The differences between a dystopian story and an apocalyptic one are slight. It's common for a dystopia to set in after an apocalypse, and a dystopian world often hides its true nature, only revealing itself after subtle revelations pile up. H. G. Wells was one of the first writers to popularize dystopian fiction, with "The Sleeper Awakes" using what today's sci-fi fans may recognize as a Douglas Adams gag: A man falls into a coma and wakes up centuries later, his accrued financial interests making him the owner of the world. A nice fantasy. Meanwhile, a council of the elite uses his money to forge an authoritarian hellscape.
Dystopian movies are about broken worlds at the mercy of greedy or violent causes. Systemic social corruption is typical. Like most science fiction settings, dystopias are a way to reflect on the real and potential problems in our own society. Many of the movies chosen for this list are ones in which characters get a look at the causes of their dystopias — some of these people even find ways to challenge their grim status quos. Maybe we can learn from the mistakes made by the inhabitants of these bleak worlds, before the same misfortunes befall us.
"Daybreakers" is a slaphappy vampire movie in which Willem Dafoe chews the scenery. It's also about the fascinating topic of resource scarcity. The vampires won, overpowering the world of mortals and rebuilding society into a nighttime recreation of their former lives. But in this new world order, Big Blood replaces Big Pharma. It's not lost on the vampire leadership that world domination means that their once-plentiful walking meals just became scarce.
Ethan Hawke, who genuinely enjoys showing up in the unlikeliest places, works for the vampire equivalent of a hydroponics lab. They're working on new blood replacements to avert the impending food shortage. It's a great twist on a classic theme, and the only thing that holds it back is the movie's insistence on not getting too big-brained about its core conceit. By the third act, "Daybreakers" is a boilerplate action movie, complete with vampire hunters and a fairly novel take on reclaiming the world from the bloodsuckers. It's still great fun to watch.
Ben Wheatley adapted "High-Rise" for screens in 2015 with a shoestring budget and a terrific cast. The story is one of J.G. Ballard's most thematically insistent. Less garish than "Crash," "High-Rise" explores the eroding architecture of social hierarchy in a tower where the ultra-wealthy live, cutting themselves off from the rest of society. There's a sense that something's not quite right with the outside world, but since the tower can support all its residents' needs, those questions become unimportant. The tower is metaphor incarnate; social status is reflected by how elevated your apartment is. It's also disintegrating from the inside.
There's some "Dredd" in this cerebral and sometimes incoherent film. There's a kingpin with a psychological grip on the tower's inhabitants, the police are paid to not interfere, the protagonist must ascend the tower to get to the kingpin, and, gradually, there's a lot of violence and primal humanity on display. But Robert Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston, doesn't overthrow the tower's architect. Played by Jeremy Irons, the tower's godhead woos Laing to his side, making him part of the architect's grand experiment. Laing's reward for accepting his place in the architect's kingdom is a feral, dog-eating madness. At least he's got a great view off his balcony.
For a few years after "The Matrix" came out, there was a race to see who could make the most stylish, most impenetrably arcane pseudo-philosophical movie featuring guns and martial arts. 2002's "Equilibrium" is the clear winner, because it had the audacity to just slam firearms and kickboxing together into "gun-kata." "Equilibrium" is a beautifully stupid film that turns the dehumanization of "THX 1148" and the authoritarian controls of "Fahrenheit 451" into Play-Doh and smushes them together with some white buttercream. Also, the fight choreography is so damn good for how dumb it all is.
Christian Bale pulls out his "American Psycho" face for most of the movie, a marble sculpture of gradually building emotions that gets one of the best "oh crap" moments in action film history when he decides that, yes, there will be an incident today. Bale spins himself into a destructive tornado, eventually making his way to the fascist leader of this anesthetized kingdom who is, of course, an utter hypocrite. The result is a perfectly bad movie we could rewatch every single day.
The premise of "Scanners" is obscured by David Cronenberg's sheer weirdness, but in retrospect it is a prescient little chiller. What was once a body horror movie that put unique power in the hands of the next generation of political radicals has become a look at what would happen if private military corporations got their hands on psychics. The results are horrifying.
