There is something about the dystopian films featuring an affectless, emotionless, disengaged society that makes for compelling viewing.
Technology allows us to be connected to one another constantly. Which raises the questions of what it means to be part of social order and what it means to be alone. Kirstie Pursey in Learning to be Alone in an Over-Connected World explores these themes.
Many of these films are based on or inspired by dystopian novels. Which makes sense since this genre of complex plots, involving sociological, philosophical, and cultural musings invites the art of movie-making, involving cinematography, acting, and stagecraft that complements the solo art of dystopian storytelling.
Indeed, The Verge asks the question in Tasha Robinson’s article “Why Are Writers so Obsessed with Scary Emotionless Future?”
What Is a Dystopia?
The word “dystopia” is a combination of greek words, and translates to a “bad place”. It is the opposite of “utopia”, meaning a perfect place.
A dystopia is generally thought to be a version of the world in the future, in which something has gone terribly wrong. It depicts massive population losses, extreme poverty, low fertility rates, and/or extensive genetic mutation.
Most dystopic universes feature a totalitarian government as a result of the destructive factors, an increase of religious sentiments, and manipulative tactics and social engineering.
All this results in manipulating and oppressing large percentages of the population, which is kept in the dark about the real circumstances. At the same time, the ruling class enjoys numerous privileges, eliminating anyone posing a threat in the process.
The sub-genre of futuristic dystopian societies (generally contained within the larger genre of science fiction) has always been popular. But it recently became increasingly mainstream due to the success of Young Adult franchises such as The Hunger Games and the Divergent series.
There are, however, literary and cinematic works that were the foundation of dystopian stories long before the popular teenage heroes emerged. Those works will always be relevant, even after decades have gone by.
While set in the future, the dystopian films described here deal with topics that are contemporary, pushing these ideas to their extreme manifestation to explore ideas of emotion, control, and agency. Here are seven dystopian films that approach that universal dilemma.
Top 14 Dystopian Films of All Time
Everyone knows about George Orwell’s literary classic. It might be the single most popular and renowned work of dystopian fiction. Terms such as thoughtcrime are used in everyday language sometimes, and everyone is familiar with the inverted principles of the book’s totalitarian regime: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”.
1984 depicts the story of Winston, a man living in this totalitarian society, and his illicit affair with Julia, a rebellious young woman. The film and, of course, the book, are so haunting and depressing not just because of the society they show but because of the frightening parallels between that society and our own.
2. A Clockwork Orange
The infamous Kubrick adaptation of Anthony Burgess‘ similarly infamous novel might seem a bit peculiar for this list. It doesn’t check most of the classic “dystopian fiction” boxes. However, it deserves a place for the in-depth and controversial exploration of the issues of morality, violent behavior, and the State’s ways of rehabilitation.
The movie points a finger to the government and the correctional system, which torture and take away the character’s “capability of moral choice”. But it also depicts society as a whole; debates on rehabilitation and correctional policies rage to this day, with the debate on capital punishment topping it all off.
If a society uses conditioning to strip criminals of their amorality, but also of their morality, conscious choice, and character, ergo the core of what makes us human, is it not a dystopian one?
3. Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury‘s novel was published in 1953. The film, directed by top-notch French director Francois Truffaut, followed 13 years later and remains a must-see (and a must-read, of course). It was Truffaut’s only English language film and his first in color.
In this world, the government has requested the systematic burning of books, without exceptions. The people employed to carry out the burnings are called “Firemen”, and our protagonists, Guy Montag, is one of them.
He lives an ordinary existence until he meets a young girl, who causes him to question the purpose of his profession, and become suspicious of the government’s desire to eradicate books.
It is a dystopian film adaptation of a book outlining the importance of books in the human spirit and soul, as a cause of personal development. Inception-y, maybe. But enlightening nonetheless.
Terry Gilliam‘s films have always been curious little things, and “Brazil” is no different.
Described by many as a “dystopian satire”, and “poking fun at bureaucracy”, Brazil stars Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry. He is a man trying to find a woman who appears in his dreams.
At the same time, he is working in a mind-numbing job and living a life in a small apartment, set in a consumer-driven dystopian world. This world overly relies on poorly maintained (and rather whimsical) machines.
A small printing mistake he is sent to fix sends him spiraling further down into a world that prefers to eradicating evidence instead of admitting to a mistake. It is indeed a satirical look on the bureaucracy that, as we all know, can cause headaches over the most everyday things.
5. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron‘s film is haunting and dystopic, in a subtler sense. The source of the problem in this society does not seem to be the government, but the society itself. Apart from the fact that is is a spectacularly shot film (containing one of the longest takes in recent film history and amazing performances), it also features a damn terrifying premise.
