From TV to books to movies, dystopian tales are in the air right now. All week long, Vulture is exploring how they’ve been imagined in popular culture.
It’s an interesting time to be a science-fiction fan: Not only are we coming up on the actual time period when so many unforgettable dystopian nightmares take place (Akira and The Running Man largely take place in the year 2019,) but due to, ahem, recent global developments, people are turning more and more to science fiction, past and present, for both insight and catharsis. Genre trends ebb and flow, but I’d say we’re in a very prolific period for movies that stare down the barrel of our present reality and try to explore what future we might be creating for ourselves. The result tends to be pessimistic, yes, but a gripping story can be the sugar to help that bitter pill go down.
Coming in the middle of all this is the return of one of the movies’ most beloved cyberpunk visions: Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian sci-fi, Blade Runner. The impending release of director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is a fitting occasion to examine exactly why the original has become such a touchstone in the 35 years since its release (at which time, it was considered a box-office disappointment.) The 2019 Los Angeles of Blade Runner doesn’t look so likely two years out (though with the gutting of the EPA, who knows, we could get there), but its now instantly recognizable visual language has taken on an influential life of its own. It’s one of those films where everything seems to have come together at the right time from all angles: Syd Mead’s both ancient-feeling and hypermodern concept designs, the Japanophilia of the ’80s, Vangelis’s haunting score, Harrison Ford’s hangdog star power. Philip K. Dick’s original story about an ex-cop charged with hunting down rogue “replicants” asks questions that science fiction (and actual science) is still asking itself today.
So while there have been a wealth of cinematic dystopias that came before and many yet to come, the Blade Runners bookends are as good as any to define the futuristic worlds that accompanied the turn of the millennium, more than a few of which are already supposed to have come to pass. It’s a brief look back before Blade Runner 2049 throws the stick another 32 years ahead. Who knows? Maybe by then, the neon and smog-choked skies, smoky bars, eyeball labs, and the temple-like skyscrapers looming over what feels like humanity’s final days will seem downright quaint.
A few parameters for this list: These are all films that are meant to take place in at the very least, a near future — so alternate histories like District 9 don’t qualify. There’s also, ironically, a very fine line between utopias and dystopias, but I would categorize Gattaca and Minority Report as utopias with fatal glitches, rather than all-out dystopias. (This is not me saying I’d ever want to live in the creepy world of Gattaca, for the record.) Preference is given to films that show and don’t tell with their world-building, which is why the (great, dystopian-in-spirit) Battle Royale didn’t make the cut. Beyond that, if it’s not on the list, it’s probably because I don’t think it’s that great.
While the U.S. fretted over a baroquely crime-ridden future, across the pond Terry Gilliam was tearing out his hair over its logical inverse: the absurdities of bureaucracy. Set in an urban dystopia not dissimilar to George Orwell’s foundational 1984, Brazil follows a lowly paper-pusher (Jonathan Pryce) who dreams of donning some mechanical wings and Ziggy Stardust face paint and flying through the clouds with a beautiful damsel. But an accidental government execution caused by a typographical error draws him and the real-life woman of his dreams together to evade the tyrannical Ministry of Information, who will do anything to cover up their crime. The world of Brazil is more slapsticky and farcical than your average dark future, but it turns truly nightmarish in its final act (which includes one of the greatest cautionary plastic-surgery scenes in cinema.)
The Running Man (1987)
Reality TV bringing about the second coming of gladiatorial combat has been a perennial fixation of dystopian fiction, and The Running Man is one of the most influential examples. Set literally as we speak (it takes place between the years 2017 and 2019, after an economic collapse that leads to a totalitarian police state), it follows Arnold Schwarzenegger as a man falsely accused of a massacre who winds up having to fight for his life on live television. The Running Man show itself is like a gruesome cross between American Idol, American Gladiator, and the XFL if it had actually been a success. Although, as the film (which is based on a Richard Bachman, a.k.a. Stephen King novel) posits, when blood sport is the only show on, it’s bound to be a hit.
The ’80s and ’90s were a golden age for cop anxiety in the movies, and Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is arguably the gold standard, at least in English-language cinema. In a crime-ridden Detroit (the first of many crime-ridden American cities that will populate this list), a private robotics company signs a deal with the city to begin developing enhanced crime-fighting units. But their most powerful weapon proves to be RoboCop, a cyborg hybrid created around the brain and face of maimed police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller). Verhoeven turns the greed-driven corporate monsters of Omni Consumer Products into laughable buffoons, and their fully robotic ED-209 killing machines into pathetic, herky-jerky false idols of security. Thanks to a wealth of suitably bonkers performances from an ensemble of some of the finest character actors of the 1980s, it’s clear RoboCop’s Detroit is not so much suffering from institutional collapse as it is at the hands of Men Gone Wild.
