to revive Spartan to re-masculate their ranks. The police department is a touchy, censorious place, with devices on the walls that print out fines for swearing (they are ubiquitous in this society) and an institutional touchiness about the past. One policewoman, Lenina Huxley (the film’s homages to Brave New World are not subtle), has a geeky fascination with 90s kitsch, an interest her boss deems “vulgar”. There is an exaggerated version of our plague-time sexual anxieties, too. Lenina, enamoured of the police department’s blast from the past, invites Spartan home to have “sex.” This, alas, turns out to be a dopey form of VR. Lenina reveals that, thanks to a long history of diseases, people don’t touch each other anymore.

Spartan and Huxley soon work out that the founder of this new society, Dr. Raymond Cocteau—a Californian version of Aldous Huxley’s Mustafa Mond—has revived Phoenix to assassinate a man who threatens it, a mouthy free-speech-and-free-thought enthusiast named Edgar Friendly, who lives in the sewers with a group of jolly rogues called the Scraps. Spartan sympathises with Friendly and, once he defeats Phoenix, clears the stage for the Scraps’ revolution. “What will we do? How will we live?” the San Angelinos wonder, a little like the citizens of the Warsaw Pact countries had just done. Spartan ventures a kiss with Lenina. “Are all fluid transfer activities like this?” she asks, intrigued.

Tainted wonderment

The wonders of the space race largely defined the visual style of science fiction in the latter part of the 20th century, even if public enthusiasm for space flight had waned by the 1990s. Gattaca, the most memorable film about genetic engineering to appear after the cloning of Dolly the sheep (Dolly appeared in 1996 and the film in 1997) drinks deeply of nostalgia for the painted covers of old pulp magazines and Ray Bradbury paperbacks, but juxtaposes 1960s-style awe of hardy astronauts and space travel with nascent questions about the ethical pitfalls of genetically tinkering with the human race. It harks back both to Brave New World and to the spectre of the early 20th century enthusiasm for eugenics, positing a sun-drenched world of social stratification and thwarted aspirations.

Gattaca: Vincent infiltrates the space programme

Vincent Freeman, the hero, is an intelligent young man who wants to go into outer space. The problem is that society regards him as not having “the right stuff” since he was among the last of the “faith births”, or children born to their parents the usual way. He has a heart condition and is expected to live a short life. His younger brother Anton (who gets their father’s name) is of new the generation, genetically engineered, as the family doctor tells his parents, to be “the best of you”. The sibling rivalry is bitter, and Vincent is able to out-swim his brother in the Pacific. But the closest he can get to Gattaca—the heart of the space program where employees are monitored via medical tests—is as a cleaner. While laws against genetic discrimination or “genoism” exist, they are ignored.

Gattaca can be interpreted as a symbol of how fascism ended

Determined and ambitious, Vincent figures out how to game the system. Through the machinations of a hired black-market conman, he’ll move in with a wealthy young English athlete named Jerome who, though of the genetic elite, has suffered a spinal injury and lives a life of quiet despair, presumably fuelled by what he sees as fate’s theft of his birth right. Jerome will supply Vincent with his identity, which he’ll use to become an astronaut at Gattaca, along with the blood and urine he’ll need to pass the institution’s tests. When the director of Gattaca is murdered ahead of Vincent’s space flight—for which the window opens for only seven days every twenty years—forensic scrutiny intensifies. His brother Anton just happens to be the policeman leading the investigation.

All of this unfolds in an indeterminate era, in which it is underground liberals who distrust “the science.” Is it an alternative past, rather than the future? The locations and costumes suggest so, as most of the design looks early 20th-century. It’s a predominantly white world, though the old eugenic prejudices about race seem to have been completely supplanted by “genoism”—a problem that only Vincent ever mentions. Incredibly, no tragic freaks appear to have resulted from their parents’ flighty genetic preferences. Beneath it all, subconscious, seems to lie a set of exhibits from the Museum of History: bad memories of the moral compromises of the space race, of ex-Nazi rocket scientists who were but a degree of separation from the Nazi doctors. When Vincent finally flies, Jerome incinerates himself. It can be read as a symbol of how fascism ended – or didn’t. 

The rape of the brain bug

There was no greater riposte in 90s SF to the complacency of the post-Cold War order than Starship Troopers, a film whose satire perplexed critics at the time, but has aged well. Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who had once teased Americans that his Robocop had been about “an American Jesus”, used Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel about soldiers fighting giant insects in outer space as an opportunity to mix the frivolity of teen soap operas like Beverly Hills 90210 with the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl. He cast young, pretty TV actors and showed them as schoolmates being indoctrinated in the political uses of violence and persuaded to enlist in a bloody, unthinking war against the Bug.

