A dystopia is generally defined as an imagined society where suffering is plentiful with people living in either a totalitarian or post-apocalyptic state. As you’ll see from my list, my preference leans on the tyrannical side of things. I tend to think societies won’t collapse in as dramatic a fashion as Mad Max, but rather people will reassemble a twisted skeleton of what is familiar & comfortable. To hold things together, people will accept the glue of authoritarian rule, whether through an individual despot or a faceless corporation. In most of these dark futures, there is not tangible governmental leadership; instead, it operates behind the scenes and is typically a merger of government & private corporations.
The Cold War is best remembered as a period where much of the art was informed by ever-present terror centered around mutually assured destruction (MAD). MAD was the concept that is either the United States or the Soviet Union launched nuclear weapons on the other, there would be an equal exchange that would result in the death of the majority of human life on Earth. Chris Marker shows us a world where humanity has been driven underground due to the radiation. People are still scrabbling together hope this time through an abstract form of consciousness time travel. The protagonist of La Jetee is sent to the past and future to seek help for the people of his time. He falls in love with a woman in the past but is haunted by fragments of memories from his childhood that seem to portend doom. La Jetee is a piece of science fiction perfection with a heartachingly ironic conclusion.
Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits) expanded and remade La Jetee into the feature film 12 Monkeys. Instead of nuclear annihilation, the future is plagued by a viral pandemic. Humanity is still driven underground and is using the esoteric form of time travel. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back to get information on the original virus to help the scientists of his time to develop a cure. Cole ends up being seen as a mentally ill man in the past and institutionalized. This is where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a deeply disturbed man and Dr. Railly (Madeline Stowe), who he comes to fall in love with. 12 Monkeys becomes a casual loop time travel story, the best kind that emphasizes the irony of attempting to manipulate time and change events. Gilliam greatly expanded on the design of the plagued future, using his signature aesthetic of overly complicated and messy design, which fits with the idea of a fallen society using scraps to reassemble itself.
Blade Runner/Blade Runner 2049 (1982/2017, directed by Ridley Scott/Denis Villeneuve)
Blade Runner started as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. In the future, Dick proposes, San Francisco has been rocked by nuclear war with almost every animal on the planet extinct. The story follows Rick Deckard, a Blade Runner hunting down bioengineered Nexus-6 replicants, an artificially created slave class of beings. The Nexus-6 are being helped by the dim-witted man named John Isidore. In director Ridley Scott’s adaptation, John Isidore is changed to J.F. Sebastian, and his role in the story is not as significant as in the novel. I think Blade Runner is a pretty good movie, but Scott is definitely carried by the mindblowing production design and not so much the script, which has some blaring weak spots. The atmosphere moves us along, though.
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, delivers a fantastic script and builds upon the tones established in the original. Los Angeles is a massive stack of buildings, with most people living deep at the bottom. The sea levels have risen to the point that an enormous sea wall towers above the city, protecting it from incomprehensibly large waves. Squalor has spread thirty years after the first film’s events, which is seen during the junkyard sequence, a landfill that sprawls on into the horizon. Numerous factions live inside the landfill scavenging parts and components, cleaning and reselling them, often in large sweatshops. Replicants still operate as a slave class justified via their non-human status. I love that Villeneuve uses the subtle breakdown of society, barely held together via corporate strongarming, as a place to examine the nature of humanity and our questions of identity. In a world where you are dehumanized for others to hold onto power, it is natural that your sense of self would begin to breakdown.
Akira (1988, directed by Katsuhiro Otomo)
Instead of nuclear war, Tokyo is destroyed by a singularity event in 1988. We jump to 2019, where Neo-Tokyo is thriving but is plagued by gang violence and deep government corruption. During a protest against the government, high schooler Kaneda’s gang and their rivals interrupt the liberation of an esper (a psychically talented individual). Tetsuo, Kaneda’s best friend, crashes his motorcycle into the esper, and a violent psychic event occurs that warps the nature of the young man. Tetsuo begins developing psychic powers as a result and suffers from increasingly terrible headaches and body pain.