They Live (1988)
They Live’s iconography has practically overshadowed its content at this point, which is too bad, because John Carpenter’s paranoid Reagan-era satire is the director at his most radioactive. While it doesn’t technically take place in the future, the crumbling downtown Los Angeles of the 1980s is a ready-made dystopia (there’s a reason Blade Runner could actually be shot on location); all that was missing was a secret cabal of skeleton-faced aliens and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s truth-seeing sunglasses. They Live is science fiction in the tradition of The Twilight Zone, but it operates with the spirit of a full-throated horror film, a suitably bloody and extreme response to the conservative nightmare that was and is trampling the country’s most vulnerable population. If there’s a flaw to They Live, it’s that its scorched-earth politics are too appealing: Ironically, Carpenter’s film has become a favorite for alt-right conspiracy theorists.
Of all the factors contributing to the heaving, anarchic metropolis of Neo-Tokyo in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a particular timely one is the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a then-fanciful speculation that wound up coming true. Of course, Akira also takes place in the aftermath of World War III, after a psychic bomb has wiped out the original city, and its gleaming boulevards and neglected alleyways take on the feeling of a graveyard. The film’s gravitational center is the friendship between biker Kaneda and Tetsuo, who is revealed to be harboring potentially destructive powers. With bursting, speeding, pulsating animation, Akira is often cited as the most important anime film ever made, if only because it forced the rest of the world to pay attention to the wild renaissance the medium was having in the ’80s. The opening bike scene alone is an exhilarating blend of action, world-building, and neon beams trailing off into the night.
Strange Days (1995)
Katherine Bigelow’s almost absurdly prescient cyberpunk thriller was such a flop that she almost never made another movie again. But it’s been reappraised in the years since, and watching it in 2017 feels like, in the words of Angela Bassett’s Mace, “a lightning bolt from God.” It’s the eve of the turn of the millennium in a crime-ravaged Los Angeles bubbling over with racial tension, and the drug of choice is SQUID discs — recorded experiences transmitted straight to users brains, allowing them to experience vicarious thrills in increasingly violent, explicit scenes. Ralph Fiennes’s Nero is a dealer of such “clips,” and receives a horrific recording of a rape and murder that winds up exposing a citywide conspiracy. Shot in Los Angeles while the O.J. Simpson trial consumed the city, Strange Days predicted conversations about police brutality, body cameras, and Black Lives Matter two decades early, in addition to its still-relevant commentary on our culture of voyeurism. It’s a tough film to track down, and at times even tougher to watch.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
One of the great aspects of Mamoru Oshii’s original that this year’s remake missed is how normal its cyber-enhanced world feels to its characters. The fictional megalopolis of New Port City is a global mishmash of Chinese, Japanese, and American influence, but when cyborg agent Motoko Kusanagi takes her unforgettable boat ride through its canals, it feels dull and dingy and lacking the whiz-bang neon that has become cliché since Blade Runner’s LED geishas lit up the Los Angeles skyline. It’s a stylistic risk, as is asking us to root for a heroine who is so artificially enhanced that she isn’t even sure she has a soul anymore, but Ghost in the Shell remains a classic for its visually astounding set pieces and unsettling philosophical questions.
The Matrix (1999)
Sometimes it feels like 1999 was a turning point, and science fiction can be divided into two categories: before and after The Matrix. Of course, that’s not true; very few sci-fi films these days bear any resemblance to the Wachowskis’ digitally rain-drenched, One Special Man mythmaking. But the film’s culture-breaking success opened up the possibility for a big-budget blockbuster spectacle that could actually explore meaty sci-fi premises in between fantastical, time-bending gun battles. The actual dystopia of The Matrix is not really explored in full until the 2003 follow-up, The Matrix Reloaded (it’s not the soul-crushing, green-tinted purgatory where we meet Keanu Reeves’s Neo, but the “real” world, where robot Sentinels keep human minds suspended in that shared illusion of our Earth.) But this is where the series first cracks open its still-intoxicating premise that our mundane reality may not be as fixed as we think it is.
Children of Men (2006)
It’s not exactly clear what’s stopped everyone from having babies in Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of P.D. James’s novel, but London circa 2027 seems to have lots of other problems, chief among them an influx of refugees arriving from the multitude of wars raging in the rest of the world, and semi-regular bombings. Things are bad enough that suicide is legal, in prescription-pill form. So far, so plausible. Children of Men may not have that much to say about our present day in the tradition of the best dystopias, but its production and world-building are some of the most iconic of the 21st century.
This one technically doesn’t qualify, as it is now a documentary, but we felt we should include it anyway for sentimental reasons.
Sleep Dealer (2008)
This little-seen indie is as timely as ever, and even if its visual effects haven’t aged well, it’s well worth seeking out. Writer-director Alex Rivera sets his story in a near-future Mexico where robotics and drone technology have advanced to the degree that nobody even tries to cross the border anymore to find work — they can be nannies and housekeepers for rich Americans and work construction simply by plugging themselves into one of several remote factories called “sleep dealers” (so called because working in one for too long causes one to collapse). Rivera is brimming over with ideas about the future of labor, utility privatization, and journalism, and it’s easy to imagine buckets more stories coming out of his wired vision of Tijuana.
