In 1516, English philosopher Thomas More published Utopia, a piece of speculative fiction filled with musings about the ideal society. Of course, it was all nonsense. So even though it took a few more centuries for the word to come into use, “dystopia” has always captured the human imagination better than utopia. Literally stories about “bad places,” dystopias show humanity at its worst.
As you might expect, dystopias tend to be cynical works of imagination. But that’s not all they are. By looking at how dark things could be, dystopias shine a light on the world as it currently is. Works of literature like Watchmen and television series such as Black Mirror have told their stories about bleak alternate realities to issue warnings about the arms race and social media, making grotesques out of the real world.
While this list of darkest cinematic dystopias may not contain the absolute worst images of humanity, it does feature movies that remain powerfully relevant, despite their bleak premises.
In the opening scenes of the seminal silent movie Metropolis, shots of gears and pistons within a factory cut to a shift change. The laborers amble into the factory with a mechanical sway that’s no more human than the presses they operate. The misery on their defeated faces continues, even as they return home to the monolithic buildings where they live. Contrast does come, but only when the movie moves above the underground factories and up to the utopia where the ruling classes live. There, people like Freder Fredersen (Gustav Fröhlich) enjoy a life of leisure and privilege.
While modern viewers may find the parable of this world simplistic, there’s no denying the visceral shock of director Fritz Lang’s imagery. Adapting the novel by his wife Thea Gabriele von Harbou (who also wrote the screenplay), Lang infuses his story with surreal power that transmutes into undeniable anger. When Freder first visits the underground factories and witnesses an accident on a machine, he sees it transform into the pagan god Moloch, who devours the workers sacrificed to him. It’s that sort of direct cinematic language that makes Metropolis such an immediate work, even nearly 100 years later.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Most dystopias focus on the future, and with good reason. It’s easier to talk about the problems in the present by showing what happens if they continue. But for his infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini looked toward the past. Namely, he loosely adapted the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 novel 120 Days of Sodom by setting it in fascist Italy during World War II. By Italy’s recent past at its most depraved, Pasolini reminded viewers of the end result of conservative leanings.
Of course, it’s hard to attend to those lessons while actually watching the movie. Over the course of its four parts, Salò captures some of the most unsettling images ever captured on film. It begins with four powerful leaders — the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President — agreeing to marry off their daughters to one another, and grows more depraved from there. With shocking frankness, Pasolini’s camera holds on stomach-churning scenes of rape and torture, as the four men take full advantage of the ability to dehumanize their charges. Salò is easily the toughest watch on this list, stripping away all the escapist fun offered by future-set dystopias and forcing us to see ourselves at our worst.
Perhaps the scariest thing about dystopia films is the way they reject our fundamental assumptions about society. We’d desperately like to believe that the world is getting better, that we are improving in some way. And yet dystopias remind us that our advancements are just baby steps and our inclinations toward fascism remain. And few dystopian movies have made that point better than Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil. Brazil stars Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, a daydreaming functionary in the bureaucratic fascist English government who finds himself branded a terrorist after dealing with black market HVAC repairman Harry Tuttle (Robert De Niro) and falling for frustrated client Jill (Kim Greist).
For all of its surreal imagery, Brazil stands out for how believable its world is. None of its baddies are maniacal hate-mongers or even ranting Hitlers. They are people just doing their job and living their lives, from the blue-collar shock troopers who mutter about their aches and pains to Sam’s friend Jack Lint (Michael Palin), a pleasant family man who hands out Christmas presents after spending the day torturing people for information. Lost in the morass of bureaucratic redundancies and mod-cons that do not work, fascism becomes normalized, almost banal, leaving solipsistic fantasy as the only real form of resistance.
