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Why Dystopian Movies Are Getting Us Through 2020

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Twitter users have been comparing scenes like this one from 'Blade Runner 2049' to the red skies looming over the Bay Area this week. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

References to Mars, hell and the apocalypse have all dominated Bay Area Twitter this week, as darkened skies and falling ash from wildfires cast a pall across the entire region. It didn’t take long for the jarring conditions to inspire some social media users to compare our red horizon to those from the big screen.

Like in Blade Runner 2049:

The Martian:



Lord of the Rings:

And even Night of the Comet:

You may also have noticed friends and loved ones watching these movies—turning to the more dystopian of them for escape. It’s a response that echoes the surge in people watching Contagion at the start of this year’s coronavirus pandemic. Which raises the question: Why are some of us so compelled to run towards movies that mirror our own dire conditions, rather than ones that would temporarily help us forget them?

For a start, there’s a sense of control in inviting that which scares us into our living rooms. If we go out of our way to confront it on our own terms, the shock of what’s lurking outside may be lessened, while also making us feel stronger. As George A. Romero notes in 2014 documentary, Why Horror?: “It’s a safe fright when you’re in a movie. And I think that enables you to sort of relish it. To look into yourself and say ‘Why am I afraid of this?’”

The book Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, points out that human fear is rooted in the unfamiliar. “Humans have sophisticated systems of prediction,” Margee Kerr writes, “and when our predictions don’t match our experience, it raises a red flag and puts us in a state of uncertainty.”

Watching scary red skies in movies this week, then, might help imbue us with the sense that what we’re living through isn’t, in fact, brand new. Seeing other people, whether they’re fictional characters or not, calmly coping with similarly challenging environments can help make extraordinary conditions feel less strange.

Just as in March, when quarantined home viewers nationwide streamed 'Contagion' (above) in record numbers, dystopian movies are having a surge in popularity for wildfire season.
Just as in March, when quarantined home viewers nationwide streamed ‘Contagion’ (above) in record numbers, dystopian movies are experiencing a surge in popularity for wildfire season. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

In addition, watching movies about whatever we’re currently facing down can give us a sense of preparation. Maybe if we watch a fictional version of the thing we’re worried about, we’ll learn some useful coping strategies. “I’m probably a little more equipped to deal with death, disease [and] tragedy than other people,” Colin Geddes, a programmer at Toronto International Film Festival has said. “Because I’ve seen it played out and it makes me think about how I would react in these situations with these misfortunes.”

Back in March, a Vulture article exploring the rise in popularity of Contagion echoed Geddes’ sentiments. “I watched it because this current pandemic crisis makes me terrified, and a story about exactly that same thing is one way to grapple with that fear,” wrote Kathryn VanArendonk. “Pandemic fiction is about how people behave in response to acute, sudden-onset helplessness. When we’re confronted with that helplessness in real life, watching some version of it—any version of it, and ideally one where at least some people survive—is comforting. It’s a model for how we could respond.”

Incidentally, Contagion wasn’t the only pandemic movie that surged in popularity in 2020. Outbreak and 12 Monkeys—both eerily having their 25th anniversaries this year—have had a renaissance as well. (Which likely explains why the latter was snapped up from Netflix by HBO Max one month after shelter in place went into effect.)

What all of this means is: if you have the desire to watch dystopian fiction specifically because it feels like the end of the world right now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you. On the contrary, you might even be doing something useful for yourself.

So, by all means, as long as Bay Area skies are burning red and raining ash down on us, if you feel like running in the direction of The Martian‘s poop potatoes, have at it. If you want to throw on a trenchcoat and wander around pretending to be a replicant, go right ahead. (Just put a mask on first.) And if the red sky looks better to you when you imagine the Eye of Sauron in it, well, carry on.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of grabbing joy and relief wherever you can find it—even if it’s in a story as disturbing as our reality.

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