Dystopian films cover such a rich and wide variation of themes that picking the top 15 is just about impossible. Pretty much every film in which the future is shitty is considered dystopian, so that means everything from post-apocalyptic to corporate control to biological viruses. It’s a huge field, but here are doubtlessly some of the best!
Everyone admits Blade Runner is an absolutely fantastic movie, but it suffers from being available in dozens of different cuts. The central plot remains the same — the story of a private investigator trying to stop a handful of escaped robots who blend in perfectly with humans — but the implications of the story shift significantly depending on which version you watch.
So much of your reading of the movie depends on a single dream sequence, and what it means. Regardless of which way you saw the film, its visual design is top-notch, and it’s just about the only good cyber-punk film ever made. In fact, it’s probably the pinnacle of the dystopian genre, painting a future LA bleak under its neon sky, yet still punctuated by the occasional brief bursts of humanity and decency.
It also has one of the best lines in cinema history ever “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die. ”
Children of Men
To call Children of Men harrowing would not do it justice. Seldom have I seen a film where brutality seems, so, well, brutal.
The film is set in a future where, for an unknown reason, humanity has stopped being able to have children. Adapted from a book by P.D. James, the main character has to protect an illegal immigrant, who is the first human in years to be pregnant.
The film is remarkable in its long and detailed action shots, which pull you into the story as if it were a documentary. They stretch on for minutes and were reported to take hours and hours of prep time for every take. Their seamless nature creates a far more realistic feel than Michael Bay-like quick cuts and shaky cams.
Yet even set against a world of fierce government control and brutality, in a society plagued with xenophobia and violence, it’s essentially a story of hope.
The Ghost in the Shell Series
Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell has now been adapted into films, TV shows, multiple manga series, an interactive CD and a live-action version. Unfortunately, most take place in separate continuities, making it tricky to reconcile them with one another, especially for new fans.
The manga series are more action-oriented, the TV show is a thought-provoking police procedural, and the movies are intensely philosophical and deal with the nature of the soul.
This is one of the few times where I think that the movie versions are better than the source material, and the original film and its sequel are both superb pieces of work, which meld intense action with thought-provoking surrealism. Definitely worth getting hold of in every incarnation.
Let’s ignore the sequels and just go with the first movie. Hard to believe it was put out so long ago, given how freaking mind-blowing the special effects were at the time.
Remember when you first saw Trinity jump kick? It’s kinda sad how clichè and tired those special effects were almost immediately, as they were picked up by so many other filmmakers.
The first film in the trilogy blew minds worldwide, with its heady blend of Gnosticism and esoteric religious views, and the nagging questions about the nature of reality. Plus, it had kickass fight scenes.
It seamlessly blended Hong Kong action with philosophy 101, which made it feel intelligent, but with enough chases and fighting to appeal to a broader crowd. It also inspired a generation of loners to wear black trenchcoats. As if they needed encouragement!
I consider this Pixar’s greatest film, though it’s pretty close between this and The Incredibles. The first 45 minutes or so which are performed without any spoken words are a testament to Pixar’s abilities to convey emotion and story without relying on narration and dialogue.
When Wall-E came out, there was even talk of it being nominated for Best Film, and while that didn’t happen, it was nominated for eight academy awards and won one.
Frankly, if you don’t see the beauty and optimism in Wall-E, despite its apocalyptic setting, then you’re an evil heartless human being. Between the beautiful characterization and stunning animation, the robots were far more human than the people could ever be.
Arguably Stanley Kubrick’s most visually distinct film, the aesthetics of Clockwork Orange have endured, even while the career of Malcom McDowell has not.
Its striking visual style and use of the pidgin Nadsat language remain in the cultural mindset, and after you see this film, you’ll never hear “Singing in the Rain” in the same way again. Due to the intense violence, sexuality, and drug use, this movie has been constantly banned or challenged in nations around the globe.
The film tells the tale of a violent thug who is forced to reform via psychological conditioning. The main character is completely amoral, yet remains oddly compelling. It differs from the novel, in that the book has an odd sort of redemption for Alex at the end, where the movie finishes with him returning to his violent, lustful previous life.
You know you’re looking at a good film when just about every post-apocalyptic story that followed steals a huge amount from it.
The cobbled-together raiders, violent society and the desert filled wastelands. Without Mad Max, we wouldn’t have the dystopian genre as we know it, nor would we have a ton of good video games, like the Fallout series, or Borderlands.
It’s funny to note that the first Mad Max film was set before the apocalypse of the latter two, but during a period of societal collapse, with gangs ruling the highway. It wasn’t till the later movies that the cities completely crumbled after an apocalyptic event, and everyone started wearing a mixture of football padding and fetishwear.
This groundbreaking anime remains a seminal work in the field and is visually arresting and thematically engaging.
