Is Everything Awesome?: Dystopia in the Lego Movie

Is Everything Awesome?: Dystopia in the Lego Movie

Well, if you watched the whole movie, then you know the awesomeness of the Lego civilization was constructed from several layers of facade. The Lego Movie released on Feburary 7 of this year to waves of approval from viewers and critics alike. The critical reception in particular was impressed with the film’s boldness in both its story and characters (Batman in particular was some wonderfully ruthless satire). As I watched it, I was impressed with its deconstruction of the “chosen one” narrative, a lazy narrative formula that grows ever more tiresome. After ruminating on the movie for a while, I found the element that is sticking with me is the Lego Movie’s depiction of a dystopia. Some Dystopian Background Dystopian fiction has been around for a very long time and has taken on many forms. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a dystopia as “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.” The OED records the first use of the term “dystopian” in 1868 by J.S. Mill, who used the term “dys-topian” in a discussion regarding the impossibility of a utopian existence. The term increased in use in the 1960s. The novels Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell are two of the earliest, and still most recognizable, works of dystopian fiction. The genre never went away (Bioshock, Idiocracy, and Wall.E are all great, more current examples) and lately it has seen a resurgence in popular culture. From The Hunger Games to The Last of Us, harsh worlds that test the very fiber of humanity are on everyone’s minds.

      The Lego Movie knows this and uses a dystopian world for the setting of its surprisingly complex examination of the relationship between a boy and his father. It presents a world where everything is awesome but that image falls to pieces when a man named Emmet meets a girl named Wyldstyle. Now, the usual template for dystopian society is that everything is awful, everyone knows its awful, but the powers-that-be have created something to distract the public from their misery, like the death race (Death Race 2000), and the running man contest (The Running Man). These stories will often follow a person who knows or finds out the truth behind the lie and their quest to change their world for the better. Alternatively, everything is awful, everyone knows it, and there is no respite, like the underwater city of Rapture (Bioshock), the capital wasteland (Fallout 3), and sandstorm-ravaged Dubai (Spec-Ops: The Line). These stories often include a plan or idea to make the world better but are more about surviving in this world.   The Lego World       The Lego Movie takes the first approach but frames it in a different way, similar to the flying city of Colombia (Bioshock Infinite), the audience is presented with a world that seems like a wonderful place but there are little hints, the street signs, President Business, a comedy show, and a pop song, that the average lego person either would not notice or find suspicious. Emmet, the main character of The Lego Movie, is our portal into this bright and happy world. We meet him as he is wakes up in the morning with a smile on his face and bids a cheery good morning to all the inanimate objects in his house. His first order of business is to pluck, from his book shelf, an instruction manual on “How to: Fit in! Have Everybody Like You! And Always Be Happy!” This manual is Emmet’s guide for interacting with the world, as it details the steps to be a successful a happy Lego person. The steps include:

Step 1: Breathe

Step 2: Greet the day, smile, and say “Good morning city!”

Step 10 (maybe): Watch tv

Step 12: Obey all traffic signs and regulations

Step 13: Enjoy popular music

Emmet religiously follows these steps (narrating them as he goes) and as he drives, through the city to his job, he passes under and beside street and building signs that display and encourage the rules. A scene where Emmet is pulling up to a checkpoint shows signs that say things like “Conform,” “Don’t stay up all nite,” and “President because I said so.” During his morning address, President Business, makes a comment about putting people to sleep who don’t follow the rules, which Emmet notices but immediately forgets when he sees a preview for the popular sitcom “Where are my pants?,” which refers to Robocop’s “I’d buy that for a dollar.” The world ruled by President Business provides many distractions and indoctrinations for its subjects to keep them in order, which President Business prizes over everything.

Everything Seems Awesome

He is the president and he means business.