Starship Troopers capture the brain bug

The regime under which these young people live is an odd synthesis of 90s progressive values and a flashy new web-savvy fascism, propagandised via YouTube-style video clips. The youth of the future world state are taught that “social scientists” have brought the world to the brink of chaos and that military veterans have saved them. Under the veterans’ rule, they will have to serve in the military if they want to become citizens. The film’s hero, Johnny Rico, is a vacant dolt who upsets his liberal parents by chasing a (much smarter) girl into the sex-equal military (where men and women shower together during basic training) and soon departs for ground-level fighting on the bug planets.

Idealism won’t save you: some thugs could one day seize it all

But from between the lines of the propaganda clips—which include bloody battle footage, weapons testing on a caged bug, and a scene of children stamping on cockroaches—there emerges a possibility contrary to the regime’s line: that the bugs are intelligent, and that mankind has provoked them unduly. We glimpse the anxiety this provokes on the battlefield when one of Johnny’s comrades unloads his rifle maniacally upon looking into the frightened eye of a wounded bug. We see it, too, on the home front when, in the midst of some shouty TV punditry, a bow-tied jingo squeals (note the pointed inversion of the authority of political correctness) that he finds the idea of a bug that thinks “offensive”.

The question of the bugs’ intelligence is soon settled by the capture of a bulbous “brain-bug,” which the Troopers’ psychic reveals to be “afraid.” The regime then displays it in a propaganda clip having a nasty-looking device shoved violently into its frontal orifice. Anti-intellectualism triumphs. Verhoeven, who lived under Nazi occupation as a child, seems to be saying, idealism won’t save you: globalise as much as you want, pursue progress, make scientific strides; some thugs could one day seize it all, and use it, because no one (as Fukuyama himself suspected) can bear a soft life for too long.

Clockwork nostalgia

And what of nostalgia—what Fukuyama called “nostalgia for the time when history existed”? Whereas Gattaca presented a sunlit, nostalgic world tainted by scientific hubris, Dark City imagined a shadowy, haunted version of the world that produced “the greatest generation”—the people who had lived through the Depression and World War Two. This world, though it resembles mid-century New York with its grubby art deco fixtures, is really an experimental labyrinth in the hands of the Strangers, a dying race of hive-minded aliens who inhabit the bodies of dead humans, dress like KGB agents, and pursue a vast experiment in nature, nurture, and identity. At night, they put everyone to sleep and then “imprint” them with other people’s memories and assign them new roles in life.

The Strangers, like the Eastern Bloc regimes so recently collapsed, represent a failed one-party state

This nightmare experiment produces dissidents in the form of John Murdoch, a man who wakes up prematurely as he’s being cast in the role of a serial killer of prostitutes, and Police Inspector Frank Bumstead, who doesn’t think John is the killer type (and whose colleague, Detective Walenski, has gone mad, convinced there’s “no way out”). The giveaway, for those who begin to assemble the puzzle, is an archetypal Coney Island-like idyll called Shell Beach, which everyone remembers from their childhoods, but to which no one can travel; ask someone how to get there, and they will have forgotten the route.

The Strangers, like the Eastern Bloc regimes so recently collapsed, represent a failed one-party state. They live in a subterranean lair, from which they can alter the shape of their claustrophobic prison-society with their vast clockwork machinery. Like the late communists, they have corrupted psychiatry—in their case by co-opting a psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Schreber, whom they force to help them carry out their experiments. Schreber quietly loathes them and doesn’t think much of their plans. “They think they can find the human soul if they can understand how our memories work,” he tells Murdoch and Bumstead. “All they have are collective memories… they think we can save them.”

Dark City: Murdoch undergoes imprinting

What is touching about the Strangers is their envy of human beings. They wish to become more like their human guinea pigs, even as they tyrannise them. Once Murdoch has defeated them, he gets to remake the city with his own imagination. He gives it a real-life Shell Beach and rotates the whole city—revealed to be an art deco version of Jonathan Swift’s Laputa floating in space—to face the sun for the first time. In Murdoch’s city, mid-century values persist; older men give up their seats to younger women. Since everyone’s lost their memories, he needs to begin a romance with Anna—a lady the strangers once cast as his wife—all over again. Murdoch, a 20th-century man, seems to know how easily the best-laid schemes can be shattered, but that there is virtue in incremental progress.

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