The Best Dystopian Movies and TV Shows
These are some of the increasingly plausible bleak futures Hollywood has envisioned for us in dystopian movies and TV.
In the 1930s, editor and social critic H. L. Mencken wrote, “All government, of course, is against liberty.” Mencken also wrote, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Given the results of the recent presidential election, you can grab pretty much anything Mencken wrote 80 years ago, and it would still seem curiously apt today, maybe even more than it did then.
From the moment humans decided to stop all that tiresome hunting and gathering, opting instead to settle down and get civilized, there’s always been a nagging fear. When you agree to live in a community with other people, you are also tacitly agreeing there are simply some things you can’t do anymore. If you want to take advantage of indoor plumbing and a centralized food supply, you can’t walk around naked all the time. You can’t stab that guy who looked at you crosswise on the subway. You can’t just stroll out of the drug store with all the cold medicine you like without paying for it first.
By nature, “civilization” implies burying a number of your primal human impulses in order to maintain peace and order. To this end, a police force had to be created to contend with those few ne’er-do-wells who refused to play ball. But what if things got out of hand?
Yes, the security and convenience that came with living in civilizations was far preferable to the terrifying unpredictability of “freedom,” but what if the government, the police force, or the military started cracking down a bit too hard? What if the only news you got was state-sponsored, surveillance systems were installed in every private home, criticizing the ruling powers became punishable by death, and your favorite cartoon was declared a treasonous thought pollutant? That’d be no good, right?
But as history has proven time and again, this was no idle fear, as it turned out to be the standard trajectory of most every civilization on the planet. Put people in power, and the well-being of the citizens suddenly becomes the last thing they worry about. They just want more power, and they want the masses to shut the hell up about it.
The general public’s enduring fear and suspicion of the sinister intentions, deep corruption, and potential violence of their chosen leaders has been a goldmine for filmmakers from the earliest days of cinema. It was a perfect opportunity to not only let the production designers go a little hog wild in envisioning a menacing and desolate future, but also to tell a crowd-pleasing tale about the little folk rising up to smash the tyrants and reclaim their rights as human beings. Even if such things never happened in real life, it’s still a rousing fantasy.
Dystopian films have become such a wide-ranging subgenre that it’s necessary to try and focus here on just a fistful of examples which in one way or another reflect an immediately plausible future. Focusing this way, of course, means other dystopian fundamentals, like A Clockwork Orange, Soylent Green, Blade Runner, Brazil, Gattaca, Escapes from New York and LA, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Wild in the Streets, and even all those film adaptations of Brave New World didn’t make the cut. I’m sorry, but to be honest I never liked Brave New World anyway.
There’s not much new that can be said about Fritz Lang’s sprawling masterpiece (well, one of four he made, anyway), especially with film historians uncovering long-lost scenes every few years and splicing them back in. For years, the film floundered in the PD ghetto. My earliest version was so savagely panned and scanned that the title card read “TROPOLI.” but the recent slew of remastered Restored, Ultimate, and Definitive editions (the latest running close to four hours) only confirms what an astonishing and imaginative film it is from top to bottom.
read more – Metropolis: The Enduring Legacy of a Pop Modernist Dystopia
THe story is a deceptively simple one. The world is ruled by what we’ll call the .001 percent, a cabal of the sinister super-wealthy, who live in glorious opulence in a towering city, served by the teeming mass of drones who live and work, and die in the underground factories. Then one day that sweet, good-hearted cutie-pie Maria shows up and starts putting ideas in the proles’ heads. But it remains an absolute essential, the bedrock of the subgenre, in which most of the fundamental themes are laid out: the oppressed masses reduced to mere worker ants in the factories, the nearly invisible forces of control, the dangerous love affair, the unlikely revolutionary leader, and the insidious android.
Even Giorgio Moroder’s early ‘80s colorized abortion with the Top 40 soundtrack couldn’t diminish the strength and lasting influence of this ultimately hopeful communist epic.
Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
It’s a thought that might make more than a few people want to smack me, but I’ve long contended that most average citizens want an iron-fisted dictator to program their daily lives and tell them exactly what to do. Most would vehemently deny this, but there’s plenty of historical and cultural evidence proving my point.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Hollywood produced a number of what might be called Friendly Fascist Films. These FFFs (as they were known), like 1931’s Night Beat, seemed to promote the idea of tossing that dusty old Constitution out the window in favor of a strong but benevolent dictator who would hold his torch high and lead us all to a brighter tomorrow, crushing anyone we didn’t like him along the way.