The end battle between the hideously mutated Tetsuo and his once best friend Kaneda is terrifying to this day.
Set in post-WWIII Japan, Akira’s cast of psychically boosted Government guinea pigs in a decaying crime-ridden Neo-Tokyo retains its power no matter how often it’s watched. The city is filled with rioting citizens, corrupt officials, rampaging street gangs, and shudders in fear over the name “Akira”.
Watching it now, it’s a bit easy to forget just how influential and groundbreaking it was when it debuted, but the story retains its impressive strength of purpose. If you have the time and money, try tracking down the multi-volume manga, which deals with the plot in far more detail.
Terry Gilliam could easily be on this list a handful of times, but I’ve decided to limit him to just one entry.
12 Monkeys came a close second, but the paranoia of Brazil is just too perfect to be ignored. The cruel nature of bureaucracy, the fleeting freedom of dreams, and the soul-destroying nature of repetitive work.
Oh man, Gilliam’s eye for satire is unmatched, and Brazil remains one of Gilliam’s best works and seeing Robert De Niro as a renegade air conditioning specialist is just amazing. It pokes fun at government, consumerism, and vanity. Well worth a viewing, though it has a particularly downbeat ending.
As is often the case with dystopian films, the unpleasantness of the setting is hidden beneath the veneer of a functioning society.
Gattaca is a tale of a future where children are genetically engineered from inception, and society is obsessed with genetic compatibility isn’t particularly far-fetched. Naturally born children (termed in-valids) are restricted to menial jobs and strictly monitored.
The film is seeped in a futuro-noir aesthetic that marries the strict controls on people’s lives, with the inherent hopefulness of an in-valid pretending to be valid. Jude Law, in particular, has an excellent performance as a crippled valid, who lends his DNA to the driven Ethan Hawke. Interesting note, the name Gattaca is spelled using the four letters of DNA nitrogenous bases: G, T, C, and A.
V for Vendetta
Writer Alan Moore has issues with his stories being transformed into Hollywood films, and any follower of his can see why.
V for Vendetta rebels against the source material considerably but emerges from the process as a good, but different, story. Where the original graphic novel was a treatise on the powers of anarchy, the film is more about liberal/neo-conservative splits. It’s an important distinction to realize, and one that alters the thrust of the movie.
The cast of V for Vendetta is superb, with major points going to Hugo Weaving for playing a starring role in a film entirely behind a mask. Natalie Portman also deserves note for being willing to shave her head and lose a creepy amount of weight to take on the role of Evey.
Released in 1973, Soylent Green is set in an era when a rampant population has driven most of the world to unemployment, surviving on food rations called “soylent green”.
The twist at the end of the story is now so commonly known that it loses much of its strength, but the setting of a world crammed with people is still resonant. The problem of feeding a growing population from a fixed amount of land is a real one, especially given the possible farming ramifications of climate change.
Like much good sci-fi, Soylent Green plays with the possibilities to deliver a potent message. Why waste all that protein? It wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
28 Days Later
Dystopia distilled down to its purest form: zombies. Well, infected human beings running around and attacking people, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel like a zombie film.
You have the classic hallmarks of a good post-apocalyptic story: widespread desolation, few survivors, unbeatable enemies, evil and incompetent military. Plus screaming, sprinting zombies who want to eat your face!
Screw Romero and his slow shamblers, sprinting zombies are way more freaking scary. Those things coming at you at full speed? That’s a real threat. It was admittedly odd to see Cillian Murphy in an action role, but he carried it well. Pity about the sequel.
A Scanner Darkly
Is it any surprise to see plenty of Philip K Dick on this list? A Scanner Darkly is one of the better Dick adaptations, of one of his more surreal stories.
The entire film was hand rotoscoped, giving it an odd and dreamlike quality (which the director had previously used to great effect in the film “The Waking Life”, which was about dreams). Dick had severe drug problems for almost his entire life, and Scanner Darkly was part of his attempt to deal with his demons.
Between the excellent performances by the film’s actors and the tripped-out narrative, you’ll find yourself scratching your head from the film but also feeling oddly satisfied. Honestly, how can you go wrong when you have Woody Harrelson, Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr. playing a trio of drug addicts?
Idiocracy wins major points for concept, but fell flat in its execution. It tells of a future where the stupid have outbred the intelligent, and the world has fallen into ruin. It’s a feeling shared by armchair eugenicists and internet fanboys alike, who feel like they’re being outnumbered by the unwashed masses.
The movie itself has a hilarious concept, and moments of comedic genius, but unfortunately it fails to maintain the humor throughout its entirety. Even given its minimal release and variable hilarity, it’s built up a cult following online. Because “It’s got what plants crave!” Seriously though, Mike Judge has done much better work.