With close reference to no more than three postmodern films discuss the dystopian and utopian elements evident in their mise-en-scene. This essay will analyze Ridly Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) in order to discuss dystopian elements evident in their mise-en-scene. The film begins with a panoramic view of the director’s vision of Los Angeles in 2019. The night sky of the cityscape is lit an unnatural reddish hue and broken up by towering black skyscrapers and chimneys out of which sheets of flame erupt. This shot has the effect of immediately setting the scene for a post apocalyptic dystopia with the city being portrayed as demonic in the judeao- Christian tradition. At street level the sense of alienation the protagonist, Deckard, feels is reflected in the ethnic mix of his fellow Los Angelians. Hordes of Orientals throng about him. This sense of cultural alienation is compounded by witnessing Deckard struggling to order food from an oriental street vendor who struggles to understand what he is saying. The following scene further affirms this when a police officer arrests Deckard in order to bring him in for an assignment. The officer can’t even arrest Deckard in English and the proprietor of the noodle stand has to translate for him. Another way in which the mise-en-scene conveys themes of dystopia in this sequence can be observed in the attire worn by the people in the street around Deckard. An eclectic mix of mismatched, castoff and recycled clothing is evident which seems somewhat contradictory when one considers this is also a society where space travel is normal and there is an abundance of flying cars. Continuing on this theme, the streets of Los Angeles are presented as being thoroughly dank, dirty and are perpetually strewn with refuse. Technologically advanced society where the “common” people still live in dirty, squalid conditions is a common trope of dystopian SF. Its function is to interrogate contemporary anxieties regarding late capitalism and its effect on society. The mise-en-scene effectively conveys to the viewer this anxiety surrounding late capitalism and its dystopian undertones in a number of ways. The first and most symbolic way is through the opening shots of the Tyrell Corporation building:
“…a gleaming glass and concrete pyramid reaching so far above street level as to be lit by natural sunlight: everything and everywhere else is dark and wet. Tyrell, Batty ironically observes, is ‘the God of bio-mechanics’ and bio-mechanics is the city’s ruling technology.” Andrew Milner
This immediately has the effect of emphasising the fact that it is corporate power that has shaped and moulded this apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles. Further examples of mise-en-scene which convey dystopian anxieties pertaining to late capitalism can be found in the repeated shots of enormous neon billboards which advertise various commodities, notably Coca-Cola, the product that perhaps best sums up the multinational corporate power of late capitalism. Additionally, a huge metal airship circles the city. Studded with searchlights, emblazoned with adverts and bellowing advertisements out of loud speakers it appears several times throughout the film. It could be argued that there is something inherently dystopian about such an imposing and intrusive contraption, especially during one scene where it shines its searchlights on Pris and Sebastian through the holes in the roof.
Alfonso Cuaron’s vision of an infertile Britain in 2027 also makes effective use of mise-en-scene to convey dystopian themes. Unlike the corporation dominated future of Blade Runner, the society in which the protagonists inhabit in Children of Men is dystopian in part due to a fascistic, totalitarian British government that controls its subjects through fear and oppression. The sequence when Theo catches the train home from work (3:55) contains several elements of mise-en-scene that convey these dystopian themes. It is apparent that the Government broadcasts propaganda on public transport, in this instance its function being to warn the population about the insidious menace of illegal immigrants: “He’s my dentist, she’s my housekeeper, he’s my cousin, they are illegal immigrants. Hiring, feeding or sheltering illegal immigrants is a crime.” This is followed by a reminder to citizens that whilst the rest of the world has apparently collapsed, “Only Britain soldiers on.” This is command and control through fear in a classically Orwellian sense of the idea. These recordings bare a strikingly similar resemblance to the ubiquitous propaganda spouting telescreeens of 1984. Further aspects of mise-en-scene with dystopian undertones can also be identified in this scene. The train has metal grills protecting its windows, an ominous signifier of the level of crime in this society. They are quickly proven to be necessary when large group of adolescents pelt the train with rocks as it goes past. Graffiti is also used as a frequent reminder both of the level of antisocial behaviour and also the despair and nihilism that is felt in this society. Daubed on a billboard behind the group of youths is a slogan that reads “Last one to die, turn out the lights.” After alighting at the station, Theo walks past several armed soldiers and cages full of wailing immigrants. These cages are a sad sign of how this society has become utterly desensitized to human suffering, it is apparent that nobody pays the people inside them the slightest bit of attention as they walk past.
