There is a question—the question, which neither modern science nor philosophy has been able to fully explain or answer: What is the nature of the human soul?
A rather large question to ask in an introduction, yet it remains the fundamental query one must consider in order to observe the Dystopian Soul films.
So, to pose the question again, what is the nature of the human soul? Unfortunately, there is no definite, easy answer. The soul, in the word’s most basic definition, is the incorporeal essence of a person, living thing, or object, most often attributed strictly to human beings (Columbia Encyclopedia). For the purposes of this essay, soul can function not only within the scope of its dictionary definition, but also as synonymous with the human condition, mind or self—the colloquial term ghost shall also be utilized in discussion.
Any attempt to define the very nature of the human soul results in a plethora of dissenting opinions and beliefs. Again, there is no definite, universal answer. As a result of this ambiguity, the art of motion pictures allows filmmakers the chance to attempt to answer this question—and there are plenty that do. There exists, however, a film genre that takes this questioning and hypothesizing a step further, presenting a society that has not only determined its own definition of the human condition, but then attempts to quantify the idea, usually within the context of man’s own machinations and technological advancements. These visions of the future build upon the initial, fundamental question in order to ask their own: Can one quantify the soul—can one place a tangible value upon it? If so, what happens if or when one does?
The proposition of these questions forms the basis of the narrative conventions within Dystopian Soul genre. The films of this genre establish a fictional, dystopian future in which society either has or is on the verge of quantifying the human condition—man’s dangerous desire to advance himself technologically and scientifically has culminated in the pricing of the soul. The societies in these films are primarily urban, demonstrate a definite class difference between those with wealth and those without, and generally feature a protagonist who experiences a sense of disillusionment or detachment from society—in simple terms: he is different. This difference is what, more often than not, alienates him from the society he inhabits. As a result, paranoia and disillusionment are persistent themes and tones within Dystopian Soul films. Oftentimes, like the Western hero character, the disillusioned hero possesses a skill or status that places him apart from society. Unlike the Western hero, however, he may not necessarily represent the film’s moral compass—instead, he is the epicenter of the film’s conflict and questions. With those general qualities as its foundation, the genre breaks down into two distinct narrative foci: questions of replication and questions of manipulation.
- Questions of Replication: Metropolis and Blade Runner
Narratives with questions of replication deal primarily with the potential paradigm of existence that occurs when society either attempts or succeeds in an attempt to potentially duplicate the spirit. These films tend to feature robots or cyborgs as prominent characters—usually as antagonists—that serve to provide the narrative’s core concern: can there be a ghost within the technological shell?
When this narrative was first developing, films were able to develop definite, clear-cut answers to genre’s question; true quantification is either a failure or a success. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) stands as one of the first (and landmark) films of the Dystopian Soul genre.
Set in an unnamed, futuristic urban dystopia, Metropolis follows the attempts of Freder, the son of a wealthy intellectual, and Maria, a worker’s daughter, to overcome the literal and metaphorical gulf that separates their two classes. Aesthetically, the urban space of Metropolis is a place of high, vertical structures, with the “intellectuals” reigning above the “workers” from vast tower complexes. The dystopic cityscape is a mass of impossibly high buildings that are a scintillating, luxurious backdrop for a world that has abolished individuality; the opening shot shows line upon line and file upon file of workers marching down hallways towards the elevator that takes them down into the depths of the city’s machines and inner workings. Each worker wears the same uniform, shuffles his feet in the same manner, and slouches, holding his head down in perfect unison. The workers are themselves becoming machines—the image of total, unnatural physical and visual uniformity represents a seeming lack of self—a total extinguishing of human agency. Thus, here, the soul is individuality and autonomy, along with all the emotional complexities that are entailed.
Quantification in Metropolis is presented in the machinations of the scientist Rotwang who, consumed with the power of technology, desires to “resurrect” his lost love, Hel. In order to achieve this—to turn the soul into a materialistic object that can be replicated—he builds a robot in the shape of a female which he will turn into Hel. A twist of events, involving Maria’s prophesies of a mediator between the workers and the intellectuals, leads to Rotwang’s decision to kidnap the young woman and give the robot her appearance, using his creation to discredit Maria as well as bring about Freder’s downfall. His efforts to make a visual double of Maria are successful and the robot doppelganger, heretofore referred to as Hel to avoid confusion, opens its eyes and seems to be a success in replication of the its original. However, in order for true replication to occur, there must be a ghost within the metal shell: Hel must demonstrate the presence of a soul.
