Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Tag: dystopia

The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)

Living In Dystopia

I kind of have a thing for the end of the world.

That tweet from Lexicon Valley (one of my favorite podcasts, by the way) merely validated a feeling I’ve had for a while: that I’m a sucker for dystopian films.

I’m still not sure exactly what draws me to this kind of story. Maybe it’s because of the infinite re-viewings of the Back to the Future trilogy, specifically Part II, which focused on people seeing hellish versions of their past or future and fighting to fix them. Perhaps it’s because dystopian films often confirm the fatalism I occasionally feel about our country, culture, and world. In Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Children of Men, for example, the abject dreariness and totalitarianism that permeate the Great Britain police state of the future appear not only possible but increasingly inevitable given the seemingly hopeless state of political and economic current affairs.

Similarly, in the film adaptation of the graphic novel V for Vendetta, Great Britain (poor old England can’t catch a democratic break) has been taken over by draconian despotism à la Orwell’s Oceania in the preeminent dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, if robotic uprisings are your thing, the film version of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot tells the tale of formerly subservient anthropomorphic robots who become self-aware and start killing humans.

But the flip side to all this bleakness is the other key component to many dystopian films, the factor that draws me in: what happens at their end. Theo, the protagonist in Children of Men, fights his apathy and regains his spirit enough to save the last hope on Earth. In V for Vendetta, the formerly timid Evey conquers her fears and helps V complete his rebellious (if terroristic) acts in order to expose the regime’s villainy and inspire the oppressed proletariat to rise up against the corrupt government. I, Robot has Will Smith saving the day (as he is wont to do) by conquering the supercomputer VIKI with the help of a specially programmed, friendly robot.

In all of these dystopian worlds the worst things may happen, but these things are not unconquerable. In stories as it ultimately is in real life, freedom conquers slavery; good triumphs over evil; the will to live outlasts the will to suppress. These may be old-fashioned tropes, but they keep bringing me back even to the darkest of tales if only to see how the light arrives again.

Some dystopian films I’d recommend: Minority Report, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, I Robot, WALL-E, District 9, Looper, Dark City. Wikipedia also has a more extensive list.

© 2018 Chad Comello

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