The most notorious of these was 1933’s Gabriel Over the White House. The terrifying Walter Huston stars as a likably corrupt, but dull-witted patsy backed by a political party who wanted him president simply to maintain their own grip on power. He would do whatever they told him to do, which is pretty much how American politics has always worked. But when the president is in a terrible car accident and slips into a coma, something strange happens. When he wakes up, it seems the simple political tool has been possessed by the angel Gabriel.
This one-time willing puppet has suddenly become, with God’s help quite literally, a political strong man with ideas of his own. In a blink, he dissolves the legislative branch of the federal government, concentrating all political power within himself. He declares martial law and starts hanging criminals willy nilly, ends the Depression with a massive public works program, singlehandedly battles the mob (who open fire on the White House with machine guns!) and bullies the rest of the world’s leaders into signing a peace treaty by threatening them with a devastating new weapon.
At the time, this was all seen as a very good and positive thing. The Depression was so bad, the country in such awful shape, that drastic measures like scrapping the Constitution might not be such a bad idea after all. Look at that Mussolini in Italy, right?
The film received good reviews and did brisk box office. Then wouldn’t you know it? That darn Hitler had to come along and spoil everything. Warner Brothers yanked the film out of circulation and kept it locked in their vaults for the next 70 years, only releasing it again when the mood of the country made it seem appropriate once more.
Watch Gabriel Over the White House on Amazon
Things to Come (1936)
In 1936, pretty much everyone in Europe was painfully aware another World War was inevitable. Although based on three earlier works (both fiction and nonfiction), this awareness was front and center in H.G. Wells’ screenplay for William Cameron Menzies’ big budgeted British production. Generally and simply labeled science fiction, Things to Come is really more a bit of fictionalized speculative sociology, and makes for an interesting anomaly within the dystopian subgenre.
After some idle chatter about whether the coming war will bring devastation or spur technological advances, the war does indeed break out, and rages on for nearly three decades. It goes on so long, in fact, that those people still left alive in the ruins of civilization forget not only why they’re fighting, but who.
Ultimately, and after a biological weapon kills off most of the remaining survivors, humanity is once again reduced to roving tribes ruled by brutal warlords. But a small group of surviving scientists and engineers sets up shop in Persia, determined to rebuild civilization on rational, scientific, and technological terms. Menzies and Wells then flash forward over the next seven decades, as we get glimpses of the teeming and sleek underground city where everyone lives in peace and harmony and where, among other things, young couples can buy genetically-engineered babies out of vending machines.
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Here’s where we get the twist, and what makes the film still relevant today. The rationality and technological advancement is presented as a grand and wondrous thing for the benefit of all mankind. But the progress is moving so fast that it goes way beyond what the common folk can comprehend or register. It’s all zipping ahead too quickly, and the masses are exhausted, confused and scared. A Luddite backlash arises, demanding a stop to all this “science” crap, and an angry mob nearly sabotages a manned mission to the moon.
It’s, in the end, a very hopeful and optimistic film (with remarkable production design), but contrary to most dystopian films, it argues not that we’ll all be enslaved by technology or militarized control freaks, but rather that our own stupidity and ignorance, and aggression will fuck us all despite the best efforts of smart people.
Watch Things to Come on Amazon
No, George Orwell never intended his last novel to be prescient. Having witnessed the realities of life in the Soviet Union firsthand, he was simply trying to warn his contemporaries away from becoming too enamored with Stalin (which many were at the time). That it accidentally turned out to be as shockingly prescient as it is is disheartening, terrifying, and reveals Orwell had a much better understanding of history and political mechanics than perhaps he even realized.
THe first film adaptation of the cautionary 1948 novel didn’t sit very well with Orwell’s widow. Yes, Michael Anderson’s adaptation was simplified and took a few liberties, but looking at it now, it hews surprisingly close to the source material, at least in spirit, without pandering to a 1950s audience already buffeted and bruised by both McCarthyism and the new threat of nuclear war.
I think Orwell’s widow’s real problem was that so many American actors were cast for what was at heart a deeply British story. Noir film regular Edmund O’Brien stars as a beefy but believable Winston Smith, with Jan Sterling as Julia, the illicit love interest who’s a bit too blonde and beautiful for her own good. Most of the rest of the cast remains British, with Donald Pleasance a particular standout as Smith’s True Believer neighbor.
