I have many times written about the importance of the story we tell ourselves about the future, especially in big-budget science fiction films. But does all the doom and gloom from Hollywood even matter? And is it driven from creatives at the top or by audience demand? To discuss those questions and more, I'm talking with Sonny Bunch.
Sonny is the culture editor for The Bulwark, where he hosts The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood newsletter and podcast.
In This Episode
Netflix’s upcoming $200 million techno-pocalyptic movie (1:06)
Why is Hollywood obsessed with dystopia? (6:17)
The solutionism of The Martian (8:48)
Do sci-fi visions of the future even matter? (15:03)
Below is an edited transcript of our conversation
Netflix’s upcoming $200 million techno-pocalyptic movie
James Pethokoukis: I write a lot about negative future-pessimistic media. Netflix has a big new movie in the works, a $200 million film directed by the Russo brothers, who you may know from the Marvel movies. They’ve got Millie Bobby Brown, Chris Pratt. Big production. It's called The Electric State. And this is a summary of this film: “A runaway teenager and her … robot travel west through a strange USA, where the ruins of gigantic battle drones litter the countryside heaped together with the discarded trash of a high tech consumerist society in decline.” And then it goes on about our “hollow core of civilization has finally caved in.”
This might be a fantastic film, and I have a lot of confidence in the Russo Brothers and that budget. Here we are, we have a lot of interesting things cooking in the world from the Musk rockets and AI and huge breakthroughs in biotechnology, and that's the movie they're giving us for $200 million, about the decline of consumerist society. You've been writing a bit about this topic. When does it end?
Sonny Bunch: It's interesting because I was thinking about this the other day: Really, what is the only truly utopian vision of the future? It's Star Trek. That's about it. In terms of mass popular entertainment, the only really, truly utopian ideal of the future is Star Trek. Now, there's still conflict in Star Trek. But it is at least a kind of post-scarcity society where folks are interested in exploring the world and bettering everyone. Look, part of this is it is easier to create tension and drama out of things that are bad. And what's the easiest way to look at how things might be bad? Look at what basically works about right now and say, “Well, what if this doesn't work? What if it's actually bad for us?” The idea of Netflix producing a stirring condemnation of consumerist society is kind of funny in and of itself. Netflix is the absolute peak of consumerism.
Literally, the mission statement of Netflix is to sit on your couch and consume; consume so much you don't fall asleep. The initial argument for Netflix one of the creators the company made was, “We are trying to win the war against sleep.” They're not winning the war against sleep by encouraging people to create wonderful new advancements of society. It’s just to sit there and passively consume. So it's kind of funny. I like a good dystopian action movie. I can watch those all day long, so I'm probably as much of the problem as anything else. But it's definitely a thing.
And it just doesn't seem that hard to me to have some sort of positive message, even if it's overall kind of dystopian or apocalyptic. I just don't see that there's any attempt. It's just full-throated doom.
Remember when Interstellar came out? I love Interstellar. Great movie. It is hopeful in a certain way. It's about trying to find new places for Earth to live; it's on the edge of collapse. When Matthew McConaughey's character comes back about a hundred years later because of all the time dilation, humanity has moved up to the space stations that are orbiting and people have been saved. As far as these things go, it's actually a fairly positive message. Except there was an undercurrent from some critics who were like, “You know, this means that like billions of people died, right? They didn't save more than a handful of folks up on those space stations. Most of humanity is dead or dying.” And I was like, yeah, but they didn't focus on that. It's still pretty positive.
I would counter argue that one of the themes of that movie is at some point we turned our back on progress. It's like society be has become anti-technology. To me, that movie says if we had not abandoned technological progress, maybe this huge disaster which has befallen the Earth, maybe we could have fixed it. But now it's too late. Now we have no other choice but to head to the stars, which is something we probably should have been thinking about anyways. I think a superficial viewing of that movie is that it is pessimistic. And I think you're right. I think, fundamentally, that is a future pro-progress film.
Why is Hollywood obsessed with dystopia?
But you mentioned Star Trek at the beginning. Why do you think Hollywood's sci-fi, at least, has become almost completely obsessed with the dystopian and apocalyptic? Is it just that it's easy to make that kind of film? Or is it reflecting something in our society?
I don’t know. What do we like to say? Everybody likes to think they're living in the end times. Everybody likes to think that they are important enough to see the end of the world. This is a constant through human civilization. Everybody thinks that the end is just around the corner, and they're the last generation that will see the world. And now we have the technology and the filmmaking ability to actually realize that world we have; we have the ability to destroy the world on film. (In real life, too, if somebody really wanted to get crazy, but it's much easier and safer to do on film.) And it is easier. It's an easier story to tell. It's an easier story to portray because if you live in a post-apocalyptic society, there are a lot fewer of? Extras. You don't have to fill stadiums full of people. You don't have to have crowded streets with everybody walking around. You just have somebody, oh,
You have empty streets and a little bit of trash, and you have a set.
You’ve got empty streets. This is the Russo brothers. They're doing it all on green and blue screens. You’ve just got Millie Bobby Brown walking around, kicking over a trashcan every now and again, and it's fine. I do think that there's an inherent narcissism to all of this: We have achieved the peak of civilization. What's the line in The Matrix when Agent Smith is talking about how they designed the Matrix?
We took the peak of civilization.
We took the peak of human civilization, but really once we started thinking for you, it became our civilization. And what did they pick? They picked 1999, when that movie came out. That is the constant refrain in all of this stuff: We are the peak, things are to go precipitously downhill, enjoy it while it lasts. It is inherently dramatic, in a certain way, to imagine having to come back from a fall of a sort. But the fact that it is so constant just leads me to believe that it really is quite silly.
