A dystopia is a fictional, futuristic society gone horribly wrong. In the last year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 we saw the collapse of one such regime. This spring we’ll see The Divergent Series: Allegiant, the third installment in the movie series based on the dystopian young adult novels by Veronica Roth.
Even within the oppressive confines of a dystopian science-fiction, there’s plenty of variety in tone and style. There are hedonistic societies and totalitarian states built on fear, and then there’s the absurdist societies like the ones feature in Terry Gilliam’s movies.
These societies may be bleak and dangerous, but as long as you have your ID papers at your person at all times, you should be able to pass unharmed through the Screen Rant’s list of 15 Best Science Fiction Movie Dystopias Of All Time
15. Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
In the near future, the job of firemen isn’t to put out fires, but to burn books. Literature of any kind is seen as a danger in a society that values mindless conformism and shallow happiness. Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) is one of the Firemen who falls in love with a book smuggler Clarisse (Julie Christie). As he begins to doubt the morality of his job, Montag grows increasingly impatient with his vacuous wife Linda (also played by Julie Christie) who is obsessed with interactive reality TV shows.
To an avid reader like the American sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, there was no more dystopian society from one that would consider literature so dangerous and useless that it would actively try to destroy it. Published in 1953, his novel Fahrenheit 451 became the basis for the only English-language film by the French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut. And although the movie has its flaws, it nevertheless contributes to the status of Bradbury’s novel as a genre classic.
14. THX 1138 (1971)
THX 1138 was the 1971 directorial debut of then-unknown filmmaker George Lucas. The movie is set in the stark, minimalist interiors of a city whose population is controlled by an android police force and through the mandatory use of drugs that suppress emotions. The story follows forbidden love affair between THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie).
In 1967, George Lucas filmed a short student film titled Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. It was a sci-fi allegory about a man trying to escape from the ever-present electronic surveillance of his futuristic society. Four years later, Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope, offered Lucas an opportunity to expand his student film into a feature-length movie. THX 1138 received mixed reviews and failed at the box office, but became a cult movie after Lucas’ success with Star Wars in 1977.
13. Logan’s Run (1976)
At first glance, the world of Logan’s Run seems like a paradise, where young and beautiful people spend their days in pleasant idleness while machines do all the work. This being a dystopian sci-fi film though, you know there’s a catch. And indeed there is: when people reach their 30th birthday, they get ceremoniously murdered in a ritual known as Carrousel.
Logan 5 (Michael York) is a “Sandman,” a security officer who hunts down residents who try to avoid Carrousel. He infiltrates their group, but soon finds himself on the run with Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter). Together they leave their domed city for a mysterious world that awaits them outside. Logan’s Run is the sole sci-fi movie of the British filmmaker Michael Anderson. Based upon a novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, Logan’s Run was surprisingly successful, even leading to a short lived TV series.
12. Soylent Green (1973)
It is the year 2021 and the world is being slowly chocked to death by pollution, overpopulation and climate change. Charlton Heston plays Frank Thorn, a NYPD detective investigating the murder of a wealthy businessman William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten). In a city where running water and fresh food are luxuries and the population is fed with processed food known as “Soylent Green.” Thorn’s only knowledge of a better past comes from Solomon Roth (Edward G. Robinson), who is old enough to remember the last century.
Directed by the Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Tora! Tora! Tora!), Soylent Green is based on a 1966 sci-fi novel Make Room, Make Room by Harry Harrison. Today it is mostly remembered for its twist ending, but its power comes from its depiction of futuristic New York City as a sweltering human hive where 40 million people struggles to survive.
11. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Based on a seminal classic by the British writer George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four follows Winston Smith (John Hurt), an ordinary citizen living a squalid life in a totalitarian super-state Oceania. Ruled over by the Big Brother – who may or may not exist – the people of Oceania are mercilessly controlled by the ever-present surveillance of the Thought Police. As Smith grows depressed and dissatisfied with his life, he stars socializing with the thought criminal O’Brien (Richard Burton) and begins a love affair with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). But it is only a matter of time before he is arrested.
