Hypnotics of the Screen: Propaganda in the Dystopian Film

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984, 20th Century Fox)

The marriage between film and propaganda have essentially been around since the commercialization and mass-viewership of film — from the British Pathe newsreels of World War I battlefields to the Soviet montage films of Eisenstein and Vertov to present day North Korean soap operas and the military recruitment commercials of the United States. Though there are other methods to display and distribute propaganda, such as print and radio, film is the most powerful medium for its ability to display life to a certain extent of realism that other mediums cannot achieve. A major backbone to films of the dystopian genre is a totalitarian, often a militaristic-centric, government. Both films Starship Troopers (November 7, 1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (October 10, 1984, Dir. Michael Radford) stand within that attribute. Furthermore, we are able to see the governments within those films utilize propaganda films in order to push a certain political agenda. Within both of these films, we see how the utilization of propaganda are used to push forward a narrative not only within the minds of characters themselves within the films but also the minds of spectators in the movie theatre.

Starship Troopers and Nineteen Eighty-Four are two completely different totalitaristic dystopian films of the same nature mainly because of the subjects that the films are centered around. Starship Troopers follows upon the point-of-view of the infantry front lines meanwhile Nineteen Eighty-Four follows upon the point-of-view of civilians back home. Though this is the case, the utilization of propaganda in both films is mainly catered to the civilian audience for consumption.

The propaganda within both films contain different structures and messages that direct the personalities of characters. In both films, the propaganda structure mainly centers around military footage that is meant to incite anger within the populace. In Starship Troopers, not only is there footage of conflict but it also focuses on the political machinery that works in the background and domestic events. Propaganda that is displayed within Starship Troopers contains one main message it begs from the audience: participation. The propaganda mainly fixates its request for participation through joining the ranks of the infantry both directly and indirectly. Directly through military advertisements and indirectly by often displaying how youth, a highly impressionable audience, should participate in society. An example would be early in the film when children were given automatic weapons by servicemen to unsafely play with and another in the quick near-psychotic sequence of children stomping on cockroaches — giving a message early-on on who the enemy is. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the propaganda displays news of the war that mainly show a victorious spotlight. Along with that, political prisoners are humiliated as they describe their crimes and for two minutes per day footage of the country’s enemies are displayed. There are multiple messages this is trying to produce. The continuous news of victory in the ongoing conflict is meant to give the audience a sense of toxic nationalistic pride. The political prisoners are meant to oppress the populace by displaying the consequences of defying the government. Finally, the two-minutes of footage for the enemy is meant to excite a manipulated blood-thirsty audience with absolute hate.

The presentation of propaganda in both films reflect how controlling a government is to society, therefore establishing an idea on the overall setting and situation that the characters reside in. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the country of Oceania is riddled with telescreens that not only monitor the moves of every citizen but also display propaganda. Not only are these telescreens installed in people’s homes but also installed in public both within commercial establishments and the streets. The main situation with these telescreens is that they can never be turned off nor turned down — except within the private homes of a trusted, high-ranking member of Ingsoc. Throughout the day, these huge screens display the current events of war and gives citizens no other choice than to listen to the new words of Ingsoc whenever the startling trumpets of triumph blast from the screen. When there is no news to be displayed, an image of Big Brother is shown to remind the populace that he is always watching. From this display, we are able to see the extreme conditions of oppression pushed upon the citizens of Oceania. They are force-fed the lies of their government and are unable to escape it whatsoever. Furthermore, the consistent image of Big Brother always around is a visual expression of this oppression by representing that everything one must think and react to what the telescreen says — in the name of Big Brother, or else.

Starship Troopers presents its propaganda in a method that seems more democratic. The Federal Network displays propaganda as though it is an online webpage. By displaying propaganda through the vehicle of the internet, it shows there is choice in what content to observe and when said content wants to be observed. Furthermore, the presentation of propaganda is displayed into little “bite-sized” packets. Whenever a propaganda short has reached its end, the viewer is presented the choice to learn more about the topic. Though such a display may seem democratic, it is much further than that. Whenever the option menu appears on screen, the following choices are only available: Federal, Galaxy, Top News, Enlist, and Exit. Considering the choices available and the topics of the films displayed mainly centering around the military, background politics, and the state of the war, there is virtually no choice on the topic of content. The presentation of propaganda gives viewers an all-or-none situation with the illusion of choice. Along with that, we are able to see how fragile the illusion of choice is in one propaganda scene in which an individual is sentenced to death for murder. Though this may seem reasonable, considering the political circumstances it is safe to assume doubt. Following the sentence, his execution is advertised as though it is a pay-per-view special and saying that the execution will play simultaneously on all channels and on the internet, giving viewers no other options for content other than an example of what would happen if one defied the federation. We see this reflect upon the civilian society in Starship Troopers. Citizens have the quality standard of living of a democratic-like first world yet in the fine lining, everything is in the name of the Federation.

In both films, we find that in the end propaganda is used as a vehicle to complete characters arcs as our main characters get their spotlight in said films. Throughout Starship Troopers we find our main characters Rico, Carmen, and Carl make their way through the military logistics during war time. The film ends with a military recruitment commercial that reflects the recruitment commercial in the beginning of the film. The main difference is that role models within the infantry are displayed — the main characters. Carl has become an important asset to the intelligence division, Carmen is a pilot, and Rico is a high-ranking officer within the ground forces. All three of the main characters have achieved what they desired, therefore the films ends on a light, yet violent and open-ended fate, note. Though it may seem the main characters have won, the true winner is the government. They are viewed as no more than political tools and slight muscle by the Federation in order to maintain the strength of their military. Our main characters have become meat for the grinder as the Federation pushes a certain agenda. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, our main character Winston rebels against the government through committing a variety of illegal acts through participating in lust, the illegal market, and expressing free and open thought. In consequence, he is arrested and re-educated through torture. In the final scene of the film, Winston sits at a bar when a propaganda film begins to play. It is a film of him explaining his crimes against Big Brother and his grievances of committing them, a callback to his time of re-education. Afterwards, another propaganda piece plays displaying that the war that has taken place within the background of the entirety of the film could possibly reach an end. Winston verbally displays national pride over the good news. In the final shot of the film, Winston looks away from the propaganda screen and the image of Big Brother brightens the background. With a tear in his eye, we hear the voice of Julia — Winston’s love interest — say “I love you,” and her voice fades away. As the end of the novel the films is based on states, “He have won victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” (Orwell, 336) The government has won.

In both films, we are able to see how propaganda is used as a vehicle to push the narrative of films. In both Starship Troopers and Nineteen Eighty-Four propaganda is used to establish societal and individual mentality, describe the setting in which the films are taking place, and help complete character arches. Dystopian films such as these represent fascism well and give audiences a good sense of what fascism, and what fascist propaganda, looks like. Though dystopian films are generally bleak, it is best to remain hopeful that when fascism reigns, it is the people who will rise above unlike the fates of those in the screen.

MA candidate of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University researching Asian American relationships with film and new media.

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