March 20, 2012 at 10:13 PM ET
The technological divide between the rulers and the ruled is at the heart of "The Hunger Games": While the good guys struggle to survive, the bad guys employ fictional gee-whiz technologies inspired by real-life frontiers. And just as in real life, technology gets tripped up by unintended consequences.
That's not to say the post-apocalyptic North America of the book series and the much-anticipated movie, opening Friday, is anything close to real life. On one level, the technologies used by the villainous government of the nation known as Panem, ranging from force fields to extreme genetic engineering, serve as science-fiction plot devices and special effects. But on another level, the contrast between bows and arrows on one side, and death-dealing hovercraft on the other, accentuates the saga's David vs. Goliath angle — or, in this case, Katniss vs. the Capitol.
Here are a few of the technological trends that provide the twists in "The Hunger Games," along with real-world analogs:
What? No cellphones?
Much has been made of the fact that the starving, downtrodden residents of Panem's districts don't seem to have access to cellphones or the Internet. Instead, they have to huddle around giant television sets to find out what their overlords in the Capitol want them to see. But if you think of Panem as a fictional tweak of modern-day North Korea, "The Hunger Games" might not be that far off the mark: You've got a leadership capable of long-range missile launches, exercising virtually total control over what its impoverished populace sees and hears. Cellphones were outlawed until 2008, and even today they're confiscated from international visitors upon arrival. Internet access and international calling are limited to the elite.
The outlook for change is mixed: Today, a million North Koreans are said to be using mobile phones, but the State Department's Alec Ross told the Korea Times during a recent visit to Seoul that "it will be very difficult for technology to drive change in North Korea, given the extreme measures that North Korea has taken to create a media blackout." That's life in Panem ... er, Pyongyang.
The most vivid special effects are connected to genetic engineering of various organisms, including humanized animals. To minimize the plot-spoiler effect, the only "muttation" I'll mention in detail is the mockingjay, which figures so prominently in the advance publicity and provides the title for the third book in Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy. The geniuses at the Panem high command created genetically modified birds known as jabberjays that were able to listen in on rebel conversations and report them back to the authorities. When the rebels caught onto this, they started feeding the jays false information. And when the Capitol figured this out, they left the jabberjays to fend for themselves. Male jabberjays mated with female mockingbirds, resulting in birds that could learn and repeat musical notes but not human speech.
The twist illustrates a time-honored movie maxim about genetic engineering, enunciated in the first "Jurassic Park" film: "Life will not be contained." That may be putting it too simply, but the field has certainly raised a lot of questions about how to keep genetic genies in the bottle. This month, more than 100 groups issued a call to hold back on synthetic biology until new guidelines are drawn up.
Cross-species splicing is becoming more common: Jellyfish genes have been used to give a glow to mice and pigs. Other types of transgenic cloning have made cats and dogs glow in the dark. Experimental mice have been given a "humanized" version of a gene linked to speech, and there have been humanized sheep and cows as well. These real-life muttations aren't as scary as the tracker jackers, but the movie's genetic-engineering nightmares definitely strike closer to home than, say, vampire nightmares.
When competitors fight each other in the Hunger Games, the arena is surrounded by some kind of force field to keep Katniss and the other kids from escaping. The invisible fence pushes back anyone or anything that's thrown against it. In real life, researchers have looked into building up short-lasting but powerful electromagnetic fields to repel projectiles directed against military vehicles, but they haven't yet reached the stage where a commander could truly issue the order to raise shields.
It's more realistic to expect that future spaceship captains will use electromagnetic fields to protect their crews from interplanetary radiation blasts. One such study is being funded at Johnson Space Center as part of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program.
For years, the U.S. military has been looking into another type of force field, known as the Active Denial System or "pain ray." This non-lethal system can direct a beam of millimeter-wave radiation at a crowd, producing an extreme burning sensation on the skin. The heat ray's victims instinctively back away from wherever they're standing to get out of the beam. Wired.com's Spencer Ackerman was among a group of guinea pigs ... er, guests ... who got a taste of the pain ray during a recent demonstration at the Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia.
Ackerman's conclusion was that the system isn't anywhere near ready for prime time yet, due to lingering concerns about health effects, plus the hours-long buildup time for the beam generator, plus the fact that the system doesn't really work that well under dusty, rainy or snowy conditions. Bottom line: It might be a while before the odds are ever in the pain ray's favor.
The "Hunger Games" aerial hovercraft are like helicopters, only spookier. They transport cargo as well as people, and can be used for combat and covert operations as well. A real-life hovercraft might be something like the fan-driven vehicles that Moller International has been working on for decades, or a scaled-up version of the Martin Jetpack. Or who knows? Maybe the Capitol has perfected the superconducting anti-gravity effect that NASA looked into more than a decade ago. (Interest waned when it turned out that the Podkletnov Effect couldn't be reliably reproduced.)
The biggest shadow looming over Katniss and the other denizens of the Districts is constant surveillance. That's what the Hunger Games are all about: a reality-TV fight to the death, on the air 24/7, complete with sponsors and wagering. It's a popular concept in fiction, popping up in films such as "The Running Man,""Battle Royale" and "Series 7."
The Capitol's surveillance isn't limited to the games, however. Just as the contestants are being monitored inside the arena, Panem's citizens have to assume they're being monitored on the outside. In real life, meanwhile, tens of millions of surveillance cameras are being installed across the United States, and there's talk about giving domestic duties to camera-carrying robo-planes.
Hmmmm ... maybe this part of the science-fiction saga is getting a little less fictional. What do you think? Feel free to share your thoughts about the book and the movie, or about real-life parallels, in the comment section below.
More about 'The Hunger Games'
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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.