Between the Trump administration, pandemic, civil unrest and insurrection, America has felt especially apocalyptic in the past five years. These turbulent times—exacerbated by our unhealthy dependence on technology that ensures we experience overwhelming tragedy in real-time—have caused widespread isolation and anxiety among Gen Z, leading many of us to wonder: Is this the start of the end of the world? Halina Reijn’s Bodies Bodies Bodies screens this generational dread as an outrageous murder-mystery, jam-packed with an extravagant setting, ludicrous one-liners and facepalm-inducing twists. The film opts for dark humor and satire when examining society’s violent tendencies, moral shortcomings and mind-numbing angst, creating a murderous dystopian world. Though the film has been described in wildly contradicting ways—“a romp of a good time;” “an abhorrent, frustrating, ugly experience;” “a twisted and hilarious delight;” and, most bizarrely, a “95-minute advertisement for cleavage”—it is best taken as a modern dramatization of Huxleyan terror.
If it’s been a while since you read Brave New World, allow me to jog your memory. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel describes a futuristic society where science, pleasure and productivity reign supreme. In Huxley’s despotic World State, political passivity is meticulously orchestrated through Pavlovian conditioning, biogenetics, endless entertainment options and an ecstasy-like drug called soma. Everybody, no matter their position in the genetically engineered caste system, is blissfully stimulated and happy all the time. This benevolent dystopia is a stark contrast to the more frequently referenced totalitarian state in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, Huxley’s prophetic novel seems to more accurately reflect the technology-dependent culture we currently find ourselves in. This opinion is best observed in Neil Postman’s foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business:
… in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history [because] people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think… Orwell feared those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture… In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
Passivity. Egoism. Triviality. These dystopian qualities jump from the pages of Brave New World and onto the silver screen in Bodies Bodies Bodies. The satirical horror follows longtime friends—Sophie (Amandla Stenberg), Alice (Rachel Sennott), David (Pete Davidson), Jordan (Myha’la Herrold) and their respective plus ones—during a mansion-destination “hurricane party” gone terribly wrong.
In Bodies, soma is offered in abundance as cocaine, hard liquor and flamboyant pop bangers courtesy of Charli XCX and Azealia Banks. These overwhelming stimuli are often extended to viewers as pills of dizzying camera movement and disordered setting. The notion that our unfocused, trivial culture will ultimately bring society’s collapse is best observed when exploring the film as an analogy for climate change. The feature is set against the backdrop of an aggressive hurricane, yet the severe weather phenomena is of little concern to the young characters. In fact, the group finds excitement in the chaos, cheering and popping champagne bottles when it begins to rain on them in an early sequence. Later, Jordan, Alice and Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) lounge around a cluttered kitchen island donning luxurious white robes. Around them, the faint buzzing of a weather report and the film’s non-diegetic score overwhelms the auricular landscape. Though she’s busy doing everything else besides listening to the report, Alice scoffs, “Ugh, my God. Can you turn that off? It’s bumming me out.” Emma turns off the television and the trio proceed to drink expensive booze and record a video of themselves dancing to Curtis Roach’s viral song “Bored in the House.” The outside world is annoying and boring. What really matters to this group are their drugs, their petty drama and their fun. The tropical cyclone acts as nothing more than a mere inconvenience to them, a blip on their radar of narcissism and self-indulgence—and a wonderful excuse to party.
Their inability to act, or simply react, to climate disaster spells immediate destruction for the group. Their indifference towards humanity’s impending doom manifests symbolically through the whodunnit narrative and their remarkable ineptitude for meaningful connection. The grand mansion, meant to be a safe haven for them during the storm, acts instead as a labyrinth of material excess and miscommunication. Throughout the film, Reijn never establishes the layout of the house. Is it two stories? Three? Throughout the film, we rarely know the characters’ exact locations and new rooms seem to be introduced at random. Are they upstairs? Downstairs? Near the living room? It’s unclear. This environmental disorientation creates suspense as a viewer, but is often fatal for the intoxicated partygoers. Their scattered locations, compounded by their inebriated states, lead to paranoia, major misunderstandings and five avoidable deaths.
