Science fiction, regardless of its medium, is often thought to be a means of projecting our ideas of the future – what it could be, what it might become, how it should be, and so on. This is often demonstrated in the utopian and dystopian genres of SF, in which future societies, either good or bad, are showcased in order to explore sociological and philosophical ideas about humanity and society. As Jameson notes, this kind of future projection and prediction can be complicated to express, as semiotics and symbolism grants us the ability to investigate those ideas in more abstract ways: “What if the ‘idea’ of progress were not an idea at all but the symptom of something else?” After all, SF works not to give us prophetic visions of the future, but rather to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in some ways distinct from all other forms of demilitarization.” In the case of the dystopian Fritz Lang film Metropolis (1927) and H.G. Wells’ utopian fantasy Things to Come (1936), viewing these films through Jameson’s lens of progress and utopia reveals our contemporary anxieties about the present through our predictions of the future.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, for instance, is a stellar example of the kind of dark portents and cautionary tales indicative of dystopian science fiction stories. Telling the story of a 2026 city in which classes are stratified between the rich living in high towers while the underclasses work and toil underground, Metropolis opens with harsh, Expressionistic vistas of a city comprised of cold, sprawling towers, cross-faded with close-ups of pumping machinery, rotating gears, pistons and more. All of this contributes to an oppressive, claustrophobic and cold feeling indicative of the kind of sociological warnings Lang and crew are sending to their audience. Cross-fading all of these disparate elements together makes the technological focus of this civilization seem ominous, never-ending, and completely devoid of human warmth and life. To that end, from the start Metropolis feels like a warning about the dangers of technology and dystopian notions of order overcoming altruism and humanity.
Looking at the dystopian narrative of Metropolis, which essentially forms itself as a Marxist class conflict of the future, we can see elements of Jameson’s own criticisms of dystopian SF. According to Jameson, dystopia tends to “[overstate] its case in a manner which specifically undermines its first ideological proposition.” In the context of Metropolis, this is stems from the conflict between scientific progress and technology and its association with state power and oppression. Take, for example, the clock scene, in which Freder arduously works on the futuristic clock: Silhouetted against the giant clock as he strenuously works to move the hands, he becomes a cruciform figure in many shots in this sequence. As he cries out “Father! Will ten hours [the duration of his shift] never end!”, a wide shot shows a horn being blown indicating his shift ending, allowing him a moment’s relief. The film would demonstrate this as indicative of Freder and the other workers being literally insignificant cogs in a greater machine; however, Jameson would contest that idea, noting that the very power and freedom the workers desire (and would later fight for) is associated with the state. If individualism, freedom and workers’ rights are more valuable than technology (which came from the dystopian state itself), can the thrill and advancements of technology really be celebrated?
H.G. Wells’ Things to Come, on the other hand, offers the potential for a humanistic utopia even in the face of some dark plot events. The film begins triumphantly, with “Joy to the World” playing over a wide establishing shot of everyday London (called “Everytown”) at Christmas. Rather than depicting the hustle and bustle of civilization as a bad thing, like in Metropolis, the people move about the streets and cars travel amiably. Director Menzies cuts to a close-up of a smiling child looking at presents through a store window. However, this is immediately undercut by a vehicle driving past an older man shouting, a sign reading “THE WORLD ON THE BRINK OF WAR” sliding into frame along with it as it stops. Signs of war are framed in the same shot as art reading “MERRY CHRISTMAS,” being drawn on the sidewalk by a kneeling man who is framed in close-up, overtaken by the mass of people walking around him.
With this opening scene, the joy of civilization is shown to go hand-in-hand with its imminent destruction, a classic trope in dystopian SF. Right away, the juxtaposition between the happiness of civilization and the possibility of war stripping it away showcases the subconscious anxiety of mass destruction by war that Wells hoped to discuss in the film. This showcases Wells’ complex relationship with the idealism of the future; as Jameson notes, “the originality of Wells was to have entertained an ambivalent and agonizing love-hate relationship with [progress], now affirmed and now denounced in the course of his complex artistic trajectory.”
In many ways, Jameson would celebrate Things to Come moreso than Metropolis, as its politics are much less hesitant to credit technology as a positive advancement for mankind. For him, SF serves the function of “transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” In Things to Come, this is absolutely evident, particularly in the scene in which John Cabal pilots a futuristic plane over the war-torn Everytown. The shots of everyone looking up at the plane, surrounded by ruins, frames the event as an optimistic paean to technology; if planes can be created by well-meaning engineers and mechanics elsewhere, even after the world has been devastated by war, it may mean survival for the human race after all.
Things to Come, as contrasted with Metropolis, supports Jameson’s more optimistic, humanist view of SF, hoping to use the tenets of the genre to inspire rather than play off ideological fears of our own inherent flaws. Often, dystopian SF fails to accurately provide positive portrayals of technology and its usefulness in the right hands. According to Jameson, “to transform society in a liberal or revolutionary way [through technology[ is seen as a dangerous expression of individual hubris and a destructive tampering with the rhythms of ‘nature’.” Technology is usually a danger in these kinds of films, particularly Metropolis, something which should be denounced and avoided if at all possible. In Things to Come, however, it is a way to conquer nature and to help mankind into a better age.
Looking at both Metropolis and Things to Come, both films wish to use science fiction to discuss ideas of dystopia and utopia, to varying results. Metropolis cultivates a fear of technology as a means to secure state power over the proletariat, whereas Things to Come offers a more humanistic view of technology as the means to our salvation. Wells was much more magnanimous about technology and the future, using utopian SF to “bring home, in local and determinate ways, and with a fullness of concrete detail, our constitutional inability to imagine Utopia itself.”
Jameson, Frederic. “Progress versus Utopia: Or, Can We Imagine the Future?” Science Fiction
Studies 9(2) (July, 1982), pp. 147-158.
Lang, Fritz (dir.). Metropolis [film]. Perf. Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich.
Paramount Pictures, 1927.
Menzies, William Cameron (dir.). Things to Come [film]. Perf. Raymond Massey, Ralph
Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke. United Artists, 1936.