It depicts a world where humans have become infertile. No child has been born for 18 years. Therefore, placing the immigrant who might be the only pregnant woman in the world in a very dangerous situation.
The government and political activists both want her and the child for their own political ends. There is always the almost mythical group that provides protection of human rights and neutral healthcare.
Our protagonist is called to make the right choices and protect the pregnant woman while leading her to safety. It is a very emotional film and hits you in strange ways. To say more would spoil it.
6. V for Vendetta
Okay, this one was predictable. It is the go-to film for young revolutionaries, and probably the first film of such nature that most will watch, seeing how it became so subversively cult that it turned mainstream.
Based on Alan Moore‘s graphic novel, we follow V, a mysterious and revenge-driven freedom fighter and lone rebel. He seeks to open the public’s eyes and ignite a true revolution against the fascist regime. It has overtaken the United Kingdom under a series of mysterious biochemical disasters that plunged the world into chaos and led to the rise of the regime.
A young woman, Eve, is caught in the middle and develops a curious relationship with V.
It is impossible not to see V for Vendetta at least once, and even more impossible to forget it. It has created merchandise such as the Anonymous masks and brought the slogan “Remember, remember, the 5th of November” back into relevance.
It’s all about revolution, the rising of fascist regimes, political smokescreens, and manipulation of the public by higher powers. A must-see.
“Metropolis” is the oldest one on our list of dystopian films. It was made by Fritz Lang in 1927, it is chock-full of German Expressionism and 20’s style, and it is all about class struggles. It deserves a place on the list simply for its historical significance and the grand-scale ambition behind it. It is considered to have been the most expensive production of its time, and certainly the most astounding.
The movie tells the story of Freder, son of a wealthy upper-class man in Metropolis, and his disillusionment with his wealth and the cost at which it comes. It explores themes of technological advancement and its risks, class struggle and collision, and, of course, a future that looks really, really wrong.
“Metropolis” was ill-received back in 1927 but was recognized throughout the years for the achievement that it is.
8. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Katniss is the protagonist of The Hunger Games, the brave athlete who takes on the Games in a society of haves and have-nots. A society that shows no empathy and no forgiveness. The Games are truly one of survival and failure is literally a death sentence. In a world where scarcity, hunger and misinformation rule, Katniss is a heroine for and of the people.
9. Blade Runner (1982)
Based on a Philip K. Dick’s classic story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a detective in the not so distant future seeks an assignment that leads him to remove a crew of renegade androids who must be dispatched and so he meets a beautiful female: elegant, mysterious, and affectless. Is this femme fatale android or human? Woman or machine?
The hard-bitten detective finds himself at the mercy of an android designed to be devoid of emotions, among them love and compassion.
10. Equilibrium (2002)
In a post-World War III society that has outlawed all emotions and all forms of creativity, an enforcer of these very laws, upon forgetting a dose of obligatory medication, begins to feel outlawed emotions. This causes him to join the resistance to the very social codes that he is sworn to enforce.
Equilibrium is an allegory of a world of Prozac usage on steroids. This dystopian film is a rumination on the power of feelings and the consequences of forsaking or repressing them.
11. Gattaca (1997)
There is no fighting fate. You are what you are. But suppose the individual aspires to bigger dreams? In a world of proscribed possibilities, how far will one person go to test oneself against pre-determined limits? Can he do this on his own?
What does it mean to involve others in your dreams, when they each have schemes of their own? If a man is engineered as an “in-valid” how far will he go to leave his world and enter the race for space? Enter Gattaca and discover for yourself.
12. Total Recall (2012)
The stomping ground of philosophers who have pondered memory, meaning, and identity, Total Recall goes over the metaphysical landscape with the addition of sexuality and implied violence.
What does a protagonist do when he cannot trust not only those around him but his own mind? What power lies in perception or memory?
13. The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
In a society where women are basically chattel and breeding stock, where protection, safety, and surveillance overlap to the detriment of free will, The Handmaid’s Tale explores the lines between autonomy and society. Here, a woman’s biology holds her captive.
14. Elysium (2013)
Total societal inequality in every field has created a small minority of the super-privileged who reside on a fantastic space station — and the vast majority of humanity who live in squalor that is pervasive and all-encapsulating.
Work, housing, and medical care are scarce for the under-class. One man seeks to find salvation for someone he cares about and in so doing challenges a system designed to grind down the individual who is not the uber-elite.
Set in the very near future, this movie raises concerns about inequality and social issues such as environmental degradation, immigration, health care, the justice system, and how far we will go to isolate and protect ourselves and, conversely, what we will do and how far we will go to connect with one another.
These dystopian films exploring the world of emotionless society are sure to elicit strong feelings in the viewer who seeks to analyze the connections between dystopian themes and the meaning of agency and freedom.
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