Trump. Brexit. Manus. Isis. Real life has become increasingly bleak, and yet far from fuelling a flight towards the light, our hunger for dystopian fiction is all the more ravenous. From environmental collapse to zombie apocalypses, we can’t get enough of humanity’s downfall, usually brought about by us.
When you ponder our last failing gasp in the darkening ashes, a world driven over the brink by the end of new life itself is perhaps the most terrifying. Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – adapted into a 1990 film by Volker Schlöndorff and the hit SBS series starring Elisabeth Moss – and British crime writer PD James’ Children of Men, filmed by Alfonso Cuarón with Clive Owen, are two of our finest failed future fantasies.
Watch The Handmaid's Tale movie on Thursday May 30 at 10:20pm on SBS VICELAND.
Both predict a near future where the population explosion that has seen us soar to almost eight billion has finally collapsed. Published in 1985, Atwood’s slow-dying catastrophe sparks a Christian fundamental coup that overthrows the government of the United States. In a gross hypocritical abuse, a cabal of so-called pious men lord over the newly founded Republic of Gilead, forcing the unfortunate few women who can still procreate into sexual and domestic slavery.
Viewed as little more than cattle to bear children for their high-society wives, handmaids like Offred AKA June (Moss) who resist or those who are deemed morally unsuitable or who fail to conceive after repeated ceremonial rapes, are branded Unwomen and banished to the blasted Colonies, hinting at the role of toxic pollution in this fertility crisis.
Atwood masterfully seized on all-too-real attacks against women’s and civil rights in building this nightmarish scenario and has said that, “when I wrote it, I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” History is riddled with such vile abuses, and they are far from banished. Alabama's state governor just signed the country’s strictest abortion law. Almost entirely criminalising a woman’s right to choose, with no exceptions even for rape and incest, it’s a flagrant attack on Roe vs Wade passed by 25 men, all Republicans. As Democratic nominee hopeful Senator Kamala Harris noted, “This isn’t a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, this is happening in Alabama, in our country, in the year 2019.”
About as chilling a lead-in to the third series of Bruce Miller’s multi award-winning adaptation as could be. But as with all the best dystopias, there is still a fiery passion for justice and a fight for a better, for any, future at its heart. We can’t wait to see what June will do, having handed her second child over to an escaping Emily (Alexis Bledel) in order to burn down the patriarchal house and free her firstborn Hannah, and all of Gilead’s captive kids. A resistance made all the more exhilarating by the defection of Australian actor Yvonne Strahovski’s ‘good wife’ Serena Joy. Serena’s nefarious husband Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and a recently perforated Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) better watch out.
Unlike the film, which starred Natasha Richardson in the Moss role opposite Faye Dunaway as Serena, the new series has expanded beyond the world Atwood first sketched out and will soon return to in print with The Testaments. That leaves us tantalisingly guessing at what’s to come.
With Children of Men, James took the fertility collapse a step further, painting a world on its knees after sperm counts flatlined the world over in 1995, humanity dwindling towards total death one by one. Set in the UK, the government has similarly been abandoned and the country hurled into a fascist tyranny ruled over by self-appointed men. The last born, the Omegas, are both worshiped and reviled, with much of the rest wracked with total anarchy.
Cuarón tightens the focus in his 2006 movie. Featuring unnerving, immersive camerawork by his Gravity collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, it casts a grizzled and brilliant Owen as world-weary bureaucrat Theo, recalcitrantly retreated from a world in which London shudders at terrorist bombings, where various religious sects pray for salvation and refugees crossing British borders are hurled into public cages.
Again, hear the harrowing echoes of today’s demonisation of the other and the championing of unflinching border security by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, haunting the bones of this startling horror. Again, there is the flickering promise of salvation spearheaded by Julianne Moore’s resistance leader Julian, and an old flame of Theo’s tasked with a very special mission: to protect ‘fugee’ Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the first pregnant woman in 18 barren years.
A beacon of hope, yes, but in a world where the youngest man, Baby Diego (Juan Yacuzzi), is killed by overzealous autograph hunters and the streets are grimy ruins crawling with trigger-happy cops and soldiers, what future will be left for her kid if they can possibly get her to freedom? And will the pain of unimaginable loss be so easy to undo? As one of Kee’s guardians notes while they hide out in a derelict school, “As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in.”
Much like Atwood, James knows we are our own worst enemies, provoking the question: do we deserve survival? A quandary Miller and Cuarón understand innately.
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Watch 'Children of Men'
Saturday 14 August, 9:40pm on NITV (NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Starring: Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Caine, Danny Huston