(27/12/06) – Who are you? What is your role in society? How much do you trust the state and, more importantly, how does the state view you?

Although primarily there for our entertainment, films do nevertheless provide a mirror to society’s anxieties or aspirations. Continued political uncertainties and on-going military activity all over the world has created an environment of concern and tension that has trickled onto the big screen this year, in a number of films that tackle themes of societies on the brink of collapse. It is not that these films directly relate to world events but their tones are starting to reflect our concerns and fears.

Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth views society on the brink of fascist dictatorship in Spain, where life is controlled by the fickle whim of a cruel bureaucracy. The harshness of life – a captain brutally shoots two men for being rebels when they are merely hunting for food – is countered by a fairy-tale otherworld which is no less frightening but offers a glimmer of hope that appears absent from corporeal world. A young girl, Ofelia, tries to escape the madness of her situation when she discovers that her new home has an old labyrinth. There she meets a domineering faun who tells her she must complete three tasks to claim her rightful place as princess of a grand kingdom. The contrasts between the magical realm and the hell of war make Pan’s Labyrinth a fairy tale for adults – alternately brutal and beautiful.

The contemporary Right At Your Door explodes a dirty, possibly biological, terrorist bomb in central LA. The film examines how forced quarantines affect relationships on both an individual level and at the level in which the citizens react with their state. Military law is imposed and the forces of the government kill with impunity. The threat, the film seems to ask, comes not just from the terrorists, but from within – you are nothing to your elected government should the chips land in the wrong place. In Aeon Flux a far-future society is initially seen as benevolent, peaceful and harmonious – if a little dull. Naturally there is something rotten in the state and it’s down to super-gymnastic Flux to get to the bottom of it. Beneath the MTV visuals there is an underlying questioning about government control countering freedom of expression. Concerns about being an ‘other’ in society are also raised in Brett Ratner’s X-Men 3.

2006 saw three films that were utterly dystopian in nature: V For Vendetta, Children of Men and A Scanner Darkly(pictured). All three are set in the near future but one that is recognisable. V For Vendetta centres on a vigilante need to overthrow a totalitarian state of British fascism – now that the country is the only real state left in a world reeling after a global war. The idea of resurrecting the gunpowder plot to destroy the Houses of Parliament gives the film a subversive edge that belies its sporadic and glossy action sequences. In order for citizens to be part of a society, the film argues, they need to be willing to act for their freedom. It’s as unlikely a message as a mainstream film is likely to get.

Britain is also the centre of attention in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, adapted from the novel by P. D. James. This is a world of anarchy and violence as the population descend into nihilist self-interest following the failure of women to conceive for nearly twenty years. There is no future for mankind and the government have become even more oppressive, executing or deporting foreign nationals and creating ghettos and detention centres for the population. When Clive Owen unwittingly stumbles across a pregnant woman his life becomes a whirlwind of danger as he tries to protect the potential saviour of mankind. The immediacy and verisimilitude of the camerawork is remarkable in portraying the claustrophobia and urgency of his plight.

More paranoia can be found in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly which employs rotoscope animation to disorientate the viewer and enter an otherworld of drug-induced hysteria and confusion. Dick’s bleak novel of alienation and addiction is viewed through the eyes of Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) as he is given the task of monitoring himself as the possible suspect in a drug ring. As his drug buddies, along with himself, become more unstable, his entire hold on reality becomes totally fragmented.

Dystopian cinema mirrors societies concerns with the direction that government intervention in heading, asking at what point do we balance our freedoms with our trust in those we have elected. It is worth noting that so many of the films this year have presented these questions to cinema audiences. This is, in many ways, the science fiction film escaping from the comic book excesses that have dominated the screens for many years (although V for Vendetta was based upon a comic) and doing what the best of literary science fiction does – offering glimpses of future possibilities from the viewpoint of the present. Stylistically they are very different films, but they all try to find a realistic, infinitesimal hope amidst the gloom, even if it is futile.