“To protect and serve.” We all recognize those words as the motto for the police force, a promise that we will be made safer by the existence of the police. On the surface, Robocop takes that concept to the extreme, featuring a cyborg supercop built from the remains of a murdered Detroit police officer (Peter Weller). The movie follows all of the action beats typical of the 1980s, complete with the hero’s birth, defeat, and return to glory, in which he ultimately vanquishes both gangster Clarence Boddiker (Kurtwood Smith) and corrupt businessman Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).
But in the hands of Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, working off of a subversive script from Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner, Robocop toes the line between an action movie and satire. It presents a world in which free market capitalists run rampant, turning public servants into machines and stoking crime rates to generate profits, all with the support of the cheery news media. So bleak is the world presented in Robocop that many take it as a happy ending when Robocop kills one of the villains and then says his first name, instead of recognizing it for what it really is: the admission that humanity is buried forever in a metal shell.
Lots of dystopian movies are about oppressive governments and street violence. But few have made it all feel so chaotic and meaningless like Akira, the groundbreaking anime movie by Katsuhiro Otomo. Based on Otomo’s manga from six years earlier, Akira takes place in a destroyed Neo Tokyo, built after the Japanese government dropped a bomb on the original city to quell the uprising of psychic mutants. As the government and military struggle to maintain control, teenagers embrace nihilism and form biker gangs, including leads Kenada and Tetsuo. But when Tetsuo stumbles on a mutant child being experimented upon by the government, his own powers begin to emerge.
On a plot level, Akira invariably follows a straight line, with the (more or less) heroic Kenada forced to take on his friend Tetsuo, who grows more out of control as his powers increase. But Otomo layers the story with so many flourishes, distorted all the more by decades of other movies and shows paying homage to Akira, that it’s easy for the viewer to get lost and overwhelmed. At its core, Akira tells a story about the corrupting nature of power, whether it comes in the form of the shrimp-turned-threat Tetsuo or the Japanese government trying to maintain order.
Battle Royale (2000)
If you haven’t heard of Battle Royale, then you had the good fortune to avoid pedants when The Hunger Games was popular. Like the hit book series, the Japanese film (itself based on a novel by Koushun Takami, published a year earlier) features kids forced to kill one another at the behest of a fascist government. But where the American story ultimately finds hope in resistance, Battle Royale approaches its subject matter with a dispiriting lack of sensationalism. With only occasional indulgences, Battle Royale is clear-eyed in its story of delinquent teens in a death match against their classmates.
The movie strikes that tone almost immediately when the long-suffering teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) dispassionately hurls a knife at a student who misbehaves during the Battle Royale orientation. Even as the kids grow more delirious in response to their dire situation, especially the deranged Mitsuko Souma (Ko Shibasaki) and Kazuo Kiriyama (Masanobu Ando), director Kinji Fukasaku approaches the events with an almost bureaucratic eye. While the movie gives hints toward a powerful alliance of the oppressed, Battle Royale never forgets the mundane nature of cruelty.
In some ways, Idiocracy seems like an outlier on this list. A goofy comedy from Mike Judge, creator of King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead, Idiocracy lacks the open despair marking most entries on this list. Yes, it certainly takes place in a dystopia, an extremely dumbed-down America in which idiots have overrun the future. So when thoroughly average soldier Joe (Luke Wilson) wakes up in the 27th century after being frozen for 500 years, he discovers that he’s the smartest man alive. How smart is he, you ask? Well, he knows that water, not Gatorade stand-in Brawndo, makes plants grow.
One of Judge’s most underrated comedies, Idiocracy belongs on this list because it may be the most believable dystopia, precisely because of its soft-paternalism. Unlike movies that take 1984 as their inspiration, there’s no brilliant mastermind at work here, no evil cabal of businessmen. Instead, it’s just humanity at its most craven and stupid, looking for affirmation from greeters at Costco (“Welcome to Costco, I love you.”), confusing brand loyalty for identity, and choosing flamboyant buffoons as president.