Released in the same year that Orwell’s novel ostensibly takes place, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a grim adaptation written and directed by the British filmmaker Michael Radford. This critically-acclaimed movie featured the last ever cinematic role of the actor Richard Burton before his death.
10. Snowpiercer (2013)
The attempt of mankind to reverse the global warming has backfired and, in the year 2031, Earth is a frozen wasteland. The only remaining people on the planet travel on The Rattling Ark, a nuclear-powered train where the rich idle in the warm front cabins while the poor and the criminals are forced to endure inhuman conditions at the tail end of the train. Led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans ) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), the people start a revolution and fight their way through the entire train to reach the mysterious caretaker of the engine (Ed Harris).
At first, the concept of a futuristic train traveling across the frozen planet may sound ludicrous. But Snowpiercer isn’t about realism. South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host) creates a nightmarish reflection of our society by confining it within a claustrophobic space of a single train. Universally acclaimed upon its release, Snowpiercer was loosely based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette.
9. Gattaca (1997)
Sometime in the future, advances in genetics allow parents to determine and change genetic qualities of their children even before they’re born. As a result, unmodified people are seen as inferior. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is one of those “in-valids” tasked with menial jobs. But Freeman wants to become an astronaut so badly that he fakes his genetic test results, thanks to the help of wheelchair-bound “valid” Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). But Jerome then falls in love with his new colleague Irene Cassini (Uma Thurman) which might jeopardize his dream.
In his 1997 directorial debut Gattaca, director Andrew Niccol presents us with a coldly perfectionist world of eugenics – masterfully depicted as a heavily stylized retro-futuristic setting – in which society mores impose heavy restrictions upon the individual based on his genetic code. Although Gattaca failed at the box office, it has become a cult classic. Niccol has since worked in various capacities on several other movies with distinctly dystopian themes such as The Truman Show and In Time.
8. Minority Report (2002)
Can you be accused now of a crime you might commit in the future? This is the question asked in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report. John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the chief of Precrime – a police department that uses people with pre-cognitive abilities to catch criminals before they commit crimes. But Anderton starts to doubt this system after the latest prediction accuses him of planning a murder. As his boss Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow) orders a man hunt, led by agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), Anderton tries to find the real killer before the murder takes place.
The world of Minority Report is one of constant surveillance: targeted ads imprint themselves directly on one’s consciousness while government probes regularly scan citizens inside their own homes. Precrime goes a step beyond that, scanning the possible future to accuse people for crimes they haven’t even committed yet. Minority Report was based on a short story by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. It was a great commercial success and was met with rave reviews.
7. V for Vendetta (2006)
Produced by the Wachowskis, V for Vendetta is a rarity among dystopian sci-fi films – a story which pits a lone superhero against the brutal system. Great Britain of the near future is ruled over by the fascists of the Norsefire Party. However, a masked vigilante known only as V (Hugo Weaving) bombs and manipulates the deeply corrupted regime into destroying itself with a help of Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman).
V for Vendetta is based upon the 1980s graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. While the original story presents V as an ambivalent figure who is both a freedom fighter and a madman, James McTeigue’s movie presents V as more of a straightforward hero. V for Vendetta became hugely popular, while the Guy Fawkes mask worn by V has been embraced by the cyber-activist group Anonymous.
6. Brazil (1985)
Brazil is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but turned into a Monty Python sketch. Director Terry Gilliam shows us how the only thing worse than a fully functional dystopia is a dystopia that’s falling apart. Brazil presents a world of shoddy consumer goods, poisoned environments and endless bureaucracy within a government that’s as violent and paranoid as it is incompetent.
In this world lives Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly bureaucrat working in the Ministry of Information. While trying to correct a minor clerical error, he learns that it led to an execution of an innocent person. During his investigation, Lowry falls in love with a truck driver Jill Layton (Kim Greist), who may or may not be an anti-government terrorist. But truth and love don’t count for much in a corrupted, cartoonish world where the closest thing to a hero is Harry Tuttle (Robert de Niro) – a renegade plumber.