For some context, the film "The Men Who Stare at Goats" was based on a non-fiction book about the US military's attempts to harness hippie power and psychic phenomena to get an edge over our enemies in the Cold War. That's not a joke. That is a thing that happened in the real world, and it had enduring consequences. In "Scanners," the potential edge these men sought is privatized, weaponized, unregulated, and let loose in a society that's elevated the military-industrial complex into a shadow government. Worse, it's one easily manipulated by these new psychics — the villainous Revok is a classic example of a bastard with a point.
Before "Star Wars" made him a titan, George Lucas directed "THX 1138." It's a strange film, almost Russian in its simplicity and layered philosophical conceits. It also reveals the same flaws that bedeviled Lucas when making the Star Wars prequel trilogy: The man has a hell of an imagination, but he can't create an emotional story without help. It's to the benefit of Lucas' debut film, then, that it's about a world without emotions. Even when off the medications that keep Robert Duvall's bland life under control, there's no deep connection. There's sex and violence, but not much love.
Religion has its part to play here, a mechanical and distant warning against sin. The confession booth is remade with a huge portrait of Jesus, renamed OMM. A shot of a lizard scurrying around inside the machine that runs OMM suggests that nature is slowly retaking everything, and that no one cares about what THX has to say.
Even the ending is a brutalist metaphor. THX succeeds in outrunning the robot police and walking off into the sunset, but only because the cost to recapture him is a redline on the budget chart. No one cares in the world of "THX 1138," not really, and whatever awe the sun holds for this free individual isn't clear. He may not be capable of appreciating it anymore. Are we?
Neo-Tokyo was rebuilt after a devastating event some 30 years earlier, but the forces that caused that destruction didn't learn jack from the experience. 1988's "Akira" is one of the tentpoles of anime, the film that proved the medium could tell a ripper of a story with some psychedelic moralization thrown in to boot. As in "Scanners," in "Akira" military forces seek to unlock a new army of psychics, with their few successes known as Espers. After their strongest creation, Akira, blew everything to hell decades before, the Japanese Defense Ministry buckled down and thought, "What the hey? Let's do it again." As the movie goes on to show, this doesn't go well.
There are a few testaments to the power of friendship in "Akira," and for body horror fans, Tetsuo goes through some of the most grotesque transformations we'll find outside of a straight-up guro film. The rest of society isn't holding up, either, with the sprawling city rocked by acts of terrorism and gang violence. Our protagonists are gang members, too, adding an ethical complexity to their behavior. The ending of the film is as symbolic and acid-trippy as the finale of Kubrick's "2001" — for fans who want a deeper look at what's going on here, the manga series by Katsuhiro Otomo can be a big help.
The Running Man
The novella that "The Running Man" is based on is an angry affair. Author Richard Bachman was Stephen King's alter ego, and the pen name let the bestselling writer siphon off a lot of rage. The Arnold Schwarzenegger-led film adaptation trades in its fury with a world that's turned justice into a gameshow for a story that glorifies violence and showmanship. It also fleshed out a successful resistance movement, one that understands how to turn the medium back on its abusers.
The US Justice Department underwrites fatal game shows that turn criminals into prime-time television. Arnold's character, Ben Richards, is a former lawman turned into grist for the grinder. "The Running Man" is a ridiculous film that hasn't aged well, but the hold television has on its viewers and the way that the audience changes its view of truth depending on what's airing still feels relevant amid the cheesy one-liners. It has never stopped being "Black Mirror" levels of weird that the first response to this film's success was to start making reality shows about gladiators.
Watching "Law & Order" marathons won't make you a lawyer, but at least we understand the limits of the US legal system. We know, generally, our rights under the law and what the system should and shouldn't be allowed to do. "Should" being the operative word here. "Minority Report," based on Philip K. Dick's short story and starring Tom Cruise, mixes the philosophy of free will with the inevitable corruption of a "perfect" justice system. Here, the police are happy to assume that they're always correct to arrest a criminal before a crime is committed, because it's all been predetermined by fate. The concept is enough to frighten anyone.
