The best dystopian stories are the ones that take an already existing problem in our culture and then “turn up the volume.”
This approach, however, can be risky as the story must strike the right balance when it comes to the issue. It can’t exaggerate the problem, or it won’t come across as relatable. It also can’t be limited to the point where it doesn’t feel distanced enough from reality.
The 2018 film, Level 16, plays all its cards strategically, slowly unfolding a dark dystopia with biting social commentary. Find out why you should add this Canadian dystopian sci-fi thriller to your Netflix streaming list.
Written and directed by Danishka Esterhazy, Level 16 follows a group of girls raised in an underground facility where their every move — from washing their face, eating, and sleeping — is controlled by a watchful being.
It sounds like a Big Brother-esque situation, but these young girls are being raised and controlled for a particular reason. Instead of being taught by teachers, the girls watch old instructional videos on etiquette in the hopes of becoming adoptable one day.
The protagonist is Vivien (all the girls are named after classic film actresses: Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Ava Garder, etc.), who stops taking the vitamins the girls receive every morning after her friend Sophia tells her to do so. They soon realize the true purpose of their underground academy and their ultimate fate.
Shot entirely in an abandoned police station, you feel the sparse design of Level 16. The girls live a life toned in greys, just like the black and white moving pictures they see all day. They own nothing decorative and fill their days with simple games and their lessons. There are no flashy special effects that distract from the wit and grit of two teenage girls fighting against the system.
Despite the intimate production, Level 16 almost didn’t happen. Writer/director Danishka Esterhazy told Movie Moves Me that she wanted to create a “great dystopian story” centered on young women.
“I wrote the first draft of the script right after I graduated from film school in 2006,” she said. “But when I tried to get Level 16 financed – there was no interest from financers. It took over 10 years to raise the money.”
Now in a world where Hulu greenlights The Handmaid’s Tale fifth season before Season 4 even airs, it isn’t easy to imagine a female-led dystopian story not getting financed. But small productions tend to feel the film industry’s sexism than larger projects, something Esterhazy expanded on in an interview with The Muff Society:
“Working in the film industry, I see discrimination every day. Women apply for film gigs — but men with half their training and achievements get the job. When women do get hired as directors — it is only on low-budget films with so many limitations on time and productions tools that they can’t make films to compete on an international level. Male directors fail, harass, don’t even show up for work — and continue to land high profile films with huge budgets. It is messed up.”
Esterhazy made the most of her budget and production restrictions. A lot of the characterization in the girls we see lies in what’s missing. They each have distinct personalities but are robbed of the opportunity to express themselves... until they learn to lash out.
The absence of material things and the gaps in knowledge are visually demonstrated with empty shots emphasizing the equally expansive and claustrophobic walls of the Vestalis Academy, with the action often limited to a section of the frame. The effect makes the viewer feel as small as these students. As they learn the truth and make their presence known, they finally do what they’ve been denied all their life: take up space.
If you’re looking for a chilling companion piece to other hidden-purpose dystopian films like Suspiria or Get Out, look no further than this dark thriller.
Level 16 is now streaming on Netflix.