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The Role of the Protagonist in Dystopian Films

I wrote this essay in March 2004; I was in first year University and this assignment was for “FILM 1000B”. I recently found it while cleaning up my basement studio, and saw that I scored 18 out of 20 on the paper. I thought I’d share it online for all to see.

Stephen Gower
FILM 1000B
Genre Essay
Prof. Mark Langer
MAR 17 2004

The Role of the Protagonist in Dystopian Films

It is suggested that in the musical film, a utopian community exists where the protagonist acts as an active participant in its construction. The overwhelming result is that a situation, having wronged itself at some point during the film, rights itself in the end as a direct result of the protagonists’ actions. The musical community is often cheerful and there are no false pretenses surrounding it. Conversely, the dystopian community is based on control and power. There is often a strong policing force that keeps the population in line. In dystopian films, the protagonist is still aparticipant, however partakes in destryoing the oppressive society he or she lives in rather than working to preserve the community as it once was.

As mentioned, dystopian communities are usually structured governments, and are accompanied by some sort of policing force (or in cases like Nineteen Eighty Four, self-policing methods1George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four. (England: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1949).) to control the population. In A Clockwork Orange(1971), it is an actual police force; in Brazil(1985), it is the Ministry of Information; and in The Matrix(1999), it is the Machines/Agents who control the delinquents. On the surface, this is not something out of the ordinary; every society needs to be policed to enjoy a sense of personal security. But in the case of dystopian films, this policing force does more than just enforce the law. In the case of Brazil and The Matrix, the police force not only stops but eliminates errors within the system. However, since A Clockwork Orange is set in a modern time frame, it operates more like our society, using prisons. It is the government that uses its experimental treatment that eliminates the problem, while the police force works to try and correct it, and then benefits from the reversal of Alex’s conditioning. These are all quick and easy example-s of an outside force controlling the protagonist, but there is more to it than simply a policing force.

The idea of the outside force controlling the protagonis comes into play when he feels compelled to change the society for the better – whether to bring edown the government or shutting down the artificial intelligence controlling the humans. The protagonist is allowed to believe he is working to make the community better, or more than what it is, but in the end, he is stopped by the controlling force (usually the government). For instance, in Brazil, Sam Lowry thinks he is helping to bring down the government, and actually believes he succeeds in escaping the Ministry of Information. However, not only is Sam broken down by the series of torture performed on him by Jack Lint, but his grand escape (which takes up approximately the last five or ten minutes of the film) is all in his mind; this reinforces the notion that the protagonist merely undergoes the illusion of de-constructing the dystopian society.

Invariably, the protagonist also has a meaningless job2Fred Glass. “Brazil,” in An Introduction to Film Studies. Edited by Mark LAnger. (Pearson Custom Publishing), 2004. p.373. with no aspirations of advancing. In Brazil, Sam has a dull job with little to no advantages, and refuses every offer of promotion sent his way – to the point where his boss, Mr. Kurtzman, assumes that Sam still wants to turn down the latest offer of promotion and forges his signature. Since Sam has no initial desire to move beyond his current position (for he proclaims himself to be happy), there should be no problem with this (and there is no problem until Sam decides he needs a higher level of security clearance to locate his dream woman, Jill).

Likewise, in The Matrix, Neo/Thomas Anderson has a cubicle job at a nameless software company. He has no ambition or plans of advancing his career with the company, and it appears that it would not phase him if he lost his job. However, his meaningless job is not as important to the plot as it is in Brazil. What is important is that Neo, within the Matrix, conducts software piracy; he is under the impression that he is circumventing the system by performing this piracy. Of course, the machines who have set up the Matrix, who are ultimate responsible for controlling the actions of their crops, probably do not care that an insignificant human is conducting acts that are only illegal in a computer simulation of 20th century New York City.

A common relation between the protagonist and the dystopian society is that the protagonist is often watched closely by the ruling government. In the case of Brazil, Sam’s actions are watched immediately after he accepts his promotion in the Ministry of Information. For all of his efforts to hide his activities, the Ministry is always aware of what he does and is a step ahead of him. Because of this, he cannot escape his eventual fate of becoming trapped in his own fantasy.

