Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Life in the Ruins: 20 Dystopian Films

In 1981, I saw my first dystopian film in the theater. We entered the South Road Mall in Poughkeepsie, NY, for the matinee and hours later emerged with eyes blinking. The film was Mad Max: Road Warrior and it seemed to speak to us as 14 year olds in a way other films couldn’t. Perhaps it was the cold war fears we had buried since birth. It could have been the weird fundamentalist Christianity we had been subject to telling us we were in danger of being “left behind.” It could have just been teenage angst mixed with the growing influence New Wave Punk was having on kids in the late 70’s and early 80’s. However, almost 30 years later, dystopian films still have a powerful affect on me despite the cold wars end, espying fundamentalism as crackpot religion, and becoming a husband, father and leader in my community.

Dystopia Defined

What is dystopia? Ok, first think of utopia-humans flourishing, producing, loving, cultivating… Now think of a nuclear bomb going off, a mass virus killing off 98% of humanity, robots taking over the world by harvesting human beings as a power source or a single corporation-government attempting to control everyone’s thoughts and actions.

Dystopia is Orwell’s 1984 & Animal Farm and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in literature. It's the Clash and the Ramones in music. It’s the sci-fi networks Battlestar Galactica in TV.

Dystopia is a civilization (typically in the future) that is or has been destroyed and is now characterized by mass chaos, poverty, oppression, disease, infertility, violence, control or a need to survive amidst the rubble of a once thriving culture.

20 Must See Dystopian Films by Type:

Many of the films listed below have overlapping emphasis. However, I have placed them into six categories: Technological Dystopias, Biological Dystopias, Post-apocalyptic Dystopias, Corporate-Political Dystopias, Environmental Dystopias, Cultural Dystopias.

What made the list and why?

There are hundreds of dystopian films. Many are b-films that are poorly written, poorly produced, and poorly acted. I am choosing films I found to be intelligent, moving, well produced, directed, and written. This list is not intended to be the last word on Dystopian films so please refrain from leaving comments telling me how Metroplois or THX 1138 should have been listed, etc. Instead, if you have ideas about a best list of dystopian films, start your own list and post it.

Technological Dystopias

The Matrix (1999)

Spoiler Warning: The Wackowski brothers bring us an incredibly intelligent film about a future where machines have rebelled against humanity, enslaving us in harvesting fields while we go about our lives thinking we are free when in fact we are living inside virtual realities while our bodies discharge the needed power to run this brave new world. Outside the matrix, a small band of rebels have unplugged from the machines power and are slowly rebuilding a new society in constant danger of attack.

Blade Runner (1982)

Spoiler Warning: This ground breaking cyber punk picture of LA centers around a band of rebel robots that cannot be distinguished from humans and the cop that is trying to stop them from murdering the humans in their path.

Minority Report (2002)

Spoiler Warning: In the future, your every move will be tracked by retina scans. Pre-cogs know when the next crime will be committed and who will commit it. Everything is controlled and everyone is controlled. Well, not everyone.

The Terminator (1984)

Spoiler Warning: A post-apocalyptic future ruled by machines is threatened by a human rebellion lead by John Connor. When the machines send a terminator back in time to kill his mother, the action begins.

Biological Dystopias

Children of Men (2006)

Spoiler Warning: It has been nearly two decades since the last birth. The British Empire is the last remaining society to cling to civility, though it does so with an iron fist. Without the hope of a future generation, most have given up hope and have become nihilistic. Until…

Gattaca (1997)

Spoiler Warning: In the near future, natural births have been replaced by designer births. Those who still dare to make babies the old fashion way will see their offspring subjected to systematic exclusion. They will be without insurance, working as laborers while their genetically superior neighbors rule the world. In a very tidy future, our genetic problems are disappearing, but what about our souls?

Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Spoiler Warning: This psychological thriller focuses on a prisoner sent back to the 1990’s to discover a virus that forced humanity underground. However, his trips in and out of the decade cause him to question whether he is actually travelling through time or simply stuck inside his own delusion.

I am Legend (2009)

Spoiler Warning: One man attempts to stay alive in a future NYC where a deadly virus has destroyed the world. By day he is free to salvage from the ruins. At night, he must hide from the animals and humans that have been infected. From where will salvation come?

Post-apocalyptic Dystopias

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Spoiler Warning: An amazing film with a devastating ending. Set in the future, NASA space explorers return to earth to find that the evolutionary cycle has shifted. Now, humanity is an ignorant slave class controlled by intelligent apes who remind us of the 1970’s ruling class. Classic lines in this film include, “Get your damn hands off me you dirty ape,” “If this is the best they’ve got, in six month we’ll be running this planet.”

Book of Eli (2008)

An incredible tale of post-apocalyptic America. Eli travels the land carrying a sacred book that he is willing to protect at all costs.

The Postman (1997)

Perhaps the most hopeful of all dystopian films. This incredible story highlights the emergence of humanity’s hope in the face of tyranny as the Postman delivers news of a re-awakened America.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Raw survival in a world that has lost its moral compass.

Corporate-Political Dystopias

Equilibrium (2002)

Spoiler Warning: In this future world no one suffers from sadness, rage, or fear. In this future world no one feels joy, love, or peace. Feelings and all that evokes them in music, art, literature, and other aspects of culture are becoming extinct. Underneath this sterile world, love and beauty and freedom stir and threaten revolution.

V for Vendetta (2005)

A dystopian loves story full of villains and superheroes, corporate thugs and vigilante heroics.

Rollerball (1975)

Comfort is freedom or is there more to life…

Environmental Dystopias

Wall-E (2008)

Spoiler Warning: After consuming ourselves off the planet, humanity takes a 500 year break from terra while the collective soul of man shrivels into a piece of plump juicy white meat. Meanwhile back on earth one lone robot continues to steward the earth. His reward… a soul.

Soylent Green (1973)

Spoiler Warning: NYC has quadrupled in population, there is a massive divide between the ruling class and the poor and the masses are fed from four kinds of soy. In the midst of the chaos, a cop tries to solve a murder and discovers more than he can swallow.

Cultural Dytopia

Idiocracy (2006)

Spoiler Warning: A sophomoric movie not fit for consumption. But, the premise is too good to pass off as nonsense. Humanity has devolved over 500 years as the stupid make babies and the rich make wise investments. Two hibernating government experiments awaken to find that they are the smartest people alive. “It’s got electrolytes.”

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

A poorly adapted film version of Ray Bradbury’s brilliant novel where future society has rejected the written word and traded in their hearts and souls for cheap consumption.

The Dark Night (2008)

A chilling look at the heart of evil in the heart of man.

Honorable Mention:

Sleepers (1973)

Total Recall

Mad Max

Tank Girl