This weekend, as you search for a movie to watch, you can either go see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (as many of you will) or stay home and pick one of approximately 14 billion options available on streaming over a variety of services, be it Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand, or other sites. Every Friday, Vulture tries to make life easier by narrowing it down to a handful of heartily recommended options. This week we explore the desolate futures of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, and other movie dystopias.
George Orwell's 1949 novel is one of those books you don't expect anyone to ever nail onscreen — a text too pure, too subversive to ever survive a cinematic translation. Yet Michael Radford's 1984 — which actually came out in 1984, way to go team!! — taps into the Orwellian vibe with extreme confidence, constructing a desolate, rusty backdrop for Winston Smith (John Hurt) to embark on his journey of emotional discovery. Hurt owns the movie, manifesting his oppression from the totalitarian Thought Police through silent observation and zombie-like emotion. Interaction with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton) and the exploration of his own memories open a world of beauty ... only to be crushed by the brainwashing procedures of the Ministry of Love (Richard Burton’s performance as O’Brien was his final one). If 1984 was made today, Hot Shot Director X would stuff a few action scenes into the political commentary. This movie resists that temptation and sticks to what works: Orwell's harrowing vision. (Available on Amazon Prime)
Though he carved out a legendary career in the movies, Orson Welles was always connected to the theater, where he got his start. Welles, more than most of his contemporaries, saw the potential in bringing theatrics to film and his 1962 adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial is a great example of how. Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame is the picture's keystone, a man accused, convicted, and sentenced to death over a crime that's never revealed. His version of Josef K. slowly veers off the road, instead of just flying off the rails. But Welles sets the mood, steeping The Trial in jagged angles, bursts of light, and psychedelic imagery. There's always something lurking in the shadows of Welles's scenery; in one scene, Josef seeks counsel from a local artist as smiling children peer in through the wooden boards of his shack. With The Trial, Welles doesn't concern himself with the limits of reality because that's not what nightmares are made of. (Available on Netflix, Archive.org)
You already know “it's people,” but like all great movies with a twist, Soylent Green has plenty to offer the spoiled. It's the year 2022 and New York City is overrun by the impoverished. With scarce food supplies, those with a little cash survive off the Soylent Corporation's high-energy plankton tabs — yum. Charlton Heston stars as a detective investigating the recent murder of a Soylent executive before stumbling upon an even more diabolical plot. Director Richard Fleischer had done several big movies by 1973 (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Doctor Dolittle, Fantastic Voyage), but despite its futuristic setting, Soylent Green is a relatively small-scale, hard-boiled parable. Today, its '70s mod designs come off as a little kitschy, but Heston's performance prevails — his final line, belted with conviction, is only iconic because of everything that comes before it. (Available on Amazon Prime)
It's 1970. America is embattled in a global conflict despite its citizen’s opposition. Back home, the president of the United States is taking extreme measures to silence his political adversaries. On paper, the Vietnam War sure sounds like a work of dystopian fiction.
In the thick of military action and protests, writer/director Peter Watkins heightened the tenuous atmosphere by suggesting that President Nixon could steer the U.S. into the horrific type of future previously witnessed only in science fiction. His bleak, 1971 mockumentary Punishment Park follows a group of convicts — a swath of youthful, anti-war advocates imprisoned by Nixon on the basis of criminal potential — forced to traverse a desert for three days while outrunning law enforcement trainees. Watkins used actual protesters in scenes in several tribunal-style interrogation scenes, adding to the verisimilitude of the experiment. Punishment Park is the all-too-real alternative to Running Man. (Available on Amazon Prime)