Recurring Characteristics in Dystopian Universes

Dystopia by Enokson via Flickr
Dystopia by Enokson via Flickr

Gray skied, desperate worlds have filled movie screens and literature more and more over the past few years. At this point when I think about these dystopian, bordering on apocalyptic, settings, I have a pretty distinct idea of what they look like. The details and aesthetics of these stories seem to repeat themselves. Here’s a glance at the recurring elements in these grim fantasies:

1. Living in a nontraditional place. In The Walking Dead, Rick and the gang moved into a jail (among other things). In Warm Bodies, an airplane. For Snowpiercer, a train. It makes sense, in a world with a killer disease, environment, or government, people wouldn’t have the luxury of regular home construction on every open patch of land as they do today. Not to mention the fact that many areas may become uninhabitable if overrun by these oppressive conditions. Can you think of a nontraditional home beyond planes, trains, and jails?

2. PeoA Clockwork Orangeple Bein’ Strapped to Chairs. Both Brazil and A Clockwork Orange contain frightening scenes involving characters being strapped to a chair. The idea of some government or controlling entity tying someone down to conduct experiments is terrifying. This nerve-striking idea plays on audience fears of not being in control.

3. Creatures. Zombies, robots, aliens, even apes. The recurring trope in stories like Planet of the Apes and War of the Worlds is that whenever creatures show up, it’s bad news for planet Earth. Look out Statue of Liberty, you’ll be chest-deep in sand pretty soon.

4. Weaponry that really takes us back. In The Hunger Games, Katniss uses a bow aThe Terminatornd arrow as her main form of protection, even though technology is available to do things like, turn a dress into fire without burning anyone. The Terminator really owns that Winchester Shotgun in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. A contrast to the fact that he’s, um, a robot. I mean, the evil terminator had hands that turned into swords… at least that kinda makes sense.

5. So. Much. Running. In The Windup Girl, Emiko (the windup girl herself) is a super-duper crazy fast synthetic human who’s always on the run from the government. THX-1138 has got to move quick if he wants to escape those menacing, all-black police officers. Seriously… can we just… ugh… stop for a sec?? I’ve got a side-stitch.

6. Seriously Disturbed Kids. Ender’s Game, a book where the majority of characters are children, gives us a pretty dark image of a world where children must join the military. A Clockwork Orange follows a group of teens whose favorite pastime is “ultra-violence.” The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead also include kids that are pretty effed up in the head.

7. The Rich, Elite Minority Taking Fashion to the Absurd. For some reason this dystopian trend has had quite a long life-span, especially in the movies. I suppose this extreme helps illustrate the classicist gap in these stories. We can go as far back as silent film Metropolis, where the wealthy wore extravagant art-deco style costumes and the working class sauntered to work in their drab uniforms. Effie Trinket wears wigs, crazy makeupeffie trinket, and great puffy dresses in The Hunger Games. Once you hit the front of the train in Snowpiercer, you’ll find the well-to-do in thick fur coats and Victorian-era dresses.

8. Creative Punishments. The baddies of these stories seem to really enjoy coming up with unique forms torture and punishment. The Hunger Games is certainly one of the more original. The Capitol sure did hold a grudge against that rebellious District 13, punishing them with… the title of the book. In Snowpiercer, if you live in the back of the train and act up, you might find yourself with an arm hanging out of a porthole until it freezes and falls off. The Ministry of Love lovingly tortures and brainwashes anyone who commits a “thought crime” in 1984.


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