Although it mimics human emotions and actions, Hel appears to be only surface and image—it cannot experience feelings, exultation in her actions, or free will and is merely an unwilled, appearance-oriented object:
“The robot, as we have seen, is a kind of image of that automatized [sic], hollowed- out, modern self—an image that underscores a degree to which we have become mechanized, programmed beings, bodies detached from all spirit. It is a detachment, though, that might help us to know ourselves once more, to discern our humanity, and thus to reconstruct our sense of self: The robot’s inspirational capacity, its ability, in one sense or another, to take life represents nothing less than the indelible imprint of its original, the ghost of man that inhabits the machine. It thus images a possibility for subversion, individuality, and self-realization by suggesting that the schizophrenia this world seems to foster, the imaginary it constructs, might eventually be turned against it to free up the self.” (Telotte 22)
There is no instance of autonomy or individuality within Hel—all it does comes from the instructions and plans of Rotwang. The possibility of breaking past the human façade—the mask of Maria’s face and body—is precluded by knowledge of an internal emptiness. No soul inhabits Hel—it is just an empty shell.
In Metropolis, quantification of the human condition leads not to replication, but to total destruction—Hel is a demon-like creature that, as a machine is programmed and designed to do, follows the orders of its creator and offers no true independent thought or reaction. It exists to inspire “sinful” behavior from the lower-class citizens and ignites total anarchy—the perfect doppelganger to its inspiration, Maria, and not a true replication. Had Hel been a true replication and possessed a ghost, it would have demonstrated autonomous thought and emotion.
Made nearly sixty years later, Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) presents a distinct maturation from Metropolis’ position that the human condition cannot be reproduced—in fact, it seems to completely reject its predecessor’s conclusion. An opus of style and substance, Blade’s looming, futuristic cityscape is set against a narrative that, like that of Metropolis, asks questions about the possibility of replicating the human soul—of creating a ghost within a manmade shell—but takes the concept a step further, examining the consequences of the possibility’s success upon the importance of being human.
The film’s Los Angeles of November, 2019 is a dystopian, retrofitted future that is so simulated and stylistic that it has become hyper-realistic. Everything is capable of being mass-produced, evidenced by the city’s ever-present video advertisements and street commerce. Here, “the process of reproducibility is pushed to the limit” (Bruno 67) and that which was once ‘real’ no longer exists. Now, the “real” is not what can be reproduced, but the “hyper-real”: what is “is entirely in simulation” (Baudrillard 146). Blade Runner’s world is one in which technology can reproduce and mass-produce a synthetic, artificial copy of everything—even human beings. The human race has become designed: it can be mass-produced, marketed, and, most importantly, seemingly replicated. As in Metropolis, people in this world are faced, unconsciously, with the loss their collective identity—the dilution and seeming destruction of the uniqueness of the human condition. Humanity, or life itself, is no more than a commodity to be marketed and, when necessary, thrown away. These copies take the place of what they initially imitated by virtue of their marketability and are mass-produced and proliferated. The real then becomes obsolete; with its natural occurrence and uniqueness, it cannot compete with its ubiquitous simulation, mass-proliferated by the technology and machinery that created it.
Quantification of the human condition in Blade Runner has given rise to a new paradigm of existence: replicants. Advertised as “more human than human” by their creators, the Tyrell Corporation (and various other “mega-manufacturers”), these cyborgs are not merely copies of the human race, but superior models; they are equipped with greater speed, strength, agility, and stamina than the humans upon which their design is based. The inevitable catch is a deadly one: these replicants can only live for a maximum of four years. Although they are designed to be completely oblivious to this short life-span, a small group of replicants realize that something about them is not quite as it should be. It is this awareness that puts the small group in a state of desperation, leading them to escape from their off world labor camp and, seeking answers, come to Earth.
Literally dragged into this plot is the film’s protagonist, Rick Deckard, a former Blade Runner—a police-sponsored bounty hunter whose trade is tracking and “retiring” (murdering) renegade replicants. Although he wants no part of his former career, Deckard soon finds that he has no choice. Through his journey, Deckard is awakened to new understanding, at the same time as he is forced to ask new questions—the most terrifying of which concerns his own identity and the nature of his own existence.
The presence of the replicants creates the ultimate simulacra. If humankind is now capable of not just perfectly manufacturing and replicating its collective self, but physically surpassing itself through these processes, then what is it that makes someone or something human? What distinguishes the man from the machine? In Scott’s film, the soul—the distinctive element of humanity—is defined not only as individuality and autonomous emotional response, but the acknowledgement of a unique, individual experience.
Unlike in Metropolis, the renegade replicants (as well as Rachael) do demonstrate individuality and autonomous emotional responses to events—the very conflict of the plot is that they are rebelling against their prescribed programming, desperately seeking to lengthen their life. In addition, the renegades fulfill the film’s own requirement of not only acknowledging their own unique, individual experiences, but, as emphasized by Roy’s last lines, proving that that they might even be greater than a human’s:
Roy: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
There is a ghost within the shell and, thus, the superseding of humanity is complete—there is nothing left to achieve or perfect, with the possible exception of one thing: there may yet be an even more perfect replicant in Deckard. One of the first indications that Deckard may be a replicant is the reflection of his eyes: they possess the same “artificial shine” that other replicants’ eyes do when struck by light in a certain way. There is too his dream of the unicorn—in the film’s finale, Gaff’s final origami “gift” to Deckard is a unicorn. How could Gaff, a fellow Blade Runner, know what Deckard is dreaming, unless Deckard is a replicant?
