MOVIES TO LIFT YOUR SPIRITS
From ancient prophesy to Y2K, climate change to alien invasions, "end of the world" themes often dominate politics, art, and even the movies. Where are the utopian visions? After all, a culture that can't imagine a brighter future is unlikely to achieve it.
Films with explicitly utopian themes are rare compared to more common dystopian fare such as "1984," "Mad Max," or "The Hunger Games," with their bleak, Darwinian futures. Writers commonly argue that great drama requires great villainy, but perhaps we're giving the devil more than his due. As movie lovers, we want to redress this imbalance by highlighting "Utopian Cinema," movies where cooperation triumphs over conflict, or at very least, where idealism gives rise to hope.
Our list of Utopian Cinema includes some forgotten favorites but is by no means complete. We intentionally excluded children's movies as well as those with overtly religious themes, but you don't have to. Share this list with friends and family, add to it, and tell us about all the moves we missed. Most of the following flicks are available on DVD or download.
Bart Brodsky & Janet Geis
It's A Wonderful Life, 1946, (celebrating friends and family): Director Frank Capra's classic ranks as one of the top inspirational movies of all time. With the help of an apprentice angel named Clarence, a despondent community banker (Jimmy Stewart) comes to realize that he truly lives "a wonderful life."
Lost Horizon, 1937, (personal growth): James Hilton's bestselling novel comes alive courtesy of Frank Capra, who also directed It's A Wonderful Life. Lost Horizon introduces us to Shangri-La, a fictional utopian lamasery high in the mountains of Tibet. If you've only seen this movie on late-night TV, rent a DVD with the unedited version. The studio deleted a stirring anti-war speech from original theater showings and subsequent screenings because its pacifist message was deemed unpatriotic in the run-up to World War 2.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, 1986, (ecology): Leonard "Spock" Nimoy directs and co-stars in the most popular of the classic Trek movies. Star Trek's interplanetary Federation is a meritocracy without racism or sexism, in short, a future that works. To avert a threat to Earth in the 23rd century, the Enterprise crew must travel back to 20th century San Francisco and rescue two humpback whales named George and Gracie. Real North Beach locales, gentle humor, restrained repertory performances, and a timeless message about protecting the natural world make this a highlight of the Trek franchise.
Time After Time, 1979, (human nature): This charming and original time travel classic directed by Nicholas Meyer pits utopian socialist H. G. Welles against monstrous Jack the Ripper in 20th century San Francisco. The film is part fantasy and part love story, with smart dialog that belies its camp pretense:
Jack the Ripper (watching the nightly news of 1979): Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I'm an amateur... I'm home.
H. G. Wells: The first man to raise a fist is the man who's run out of ideas.
Gandhi, 1982, (social justice): A biographical film based on the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century. Directed and produced by Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley in the role of a lifetime, you'll find yourself cheering!
The Fountainhead, 1949, (individuality): Based on the Ayn Rand novel, with a screenplay by Rand herself, this movie celebrates the triumph of one strong-willed individual over the amoral collective. King Vidor's lively direction and a stellar cast manage to transcend Rand's sometimes stilted dialog.
Our Daily Bread, 1934, (community): King Vidor's depression era tale of a worker's cooperative offers a message diametrically opposite to his depiction of rugged individualism in The Fountainhead. Left or right, Vidor didn't believe in letting ideology get in the way of a good story, well told.
Forbidden Planet, 1956, (knowledge versus wisdom): On the planet Altair 5, the Krell race reached the pinnacle of evolution, literally mind over matter, only to disappear in the wink of an eye. What happened to the Krell utopia, and what is the function of the strange underground network of machines left in their wake? More immediately, who or what is now threatening the lives of space explorers from Earth trying to unravel the mystery? A clash of egos, id, and superego makes this classic outer space romp timeless fun, and thought-provoking science fiction, too. The able cast includes a breakout role by Robby the Robot, the iconic technological marvel inspired by Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics."
The Razor's Edge, 1946, (the meaning of life): W. Somerset Maugham tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I, who sets off in search of transcendent meaning in his life. Tyrone Power as the earnest seeker delivers up dialog as contemporary as anything you might hear at any ashram or encounter group. Forget the 1984 remake with Bill Murray, which doesn't come close to the original. Murray, however, is at his brilliant, snarky best in Groundhog Day (1993), a contemporary riff on damnation and finding salvation through love.
The Next Man, 1976, (idealism): Sean Connery of 007 fame plays a forward-thinking Saudi Arabian minister of state who proposes to recognize Israel, sell oil to needy nations, and upend the global balance of terror between Washington and Moscow. Based loosely on then-current events, this ambitious film managed to offend almost everybody, and was panned by critics for its naïve idealism as much as for failures of plot and direction. Idealism is generally more palatable to critics when viewed in historical context. Two films that succeed brilliantly in this regard are A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992), both four-star fare.
Witness, 1985, (compassion): A young Amish boy who witnesses a murder falls under the protection of a macho detective played by Harrison Ford. Can the tough guy win while refusing to fight? This film makes our list for challenging a near-universal movie cliché, the necessity of violence.
King of Hearts, 1967, (humanity): A World War I soldier seeking refuge from the battlefield finds love and caring among the eccentric, colorful inmates of an insane asylum. But can he protect these gentle souls from the greater madness of the outside world? Starring Britain's Alan Bates and filmed in France, this movie was released stateside in 1967, America's own idyllic "Summer of Love."
Contact, 1997, (science versus superstition): Based on the novel by Carl Sagan and his involvement with the SETI project, Contact tells the story of first contact with an alien race of vastly superior intelligence. How will we prepare? What cherished cultural myths will be threatened? Also check out Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which portrays space aliens almost as if they were religious saviors. Both films teach us about the "better angels of our nature," to quote Lincoln.
Camelot, 1967, (justice and honor): This movie is based on a play about rise and fall of the kingdom of Camelot and its just and noble ruler, good King Arthur. President John F. Kennedy is said to have loved the play, and his favorite lines were in the final scene, where Arthur admonishes a young knight to tell their story to future generations:
Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.
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