Top 10 disturbing dystopias

Top 10 Sam Kurd
18 Feb 2011 - 13:26

Film, TV and literature is filled with dark visions of the future, full of oppressive state control and bad weather. Here are 10 of the most disturbing…

Why are we so drawn to dystopian visions of our future? There’s something compelling about these gritty, dirty, hopeless settings of oppressive state control that keeps us coming back to them time and time again in books, film and TV. If the appeal of fiction, especially speculative fiction, is meant to be escapism, then why would we want to escape to such an unpleasant scenario?

It’s probably schadenfreude. We see the poor downtrodden masses and think, “There but for the grace of random fluctuations in the space/time continuum go I”. It’s always fascinating to examine the dark side of human nature, and studying the effects of power’s corrupting influence on mankind is always particularly interesting.

Some of the societies listed below earned their dystopian status by virtue of circumstances beyond people’s control, though most came about through human greed and ingenuity. In all cases, they’re classic examples of places no one in their right mind would want to live.

Without any further ado (because the State forbids it it!), let’s run down the best - or worst – dystopias in fiction…

10. The Matrix

“Throughout human history, we have been dependent on machines to survive. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.”

This is at the bottom of the list because, at first glance, it seems harmless enough. Life as normal, boring everyday humdrum existence. People drive their cars, go to work, eat delicious steaks. The whole shebang.

But all that’s just an illusion. The reality is darker and much more horrific. Our world is merely a simulation, and we are nothing more than organic batteries, hooked up to sinister machines, providing power for our robot overlords.

We are their slaves, confined and suffering terribly, and we don’t even know it. Sure, there’s an underground group of activists working to free the human race and wake us from our slumber. But let’s face it: it’ll take more than some slowmo action sequences and badly phrased cod-philosophy to save the world. We’re doomed.

9. RoboCop

“Somewhere there is a crime happening.”

Don’t you just hate evil, faceless corporations? They’re the perfect organisation for movie villains to work for. Unethical business practices, sneering suits, rampant greed – RoboCop’s OCP has it all. And though they may not run the whole world, they do a fine job of ensuring that Detroit is a desolate hole. Gangs rule the streets, the police are on strike and the quality of life is pretty damned low. All this while the crooked 80s-style yuppies wallow in drugs and line their pockets.

Enter RoboCop – part man, part machine, all awesome. While most of the city’s police force is on strike, leaving crooks to overrun the litter-strewn streets, he and his partner do their best to restore law and order. It’s a hopeless task, of course, but at least they’re trying, which is more than can be said for most of the businessmen in charge.

Not for nothing is there currently an online campaign to get the city of Detroit to erect a statue to him.

8. Idiocracy

“But the English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner city slang, and various grunts…”

According to this film, the future is dumb. I mean really dumb. America of the 26th Century is a terrible, stupid place to live if you have an IQ over 85. The idea is that if stupid people outbreed intelligent people, then this is the sort of society we’ll be stuck with in the far flung future.

This is a world where the most popular show on TV is called Ow My Balls, and is exactly as highbrow as you’d expect it to be. Doctors, lawyers, police officers... all are morons, with incredibly annoying whiny voices and gormless laughs.

Though there’s no oppression as such, people do have to live with the burden of their crippling stupidity: no culture, no achievements, nothing worthwhile. It’s an intellectual’s nightmare.

7. Children Of Men

“I can't really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can't remember when anyone else did either.”

Children Of Men is set in a world where women have become infertile, and babies are no longer born. When I first read the synopsis, I thought, “Sounds like a blissful utopia to me!”

All joking aside, this future is as bleak as any on this list. It’s as though mankind simply gives up if all hope for the future seems lost. The government struggles to keep control of the rioting populace, and Clive Owen trudges all over the place battling existential angst.

The scariest part of all this is that it’s set so close to our own time, only a generation away. All the scenes of rioting and civil unrest seem eerily familiar and ring especially true given recent political events.

The only vaguely futuristic elements are the occasional gadget and the digital newspaper, which we’re probably not far off from anyway. The world of Children Of Men feels like it could happen tomorrow.

6. V For Vendetta

“England prevails!”

Fascism is an excellent bugbear. There’s nothing quite like the sneering thugs of a totalitarian regime to get an audience booing and hissing their socks off. The events of World War II, though over 50 years old now, still resonate strongly today, and nowhere is this more evident than in our visions of dystopian futures. Black-clad jackbooted figures march through our nightmares and into our films.

