20 Great Dystopian Movies: The Shadow of Perfection

dystopian BrazilYou can’t write an article on dystopian movies without mentioning utopian ideals. Many volumes have been written on the human impulse to construct and/or invest in utopian visions – visions that can be either celestial or corporeal in nature. And there’s a good reason for this – life is a combination of pain and joy, and each of us must, at the most primal level, imagine an existence where the former no longer exists. I’d suggest that all human beings are driven towards ideas of a perfect world, bereft of fallibility and suffering in all its forms.

Indeed, the very notion (or myth) of progress is Utopian in nature. The belief that “things are getting better” is a core part of Western thinking (excuse the premature reference to 1984). If we look at any governing power, the search for an ordered existence that comprehensively satisfies the needs of all inhabitants is the (partially) unattainable goal to which they aspire. Having said that, if we look closely at history, it also immediately becomes apparent that there is a strong correlation between governments with utopic visions, and societies that are decidedly dystopic in nature. But why should this be?

The answer is clear – a government’s attainment of absolute perfection requires the subjugation of those individuals who do not align with this utopic vision. As long as human beings behave as individuals, rather than ants, utopia is not possible. Furthermore, the concept of a Utopia is ahistorical – it can only exist in a conceptual vacuum in which external stimuli, ideologies and individuality are eternally neutralized.

Perhaps this is why, in the literary and cinematic forms, the most common dystopian vision is that of the failed utopia, in which one party’s idea of perfection becomes another’s nightmare. Which bring us to this list of 20 great dystopian movies, in which the search for perfection has brought about something very different.

Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis follows that most popular of dystopian conventions, that of the individual fundamentally implicated in the inner-workings of a dystopian culture, only to find their thinking disrupted and set against the oppressive machinations of the establishment. In this instance, the wealthy son of a dictator falls in love with a member of the working class, and gains new insights into the injustices of his father’s regime.

Fritz Lang’s science fiction masterwork is clumsily binary in its approach by contemporary benchmarks, but this set the standard for science fiction and dystopian cinema for decades to come.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

There is something less than cinematic about Francois Truffaut’s single entry into the science fiction genre. This isn’t a bad thing, however, and seems to give the film a greater authenticity in its representation of a subtle and banal repression. Based on the Ray Bradbury book of the same name, the plot concerns a world in which “firemen” are charged with the task of burning books in order to prevent citizens from getting “ideas”. When one fireman is encouraged by a young schoolteacher to read one of these books, he begins to see the world for what it is and becomes increasingly dissatisfied.

Animal Farm (1954)

I’m sure George Orwell’s novel needs very little introduction. His allegorical look at the Russian revolution and subsequent Stalinist regime, relocated to a simple farm, is standard reading in many secondary school English classes around the world. However, fewer people might have seen this animated take on the tale. Worth a look.

THX-1138 (1971)

George Lucas’ first feature film is, ironically, probably his most adult. Robert Duvall plays a simple worker in an underground civilization, in which the populace are controlled through heavy medication designed to eliminate emotions. When a series of events see this man’s dosage interfered with, he finds himself in a prohibited emotional and sexual relationship. There is no alternative but to attempt escape.

Alphaville (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard’s entry into the genre is a typically tongue-in-cheek affair, loaded with references to various works of noir, science-fiction and horror, while deliberatively subverting the conventions of the genre by having the futuristic nature of the narrative juxtapose with the fact that the whole film is clearly shot in contemporary Paris.

The narrative concerns the plight of private detective, Lemmy Caution, played by Eddie Constantine (many will recognise that Constantine had played the same character previously in many far more conventional detective films). Caution is on a mission to track down a missing secret agent, and ultimately destroy a dictatorial supercomputer named Alpha 60. Alpha 60 is on a mission to suppress individualism and force human beings to stop asking “Why?” and start saying “Because”. Well… why not?

Demolition Man (1993)

Why the hell is this on the list? Well there’s one very good reason – no American film that I can think of has more amusingly captured the phobic reaction of middle-America in the early 1990s to the increasing threat of that most horrible of concepts – progressive thinking. And who better to act as a conduit for loveable regressive ideals than that good old lump of iron, Sylvester Stallone.

