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The Visualisation of Utopia in Recent Science Fiction Film

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journal contribution
posted on 21.05.2017 by Paul Atkinson
Utopia can be conceived as a possibility - a space within language, a set of principles, or the product of technological development - but it can-not be separated from questions of place, or more accurately, questions of "no place." In between the theoretically imaginable utopia and its realisation in a particular time and place, there is a space of critique, which is exploited in anti-Utopian and critical dystopian narratives. In Science Fiction narratives of this kind, technology is responsible for the transformation of the utopian impulse into a set of principles that are precisely stated and rigidly enforced. The critique focuses on the impossibility, due to the reductive force of instrumental reason, of any systematic realisation of a eutopia where the positive qualities of freedom, individualism and creativity are nurtured. The films Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg (Dreamworks, 2002), and Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol (Columbia, 1997), both examine utopian claims through speculation on the possible future use of current technologies, the tools of crime investigation and the genome project respectively. However, an examination of the plot cannot attend sufficiently to the particular properties of film and how it, as a medium, constructs utopia as a place. This article aims to address this issue by examining how technologically derived images of utopia are realised in the visual space of film, that is, on the level of the mise en scène. These images are often dystopian but the distinction between dystopia and eutopia is not crucial to the argument, because the aim is not to return utopianism to its place at the vanguard of progressive politics, nor to reject utopianism on the basis that it is unrealisable, but rather to examine how technology and utopianism can combine in the visual language of film. My concern here is to investigate how utopia is conceived according to the specific features of the medium rather than to present an overarching narrative judgement as to the value of utopian principles. In Gattaca, the utopianism of a genetically determined future is reproduced in the mise en scène as a set of aesthetic principles, whereas in Minority Report the utopian technology itself resembles the apparatus of film. This involves two quite different approaches to the visualisation of utopia: in Gattaca, utopia is embodied in a society in which there can be "no other place," realised through the subtraction or reduction of visual difference; in Minority Report, utopia is an expression of a panoptic regime that can incorporate all visual and cultural difference such that the visible is "every place."


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