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All of Orwell’s dark themes are here, from constant surveillance to the cynical manipulation of language and history, to the mechanisms of power, which remain in control by presenting the citizenry with a perpetual if imaginary threat. (They did, however, change Goldstein’s name to avoid any unnecessary complications.) In the end, it remains shockingly relevant, and much to my amazement the producers didn’t bother to tack on some outlandish happy ending. No use beating around the bush, most would-be revolutionaries who would stand up to the Powers that Be fail miserably and are crushed like roaches. It’s a far better and more brutal film than it’s reputation would have you believe.
Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave sci-fi post-noir weirdie is a brilliant head-scratcher all around. Beginning in the early ‘50s, American actor Eddie Constantine starred in a string of popular French B-films as the two-fisted detective and ladies man, Lemmy Caution. The films got little play in the States, but did very well across Western Europe, particularly France and Germany. Caution was a kind of Continental answer to both James Bond and Philip Marlowe. He was suave, tough, wisecracking, and drove a convertible.
Then in 1965, along came Godard, who decided to take his own postmodern stab at the popular franchise. It’s a bit like Kubrick directing Lethal Weapon 5, or Ingmar Bergman helming a Star Trek picture. After being hired to track down a missing woman and overthrow a brutal dictatorship, Caution drives his convertible (much like Waku-san) through the cold reaches of space to the distant planet Alphaville.
Being Godard, no explanation is given, and intelligent viewers know better than to ask. Alphaville is a city at once sterile and decaying, a futuristic alien landscape that bears an uncanny resemblance to mid-1960s Paris. Caution begins making the usual noirish rounds, questioning derelicts and informants, soon learning the planet is controlled by Alpha-60, a sentient philosophical all-seeing despotic computer. Orwell’s influence here is inescapable (the ever-shrinking dictionary that no longer includes words like “love”), but at the same time, the film presages everything from the HAL 9000 supercomputer to The Prisoner to Colossus: The Forbidin Project.
It’s a wild mish-mash of genre conventions that ignores genre conventions, erases any distinction between high and low-brow, tosses out endless pop culture and literary references, and remains the most cerebral film here. Godard says more about the existential nature of state power, and says it more profoundly, than any other film I can think of. Godard’s emphasis here on the importance of controlling the language is even more directly relevant today.
Not surprisingly, a dubbed and extremely dumbed-down version of the film was released briefly in the States as Dick Tracy on Mars. After Godard had his way with it for a bit, the Lemmy Caution series rolled on as if none of this ever happened.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
I suppose it only makes sense given their history that the French would be so smitten with dystopian tales. That whole Vichy business and what have you, right? So a year after Alphaville, and some 13 years after Ray Bradbury originally published the novel, Francois Truffaut obtained the rights to the book-burning parable, Fahrenheit 451. I’m generally not a big Truffaut fan, but he makes so many perfect decisions here, from expunging nearly every scrap of text from the screen (the opening credits sequence is a montage of TV antennas as the credits themselves are read aloud), to the film’s intense and intentional red, white, and black color scheme.
Bradbury was, of course, not only extrapolating on the images of book burnings in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but more specifically on the efforts of so many Christian groups here in the States to ban books they didn’t like (including many of his own). Looking at the film or reading the book today, it remains frighteningly relevant, ironically enough, not because of any threat posed by the new president, but rather by his opposition.
In an era of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” in which the proper and improper terms for assorted groups is constantly shifting and use of the improper term can cost you your job, the real threat to language and literature is not coming from boneheaded and illiterate religious zealots, but earnest types who think they’re being “inclusive” by telling everyone what they can and cannot read, say, or think. It’s likely something Bradbury never could have imagined.
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The Prisoner (1967)
After a good run as John Drake, a Cold War intelligence agent, on TV’s Danger Man (later re–christened Secret Agent), Patrick McGoohan, noting the wild social upheaval taking place all across Europe and the States, decided to push the standard, admittedly tired spy genre in some new psychedelic directions.
What if John Drake (okay, so he’s intentionally never named in The Prisoner, but come on) decided to abruptly quit the spy game? Then what if he was kidnapped by a powerful and shadowy intelligence agency, and delivered to a mysterious island called The Village? Now known only as Number 6, he is probed and interrogated in an effort to uncover exactly why he quit. Number 6, being the stubborn type, refuses to tell them anything, considering it none of their damn business.
