Happy new fear: what can films set in 2023 tell us about what lies ahead?
From legalized murder to destructive drones, Hollywood doesn’t have the most optimistic outlook
For all the cause we have to believe that this year is the first in a long time that’s less apocalyptic than the last – fascism in the west held at bay, the pandemic gradually receding, Popeyes introducing a blackened chicken sandwich to the menu – those inclined to future panic still have plenty of material to work with.
The ever-present menace of climate change hasn’t gone anywhere, if anything accelerating at an exponential rate that constantly bumps up the human species’ expiration date. We’re playing it pretty fast and loose with robotics and AI, to the point that it’s hard to tell whether the proliferation of “lethal autonomous weapons” (a sanitized way of saying “killer robots”) or sentient computer programs represents a graver threat. We’ve got a smörgåsbord of wars, fringe conspiracy theories on the rise, inflation out the wazoo. Just take your pick of bad omens.
The cinema’s not helping matters, either. To look back at the small handful of films from the past imagining the year 2023 is to survey wreckages beyond wreckages, each one shot through with anxiety about which cataclysms might arrive in the uncertain days to come. Some aim for social realism, others shoot for a broader blockbuster notion of our spectacular end, but they’re united in their fear that things are not going to get better any time soon …
The second highest-grossing movie of all time has a surprisingly convoluted timeline, bouncing from the present into the future and then back to three different segments of the past, all of them split between multiple universes overlaid on top of one another. All you need to know is that 2023 represents the darkest timeline stemming from supervillain Thanos’s finger-snap that vaporized half the living population, leaving the natural order out of whack. A gone-to-seed Thor has grown depressed and taken refuge in food, the Hulk has merged his human consciousness with his big green body, and ace archer Hawkeye has gone vigilante in the wake of his family’s death. The dimension-hopping quest to topple Thanos is really a mission to restore order, speaking to the inkling that any given worst-case scenario isn’t how things were meant to be. The consolation that there’s a better outcome waiting, perverted by a wrong turn somewhere along the line but still attainable, represents a potent form of self-soothing.
The profile of the anime great Hideaki Anno has expanded in recent years due to the far-reaching influence of his magnum opus Neon Genesis Evangelion, but his first major work has a more immediate relevance to our moment. Broadcast first as a series and then edited down to a feature version for theatrical release, Gunbuster chronicles the fateful Ragnarok between an insectoid race of space invaders and the human race’s last line of mech-suit defense, though the focus mostly stays on the goings-on between young students at the training academy. Their pubescent rivalries and crushes draw a stark contrast with the savagery of combat, shown to exact a terrible mental toll on the youngsters shoved into the command center of these gigantic battle-bots. No matter how advanced our technology may become, it’s useless in pre-empting the pathologies that bring about armed conflict, or healing the scars that it leaves behind.
What sounds like an astrology-themed thriller is in actuality a delightfully low-budget, direct-to-video bit of sci-fi chaff coasting off the proxy legitimacy conferred by lead Lance Henriksen, one-time star of Aliens. He plays the colonel supervising the study of two extraterrestrials crash-landed on Earth, responsible for containing these hazardous organisms – except they’re not the danger at all. They come in peace, helped to escape by our comely DEA agent/telepath heroine, the true baddie being Colonel Cencula as he executes a plan to sell mind-control tech to the North Koreans. (For its many shortcomings, it is nothing if not a lively film.) If there’s a conclusion to be taken away from this slab of high-grade schlock, it’s that the call is coming from inside the house, that our most lethal enemies are not scheming outsiders but bad actors dug in at the highest levels of authority. Bad actors in the political sense, that is, at least for the most part.
The Purge: Anarchy
Where the first installment of the horror franchise set on the annual night of total amnesty for all crime constrained itself to a well-insulated home under assault, this sequel ventures out into a city crawling with marauders. The aperture then widens to the size of the nation as the Purge is revealed to be a plot by the far-right totalitarian government, designed as a crude method of population control, thinning the herd of the homeless and impoverished. However outsized in its bloodlust, this demented civics experiment still ranks as the most plausible manmade nightmare listed here, drawing on a long history of institutionalized powers indirectly pitting the lower class against itself while the wealthy chortle from their private slave-auction theaters. These blackhearted films start from the premise that murderous rage lurks in the heart of seemingly ordinary people, but this one goes further to point the finger at the parties responsible for making us like this.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Before its acquisition by Disney, Fox’s X-Men franchise beat Marvel to the punch on a chrono-jumping plotline about a renegade band of heroes fleeing the dystopia of tomorrow to repair the past. The pupils of Professor X pop back to the 70s to nip the Sentinel project in the bud, bringing Cassandra warnings that the genetically engineered androids will turn on the rest of civilization after extinguishing their mutant prey. It’s the same refrain the human race has been sounding since the days of Frankenstein, a doomsayer’s prophecy that our technological grasp will soon surpass the reach of our control, with disastrous consequences. From unmanned drones with devastating destructive capabilities to the ever-creepier line of faceless attack dogs devised by Boston Dynamics, it doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief to see the path that ends with us in the crosshairs of our new cybernetic overlords.