Beyond their apathy towards climate change, the antiheroes’ chaotic chatter paints a picture of a generation with no thirst for knowledge. Phrases like “you’re silencing me,” “I’m an ally” and “that’s so ableist” are misused, weaponized or thrown around so haphazardly that they lose their intended meaning. This irresponsible adoption of progressive vernacular mirrors the arcane, tactical language of the World State. In Brave New World, terms such as “Hypnopaedic Control Room,” “Slough Crematorium” and “Supervisor of Bokanovskification” are used to suppress political literacy and create ignorance among citizens. Bodies utilizes language that originally had the opposite intent and speakers whose carelessness ensures the same effect.
Words like “trigger” and “toxic” are meant to empower their user, to provide people with the tools to detect and resist harmful interpersonal experiences. Instead, the well-intended language becomes diluted and lampooned. Bodies does this knowingly. In an especially meta scene, a coked-out David rambles on about the matter.
“Gaslight is, like, one of the most overused words ever, to, like, the point of annihilation. Okay, it doesn’t mean anything,” he sneers as he proceeds to gaslight his girlfriend. Though the film obviously pokes fun at Gen Z, it doesn’t necessarily belittle the generations’ linguistic efforts towards inclusivity and progress. Rather than critique our desire for emotional intelligence, the film criticizes a more general disinterest in understanding, intention and awareness. In all of our back pockets exists an incredible device with endless information and educational capacity. In lieu of Googling what words mean and how to use them correctly, most of us will simply repeat it in context of how we saw it used online and hope for the best. The same can be said of our larger society when it comes to fact-checking bogus news or inquiring into world affairs. With so much information at our fingertips, we can sometimes become so overwhelmed by it all that we don’t access any of it.
Ironically, this lesson on responsible use of language played out IRL upon the film’s release. When the New York Times published its review calling the film an ad for cleavage, Bodies star and executive producer Amandla Stenberg took to Instagram DMs to message critic Lena Wilson, writing, “Ur review was great, maybe if you had gotten ur eyes off my tits you could’ve watched the movie.” Wilson subsequently went to Twitter to express her frustration with the message, sharing a screenshot of Stenberg’s DM and writing, “always weird when the homophobia is coming from inside the house…” The feud was later taken to TikTok and that’s where things turned sour for the critic, with a vast majority of invested social media users calling out her initial criticism of the film and siding with Stenberg. Now that it’s been a little over a month since this all went down (which is an eternity in the world of Twitter cancellations and online feuds), hindsight has made it abundantly clear—at least to me—that this is a case where someone made a reductive statement on a majority women-led project, got called out for it and weaponized an emotionally and politically charged word to deflect accountability. The critic’s misuse of “homophobia” dilutes its potency for identifying and condemning legitimate instances of discrimination. Abuse of well-intended left-wing language actually has conservative consequences, fueling disdain and skepticism around social progress and trivializing efforts to counter our own oppression. In citing this feud, my intention is not to pass judgment on the involved parties (or to pretend that I’m a perfect person/writer incapable of making similar mistakes), only to observe the irony of the situation.
The absurdity of this online drama (and our petty fascination with it) only emphasizes the timeliness of Reijn’s work. Whatever our personal opinions on Bodies Bodies Bodies, it’s important not to overlook the lessons the outrageous film, and its reception, can impart regarding social and individual responsibility. In a society where meaning is so easily lost and we often feel alone in navigating our culture of tragedy and irrelevance, we have to remember our duty—to ourselves and our world—to act with intention and wield our digital and spoken words with a little more care and consideration. I know that things are stacked against us—that our unsettling descent into Huxleyan madness is not the sole product of individual failure, rather something largely manufactured by wider-reaching tyrannical powers—but we must resist that seductive dystopia; to actively and passionately hate the forces that want to tear us apart.
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.