The instruction manual (discussed above) and the popular song “Everything is Awesome” are both great examples of the indoctrination; both encourage the values of the society while assuring the Lego folk that their lives are awesome! The driving montage up through the construction scene put this indoctrination into practice, as we watch the city blissfully operate according to the rules. They all park in the lines (the synchronization of the parking really hammers the point home), drop off their dry cleaning, get their expensive coffee, and root for the local sport team in unison. Even at the construction site, they demolish everything “weird,” follow the instructions, and hang a sigh of President Business that says “I’ve got my eye on you!” with such satisfaction that they seem truly happy. Because they are. The Lego Movie delivers a dystopian world filled with happy people who do not know any better. This dystopia, built on ignorance, is what I imagine a real dystopia would function, because ignorance is a powerful force. Pervert art to distract and indoctrinate and give the masses a friendly face with which to identify and create a façade of awesomeness for everyone to enjoy and no one will be the wiser. Or will they?

Read about the use of Postmodern tropes in The Lego Movie here.

  • Elizabeth

    Great article, very interesting!

  • We are way past that point already. Go to a country like Colombia for a week and then come back here. Your eyes will be opened if they haven’t been already.

  • Mitch

    I am afraid that you are mixing up a dystopia and a post-apocalyptic society. The Lego Movie IS a dystopia, but the other things you call dystopias are actually post-apocalyptic societies. Just being set in the future and having bad thing happen does NOT make it a dystopia. The key element to a dystopia is that it LOOKS like a utopia if you just glance at it (“everything is awesome!”), but when you delve more deeply into it you see that this perfection comes at the price of free thought. See, dystopian literature was first written as a satiric response to Thomas Moore’s Utopia (a book which may or may not be satire itself), which depicts a perfect (albeit unreachable) society. If there is not a sham of perfection, or at least a blind acceptance of the way things are by the people thanks to misinformation or brainwashing, then it is not really dystopian.

    To be called a dystopian future, there must be some sort of governing force that controls people’s thoughts and/or desires *without* their overt knowledge, usually through a combination of propaganda and brainwashing. Otherwise it’s just a futuristic novel with a bad government. The whole point of dystopian literature is to show how people can *think* they are living in a perfect society but if the veil is lifted they will realize that their seemingly perfect world is actually a big sham.

    Wall E and Bioshock are examples of sci fi apocalyptic futures, NOT dystopian futures. The *history* of the city in Bioshock involves a dystopian society, but by the time the game starts it is POST-dystopian apocalyptic, NOT dystopian. In fact, very few of the examples you referenced are really dystopias and the “types” of dystopias you describe aren’t dystopias at all. If everything is awful and people know it but are distracted from it by the government, then it MIGHT be a dystopia depending on HOW they are distracted. But if they are awful and everybody knows it and nobody tries to hide it or pretends to fix it then it’s a post-apocalyptic future, not a dystopia. The POINT of a dystopia is that it is SATIRE of a utopia. That’s where the name comes from.

    A few examples of true dystopian literature: Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, The Uglies series (people are lobotomized when they are surgically made “pretty” to keep everyone the same and under control), The Hunger Games (only the people in the Capitol of Panem truly live IN a dystopia in the HG–Katniss is on the outside of it looking in), The Lego Movie, Divergent (though this is a different kind of dystopia–instead of looking perfect it involves thinking you understand why society works the way it does only to discover that you’re actually part of a sociological experiment).

    Not utopias: The Selection by Kiera Cass (the people know the government controls them and hides stuff and just don’t do anything about it), Bioshock (post-apocalyptic), Wall E (no one tried to force humankind into becoming what it did–people just got lazy), Fallout 3, Walking Dead, Mad Max, anything else where stuff is just crap–those are post-apocalyptic futures).

    • Wall E and Bioshock are both Dystopias: In Wall E it’s not the garbage dump earth (which you’re right, is post apocalyptic) but the space station society where everyone rides on their hover chairs and drinks big gulps. In Bioshock, the Dystopia is the Utopia that they tried to create. Yes, in the present you are digging through the rubble after that society collapses, but you are exploring artifacts from the Dystopia and discovering how everything failed to uphold the promise of the place, and instead fell apart. In Bioshock Infinite, you are running around the Dystopia that still exists.