Here’s an example of the reboot and remake culture of latter-day Hollywood being used for good: Dredd, based on the Judge Dredd comic strip but more memorably the 1995 Sylvester Stallone turkey, doesn’t try to out-bludgeon its predecessor, but tries on a leaner, meaner, more memorable story line and a perfectly pulpy vision of urban blight. (It’s also a somewhat shameless lift of the Indonesian action film The Raid, but that’s a conversation for another day.) At its heart, Dredd (which depicts a future in which cops fill the role of judge, jury, and executioner) is still a sci-fi commentary on law-enforcement overreach, but as the title character (now played by Karl Urban) embarks on a mission to take down a sadistic drug queenpin, he’s joined by a young psychic judge-in-training (Olivia Thirlby), who tries to lend some much-needed nuance to his methods. If nothing else, Dredd will be remembered for “slo-mo,” the coveted narcotic that easily joins the pantheon of all-time great sci-fi drugs.
Not only does Bong Joon-ho’s first (largely) English-language film take place in a suitably bananas post-apocalyptic world, it feels itself like it’s coming from a cinema of the future. It’s an idiosyncratic, wall-to-wall entertaining action film with a Korean director, French source material (the graphic novel Le Transperceneige), and an international cast led by Captain America. Chris Evans stars as a lower-class scrub riding the back of a perpetual-motion train whose passengers are the last living society left on Earth after a second ice age. A revolt breaks out, and the film builds itself around a mission toward the front of the train, Evans and his crew literally fight their way through the class system. It’s a far less plausible dystopian premise than many of the titles on this list, but there’s some truly bracing class rage to keep things hurtling forward, and a delightfully unrecognizable Tilda Swinton.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
The Hunger Games (2012), the first film in the YA sensation that made archery hot again, established the post-apocalyptic America Katniss Everdeen calls home. But the second film is the one where Suzanne Collins’s world-building really shines — and also happens to be the best in the series. Starting from Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour to each of the 12 variously beleaguered districts, up through the intensified role of the Capital’s reality-TV propaganda machine (still hosted by the franchise MVP Stanley Tucci), the second installment has the scope — and the budget — to create a truly compelling future. Even if the teen drama isn’t your cup of tea, you have to appreciate that this is a rare dystopia to imagine a world in which the totalitarian state’s seat of power is in Colorado.
The Purge: Anarchy (2014)
The Purge, if you’re just joining us, is the one night a year when all crime is legal, effectively “purging” America’s raging, violent citizens and dramatically reducing crime for the rest of the year. The first Purge film was a brilliantly contained bit of dystopian horror, in which a suburban family (led by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) find themselves under siege by their murderous neighbors on Purge Night. That film hints at a vaster, scarier world beyond the gated community of our ensemble, and in Anarchy, the film’s follow-up, we get to see that world. Set in and around downtown Los Angeles (notice a pattern here?) and following a diverse ensemble unlucky enough to be stranded in the lawless streets, this is the film where creator James DeMonaco really starts flexing his class-war muscles, with all the subtlety of a chainsaw and all the blood, too. Not since They Live has the bloodthirsty Brooks Brothers set been portrayed with such glee.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
After a recent viewing of The Road Warrior, George Miller’s seminal gasoline-and-assless-chaps Australian fever dream and the second film in the Mad Max series, I wondered aloud if we would even have Burning Man if not for this film. When Miller returned to the series after a 30-year hiatus, it was in a world that had fully absorbed his iconography, and he still somehow imagined to exceed all expectations. Allowing Charlize Theron’s Furiosa to literally take the wheel from a muzzled Max (Tom Hardy) enraged the fanboys, but set the stage for a powerful female-centric narrative about finding hope in a militaristic culture. Visually, Miller shows no sign of a flagging imagination, from Immortan Joe’s terrifying toothsome gas mask to the already immortalized Doof Warrior (a.k.a. the guy with the flamethrower guitar).
There’s a fine line between utopias and dystopias, and of all the problems for a future society to have, overeducation certainly doesn’t seem like the most gruesome at first glance. But writer-director Jennifer Phang lends a sickly melancholy to her placid cityscape, in which the job market has become absurdly over-competitive and every child has to be a prodigy in order to stand a chance. In order to keep her job as a spokeswoman, Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) submits herself to the very cutting-edge procedure she’s paid to hawk: a process that allows her consciousness to be transmitted to a newer, younger body. Advantageous’ design and world-building is impressive, especially considering its indie budget. But the most affecting dystopian flourish is tragically simple: when Gwen’s daughter tries to figure out whether her upstairs neighbor or downstairs neighbor is crying, and realizes they both are.