All the other inhabitants of The Village are likewise retired spies, but none are as uppity or unmutual as that Number 6. In fact, most seem to be quite content there. And why not? It’s idyllic, the apartments are nice, the food’s good, there’s plenty of recreation and entertainment, every need is catered to. The only catch is they live under constant surveillance, there’s some occasional psychological torture in that big bubble thing, and once there, no one’s allowed to leave.
read more: Why The Prisoner Still Matters
It’s a personal favorite, a perfect expression of mid-century paranoia in the midst of a world gone mad. Every week, Number Six is interrogated by a new Number 2, every week he tries to escape, and every week he flips the bird at the controllers. Within the running theme of struggling to maintain a sense of individual liberty in the face of an increasingly autocratic and dehumanizing system, McGoohan was free to run in whatever direction he liked. There were Western episodes, dream episodes, satirical episodes, and a few, especially toward the end, in which the surreal psychodrama was downright harrowing. The Prisoner was deeply subversive on so many levels, a show made in the midst of the Cold War which seemed to say there was no difference between the East and West, that it was all a shadowplay to keep the masses in place and docile.
Hugely popular in its day (John Lennon was a big fan), the series finale was such a mindfuck thousands of viewers called the station to demand someone explain it to them. Too often today, it’s cited as merely a quaint, if adventurous and imaginative, time capsule. But the ideas and arguments that McGoohan was bandying about throughout the series’ short run are more relevant today than ever.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
In these days of smartphones and the NSA, where IBM’s Watson is now part of the medical staff at several noted hospitals, where the UN is hosting nervous conferences about the threat posed by killer robots and where hackers could potentially drop planes out of the sky, shut down the power grid, destroy the world economy, and trigger nuclear meltdowns, this early foray into computerphobia could again either be read some 45 years later as either quaintly naive or hilariously prescient.
Computer genius Dr. Forbin (Eric Braeden, who was in a string of intelligent sci-fi cautionary tales before settling into soap operas) designs a massive defense department computer hidden away in a mountain in Colorado. Dubbed Colossus, the computer has been programmed to sort through an unfathomable amount of data to take potential human error out of the equation when it comes to responding to a national security threat. It has such advanced security systems in place it cannot be tampered with, and cannot be shut down.
Yes, well, you can see where this is going. So what happens when Colossus gets a little too big for his britches? As in the best of the dystopian films of the era, there are no happy resolutions. As per usual, contemporary viewers may snicker at the paper printouts and the pre-LCD displays, but given how the world works these days, little of what is presented here is that far-fetched.
Face it, we are slaves to these damn things. Which may help explain why my own computer here has been dubbed Colossus, and greets me every morning by droning out, “This is the voice of world control…”
Watch Colossus: The Forbin Project on Amazon
“You are a true believer, blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.”
George Lucas’ feature debut, which was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, is another example, like Soylent Green, in which background becomes foreground, in which the details and atmosphere of the world he’s presenting overwhelms the fairly simple story.
In the not terribly distant future, mankind lives in a massive, sterile, brightly-lit maze-like underground city. There are no trees, no sunlight, no fresh air, no dirt, no windows, no evidence of the outside world at all. Both sex and childbirth have been outlawed (though it seems only one would be necessary), men and women alike have shaved heads, and wear identical jumpsuits; citizens are known not by name but a coded string of letters and numbers, mood-flattening drugs are compulsory to keep all emotion at bay, and blind allegiance to the state is mandatory. All this is enforced by a massive surveillance system and a black-clad police force made up of both humans and robots.
Robert Duvall is THX-1138, a good citizen who does his job and wanders blank-eyed through the whitewashed maze like the rest of the drugged and hypnotized drones. When he’s tricked into going off his meds, well, let’s just say he gets into a little trouble.
It’s a slow, somber, and low-key film about dehumanization that owes an awful lot to everything from Orwell, Metropolis, and The Prisoner to Plato’s “Parable of the Cave.” And to be honest it doesn’t have a whole lot new to say. It’s a generic dystopian offering about a sterile and emotionless world, but Lucas (never a personal favorite) does have style and a good eye, and does a fine job of bringing this incredibly and intentionally boring world to life.
Damn near every studio on earth made a push to get a new film version of Orwell’s novel in theaters in 1984. Reagan was in the White House after all, so it was doubly appropriate. Problem was, Orwell’s widow was still alive, she got to give the final go ahead, and after her experience with the last version, she was in no hurry. In the end, the sweepstakes winner was writer-director Michael Radford, whose screenplay clung awfully close to the source material. He couldn’t get everything in, no, but what ended up on the screen was in the book.
