Seeking Heaven, Making Hell: Two Films on Utopian Failure
- Thursday, October 20, 2005
Drama is born of imperfection. When recognition arises that all is not as it should be, an incessant urge drives us to make it right. Yet, despite all hopes and plans, the emerging solutions never solve - though they might provide temporary relief. The cycle continues; the story goes on. The equation holds true whether we look at individuals caught up in the drama of life, or civilizations struggling toward a utopian vision.
The two certainties of cultural utopias are that humans are drawn to their creation and that these visions are doomed to failure. To put it in biblical terms - people are desperate for heaven, but they are enslaved to sin. The latter precludes the former, though, occasionally, light finds a way to break into the darkness. Two recent film releases, "Oliver Twist" and "Serenity," look at cultures centuries apart and cause us to conclude that nothing has changed. Both glimpses of past and future illuminate our present. We are desperate for heaven on our own terms, but the persistence of sin gets in the way. The glimpses of redemption that we do see come not as a result of utopian planning, but through the moral choices each of us make.
The mere fact that cultures seek to impose order is evidence of a world gone wrong. Disorder is the "natural" state and force of some kind must be applied to create order. In "Oliver Twist," order is created through class consciousness. The argument – not Dickens' but the aristocratic utopia builders of his story – is that the world would be better if everyone were more aware of their place in it: gentlemen, peasants, or dirty little orphans. The governmentally sanctioned "Christian" vision is one of blatant hypocrisy, revealed best in the daily grind at the orphanage to which young Oliver is sent to learn a useful "trade."
The training for the job takes less than a minute, and even the most generous observer would admit that this charitable house is little more than a labor camp. At mealtimes, the children are surrounded by slogans telling them that "God is Holy" and "God is Love" – yet the men who run this sweatshop demonstrate little holiness and no love. When Oliver, on behalf of the starving children, famously asks for "more, please" it sends the generously fed administrator running for the executive dining room where uniformly fat men with food dribbling down their chins reward this impertinence by saying that the boy should be hung.
"Serenity" takes a more Huxleyan view. Over 500 years into the future, outlying star systems have been colonized by humans divided between an interplanetary alliance under a pervasive government and outposts of people living a less structured life – the equivalent of the wild west in outer space. It doesn't take long for the Alliance to impose, by force, its utopian vision on the outposts – feeling free to use coercion to bring resisters into its technologically pristine and "happy" world.
Most often the Alliance uses threat or actual violence, but they also experiment on their citizens, trying to create peace through drug-induced behavior control. Attempting to subdue an outpost by introducing a drug called "Pax" (Latin for "peace"), the Alliance's experiment goes horribly wrong in every conceivable way. Instead of learning from the error, the "perfect" government buries the mistake, and anyone who attempts to bring it to light. But sin cannot be long hidden, and late in the film the ugly truth of the Alliance's experiments is revealed.
The persistence of sin demonstrates that governmental force is, at best, a temporary deterrent, but no solution. The underlying thoughts of each film's regime dictate its actions. Planning for utopia is not the same as achieving it.
Thoughts and Actions
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