The solutionism of The Martian
You mentioned Star Trek, but I would also say a movie like The Martian, which I also view as positive, pro-technology, pro-solutions — we can solve problems. And to me, that's what's wrong with a lot of these other films: we end up not being able to solve any problems. Probably our attempts to solve the problems only make things worse. And that is, to me, a rare example of a problem-solving movie that's plenty dramatic. There's no obvious villain, other than perhaps the planet Mars itself and space. To me, it's just a fundamental lack of effort. And again, I don't know if it's easy, it's cheaper in some ways, it also kind of reflects the views of the people who make the movies. But it's just shocking that there's not more made, because we do have a few examples of being able to do it properly.
It is interesting. I wrote a piece for the Washington Post a few years back about how environmentalists make good movie villains. And the reason that they make good movie villains is because these are the people who the writers can really identify with. The whole idea of creating a realistic villain, if you want a realistic villain, is it's somebody you can identify with, somebody whose goals you sympathize with. And many of these villains — for instance Thanos in the first run of MCU movies, his whole thing is, “I lived through environmental collapse, many people died, it drove me insane, and I'm going to eliminate half of the universe so to avoid this problem again.” Which seems to defeat the purpose, but whatever. The reason he is sympathetic to the people who are writing these movies is that they look around and they see, “Global warming. It’s happening. It's here. We're all going die. There's going to be crop collapses. The population bomb is going off. We're never going to make it.” And nevermind that none of this has come to pass in the 50 to 100 to 1,000 years that we've been talking about it. It is still an ever-present terror. And if you're a person of a certain worldview, I can see why it would be appealing to try and work through it. The Martian is interesting, too, because The Martian is kind of techno-utopian in the sense that it posits a world in which all of the world's powers can work together. There's a very specific subplot with China—which at the time was doing more space shuttle, rocket exploration-type stuff than we were—working hand-in-hand with China to kind of make it all work out. I'm curious to see how that specific subplot would play today, if that is a thing that would be in the novel or the movie, or if it would not be.
The relationship between the nations might have been portrayed a bit testier. That movie came out — the novel came out a bit earlier, but certainly the film came out just as things were starting to turn.
Also, just in terms of the business of Hollywood, it's an interesting movie. Because that's a movie that came out right when Hollywood was really trying to make inroads into China, was working hand-in-hand with the Chinese government to get script approval and make sure that their films got a release there. And of course, it is impossible — this is the one thing I say over and over again to people — it is impossible to understand the artistry of Hollywood without understanding the business of Hollywood. You cannot understand why movies get made or how they get made or how they're received by Hollywood without understanding what is actually happening in the business of Hollywood. And at that moment in time, China was a market ripe for the plucking. Again, things have changed a bit in the last few years. I would be curious to see how that played now.
If I were writing a script and I wanted it to have some sort of internal logic and I wrote that the driving force from my villain is that he needs to kill half of every living being in the universe so all of life doesn't consume all the resources, that idea would die immediately. If I brainstormed that idea, it wouldn't last 30 seconds. To me, it sort of gets at the ethos in Hollywood in which someone didn’t say, “We need to come up with a better motivation for the film, because that's ridiculous.”
Two things here. One, it's very funny, the original comic book motivation — I'm going to put on my nerd hat here for a second — the original comic book motivation for Thanos actually weirdly makes more sense: He just wants to kill half the universe to please his girlfriend, death, the manifestation of death. That's what he wants to do. I actually find that to be much more sensible than what they wound up with. But the second thing is that this is my broad case for [why] Hollywood should hire more conservative screenwriters. Because if you really want your villains to be a villainous and for the industry to kind of reflect your own beliefs, you need like oil barons who aren't cartoonishly mustache-twirling. You need people who are out there like, “Yes, we're going to frack because that's what's going to power the hospital for the children. We're going to build nuclear power plants and we're going to dump the waste in this nature preserve because that's the only way to keep the bread factory running for the orphans.” Things like that.
Do sci-fi visions of the future even matter?
Does any of this matter? Does it matter how we portray the future? Does it matter how we portray—or perhaps in this case we don't really portray—innovators or explorers? Is this something that's just confined to our media consumption habits? Or does it have a bigger impact on the world? Obviously I think it does, but I'm open to someone arguing that it doesn't.
I go back and forth on this question, honestly. I really go back and forth on this, because I do think there's a chicken and an egg issue here. I think that the art of a time reflects the sensibility of the time. I think that is mostly how the cause and effect works, but I also do think that a society chooses how to live by the stories they tell themselves in a very real way. I think this is why myth is important. This is why the stories we tell children matter. I do think that the art that we consume does help shape how we choose to live. I don't want to mush-mouth weasel my way out of this, but I do think it's a very open and interesting question. Depending on the day of the week, I can argue either side of it.
I did an interview early on in my Substack with Ronald D. Moore, who has this great series For All Mankind. It shows a space race that never ends. It creates a really interesting alt-reality, that while there are still problems, we're better off for continuing to head into space. It doesn't seem that hard. I asked him some of the exact same questions I'm asking you. He was like, “It's economics. People think that makes money and until it stops making money, we're going to keep getting more of it.” I would like to think that there'd be something more to it than that, that film studios, if they have the opportunity to make something that can make money, but also doesn't completely reflect some sort of cultural exhaustion, that they would do it. But maybe I'm just too optimistic.
This very much is my point with China: Everything that Hollywood makes is based on the last thing before that made money until none of that stuff is making money. And then they have to find something else. This is why you had a bunch of…
You're still getting more zombie movies with The Last of Us. I thought that had just about died out.
No, The Last of Us, huge hit. 30 million people watching on HBO across its various platforms. We're going to get more of The Last of Us, more zombies: The Walking Dead, 17 more spinoffs of that. We’ll see.