Quick, name your top ten utopia movies. Drawing a blank? Me too. Google isn’t much help either. A quick search for “top utopian movies” reveals lists of anything but. Dystopian movies, on the other hand, are easy–Logan’s Run, Silent Running, Blade Runner, Oblivion, Mad Max, etc. This, I suppose, is at least somewhat to be expected. After all, conflict and tension are what drive stories, and these ingredients, by definition, would be absent from a utopian society. Nevertheless, it seems a little sad that it should be quite so one-sided as that.
Be default, then, Lost Horizon is my favorite utopia movie. It’s a good film, well worth watching. Described in its Wiki entry as, “a 1937 American drama-fantasy film directed by Frank Capra,” Lost Horizon tells the story of a man’s journey into Shangri-La. The film’s protagonist, Robert Conway, played exceptionally well by Ronald Coleman, is accompanied on his journey by four other people: Coleman’s younger brother, a fugitive, a prostitute, and an archeologist. Yeah, so about that whole absence of tension and conflict thing. Well, turns out Shangri-La works its magic on all of them, except when it doesn’t. They don’t all feel the magic nor buy into the concept quite from the outset, and from the point where the group reaches Shangri-La, the story becomes a bit like the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go (which is playing in your head right now–insert evil, maniacal laugh here).
Lost Horizon is an extremely well-composed film with good pacing. Watch it for the story, the acting, the cinematography, the directing, and the special effects, all of which are good. I especially liked the matte paintings, which lend themselves well I think to fantasy in the same way stop motion animation does, not so much because it’s realistic but because it’s surrealistic. Most of all, though, watch it simply to see what film makers who were given carte blanche were capable of producing in the thirties. The story of it’s making is the most interesting story of all, with every article on it dishing on production difficulties and excesses, which would result in a “serious financial crisis” for Columbia Pictures.
Disclaimer: The film is a product of it’s times and can be mildly offensive (e.g, a coded gay character is included just for laughs and Shangri-La is not equally utopian for both genders, not to mention the obvious racial alignment of the ruling and servant classes. It’s not horrible, but it’s there.)