5. Children of Men (2006)
Based on a sci-fi novel by British crime writer P. D. James, Children of Men tells a story about a world where, for two decades, there have been no new children. As all of humanity descends into chaos, the British government has grown more oppressive, struggling to maintain order and round up all of the illegal immigrants in prison camps. Theo (Clive Owen) is a former activist, approached by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who tries to protect Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) – the only pregnant woman in the whole world.
Mexican director and screenwriter Alfonso Cuarón first caught the attention of international reviewers with his 2001 drama Y Tu Mamá También. In Children of Men, he evocatively depicts an oppressive society falling apart even while struggling to maintain order at any cost. Containing several amazing single-take action sequences, Children of Men was very-well received by the critics and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, though it floundered a bit at the box office.
4. The Matrix (1999)
The world of The Matrix just may be the worst dystopia of them all. In other stories, people are at least aware they live in a society that’s fundamentally wrong. But in The Matrix, the hero’s entire reality is just a simulation created for comatose human beings used as a power source by artificial intelligence. Neo (Keanu Reeves) is a hacker who finds himself exposed to this higher reality by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). But within The Matrix, Neo is also chased by AI agents, led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who tries to prevent the destruction of the artificial reality and the awakening of mankind.
Almost 20 years since its making, The Matrix remains a riveting combination of a pulse-pounding action movie with a surprisingly metaphysical sci-fi story. Written and directed by the Wachowskis, The Matrix was a huge critical and commercial success, winning four Academy Awards in technical categories. Two sequels followed in 2003: The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
In the year 2019, Los Angeles is a megalopolis soaked in acid rain whose poor live and die far below the levels inhabited by the rich. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) used to be a “Blade Runner” – a bounty hunter specialized in tracking artificial human beings known as replicants. A group of them, led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), has recently arrived to Los Angeles. As the replicants search for a way to expand their four-year lifespan, Deckard is tasked with tracking and “retiring” (or killing) them.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner offers an interesting twist on a dystopian sci-fi, combining it with a style of 1940s film noir. The movie was based on a sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Upon its release, Blade Runner received mixed reviews and wasn’t much of a box office success. Over time, however, it became a sci-fi classic and led to many other movie adaptations of Philip K. Dick novels and short stories.
2. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a sociopathic teenager leading a gang that regularly engages in “ultraviolence” and rape. After his last crime spree, the authorities of the near-future Britain sentence Alex to an experimental aversion therapy that will cure him from his violent tendencies. The therapy seemingly works but, unable to fight anymore, Alex finds himself at the mercy of all of his previous victims, thus exposing him to the violence he impugned on others.
Written and directed by legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange is based on 1962 dystopian sci-fi novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess. Through its story of a teenage delinquency in a society of the near future, both the novel and the movie explore the nature of good and evil and the importance of free will. A Clockwork Orange was a box office success, but despite receiving positive reviews, it drew controversy due to its open depiction of violence.
1. Metropolis (1927)
Metropolis is the granddaddy of dystopian sci-fi movies. Its colossal, dehumanizing cityscape can be sensed in such tonally diverse movies as Blade Runner, Batman, Dark City, Fifth Element and Brazil. At the time of its filming, Metropolis was the most expensive movie in history. German director Fritz Lang used huge sets, large-scale models and hundreds of extras for the scenes of urban riots and industrial disasters. And while the similar contemporary productions were all either Biblical or historical epics, Lang’s film was the first ever science-fiction epic.
As written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, Metropolis tells a simple story about the conflict between the workers tolling in underground factories and the ruling class enjoying opulent life in huge skyscrapers. As the internal conflicts grow, whole society begins to unravel. British sci-fi writer H. G. Wells famously panned the movie, finding it to be “quite the silliest film.” However, almost a century later, Metropolis is ranked among the great classics of the sci-fi genre and cinema in general.
What are your thought about dystopian sci-fi movies? Share them with us and other readers in the comments below!
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