Better still from Mrs. Orwell’s perspective, he signed an all-UK cast, including Richard Burton in what would be his final feature. Strangely, the coup that got the most press at the time was signing the Eurythmics to compose the soundtrack.
It’s a gorgeous and beautifully grim film, a portrait of a decaying London marked by both old and new technologies, most of which don’t work very well, but well enough to keep the people in line. The plot of course remains identical to the 1956 version, but far more detailed and subtle, and without the explanatory prologue. A devastating picture of a defeated man who still maintains a spark of humanity, but when he acts to assert this, is ruthlessly crushed under a jackboot.
Most people tend to forget Orwell’s novel concludes with an appendix that seems to hint at some point in the future Big Brother’s regime is overthrown. Radford ignores this, and it’s for the best. Better still, except for a few brief instrumental snatches, he also dumped the Eurythmics pop song score in favor of a much more appropriate orchestral soundtrack. Ironically, the band released their proposed score as an album, and the first single, “Sexcrime,” was banned by radio stations across the U.S.
Robocop and Robocop 2 (1990)
These days, I tend to see films about sinister power-mad government agencies and politicians as fairly naive, given the world is really controlled by a small handful of corporations. Politicians tend to be puppets who never really accomplish much of anything anyway. Just go back and listen to Ned Beatty’s brilliant monologue in Network. It was something Lang understood when he made Metropolis, and Miller and Kershner understand it here too.
The best decision director Irvin Kershner and writer Frank Miller could have made when it came to Robocop 2 was ramping up the darkly comic socio-political satire that skewers both the Right and Left that Paul Verhoeven had established in the original. So many people have been looking around, not only at the current state of our ridiculous government, but the Flint water crisis, the spike in hate crimes, climate change, and everything else, asking “What can I do?” Well, crass as it may be to say, sometimes the best and most damning thing you can do is laugh.
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So Omni Consumer Products wants to take over Detroit, flatten it, and rebuild it completely as a corporate state, independent of federal jurisdiction? And they set about this by flooding the city with a new drug, demoralizing the police force (which they own), and getting to work on the next generation of Robocops to patrol the streets? Yeah, I can see Honeywell or Apple, or Bechtel already having plans like that filed away. And the way things are going, they may have a chance to dust them off again before too long. Hell, Google saw no reason to wait.
Enemy of the State (1998)
And to think, it came out while Edward Snowden was still just a kid. It may help explain why those of us who were paying attention weren’t exactly shocked or dismayed by Snowden’s revelations. In simple genre terms, yes, Tony Scott’s movie was a political conspiracy thriller and not dystopian sci-fi, unless like me you decided back in the mid-’90s we were already living in a dystopian future.
Will Smith plays an Everyman who unwittingly finds himself in possession of a computer disc. Sticky thing is, the disc contains accidentally-shot footage of NSA agents murdering a senator (Jason Robards) who vowed to stop the agency’s domestic spying program. NSA chief Jon Voight puts every available man on the case, determined to get the disc back before it goes public. The film then becomes a showcase for the highest of high-tech surveillance equipment in use at the time, as the feds attempt to destroy an innocent civilian in order to protect their inalienable right to spy on all of us all the time.
What I always found most interesting about the film was Gene Hackman’s turn as a renegade former security expert who lives in an impregnable high-tech bunker. His role anyway (and I’m guessing intentionally so) plays like a follow-up to 1974’s The Conversation, a peek into what happened to Harry Caul a quarter-century later, having found himself in a world in which triangulated tape recorders no longer cut it.
As entertaining as the film is (oooh, but Scott makes you hate that sleazy government of ours), the really disturbing thing looking at it now is realizing almost two decades later, all that invasive technology on display is mere child’s play compared with what’s currently in the field. Watching this today was like watching The Conversation then: those toys are merely the electronic equivalent of those triangulated tape recorder. But unlike 1998, no one seems to give a damn.
Watch Enemy of the State on Amazon
Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s big budgeted, all-star whizbang sci-fi mystery conspiracy action thriller bares only the vaguest passing resemblance to Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story, but that’s always been the case when it comes to adapting PKD. The core idea, that in the future a trio of government-bred psychics are used to predict murders, allowing cops from the Pre-Crime unit to make arrests before any harm is done remains intact, but the rest is all Spielberg.