Children of Men (2006)
By this point, it’s more than a cliche to say that humanity is the real monster. We’re not completely surprised when the heroes of Night of the Living Dead or 28 Days Later find themselves assaulted not by zombies, but by other humans. But few movies capture that intense cynicism better than Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Set in a world where an unknown disease has stripped humans of the ability to have children, Children of Men follows bitter loner Theo (Clive Owen, never better) as he helps the one pregnant woman in the world, an immigrant called Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), escape a fascist UK.
Children of Men signals its worldview in the opening seconds, when people gather in a coffee shop to watch news of the death of the world’s youngest person. Cuarón uses a single, shaky take to follow Theo as he briskly moves past the mourners to get his coffee and head out to the street, only to be nearly destroyed by a random bomb. As a ringing fills the soundtrack and we catch a glimpse of a stumbling figure grasping his now-severed arm, we realize that Cuarón has placed us in a world where the loss of a future has driven humanity to its worst, most hateful impulses. And yet, despite that bleakness, the movie builds to a beautiful climax, an equally jaw-dropping oner that shows hope for humanity, even at the end of the world.
Captain America eats a baby. That’s not really the plot of Snowpiercer, Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation of the French comic book Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. It’s not even a scene in the movie, as Chris Evans’s Curtis merely mentions in a self-loathing speech that he knows what an infant tastes like. But it is a good example of what makes Snowpiercer such a powerful movie, casting an actor who became synonymous with guileless freedom fighting in an openly-Leftist allegory about a train containing the only survivors of a climate apocalypse.
Most of the people live in squalor in the back of the train, including Jamie Bell’s Edgar, Octavia Spencer’s Tanya, and Song Kang-ho’s Namgoong Minsoo. But as Curtis leads a desperate charge toward the front of the train, he and the others discover layers of inequality. The result is less an allegory for the very real class division in our world, and more a visceral scream against the ruling classes, who live in luxury sustained by the suffering of the lower classes.
The Lobster (2015)
What can be more dystopian than being lonely in love? That’s the question posed by The Lobster, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s attempt at a romantic comedy. Set in a hotel filled with other single people, The Lobster follows the newly divorced David (Colin Farrell at his most pathetic) as he tries to find a mate before being forced to transform into an animal of their choice. If he fails, David plans to become a lobster, because “lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives.”
No, that answer doesn’t really make sense, but such is the dystopia of The Lobster. In their signature, dry style, Lanthimos and frequent co-writer Efthimis Fillippou create a world in which loneliness is a crime, effectively reducing genuine feelings to flat declarations. Despite that dry description, The Lobster finds plenty of room for humor and even hope. The former is most clear in the form of John C. Reilly’s Robert, a lisping man who remains optimistic and guileless despite his dire situation, while the latter comes from Léa Seydoux‘s rebel leader, who fights for the right to be alone. Sometimes heartbreaking and sometimes funny, but always odd, The Lobster captures a different type of bad place, one likely familiar to everyone.
The Forever Purge (2021)
Has any franchise found such philosophical resonance out of such a thuddingly stupid premise like The Purge? The Purge launched with an okay 2013 home invasion thriller about a night in which all crime is legal for some reason. While the sequels expanded on that idea, giving a little more background on how a right-wing group called the New Founding Fathers used the rhetoric of the Purge as an excuse to terrorize the poor and marginalized, they wisely avoided too much focus on rationalizing the event. Instead, they chose to channel the very real anger boiling up against the American Right.
It’s that same approach that makes the latest entry, 2021’s The Forever Purge, so effective. Rather than talk about the complexities of immigration in America, the movie follows the forced team-up between wealthy white ranchers and their Mexican servants (including Josh Lucas and Tenoch Huerta). Despite the economic benefits they reap from the Purge, the white ranchers watch as their country gets destroyed by the very movements they support, leading to an obvious but irresistible irony at the end. No, it’s not subtle, and no, the idea of a Purge still seems ridiculous. But the idea of America destroying itself in support of racism and class division? What could be more believable than that?