The film doesn't dive into the philosophical quandaries of Dick's story, instead focusing on police corruption. Nonetheless, the themes of destiny versus free will continue to matter, culminating in a pretty good climax that keeps alternate interpretations of the themes alive. It helps that all the performances are excellent. Max von Sydow as the Director of Precrime is perfectly assured for the bulk of the film, crumbling at just the right times. It's a lesser Spielberg film, but a good look at a world where the possibility of a thoughtcrime is enough to make us fear our neighbors.
Reading the original reviews for 1973's "Soylent Green" is a trip. Not a fun one, but great for some bitter laughs. The film, a murder mystery set amid extreme social disparity and a doomsday environmental scenario, was called melodramatic at the time. In The New Yorker, it was "pompously prophetic," with the reviewer sardonically asking where was the social uprising, where were our democratic leaders to push back against a disaster that's teetering all of human society on a final, starving brink?
It's true that "Soylent Green" is a melodramatic, often hammy film. With Charlton Heston grimacing his way along, that's an unavoidable critique. But Edward G. Robinson's beautiful farewell to the world that was is shattering to watch. Add an Attenborough narration, and Robinson's final moments becomes a part of our world today, with sea levels and temperatures rising, leading to an increase in product shortages. As for that New Yorker review, we've been shouting all along about our looming environmental disaster. The problem lies with those who choose not to listen. It's not too late to learn from this fictional world's mistakes, but it's getting there.
Imagine a world run by the young, who dictate that anyone over the age of 30 is too old to get it — oh, wait. That's much of today's social media. Fortunately, although that youthful exhaustion can be legitimate, we're not at risk of being thrown into the woodchipper. In the world of "Logan's Run," perfect social equilibrium is achieved by doing exactly that. Once a person turns 30, they're obligated to join the Carrousel, a rite of renewal that actually kills and recycles unprofitable peoples. Otherwise, they're free to live beautiful — and nearly naked — lives in a bounteous paradise.
This paradise only survives by virtue of careful resource management, creating a self-sustaining terrarium for humanity that inhibits intelligent growth. The dome's residents are basically children, living only to become their own livestock. But freedom reveals that the once-ravaged outside world has healed. There's room to live again, and an elderly man who thrives in his old age is something to marvel at. "Logan's Run" ends on hope, but fights hard to win it.
Philip K. Dick was a thinker, blending his drug-fueled mindbenders with big questions about what it means to be human, alive, and sane in a world that isn't. It's a little weird, then, that Arnold Schwarzenegger headlines two separate Dick adaptations. "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" became "Total Recall," a hyperviolent, intensely macho blockbuster, but damn if it doesn't work. It takes a lot from the original story to set up its premise and its initial turn, and then it bolts on a lot of high-octane action before returning to Dick's familiar questions. The film's climax is also less bizarre than the original book's, which involves an invasion by Martian mice.
Paul Verhoeven's additions to the story include a return to one the best themes of "RoboCop," with mega-corporations empowering themselves through privatized paramilitaries and functionally absorbing governments. The film relies on the paranoia its nebulous Agency provides, and the fight for control of Mars is a proxy for the rights of the common people versus monolithic authority. Otherwise, "Total Recall" feels like today. It's a world loaded with dead end jobs, where staycations and false memories replace the need to go out and see the real world. The corporations like it that way.
Designer genetics were still science fiction when "Gattaca" released in 1997, but the ethical horrors of eugenics were already part of our lives. Andrew Niccol's big picture debut tells a bleak tale about a world where the limits of a person's future are decided by one's genetics. It's a premise that shows what happens when we ignore the potential of the human spirit in favor of a mathematical readout. Ethan Hawke plays an "in-valid," a genetic reject fated for menial pursuits and a brief life, but whose dreams of the stars drive him past algorithmic predictions. Jude Law was bred to be physically perfect, but his mind and spirit can't match those lofty expectations. Together, they obliterate the status quo.
As their story unfolds, we see glimpses of a world frozen by perfection. Sleek retrofuturism shows a society that's afraid of progress and failure. Instead, everyone sticks to the updated chrome showiness of Studebakers in space, stylish beyond time. The perfection of this world belies its empathetic imperfections. The humanity of Hawke's dreams reminds us that perfection is pointless if we don't have the heart to bring everyone along with us.