The major distinction between the story and film is that while Dick was always deeply suspicious of state power, Spielberg almost seems to celebrate it here until the ending. While the script was still being written, he brought in futurists from all different fields to offer their educated predictions about what the future might possibly look like not only in terms of law enforcement, but advertising, genetics, transportation, and surveillance technology. To be fair, 15 years later a couple of his guesses have turned out to be pretty dead-on. Still, Spielberg really seems to get a charge out of those black-clad cops using supposedly non-lethal weapons to subdue and arrest people who’ve yet to commit a crime.
Interesting thing is, unlike other visionary sci-fi writers, such as Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, few of Dick’s imagined bleak futures have become reality. Until now.
In 2008, Hitachi began developing what it later termed its Visualization Predictive Crime Analytics system. The system, which has been offered to local law-enforcement agencies across the country, takes the form of a detailed interactive city map. The platform aggregates and correlates not only live feeds from thousands of security cameras on street corners, in schools, stores, public transportation systems, office buildings, and housing complexes, but also crime stats, weather maps, 911 calls, traffic reports, license plate readers, gunshot detectors, building schematics, and social media activity (i.e. monitoring Facebook exchanges and Twitter posts for certain keywords).
This allows cops to access and interpret all this immediate data in a blink. Far beyond simply allowing cops to react more quickly to crimes which have just occurred, Hitachi’s marketing department, using language lifted directly from the film, claims the system will also allow cops to predict precisely when and where a crime or terrorist act will occur before it happens, thus clearing the way for pre-emptive busts. It’s so much cooler than stop and frisk, because it allows law enforcement to use the computer data as justification. So who knows? The day may be here soon when a black-clad officer will whack you with a sick stick and drag you in because the computer tipped him off about what you were going to do long before you knew yourself.
Watch Minority Report on Amazon
Somehow whatever he’s in, whatever role he’s playing, Christian Bale has always looked to me like a cadaverous, emotionless, almost catatonic cop in a dystopian future. So it only makes sense, then, that in 2002 writer/director Kurt Wimmer would cast him as John Preston, a cadaverous, emotionless, almost catatonic cop in a dystopian future.
This time anyway, it makes sense, as the fascist government portrayed in Equilibrium compels all its citizens to gobble mood-stabilizing drugs to blot out any emotion. Emotions just cause trouble, and the masses are easier to control when they don’t have any. Since there is very little traditional crime anymore, as head of the police force, most of Preston’s job involves making sure the citizenry is properly doped up at all times. But when he goes off his own meds, well, then he gets into a little bit of trouble.
Hey wait a second.
Yes, there’s a goodly amount of THX-1138 here, except it’s not as complex and stylish, and it takes place aboveground. Not much more than that to recommend it, though. I think the real problem is that even after Bale’s Preston goes off his meds, it’s hard to tell.
Watch Equilibrium on Amazon
V for Vendetta (2006)
“People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of the people.” It’s a rewording of a quote dubiously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and it gets some play here as a noble but sadly distant and unrealistic sentiment that lies at the core of most dystopian films.
Alan Moore was famously and publicly displeased with what the Wachowskis did to his graphic novel, particularly shifting the focus away from Moore’s attack on Thatcherism to the post-9/11 crackdown on free speech and civil liberties in the U.S. and England. You can understand why he’d be pissed, but without that move, the film would not be nearly as relevant as it is right now, and in fact few modern audiences would likely get the references.
As it stands, and in light of the current situation, it remains the most direct, accessible, inspiring and deeply subversive film here (we examined the parallels of the film and the 2016 election here). So much so I’m still astonished Warners would put so much into a film that celebrates acts of extremely violent civil disobedience (i.e. terrorism) a mere four years after the World Trade Center came down. It took mighty balls, but bless them. That it was made when it was is a miracle; that it could possibly be made now is unthinkable.
It’s interesting to see John Hurt, two decades after starring in 1984, here co-starring as The High Chancellor, a dictator ruling over a very similar world. The difference between the two films’ worldviews is that in V for Vendetta, while difficult and dangerous, protest and direct, effective action are still possible. But then I guess it’s based on a comic book.
Amid all the bright and splashy explosions, and fight scenes and generally eye-popping Hollywood comic book kapow dressing, the recurring message remains important and, as mentioned, inspiringly subversive. Even more subversive is that it’s presented within this popcorn framework. It’s more relevant and truthful now than it was then, and while I tend not to be the sentimental type, the ending always leaves me a little misty-eyed. I also appreciate the fact that director James McTeigue and the Wachowskis weren’t compelled to dumb down the centrality of the Guy Fawkes legend and The Count of Monte Cristo, and even had enough respect for the audience’s intelligence to not bother with laying out the historical background.
