By Max Winter | Press Play November 20, 2013 at 7:35PM
Has there ever been a film about the future that advocated in favor of progress, rather than against it? Metropolis, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, the Mad Max series, AI, and then onwards to such recent films as Never Let Me Go, The Hunger Games, and, most recently, How I Live Now, do not offer a bright outlook for the results of our ostensible progress, in technology, government, or in any form of broader social structure. The days of the Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon visions of the future, in which everything is easier, happier, better, or faster, are long over--increasingly, films purporting to be about our society's future either involve an apocalypse which has left devastation behind it or predict one which may well occur during the film itself. If there is no apocalypse, then something else has been taken away: consider Children of Men, in which even women's fertility has been taken away. The theme, then, seems to continually be one of deprivation, or a sense that something has been removed which was once present. This could occur for a number of reasons, ranging from the sense, on a given director's part, that to predict the future carries with it a moral imperative, to the more basic sense, frightening as it might sound, that a happy future is a weak basis for a story, that unless something bad is coming, characters have nothing against which to gird themselves.
How I Live Now, the latest film in this trend, starts interestingly, suggesting that it might just be a film about the future in which the future itself doesn't play a lead role—and, despite odds, it is successful in this attempt. Saoirse Ronan's Daisy, resplendent in dark eyeshadow, dyed hair, and a host of voices whispering encouragements and admonishments in her head, charges through an airport, punk-ish music blasting on her headphones, to meet her cousin; she will be staying with her aunt in the English countryside because, as she views it, her father (her mother is deceased) would rather not have her around. From the beginning, relationships are foregrounded, even as little visual cues that we are in the future (such as retina identification devices at the airport) continue to pop up. This continues as the movie progresses; Daisy can't stand her cousins, dismissing them as naive and vaguely obnoxious. There is even a love interest: Eddie, portrayed with silent charm here by George MacKay. Eddie talks to animals and seems to have a knack for accessing Daisy; he wins her over when he's able to make an entire herd of cows and bulls move out of her way. Daisy gradually loses her punk/goth affectations, relaxes, begins to enjoy herself, make conversation: the film shows signs of being a heartwarming tale of an angry girl's growing-up, with a winning mood of immediacy.
Then, the future enters in more aggressively. London is bombed, an attack claimed by 15 different terrorist groups. Daisy's aunt, played briefly but memorably by Anna Chancellor, is away on a business trip when it happens; she is always away, in fact, leaving the children on their own, and at the very most she is around late in the evening and early in the morning. This core loneliness at the heart of the childrens' lives—Eddie, being the oldest, serves as a surrogate parent, but he is, after all, only a child himself, and so he can't provide much nurture for his younger siblings—is only the tip of the iceberg. The London bombing serves as a harbinger of what the rest of the film sets out to prove, and what many films that attempt to forecast what lies ahead tell us, as well: that the future we have to look forward to, as a race, is dark, and that self-reliance will be important because, to put it simply, there will be less of everything. Fewer people, less food, fewer landforms (after bombing has destroyed them), fewer cities, fewer options; as daily processes become more efficient, this simplification itself will come to resemble a form of deprivation.
Slight statement though this might be, How I Live Now ends on a more optimistic note than it could have ended on, which is significant; after Daisy and her very young cousin Piper (Harley Bird) take a Homeric-cum-Arthurian-cum-Grimm's Fairy Tale-esque march through deep woods in search of the others, from whom they have been separated (by rough, aggressive soldiers, seemingly separating them for their own good, as there is an invasion in progress), there is a homecoming, of sorts, but it isn't without substantial loss along the way. Ultimately, the title says it all. In the film's last moments, we see a very simple tableau: humans, caring for each other, taking care of themselves. And what are they surrounded by? A forest in the film, but nothingness, in another sense. So the future is a metaphor? Not entirely: the message of the film, and the films that have come before it, might well be more literal than this, a suggestion that more and more may be taken away from us as the decades pass, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, until we are left, finally, staring at ourselves. There may well be any number of slap-happy movies about our future in the depths of film history--Brazil, for example, was gleeful, but in a highly mordant way, or one could always, in a pinch, try Woody Allen's Sleeper, overcast as it was by its director's inherent neurosis--but the films which have made the most cultural impact have, at their heart, substantial melancholy: one part regret, one part fear, one part uninventiveness , one part guilt. How I Live Now, in its own quiet way, works beautifully and admirably against this trend, pervasive as its gloom might be, in suggesting that the sanctity of human relationships can create a barrier between the self and the crumbling world.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.