When a super-cop (Stallone) and super-criminal (Wesley Snipes) both end up being cryogenically frozen for reasons that we needn’t cover here, they are awoken in the year 2032 to discover that the world has become a far more peaceful place. Great news for Snipes, whose penchant for violence goes unchallenged in the new world. Not so good for Stallone, who must work with a pacifist police force, digitized sexual encounters and vegetarianism. Violence follows, and Stallone works with an underground movement who indulge in meat-eating, graffiti and other outdated practices. Sandra Bullock is also on hand as the futuristic cop with a morbid interest in the old world. Soon enough, this utopian existence is revealed to have a dystopian undercurrent and the way is paved for an uncertain future.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

This film is imperfect, and I’ll be the first to admit that it wouldn’t make the list except for my great admiration for Margaret Atwood’s novel, on which it is based. Volker Schlöndorff directs this tale of a young woman living under the tyrannical rule of a Christian theocratic state, in which a tight rein is clumsily justified by the alleged threat of invasion by unseen Islamic forces. Natasha Richardson plays a fertile woman in a future in which giving birth is rare, and as such is forced into sexual slavery to fulfill her purpose as a breeder. A forbidden relationship only further emphasizes her total subjugation.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

George Orwell’s source novel for Michael Radford’s film adaptation is perhaps the definitive dystopian vision of the twentieth century… so much so that terms like ‘big brother’, ‘thoughtcrime’, and ‘newspeak’ have been integrated into popular discourse. Indeed, combined with Animal Farm, this novel secured the term ‘Orwellian’ to describe any political practice viewed as draconian in nature.

Radford’s film may not be quite as perfect as Orwell’s novel, but it is a solid account of the fate of Winston Smith, a pen-pusher in the ‘Ministry of Truth’ assigned the task of realigning history to the current political agenda. As occurs very frequently in these dystopian works (a standard probably set by this one), a chance encounter leads to a love interest that sets Smith’s ideals at odds with Big Brother. Much suffering ensues in this insightful deconstruction of Orwell’s worst societal nightmares.

Gattaca (1997)

Responding to the developing interest in genetic engineering prevalent in the 1990s, Andrew Niccol’s film envisions a future world in which the ability of parents to genetically alter their young has seen a society split into “valids” and “in-valids”, the latter of which are essentially considered uninsurable liabilities. Enter Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a genetic train-wreck of sorts, who works as a cleaner at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation, while dreaming of becoming an astronaut (an impossible dream given his genetics). Freeman makes up for his inferior genes with pure determination however, and he pays a paraplegic super-athlete (Jude Law) for his identity, enabling him to sneak into the space program. A developing relationship with another aspiring astronaut (Uma Thurman) further complicates things. Much sneakiness, suspense, and introspection follows.

Niccol’s, whose directorial career shows an obsession with the impact of scientific advancement on societies, cannot be faulted here. A subtly executed film that manages to deliver a broader societal vision within the microcosm of one individual’s struggle.

Sleeper (1973)

Some light relief is probably a good idea at this point, and Woody Allen’s dystopian vision of the future is the lightest that comes to mind. When the owner of a health-food store ends up inadvertently placed into cryogenic stasis, he awakens 200 years later to find himself amongst a group of rebels fighting against a totalitarian state. Referencing countless other dystopian works, but never taking itself particularly seriously, Allen’s film is a playful but literate take on the genre.

Things to Come (1936)

William Cameron Menzies’ screen version of H. G. Wells’ novel is clunky by modern standards (actually it was probably already a little clunky at the time) but Menzies should be congratulated for attempting to give life to a narrative far too grand and impersonal to be effectively captured within the cinematic frame. It’s also a little hard to fully appreciate the film when the longest surviving version is 30 minutes shorter than the original cut. Either way, this imagining of the events that befall humanity between 1940 and 2036 is enlightening in its encapsulation of the thoughts and concerns prevalent at the time (some of which would later prove entirely valid).

Logan’s Run (1976)

A personal favourite, largely due to the pretty/tacky Technicolor vision of failed utopia, Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run is never dull. Set within an underground society whose residents indulge in seemingly endless amounts of hedonistic pleasure, the one draw back is that everybody gets vaporized on their 30th birthday. Enter Michael York, a ‘Sandman’ whose job is to hunt down anybody who attempts to run away from their birthday bash. When York encounters a girl from an underground rebel group, the computer running the show declares that his birthday has come early, and he’s forced to switch sides.

Brazil (1985)

If there is a film that out 1984s 1984, then this is it. Terry Gilliam takes the conceit of Orwell’s masterpiece and accentuates its bureaucratic elements. Indeed, if there is a single point to Brazil, it is that nobody is really in charge, and that this nightmare world has become overwhelmed and diseased by paper-pushing. Gilliam’s fusion of the tragic and the Python-esque makes for a deeply disturbing vision.