Escape From New York
John Carpenter is a director with opinions, and "Escape from New York" hides some sly commentary about corrupt politics and fascist means of control. Written by Carpenter as a response to a cynical post-Nixon world, the island of Manhattan is walled off into an open-air prison for dissidents, murderers, and gang lords. Ostensibly, this has been done as a response to a rapid increase in violent crime, but it also works to scare off any of the President's opposition. Of course, the plan backfires, and Air Force One crashes into the world's biggest prison. Enter Snake Plissken.
Snake is the cynicism of the late '70s incarnate. He has every reason to despise the system he once served, and by God, he looks fine as hell doing it. Only Kurt Russell can make Snake's flowing mullet look ageless, and his sneering exhaustion with the "one last job" cliché he's been forced into makes his confidence relatable. The raucous action and savage world inside New York set up the film's final gag. After all of the sacrifice and pain it took to reclaim him, the President simply doesn't care about anyone except himself. The attitude undoes him, as Snake is too jaded to have ever bought into the President's promises, and undermines his triumphant return.
Children Of Men
The source of infertility is never disclosed in "Children of Men," becoming a potent metaphor for a lack of humanity. It's easy to look at this collapsing society and suspect this is a response by an ecology that doesn't need us anymore. With the end of the world ticking closer with every stopped heartbeat, one of the last semi-stable societies has become even more insular and racist than ever. It's a ruinous kingdom of Herod, and the refugee girl, Kee, with her miracle pregnancy, is the exhausted carrier of hope's last chance.
There are some big changes to the original novel by P. D. James, but the film makes for an equally impactful experience. The taut fear dogging Kee and her unborn child is brought into the open in an awe-inspiring sequence that evokes World War II's Christmas Truce. Although "Children of Men" leaves the ending ambiguous, hope remains the key to surviving this dystopian future. Through the struggle of a few decent humans, Kee's son is born safely, and our species might just earn a second chance to thrive on Earth.
As a franchise, "Mad Max" takes a sardonic look at a world mid-apocalypse. Water is as scarce as gasoline, and as sacred. The tone was set in 1979, the first time Max Rockatansky mastered the crumbling roadways of Australia, and the last time he was a person fully in control of his mind.
The causes of global unrest aren't examined much, but the '70s were marred by an oil crisis, and it's clear that's an inspiration for "Mad Max." Gas rationing and a financial recession brought social changes. Add in some cinematic violence and the hot new actor Mel Gibson (whatever happened to that guy?), and baby, we have a stew going. "Mad Max" looks at its broken world through the lens of small people's struggles. Max isn't a superhero or a government official. He's a highway patrolman who falls into the deep end.
Max reflects the world he's trying to survive. Truculent but passionate, he holds it all together until he has no reason to care anymore. With his family destroyed by his nemesis, Max becomes the face of the next era of Australia's apocalypse. Max's new life is a simple one, relying on revenge and survival.
In 1985, the parental advisory sticker was introduced to notify parents of explicit content in audio recordings. In 1984, the motion picture industry caved to parental pressure and expanded its rating system, adding PG-13. In 1983, David Cronenberg released "Videodrome," in which the government weaponizes subversive and pornographic media to trap and destroy social deviants.
The protagonist of "Videodrome," not to be confused with its hero, is Max Renn, a sleazy TV executive looking for the next cheap thrill. He's lured by the mystery of a Malaysian signal broadcasting explicit torture porn. But after he discovers that the signal is being spoofed from Pittsburgh, and once his new lover disappears to experience it for herself, things get especially weird.
Max is kept several steps behind a deeper understanding of the war between a regime out to enforce social purity and its Marshall McLuhan-inspired resistance movement, but the audience learns the lesson he eventually dies for. The medium is the message, and those who control the medium get to control the message. "Videodrome" is a film that preceded a public internet, yet is as freshly relevant as ever. Long live the new flesh, indeed.
