• Jo Gaffney

stranger than fiction

How do we turn towards dystopian film in times of crisis?

Photo by Sydney Kieng

Facing empty shelves, vacant public areas, and the closure of establishments, COVID-19 has brought on a global feeling of ominousness, coinciding with the typical apocalypse movie opening. The events extending from the virus – such as the lockdown of countries and cancellation of group gatherings – have encouraged many to return to their favorite apocalypse movies; this has included Shaun of the Dead, Independence Day, and Zombieland. People are delving into disaster flicks about infected creatures causing havoc. We receive enough troubling content on the news as is— so what drives people towards dystopia movies in the midst of a global pandemic?


Defined as an “undesirable or frightening society," dystopia is a genre that is categorized by dire, uncontrolled situations. With precautions being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19, we are bound to live in the confines of controlled situations. Although it may be for the betterment and preservation of our healthcare systems, life currently feels eerily like the beginning of a fictional epidemic. In Zombieland, Jessie Eisenberg’s character Columbus puts it well, “It’s amazing how quickly things can go from bad to total shitstorm.” It’s as though we are stuck at the beginning of one of these movies, without a clear plotline. We are in a wave of panic where everything has suddenly turned from “normal” life to the chaos we sit in now. Our inability to predict how this may play out means it’s easy to feel antsy, and so we search for comfort in films with a similar narrative.



Re-watching classic films creates a sense of familiarity – it’s as if we are all collectively deciding to have a night in, instead of a lockdown. These science-fiction fueled dystopian movies are an abstraction, separate from the realities of what goes on in the day-to-day. Escapism is the key to distancing ourselves from a global pandemic, offering us the chance to slip into fantasies for a little while. These imaginary worlds make us feel like our problems are a lot smaller than zombies or alien invasions; as we aren’t physically fighting for our lives, staying home and keeping our distance from people feels like a small sacrifice to make in comparison. Instead, our fear is rooted in a global panic, leading us to be cautious of anyone unfamiliar. What we face is invisible. Anyone may be a ‘zombie’.


The reason that people are turning to dystopian fiction is that it feels like the closest thing to life right now. Instead of the uncertainty of our real-world pandemic, the apocalyptic films move towards a final act. Working through a distinctive plot has an end; people are able to watch heroes experience trials and tribulations, and, just when you think nothing will ever be good again, they come through and save the day. We want a happy ending. The only way we can get through this is to abide by the regulations, even if it doesn’t feel productive or heroic. In Independence Day, so much of the danger isn’t conflict-based either; it is plotting and planning against the impending invasion. It doesn’t feel like this is what will get us a “happily ever after” in the film either.


We are all driven to dystopia because we all want to be a hero; we want to fight against the bad, but we can’t wield weapons against what is plaguing the world. All we can do is actively choose to make considerate choices even if they don’t feel the most heroic. Instinctively, we want to fight, but in this dystopia, the greatest thing we can do is be still, as well as aiding those more vulnerable than us. We can support initiatives that assist those who can’t stay indoors (for example, to have homeless people occupy the empty hotels that have resources), and stay indoors ourselves to reduce the pressure on our healthcare systems. For those privileged enough to stay at home, it is important to keep these ideas in mind. To quote Shaun of the Dead, "Let's go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over."


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