Real Dystopic Visions: Cinematic Critiques of Postmodern L.A.

Jonathan NAVEH


The article chronicles cinematic urbanity in Los Angeles with an emphasis on postmodernity and the portrayal of “realist dystopias”. I focus on dystopia as a tendency rather than a science-fiction subgenre, avoiding futurism in temporality and architectural gigantism in spaces. This paper attends to two films from the1980s: Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984) and They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). The films contain elements of science-fiction, but the modes in which they detail dystopia as a tendency – through their commentary on criminality and policing, surveillance, consumerism, class division, and corporate/political collusion – emphasize local and tangible issues. Repo Man and They Live avoid the more iconic landmarks and landscapes of Los Angeles in favor of the city’s inconspicuous, unadorned streets, illustrating an urban decay that was a site of anxiety for many civilians during the 1980s. Repo Man and They Live take cues from Jean-Luc Godard’s realist dystopia Alphaville (1965), a film which ends up rearing an urban critique as using real spaces at a real historical moment. Essentially, these texts revise notions of the dystopia subgenre as futurist, stylized, and a problem of tomorrow. Specifically within Los Angeles, it chronicles the city’s own historical push and pull relationship with being characterized as both utopic and dystopic.

Keywords: urbanism, dystopia, postmodernism, 1980s cinema, realism, Los Angeles