Throughout the film it is evident that although the narrative takes place 21 years after the film’s release, the technology of this future world has not improved in any significant way. This helps to convey the general trend of atrophy and stagnation that is an important theme in Children of Men. Throughout the narrative there are numerous instances where the mise-en-scene reflects this trend. For example, unlike Blade Runner’s rather optimistic portrayal of flying cars in 2019, British cars in 2021 appear pretty much identical to contemporary cars. If anything, they actually appear inferior, embodying perhaps a natural culmination of the modern trend for plastic, ugly Japanese manufactured cars that exist today. In certain instances it is apparent that technology has actually regressed. This is evident in the opening sequence where motorized rickshaws can be observed travelling down a street in London. In a further example of how the pace of technological advancement has in effect halted, the army and Homeland Security forces appear to use only contemporary weapons and hardware. It appears there have been no improvements in arms technology at all in the 21 years since the film’s release. For example, in the scene where Theo walks past the cages of immigrants at the tube station, the guards are armed with XM8 assault rifles – weapons that were designed for the United States military in the nineties. The only minor exception to this lack of technological advancement can be found in the final battle sequence. Several soldiers in this sequence appear to be wearing some kind of HUD eyepiece device on their helmets, although this technology has been under development for some years and is not in itself particularly revolutionary.
The government’s control through fear and intimidation is evident in many of the scenes set in London and later in the Bexhill refugee camp. Again returning to the scene where Theo alights from the train, after walking past the cages he passes an army checkpoint complete with sniffer dogs and vehicle mounted heavy machine guns. This is reminiscent of Britain during the height of the terror alerts when Scimitar tanks and road blocks were deployed to defend airports against the threat of suicide bombers. In this sequence the fact that none of the public appears troubled by the sight of all this hardware arrayed against them is a further indication of just how routine this state of alert has become to the British people in 2021. A further example of this theme can be found in the sequence at 11:20 where Theo walks past a tower block that is being raided by security forces. The mise-en-scene in this sequence is inherently dystopian. A line of imposing riot police officers armed with truncheons and shields denies access to the public whilst the black-suited Homeland Security forces menace the huddled occupants of the tower with assault rifles before throwing them into cages.
It has already been mentioned that part of the reason for the dystopian nature of Children of Men’s society is down to the totalitarian government. The mise-en-scene pertaining to the apparatus of their rule reflects this. For example, the faceless, abusive black suited government officials which appear throughout the film are a common motif in dystopian fiction. Also the vehicles the Homeland Security forces use are intimidating and authoritarian. For example, the vehicle that Sid the immigration official drives is a black, heavily armoured 4×4. It is also kitted out with what appears to be a remote-controlled Gatling gun mounted on the roof which swivels to track Theo as he emerges from the derelict school. All the government vehicles also appear to be equipped with loud-speakers which their occupants use to shout at the civilian population. This serves to further highlight the level of state oppression. The most powerful themes of dystopian governmental oppression are evident in the mise-en-scene during the Bexhill processing sequence. The protagonists are forced aboard a Homeland Security bus and driven past a heavy military presence outside the camp’s entrance. The camera angle changes to a first person perspective inside the bus looking out of one of the wire mesh covered windows. Somehow the view outside of two black Chinook helicopters flying in the opposite direction over a bleak moor manages to convey the sheer sense of hopelessness and futility of the protagonist’s situation and appears at the same time uniquely dystopian in nature. The mise-en-scene in the following sequence is perhaps the most useful to analyze in order to identify dystopian themes. The bus stops at a check point and search lights pierce the darkness and illuminate the busses occupants. A soldier with a large dog on a chain boards the bus and drags people off more or less at random if he doesn’t like the look of them. From the activity that is visible outside it is easy to deduce that anybody taken off the bus will be systematically stripped, beaten and shot. This scene seems to be constructed to be reminiscent of the way that Jews were treated upon entering similar camps in World War 2. A Nazi commandant would often stand at the entrance and Jews that he deemed that fit for labour would be sent off to the right whilst the once that weren’t would be sent off to the left and summarily shot. The Homeland Security soldiers in this scene behave in a similar fashion. The guard departs from the bus with the final remark “You people fucking disgust me,” uttered in such a way that there can be no doubt about their new status as beings that are less than human. A quote by Slavoj Zizek sums this scene up:
“And is it not that, in a strictly homologous way, the liberal warriors are so eager to fight the anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will end by flinging away freedom and democracy themselves if only they may fight terror?”
This is an apt quote, especially when one considers the hooded detainees in cages outside the bus which appear chillingly reminiscent of our contemporary equivalent, Guantanamo Bay, and the politics of fear that surround the West’s “War on Terror.”
Word Count: 1928
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