Based on Alan Moore’s Thatcher-satirising comic, Vendetta’s Britain is a country ruled by fear. A curfew is enforced every night, anyone who speaks out against the regime disappears, and all you get on TV is propaganda designed to brainwash and oppress you.

Thankfully there’s hope in the form of your friendly local terrori- er, I mean, freedom fighter. You know the future’s dismal when only violence will save you from violence.

5. Repo! The Genetic Opera

“Industrialization has crippled the globe. Nature failed as technology spread. And in its wake, a market erected. An entire city built on top of the dead!”

I bet you weren’t expecting to see a musical on this list, but it’s a fairly grim one. After the world is beset by a massive epidemic of organ failures, a corporation named Geneco gains power by becoming the premier supplier of designer organs.

Liver failure? Not a problem. Blindness? No worries. As long as you’ve got the cash, your worries are over … if you can afford the payments. No money, no organs. Worse than that, if you could afford the first payment but can’t keep up with the rest, Geneco send their repo man after to you to cut you open and take back what’s theirs. Gruesome!

This world is populated by freaks, weirdos and monsters in human form. Yes, people burst into song at the drop of a hat, but in true opera fashion they’re songs of revenge, murder, loss and dismemberment. Well, maybe that last one’s not quite so typically opera.

4. Equilibrium

“Without love, without anger, without sorrow, breath is just a clock ticking.”

In the future, everyone is equal. War, crime and hatred have been eradicated. But at what cost? It’s not just negative emotions that have been purged: there’s no more love, no more friendship, no more laughter. By taking daily doses of an emotion-suppressing drug, mankind has essentially turned itself into a race of automatons.

They don’t live, they simply exist. And if anyone doesn’t take their meds, there are a group of enforcers called Grammaton Clerics seeking out sense offenders to eradicate the threat.

As with V For Vendetta, there is some hope here. There’s an underground movement fighting to preserve works of art and to bring down the emotion-suppressing government. It seems like an insurmountable task, though, when faced with hordes of leather-clad, emotionless drones.

3. Blade Runner

“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.”

One of the most iconic sci-fi films, Blade Runner’s setting is the primary factor that keeps it lodged in the public consciousness. It’s pure sci-fi noir: crowded streets, dirty overcoats, perpetual rain. There’s a thick layer of smog hanging over everything and, in true noir fashion, almost all the light sources are flickering neon.

Though it’s not talked about as explicitly in the film as it is in the book it’s based on, there are almost no animals left in the world. All that’s left are cleverly created robotic equivalents. There’s an overwhelming sense of despair and mortality, which is fitting considering the replicants’ motivation.

Though there doesn’t seem to be a high risk of death or an oppressive state government, take a look at the people the next time you see the film. How many of them are happy, or even just content? That’s what I thought.

2. Brazil

“Don't fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating!”

Sam Lowry dreams of being something more than the petty bureaucrat he is. He dreams of adventure, love and a worthwhile life, while the world around him slowly goes to hell in a handbasket.

It’s difficult to put my finger on what the worst part of this society is. Is it the random terrorist attacks? The crippling bureaucracy? The horrifying cosmetic treatments as seen in the picture above? Actually, yeah, it’s probably that.

In this world, even your daydreams aren’t enough to escape the horror of everyday life. There are two endings, one of which firmly earns the film’s high place on this list, though the less said about it the better, as it’s certainly one to discover for yourself.

It’s a surreal trip from start to finish, a satirical love song to George Orwell’s archetypal dystopian novel 1984. Which leads us nicely to … 

1. 1984

“If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”

Sorry to be predictable, but let’s face it: you knew this was coming. You can’t talk about dystopias without paying dues to the biggest of brothers. Orwell’s novel was revolutionary, Michael Radford’s adaptation compelling.

You probably know the story, even if you haven’t read or even seen it: man versus state, freedom versus oppression, John Hurt versus Richard Burton. The proles live in utter squalor, not allowed to think or act for themselves.

Their every move is monitored by video screens, a situation that rings true today in this world of a CCTV camera on every corner and a computer in every house. We’re not living in a Big Brother state, but you can sometimes see why people might worry we’re heading that way.

This is the ultimate story of the failure of a state to protect its people, and the failure of a people to keep its state in line. Both the book and film versions gave us concepts such as thoughtcrime, inspired an iconic Apple ad, and indirectly led to a certain TV series we all love to hate. No, not Room 101, the other one. Yes, that one.

In light of this, can there be any doubt that Airstrip One, Oceania, the whole damned world in 1984 is the worst place possible? I rest my case. 

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