Jonathan Pryce plays a low-level government employee with a privileged background, whose attempts to hide from the endless absurdities of the modern world are undercut by a bureaucratic error that results in the torture of an innocent man. As he attempts to correct the error, while dealing with his plastic-surgery addicted mother’s (Katherine Helmond) demands for a more aspirational son, Pryce’s character escapes into a world of fantasy. When a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Kim Greist) awakens a rebellious urge, Pryce finds himself becoming the victim of the government machine, rather than its instrument. Bob Hoskins, Robert De Niro and Michael Palin all have minor roles worthy of mention in this masterpiece.

District 9 (2009)

Neill Blomkamp’s feature film debut is the kind of beginning that most filmmaker’s could only dream about – a near perfect science-fiction blockbuster that also functions as a scathing indictment of apartheid. When a ship full of disorganized and dying aliens lands in South Africa in 1982, an alternate history comes to pass, in which an underclass of aliens (contemptuously referred to as “prawns”) are forced to live a segregated existence in a horrid slum known as ‘District 9’. When a decision is made to relocate the slum, the project is helmed by Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). However, as with so many dystopian protagonists before him, an unfortunate series of events see Wilkus losing his privileged position and beginning to side with society’s least fortunate.

The Hunger Games (2012)

I was more than a little reticent when people began attempting to foist this one on me. The idea of sitting through a dystopian teen-flick based on a novel for young adults triggered all sorts of prejudices. However, I’m quite willing to admit that I was wrong about this one, and quite frankly, women need far more representation within the genre. This list reveals a disgraceful lack of female representation in dystopian cinema (outside of being catalysts for a male epiphany).

Set within a future world in which social tensions are redirected into the Hunger Games, a televisual death sport into which various districts enter their best young fighters. Jennifer Lawrence plays the reluctant representative of one of these districts. This in itself is nothing new, and the film doesn’t necessarily expound on its themes to any great degree – there is no pointed critique within the text itself – but the world is beautifully envisioned and the dystopian genre has strong enough conventions that we are comfortable with the notion that this is broadly a rejection of oppressive ideologies and inane entertainment. I suspect these themes are given more clarity in the second film, which I’m yet to see. Either way, Jennifer Lawrence carries the film well as the protagonist thrown into the limelight as both a celebrity and victim of the system.

Soylent Green (1973)

Richard Fleischer’s direction is typically uneven and dry in this Charlton Heston vehicle, but on this occasion this adds rather than subtracts. Set in a future where over-population has left the world a claustrophobic mess, we follow a New York cop as he investigates the death of the CEO of Soylent Green, the world’s only remaining food supplier. For many, the shocking conclusion to this minor classic is as indelibly bound to the genre as that of the original Planet of the Apes (1968). For those who haven’t seen it, hop to it.

Repo Man (1984)

Situated in a kind of alternate Los Angeles where the trashy elements have been turned up to 11, Alex Cox’s punk-era science fiction classic is near perfect in its anti-ness. Forgoing any real narrative cohesion, Cox follows a young punk named Otto (Emilio Estevez) as he is dragged from his counter-cultural roots into the profitable world of car repossession. Here he is mentored by the likes of Harry Dean Stanton and Sy Richardson on the philosophy of the trade, until a request comes through for the repossession of a Chevy Malibu with a commission of $20,000. Chaos arises as aliens, government agents, scientologists, televangelists and car thieves join the hunt for this strange vehicle. Of course, this narrative description tells you little. The film’s critique comes in its aesthetic, a rejection of all things dollar driven and a celebration of all things free.

Minority Report (2002)

Starting with the concept that one could theoretically predict all future behavior if one had enough data about the present, Spielberg delivers us a world in which crime can be enforced before it has even occurred. Enter Tom Cruise, a man who oversees much of this operation, but is forced to become a fugitive when this predictive technique reveals that he is a murderer-to-be. Much unraveling of plot elements ensues, but it’s not so much the narrative that make this a film to remember. Spielberg’s visually stunning picture of a near-future overwhelmed by screen-culture is the real win here.

Starship Troopers (1997)

Before writing this article I told myself that I would allow no more than one Paul Verhoeven film onto the list. While Robocop is the greatest American film Verhoeven has made, I’ve given it so much attention recently that I thought I should focus on Starship Troopers instead. Set in a world in which a fascistic militaristic regime has long ago taken over the world, Verhoeven uses the aesthetic of Nazi propaganda to define this deceptively simple film about beautiful and violent youths. When an alien race responds with hostility to a human invasion of their home (who would have thought), human beings take it upon themselves to wipe them off the face of the galaxy. Verhoeven never interferes with the ideological conviction of his protagonists, and we are left to watch as the human race ‘defends’ its interests. Powerful stuff.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s entry in the genre probably needs no introduction. Following the trials and tribulations suffered by Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a violent youth with a psychotic disregard for the feelings of others, Kubrick shows us a future world caught between horrific violence and oppressive peace. When Alex is imprisoned for violent crimes, he is put through a conditioning program that renders him passive by removing the element of free will. Once he is ‘cured’ and allowed to go free, he becomes the ironic victim of violence, and has lost the ability to defend himself.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

28 thoughts on “20 Great Dystopian Movies: The Shadow of Perfection

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  3. I’m glad to see Gattaca and Demolition Man on your list. Though I would agree with Andrew Niccol and Sylvester Stallone in their lionizing the individual and depiction of collectivism as a fallacy.