Watch V for Vendetta on Amazon
To return to Mencken once again (and to be honest, I could pull out an appropriate quip for every entry here), he once wrote, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Mike Judge’s 2007 feature, with a few heavy doses of Sleeper, Futurama, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court tossed in. Luke Wilson stars as Cpl. “Average Joe” Bauers, who is chosen by the Army to take part in a cryogenics experiment because he is determined to be absolutely average in every conceivable way. Instead of being thawed out after a year as planned, the experiment is forgotten and Bauers is revived by accident 500 years later.
read more: Idiocracy is the Dystopia We Deserve
Instead of a high-tech utopia, he finds America is overrun with complete idiots, the average I.Q. hovering around the sub-moronic level. People are named after consumer products, and giant corporations have bought out the government and devastated the environment. Anti-intellectualism runs rampant, which makes Bauer’s average intelligence immediately suspect. It also leaves him as the smartest man on earth.
Judge’s film was abandoned by Fox even before it was released, presumably on account of its sheer, unmitigated dumbness, and only brought in half a million dollars. But taking another look a decade later, it seems Judge was more precognizant than H.G. Wells and Jules Verne combined.
I was initially going to simply ignore Richard Clabaugh’s straight to video number for a stupid reason. When I first saw this in 2013, I was convinced they’d simply ripped off one of my novels wholesale (minus the comedy jokes) without giving me a lick of credit. But before calling my lawyer, I paused long enough to note three things: First, this came out the same year as the novel in question, so it’s unlikely anyone involved with the film read it. Second, apart from a few strikingly similar plot elements, it was overall a very different story aimed at a different audience. And third, considering how many things I ripped off wholesale for that stupid novel, maybe I was in no real position to go tossing accusations.
No, it isn’t on a par with 1984 or V for Vendetta, but it definitely belongs here, with a story (also written by Clabaugh) that remains relevant, plausible, justifiably paranoid, and subversive. As explained in a brief prologue, after the most recent terrorist attack, Homeland Security undertakes an even wider-reaching domestic surveillance program, including the deployment of an army of roving surveillance robots (Eyeborgs, get it?) to keep watch on any would-be undesirable. Worse, smoking has been made a federal offense.
It’s at heart a punk rock movie, similar in a way to Terminal City Ricochet, with a few black comic touches, and a punk singer who turns out to be the president’s nephew. Despite the sci-fi trappings, there are some pointed jabs at the Bush administration here (the election results were pretty hinky, etc.), but much of the film involves lots of shooting and yelling.
When a number of citizens opposed to the government’s police state tactics start dying, a curious FBI agent has a few questions. When he further notices the actual crime scene evidence doesn’t seem to mesh with the video records provided by the Eyeborgs, he starts quietly looking into things. That the Eyeborgs are killing people is never in question. The question is, are the murders and the conflicting evidence the result of a computer glitch, are they being hacked by a terrorist group, or were they programmed this way from the start to eliminate the government’s perceived enemies?
Although the mostly unknown cast is less than compelling, the FX are surprisingly good for a low budget job, and the cautionary paranoia is both plausible and welcome given the way we’re headed. Not a great or terribly memorable film by any stretch, but they gave it the ol’ punk rock try.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Upon its initial release, first as a young adult novel by Suzanne Collins in 2008 and then as a surprisingly robust blockbuster in 2012, many culture critics focused heavily on its glaring similarities to the Japanese film Battle Royale (2000). But beyond revisiting tropes that go back just as much to The Most Dangerous Game (1932) as they do Orwell, Collins’ work should be applauded for packaging such subversive thoughts in shiny franchise wrappings.
The film that made Jennifer Lawrence a movie star is markedly different from both young adult clichés before it, as well as many dystopian tales. In a grim future for North America, the entire continent’s society has collapsed into an authoritarian government called “Panem.” With all the subtlety of an arrow through the jugular, the idle rich prosper in a futuristic city known simply as “the Capitol,” while the rest of the population toils away in undereducated and starving “districts.” The most desolate of these is Katniss Everdeen’s (Lawrence) home, a third world coal mining community in what was formerly known as Appalachia.