"Strange Days," released in 1995, dated itself with its fascination with the Y2K panic. That hasn't stopped the movie from being prescient. We haven't figured out how to jam a multi-sensory TikTok straight into our prefrontal cortex yet, but between improving VR tech and mental health therapies like transcranial magnetic stimulation, we're trying our hardest to get there. And yet, the most haunting aspect of the film is the race war the Los Angeles police nearly instigate with their fumbling, hateful execution of rapper Jeriko One.
When "Strange Days" was released, the LA riots, which ignited after a jury acquitted the four police officers involved in the murder of Rodney King, were only three years old. It wasn't a leap to realize that underneath the lost Lenore love story and the near-future SQUID tech was a much simpler tale about the hurt Black America still carried, and how the recording of Jeriko's brutal execution could burn California to the ground. It's a story that hasn't changed, and each year the neon-lit SF trappings of this film are further stripped away to reveal yet another murderous cop, and another dead Black man lying in the street.
"The Matrix" closely interweaves apocalyptic and dystopian themes, but the simulated reality in which the plugged-in remnants of humanity survive is too familiar. That the newly unplugged members of Zion go on to gird themselves in the trappings of counterculture movements is natural and deliberate. A theme of reclaiming our unique self persists throughout the franchise, culminating in the triumphant rebirth of the Wachowski sisters as the women they born to be. That is its own kind of victory against a social machine that treats its crucial fuel sources as less than bits and bytes. Are we still talking about the movie? It depends.
The desert of the Real is also ruined, but here humanity gets to feel a little freer. But when Zion is revealed in the second film to be split between an empathetic but sometimes ineffective governance and a rigid militant faction, it hits close to home. Morpheus toes the line between both, bringing both sides together through his spiritual humanism, but it's not as easy as he wishes. At the end of the original "Matrix" film, there was still the hope that Neo could break the cycle that chained the Matrix and the Real together. It's chilling to watch the trailer for "The Matrix Resurrections" and realize that he might have failed.
There's a reason why "Blade Runner" is a science fiction phenomenon, and it's not because Harrison Ford was in his prime. He was one of the '80s best thirst traps, yes, but that's not the point. The point is that world-building in this future noir is par excellence, with every frame telling the viewer something crucial about this bleak new world.
Futuristic blimps exhort the virtues of a better life in the off-world colonies. Merchants hawk cheap replicant animals in filthy alleys, complete with trackable VINs. The police shrug off murder if there's a chance the victim is synthetic. And Eldon Tyrell lives like the Babylonian god Marduk, high atop a ziggurat where he's reshaping what it means to be human.
Tyrell's creation comes home to challenge his maker, and the results are an object lesson in playing God. Roy Batty's synthetic life is too brief, but his passion makes him immortal. What about him was less human than the people he drifted among? The final recuts of the film deliberately blur this question and transform it into another one: Who's more human? The replicant who fought to live in spite of his programming? Or the replicant who was programmed to kill? In the end, Batty teaches Deckard how to be human. It's Batty's passion that makes "Blade Runner 2049" possible, even as the sequel warps the riddle of Deckard's status as man or machine all over again.
A Clockwork Orange
In addition to the corruption of the state, a dystopia can also be marked by the death of our humanity. No movie illustrates both themes as clearly as Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange." The authoritarian derangement of society makes a human stain like Alex possible; it's a world that lets its boys be boys so long as these toxic monsters don't upset the wrong people. The fear gangs like Alex and his droogs induce makes the job of the state easier, keeping the meek and the poor off the streets lest they get a taste of the old ultraviolence.
Alex runs afoul of these unspoken rules, and he takes it with remarkable calm. He doesn't enjoy his imprisonment, and he doesn't regret his actions, but he does understand that he drew the attention of someone who mattered. That's the only power in this new England, the ability to matter to the powers that be.
Some of Alex's former droogs join the police during his incarceration, using brute force and a lack of empathy to do exactly what they did before the milk bars and the canal crawls. What Alex learns from his trials, as he falls into yet another rape and torture fantasy to the violins of Ludwig Van, will probably make him a barrister someday, if not Prime Minister.
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