Likewise, Neo is watched, even more closely. However, he is watched by more than just the machines; revolutionaries such as Morpheus and Trinity are watching him through the Matrix, and even guide him around his office, seeming to know Neo’s surroundings better than even him. In the sequence where he has to choose to leave with the Agents or leave with Trinity, Morpheus informs Neo that “they” have been watching him – indicating the Agents/machines – and that he is not safe. The scene immediately following Neo’s capture features a set of TV monitors watching Neo. We are not sure who is watching those screens, but it is certain that someone else is watching Neo (it is quite possible that these are the TV screens from the scene where Neo interacts with the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded(2003), but that movie is not in discussion).

The most important aspect of the dystopian film is that the protagonist is not in control of his actions, even though he thinks he is. This was touched on before, when the illusion of the protagonist being able to bring about change was mentioned. Sam’s manipulation at the hands of the Ministry of Information was mentioned; as in the novel Nineteen Eighty Four (for which Brazil was based on3Glass, 371.), this is key, because in the novel, the Inner Party knew Winston was going to commit “thought crime”, and eventually eliminated him when he had gone too far. In Brazil, the Ministry of Information knew Sam had committed the crime of aiding a suspected terrorist, and had him eliminated after he had gone too far. In both cases, the government knew of the protagonists’ actions, were watching him, and eliminated the problem.

As a point of reference, in the dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the members of that particular society are controlled by their genetic conditioning from before entering the embryonic stage. Miscreants are watched by the government and are removed from society. All dystopian genre films and literature contain this key part, and that is what makes them a dystopia.

One could argue, then, that The Matrix is not a dystopian film. Neo is able to break free from the controlling machines and help rid the humans of the Matrix once and for all. In that respect, The Matrix fails as a dystopia4This is similar to Gattaca(1997). Even though most people are controlled by genetics, the protagonist defies his inferior genetic make-up to strive and reach his goals. This film does not qualify as a dystopia, despite being based on Huxley’s Brave New World.. However, if you looked at The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions(2003) as well as The Matrix, it can be seen that Neo – and other liberated humans – is still a pawn of the machines, even outside the simulation.

In A Clockwork Orange, this control comes from the conditioning Alex received after volunteering for the government-sponsored program while in prison. In effect, the government is able to control Alex. In the end, after removing the effects of the conditioning, the government in fact uses Alex for their own twisted purposes. Even in this, a film that just barely qualifies as a dystopia, exterior control exists. This control extends to a point where Alex has no choice but to commit suicide so he would not have to hear the music he was conditioned to hate (even though he loved music).

Lastly, the protagonist is concerned with changing his situation; this is why A Clockwork Orange is only vaguely a dystopia. Alex is simply concerned with getting out of jail as fast as he can. He could care less about his society – but what makes the film a dystopia is the message that it presents to the viewer. But in Brazil, even though Sam claims he is perfeclty happy in his job, he constantly fantasizes of a dream woman who he is sure he is destined to meet. When he does finally meet her in real life, he feels the desire to change everything, especially when he discovers his dream woman is a suspected terroirst.

In The Matrix, this desire for drastic change is most evident. The humans wish to destroy the Matrix and the machines, hoping to liberate all of humanity. The only difference between The Matrix and other dystopian films is that the dystopian film generally sees no change to the situation, leaving the viewer with a feeling of hopelessness. The Matrix, on the other hand, leaves the viewer instilled with hope that the machines will be destroyed. Again, this is another argument against the notion that The Matrix is even a dystopian film. It simply exhibits the general aspects of a science fiction film.

In short, dystopian films feature extremely well-structured, inescapable societies where the protagonist simply exists. He may try to change the world, or bring down the ruling power singlehandedly, but because of the ever-vigil eye of the ones holding power, he fails to accomplish anything but bring his life to term at a quicker pace. The protagonist is often watched, either from the beginning or at the moment of crimes against the state, and is controlled by an exterior force. It was just stated: the dystopian community is unavoidable once a society is locked within it.

In general, the dystopia is meant as a commentary on present society, rather than a story where the hero saves everyone. It is not meant to have a happy ending, only to stimulate the viewer/reader’s mind into asking questions about the current state of their own world. While The Matrix does cause us to pause and think on whether our world is real or not, it does not put social values into question. Films like A Clockwork Orange and Brazil both lay the groundwork for the curious mind to ponder their current situation, or what might happen should they continue along a certain path.

Bibliography

An Introduction to Film Studies. Edited by Mark Langer. (Canada: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2004).

Filmography

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcom McDowell, PAtrick Magee, James Marcus. U.K., 1971.

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert DeNiro. U.K., 1985.

Matrix, The. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. U.S.A./Australia, 1999.