Consequently, the film focuses less on images of art deco or glassy totalitarianism that adorns many of the aforementioned films, and instead evokes a kind of 19th century vision of the poorest Southern communities during the American Civil War. The first film especially drives this home by focusing on the rustic squalor of District 12, which is framed by director Gary Ross entirely within disorienting handheld, celluloid photography. This adds to the regressive nature of Katniss’ world, as well as making audiences feel queasy from just staring at garish closeups of Capitol citizens’ powdered-white faces.
The film and Collins’ desire to draw a line between our government’s most deadly choices and our most vapid entertainment is also even more pronounced in 2016. Collins is not vague in her influences, including the Roman Empire’s excessive taste for violence in the arena, wherein gladiatorial death matches were called “bread and circuses” for the ignorant masses. The films liberally stack its supporting cast with characters named after famous Romans, from Caesar to Cato, to Claudius to Plutarch.
But “the Hunger Games” are meant to directly parallel our own modern forms of mindless distraction, namely reality TV. Purportedly, Collins was first inspired to write this story by flipping between news channels dryly chronicling the deaths in the Iraq War during the early 2000s, and the reality shows like American Idol, where millions of Americans found more immediate engagement by voting for their favorite contestants.
Even in 2012, that might’ve seemed a tad cynical, but in 2018 with a president who it can be generously said is most famous for being a reality TV star, it feels frighteningly prophetic. Additionally, the idea of a vengeful government leader spitefully punishing “districts” (or states) that rebelled against him with demoralizing games also seems somehow less out of reach.
Still, for the most pessimistic message from this world, 2015’s final Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay – Part 2, flirts openly with concepts like finding virtue in political assassination, and the idea that one strongman just supplants another, making any potential sacrifice meaningless. In a pop culture landscape otherwise littered with comic book and Star Wars stories of good vs. evil, this is downright insidious. How refreshing.
Watch The Hunger Games on Amazon
The Man in the High Castle (2015)
The Man in the High Castle started its life as a script that changed hands around Hollywood more times than the “Grasshopper Lies Heavy” does in the Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel of the same name.
The series was finally adapted for “TV” by Amazon Studios in 2015, and though it’s not a movie like the rest of this list, the studio’s take on the material wowed audiences when it was released during its pilot season.
The visually-stunning pilot planted viewers into a post-World War II America where the Nazi Reich controlled the eastern seaboard, parts of the south and midwest, and Imperial Japan controlled the land rest of the rockies. If you think our new president holds a grudge on his enemies (namely SNL and Meryl Streep), then wait until you see the reprisals the Japanese have in store for the white Americans living in fear (pretty relevant, huh?) on the wrong side of the map.
Speculative pieces about what might have happened had the Axis powers won World War II were hardly new when Dick published the novel in 1962. In fact, the first example I can find was Philip Wylie’s short story “The Paradise Crater,” which he published in 1945. However, the interesting thing is that in the short story, Wylie has the Nazis using Uranium-238 to develop an atomic bomb. The problem with that was that when the story came out, the top-secret Manhattan Project was still underway, and no one was supposed to know anything about using uranium isotopes to create nuclear weapons. Wylie was placed under house arrest by the feds and investigated thoroughly for months until it was finally determined he wasn’t a spy. So there you go.
Some of the elements of Wylie’s real-life story apply to the deftly-crafted Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, which plays with classic dystopian themes of mankind’s own paranoid fears, the trustworthiness of man and government, and the bureaucracy of mounting an underground resistance.
The Man in the High Castle won’t be the last dystopian film or TV show ever made, but the way we’re headed, and the simple and tedious trajectories of history being what they are, the day will likely come when we’ll just call them “documentaries.”
Watch the Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017)
Let’s keep it simple. If our new president packs the Supreme Court with the justices he’s promising, it’s bad news for reproductive rights. But if he is forced to leave office for whatever reason only to be replaced by Mike Pence, well, we’re headed straight for The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently giving us all nightmares on Hulu, with a masterful TV adaptation with a brilliant cast that includes Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, and others.
There was a 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale, directed by Oscar-winner Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum), written by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, and featured an all-star cast that included Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Elizabeth McGovern, and Robert Duvall, who, like John Hurt, would end up playing both an Everyman and a dictator in two notable dystopian films.
The America of the future is a strict fundamentalist Christian police state (think of a country controlled by a Christian version of ISIS). Unchecked pollution has grown so bad most women have been rendered infertile. Those few who remain fertile are sold off as sex slaves to wealthy men, their only job from that point onwards being popping out an endless string of children. So, um, go back and read the first paragraph again.