Akira is a dystopian story about the horrors of human evolution, with Kaneda being the eyes through which we see the story. Because the victim/antagonist is his own best friend, it raises the story’s emotional stakes. There is a secondary villain in the form of Colonel Shikishima, but the story is most definitely about Kaneda and Tetsuo. The body horror that Tetsuo experiences still resonates today with his transformation perfectly paced that it reaches its stomach-churning zenith at the perfect moment. I read through the entire manga the film is based on one summer over a decade ago, and I highly recommend it. It dramatically expands the world and characters we see in the movie, and you get a truly epic dystopian tale.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence/Minority Report (2001/2002, directed by Steven Spielberg)
Originally being developed by Stanley Kubrick, A.I. was eventually handed over to Spielberg by the great director before he passed. Kubrick saw that it should have a level of sentiment in the story that he just wasn’t inclined to incorporate into his work. The result is a movie that feels like a mix of both filmmakers with some brilliant worldbuilding. I bawled my eyes out watching A.I. in the theater on its opening day. I was staying on campus that summer, rooming alone, all of my friends off somewhere else. That summer began a routine of walking to the nearby theater and watching lots of films (possibly doing a little theater hopping).
Minority Report was an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story but feels like it is set in another corner of the same world we see in A.I. These are worlds where our characters live in gorgeous sleek cities and neighborhoods. However, there is a dark side to these societies that are hidden away. In A.I., it’s the brutalism inflicted on the robots and the ruins of New York City that remind us of the perils of climate change. In Minority Report, the shadowy truth is that pre-crime policing is used to silence inconvenient people while those in power are free to kill as they please. The millennium aesthetic Spielberg was fond of at this time heightens the darkness and surrealism of these worlds.
Children of Men (2006, directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
The future proposed by Cuaron is a childless one, with the last baby being born eighteen years before the events in the film. In 2027, the world is on the brink of collapse, and anti-immigration sentiments have taken over the United Kingdom. Theo Faron (Clive Owen) is a government bureaucrat just keeping his head down and doing his job. He’s pulled back into his old life of activism by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). She needs him to transport a young woman to a rendezvous with possibly mythical consortium known as The Human Project. Theo tries to wiggle out of it, but tragic events compel him to carry out the harrowing mission as he goes deep into the heart of his nation’s evils.
I think Children of Men’s future is the most likely one. The government has increased its policing over concerns with terrorism and has specifically targeted refugees with the majority of their brutalism. Entire cities have been cordoned off as prisons for these immigrants. Cuaron manages to replicate the frenzied panicked emotion of living in this world through his cinematography, almost near documentary-like in moments, with astonishing long takes. We scramble through this decaying world with the characters, feeling overwhelmed by the hopelessness. People are killed or renditioned by the government so quickly that the audience often doesn’t get a chance to process what is happening. Sadly, this is an experience being shared by both refugees at our own Southern border, citizens in Middle Eastern nations our armies have invaded, and now citizens on the streets of Portland, Oregon. Children of Men is tragically the most likely dystopia waiting for us in the future.
Black Mirror – “White Christmas” (2014, directed by Carl Tibbets)
Charlie Brooker’s anthology series Black Mirror has no end of dystopian futures presented to the audience. My favorite of them was featured in the 2014 Christmas special. The framing device of this episode has two men, Matt (Jon Hamm) and Joe (Rafe Spall), sitting in a remote outpost completely snowed in sharing their individual life stories, which form the three parts of this special. The future that is unveiled to us is nightmarish in ways that feel way too real.
Matt talks about two jobs he’s held. The first was Z-Eyes, an online group that live-coached men into seducing women. Matt aids a member named Harry in picking up a woman, which results in an unexpectedly horrific ending. But the most dystopian part is the “cookies.” These are digital clones of people stored in an egg-shaped object the owner can keep on desktop or table. Time can be manipulated inside the cookie’s structure, and Matt, who is training them, uses this torture a cookie into behaving. He forces one women’s cookie to endure six months of complete isolation and madness in seconds. The episode extrapolates on this idea in disturbing ways that feel way too real for comfort.
Westworld Season 1 (2016, directed by various)
I can only speak to the first season of this HBO series because season two didn’t hook me enough to keep going. However, the world set up in those initial ten episodes is pretty compelling and interesting. The dystopia, in this case, isn’t necessarily for humans but rather their automaton creations. These androids are programmed to believe they live in the 19th century American West and are fully human. Throughout the season, they learn they serve at the pleasure of hedonistic and sadistic humans. The androids are beaten, raped, and murdered for decades, having their memories erased until some of those fragments manage to leak back in.
Westworld works as both a parallel between slavery/exploitation for the past and the likely future if humanity can develop A.I. with such sophistication. Just like A.I., these fully self-aware beings will be seen as free to abuse and exploit because they aren’t biologically human. Look at how so many people spit venom about trans people these days, often clinging to outdated modes of thinking about sex & gender. A being who can have their face removed and be programmed will readily be seen as something you don’t have to show empathy. This is why when idiots like Elon Musk talk in fear about the rise of artificial intelligence, I ruminate on how sorry I feel for what we will do that new form of life if it ever comes about.