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  5. When I think about dystopian texts I can’t help but think that they beguile people’s sensibilities a bit in that they in many (or most) cases purify certain pressures and currents of the present age, implying two things: a fraught future course for society and/or a bad future for society. And in doing this, these texts promulgate an understanding of affairs in time as, sort of, linear.

    They purposely obscure the fact that life is good and bad, that history has by the measure of our own values, looking back, got only better, and that the past was in most cases far fouler than anything relatively plausible in dystopian visions. They seem to play too much, in my opinion, with the sensibilities of the present age and ignore 1) how in past ages people may have thought things were relatively good and 2) that in the future states of bliss we might imagine, people would be subject to entirely new viewpoints on life (which wouldn’t be brought into relief by the normative values of today).

    Logan’s Run, for instance, is entirely based on the outrage of present values, and it’s a pretty crap film too because the personal revolution of values for the protagonist merely represents a confrontation with something obviously ominous (death), the dispelling of a fatuous lie and the realignment to an existing counter-cultural cause. The story is, like most of these stories, akin to enjoying fantastic comebacks to imagined insults or vicarious elation of inhabiting the ‘unexpected’ role of a hero in a custom-made scenario of fatal urgency.

    In the future, say, it is likely that the eating of animals (in the manner that we do it currently) will be viewed with complete disgust, and a concept of dystopia to them may be based on a world where animals are, I don’t know, genetically “coerced” into a new form of servitude or abjection. Yet that is, in cruder and less sophisticated ways, exactly the era we live in today.

    My point is simply this: to imagine the real horror of the future, the moral imagination has to roll into the future either before or during such a conjecture, and rely less on the implications and extrapolations of the present – which are completely subject to multiplicity if we admit to imagining an alternative past as we may imagine alternatives in the future.

  6. What does it say about me (and perhaps many others…) that these are some of my favorite films and this post has been a complete joy to read through? I am now officially on a mission to catch the few of these I haven’t seen yet.

  7. Great list, and some real food for thought. I’ve seen most but not all of these (I won’t say which, lest my cinephile card be revoked!). Another to consider is Children of Men, which is scary enough without the global infertility which is the film’s sci-fi hook!

  8. I’d have thought The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was Dystopian enough to have made the cut but now I see it wouldn’t follow the pattern of oppressive Governments.
    Interesting list though James.
    Hello from Wales.

  9. This is a great list!

    I do want to point out that the description of “The Hunger Games” isn’t quite accurate. The games weren’t meant to settle differences between districts, but rather to keep the districts from rebelling against The Capitol.

  10. While I was only so-so on the movie Gattaca, I loved the prelaunch ad campaign that at least ran in Canada…a series of newspaper ads offering the services of a company called Gattaca that would let you choose your preferred traits for your next child.

    As someone who worked in a molecular biology lab at the time, I was intrigued that a company had the balls to offer this service (and more than a bit disturbed by the eugenics aspects)…until I realized it was a stealth campaign for the movie.

  11. Great list, James–I especially like the inclusion of Fahrenheit 451 and Demolition Man; the latter, I feel, is severely underrated in its commentary on society (awful commercial jingles replacing popular music!), while the former is a great film with one particularly unusual attribute — opening credits that are spoken rather than written onscreen.

    I agree with John on the Ustinovian appeal of Logan’s Run, its primary attribute, methinks. I’ll agree to disagree with you on Starship Troopers, which I despise, but otherwise this is a formidable list.

  12. Great theme, and one that I was considering myself, so regard that as an Ace James! You covered all of my personal favourites here, though I had also thought about including’The Omega Man’, and ‘The Road’. Really enjoyed revisiting some classics, and also pleased to see ‘Things To Come’ in there; a much-overlooked film these days.
    Best wishes from England as always, Pete. (Hope this appears this time…)

  13. Good stuff, James. It didn’t dawn on me how popular this concept was until I read this and started thinking about it. I too am a big fan of Logan’s Run, though I think that’s 95% Jenny Agutter and 5% Peter Ustinov and his cats. At the risk of stretching the definition, I’d add Delicatessen, Westworld, and Cafe Flesh.

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