Not only does Deckard not know if he is a replicant or not, but, unlike the other replicants, he has no one to answer that question for him. Deckard cannot question his maker nor can he have his nature disclosed or confirmed. Deckard is truly all alone, without knowledge of his creator or the nature of his existence, without answers, and without any given external purpose. As a result, if he is a replicant, he too fulfills and supersedes the requirements of possessing a soul and demonstrates that true replication of the human condition is not only possible, but potentially greater than the original.
- Questions of Manipulation: A Clockwork Orange
In narratives with questions of manipulation, quantification of the human condition is expressed in whether or not the self can be replicated, but whether it can be modified in order to change the individual. These films feature neither robots nor cyborgs, instead utilizing man’s own need for control in order to voice the narrative’s chief query: can the self be quantified to the point that it can be permanently manipulated?
Perhaps one of the most iconic of Dystopian Soul films concerning questions of manipulation is A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971). Taking place in a future, dystopian London, the film follows Alex, a charismatic, sociopathic delinquent whose interests include classical music (especially Beethoven), rape, and what is termed “ultra-violence”. He leads a small gang of thugs (Pete, Georgie, and Dim), whom he calls his droogs. Clockwork’s plot chronicles the horrific crime spree of his gang, his capture, and attempted rehabilitation via controversial psychological conditioning. London, here, is a stark, colorless place where buildings, if not crumbling or gutted, are uniform, cement grids. Here, as in the films concerning questions of replication, the construction of the city smothers its inhabitants, stripping from them a sense of individuality and uniqueness.
However, unlike Metropolis and, to some extent, Blade Runner, Clockwork presents a city in which oppressive uniformity accents the uniqueness and individuality of the protagonist and the specific world he chooses to inhabit. Within the darkness of the night, hedonism and violence reign throughout London as the seemingly dominant aspects of this society. Alex’s own immorality seems to be—if not a reflection of—at the very least, reflected in the very society in which he lives and within which he is ultimately deemed an undesirable. The Cat Lady’s affinity for hardcore pornographic art is comparable to Alex’s taste for sex and violence; lighter forms of pornographic content also adorn Alex’s parents’ home and, in a later scene, Alex awakens in the hospital from his coma, interrupting a nurse and doctor engaged in a sexual act.
The world of A Clockwork Orange, whether it is the side of the law or of the lawless, is uncompromising and unforgiving. Here, the self is the uniqueness and free will of the individual. While, as “decent” human being, Alex is far from decent, he certainly exhibits a definite, unique persona, and all his acts of ever-increasing violence emphasize this even further—he exhibits a self, albeit an extremely violent one. Quantification of this self comes in the form of society’s conditioning therapy. After being betrayed by his group and apprehended, Alex is sentenced to fourteen years in prison. However, after two, he opts to take an experimental conditioning process that will remove from him even the ability to do evil things. The notion of the self as something that can be permanently manipulated threatens its very nature as something that is unique to the individual in question.
After aversion therapy, in which Alex has his eyes—the so-called “windows to the soul”—forced open as ever increasing scenes of violence backed by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” he behaves like a good member of society, but not by choice. His goodness is involuntary; he has become the titular “clockwork orange,” organic on the outside, mechanical on the inside—he has become nothing more than a machine, a shell without a ghost. In showing the “rehabilitated” Alex repelled by both sex and violence, the film suggests that in depriving him of his ability to fend for himself, Alex’s “conditioning” has dehumanized him, just as Alex’s acts of violence in the first part of the film dehumanized his victims.
Inevitably, however, the attempt to fully manipulate Alex’s self fails. Alex wanders through the woods to the house of the writer whose wife he had raped and beaten earlier in the movie. Initially unaware of Alex’s identity, the writer takes him in; when he finally does realize who Alex is, he drugs him and attempts to drive him insane by constantly playing the “Ode to Joy” at a very high volume. As a result, Alex attempts suicide by jumping out of a window, but survives. The last lines of the film, “I was cured alright” are accompanied by Alex’s ‘trademark’ grin as well as the graphic images of a woman’s rape imply that he will be back to his old ways again—his self has overcome the attempt of total manipulation.
More often than not, the films of the Dystopian Soul leave more questions than answers. The genre does not seek to answer the fundamental query—what is the nature of the human soul?—but, rather, seeks to provoke discussion on the possible consequences and results of attempting to quantify the soul, whether it be via a process of replication or manipulation.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1994. Print.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford. Warner Bros., 1982. Film.
Bruno, Giuliana. “Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner.” October Volume 41. Summer (1987): 61-74. Print.
A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcom McDowell. Warner Bros., 1971. Film
Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Perf. Gustav Frohlich. Transit Film, 1927. Film.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres. Austin: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1981. Print.
“Soul.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2000. Print.
Telotte, J.P. “The Tremulous Public Body: Robots, Change, and the Science Fiction Film.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Volume 19. Spring (1991): 14. Print.