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Sci-fi is a genre where writers and filmmakers can explore the possibilities of the future. They can also use the genre to allows us to see dark versions of the present or future, showing society at its worst, the dystopia sub-genre. They can be totalitarian regimes dominating society or societies starting fall apart and struggling. Many writers have used the subgenre to look at the worst aspects of government and humanity and have offered commentary and satire about the time during which they are written. There have been many great movies that have set out dark versions of society and to celebrate, we will look at classic dystopia, from least worst to live in, to the most. Movies like The Road and The Terminator series are from the post-apocalyptic subgenre and will not be included in this list.
15. Britain, late 2020s – V for Vendetta
Based on Alan Moore’s 1980s graphic novel the Wachowski Siblings and director James McTeigue updated V for Vendetta for the mid-2000s and made a film that has made its presence known in the popular consciousness. The adaptation sets V for Vendetta in the late 2020s where Britain and America fought wars in the Middle East and a biological terrorist attack has led to a fascist party to take over Britain. The media is constantly used as a weapon to install fear amongst the populous, the secret police arrest and kill political activists, ‘undesirables’ like Muslims and homosexuals have been rounded up for medical experimentation. The world in the graphic novel is even more desperate, most of the world has suffered from a nuclear war with Britain and the resulting radioactive fallout, living standards are much worst with situations like a 16-year-old girl attempting to prostitute herself and Scotland turning into Northern Ireland during The Troubles.
14. America, unspecified near future – Gattaca
Writer/director Andrew Niccol made his name as a filmmaker with his directional debut Gattaca, a sci-fi movie that shows a very realistic and believable vision of the future. The future Niccol depicts is an America that has turned into a eugenics-based society where families are able to genetically-select their children to be as healthy as possible. From birth, doctors can predict life-expectancy and likelihood of contracting illnesses such as heart disease. The consequence is society is split into two classes, the genetically pure who control the world and the underclass of ‘faith births’, people who are stuck in menial jobs. With a retro-futuristic look, Gattaca‘s world of dubious medical ethics is very plausible, especially since we live in a world where we could choice the best embryos for IVF and medical insurance companies discriminating against people with pre-existing medical conditions.
13. Metropolis, 2026 – Metropolis
The 1927 silent film Metropolis is still regarded as one of the most ambitious sci-fi films ever made, being the most expansive movie made at the time, costing 5.1 Reichsmark, having state of the art model work and used over 25,000 extras. In the city of Metropolis society is split into two classes, the wealthy industrialists who live in grandeur and opulence high up in the sky, and the working class who toil underground to keep the city alive. The workers are on the edge of revolting against the bourgeoisie, but stopped because of the promise of the fabled mediator who would unite the classes. But there are people in the top of society who are willing to use the political and socio-economic anger of the workers for their own needs.
12. Underground City, 25th Century – THX-1138
Before George Lucas made his name with Star Wars his first foray into sci-fi was THX-1138. Based on his own short film, THX-1138 is set in an underground city where people are being watched everywhere and given drugs to block their emotions. Sex is prohibited and a robotic police force is constantly being constructed to enforce the law. Individualism is countered by having men and women dress in white overalls and have shaven heads and their names are simply three letters and three numbers. Anyone who is found to be against the system is locked into a bright white void of a prison and the worst offenders are killed and their name is passed on to an unborn child. THX-1138 borrows heavily from novels like 1984, A Brave New World and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
11. Neo-Tokyo, 2019 – Akira
Akira was the movie that brought Anime to the West, an action packed sci-fi movie that was influential to filmmakers like the Wachowskis. It is also a film that sets up dark version of the future. In 1988 an explosion devastates Tokyo and starts World War III. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo is built on the ruins of the old city, a lawless city where teenage biker gangs fight each other on the highways and schools are used to beat students into submission (and failing miserably). Political groups and radicals commit terrorist acts around the city and within the upper echelons of government, the military want to take over. There is a secret wing within the military who capture and experiment on people who show signs of possessing psychic powers.
10. Australia, unspecified near future – Mad Max
The first Mad Max movie is the only one that fits into the dystopia genre, but it’s still a highly regarded movie, an example of great low-budget action filmmaking and the first that started Mel Gibson’s career. Mad Max is set in the Australian Outback, society is beginning to break down, gangs dominate the roads, stealing oil, the most vital resources and terrorize towns across rural Australia. The police struggle to maintain law and order despite their best efforts as society limps towards disaster.
9. Britain, 1970s to 1990s – Never Let Me Go
Not all dystopias are set in the future with the adaptation of Never Let Me Go serving as a example. Never Let Me Go is set in an alternative version of Britain from the 70s to the 90s. In 1952 there is a medical breakthrough that allows people to live over the age of 100. But an underclass of people have developed, clones who are only created so their organs can be harvested before they turn 30. The clones are educated from birth and are so indoctrinated in this system that they do not even attempt to escape from their fate. It is bleak, but a more realistic look at how a society like this would function.
8. Japan, Early 21th Century – Battle Royale
The Japanese movie Battle Royale is deservedly seen as a cult classic, an ultra-violent sci-fi flick that delights fans. In this future, Japan suffers from an economy collapse, causing massive unemployment and the youth rebel. Schools are violent places where students bring in weapons, attack teachers and other students and many students boycott the education system. To combat the crisis the Japanese government pass the BR Act, allowing an annual Battle Royale where one class has the misfortune to fight to the death within three days. To ensure the students comply, they have to wear explosive collars around their necks.
7. Britain, unspecified near future – A Clockwork Orange
From the mind of Stanley Kubrick is his adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Set in a then near future of Britain, the young of the nation run amok, including Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a teenage gang leader who enjoys stealing, rape and a bit of the old ultra-violence. People live in fear as the police, schools and other institutions are unable to cope. As one old tramp says “What sort of a world is it at all? Men on the moon, and men spinning around the Earth, and there’s not no attention paid to Earthly law and order no more.” To deal with the crisis, the government brings in desperate measures, including conditioning criminals to be unable to commit violent acts and allow police brutality. But the government is prepared to arrest political opponents. In the movie, Alex does have consensual sex with two young women, in the novel its much worst as he date-rapes two 10-year-olds.
6. Los Angeles, 2019 – Blade Runner
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is often considered one of the best sci-fi movies, being seen as one of the best adaptation of a Philip K. Dick book and setting up a model for sci-fi art-direction that many filmmakers set out to copy. Scott and his writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples set a bleak version of the future: Earth is an over-populated, over-industrialized, polluted planet. Many animals are endangered, there is an organ-harvesting black market and cloning is rift with humanity using replicants, bioengineered androids as slave labor on off-world colonies. Some replicants do not even know if they are human or not and any that attempt to run are hunted down.
5. Detroit, early 21st Century – Robocop
From the minds of screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner and director Paul Verhoeven is the 1987 RoboCop, an action classic from the 80s and its themes about capitalism, laissez-faire economics and privatization still hold up today. In the near future, the city of Detroit is a bankrupt crime-ridden hellhole, much like modern day Detroit. The police force has been privatized by the Omni Consumer Projects and the officers are threatening to go on strike due to pay and pension cuts. Violence and gangs dominate the streets with even children taking part and highly addictive drugs that are easily available. Omni Consumer Projects secretly order under armed police officers to dangerous crime hotspots so they can claim the body of an officer who dies in the line of duty for a cyborg programme, Alex Murphy, the titular Robocop.
4. Panem, unspecified distant future – The Hunger Games Series
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy was a popular series of books which were turned into a popular series of movies. The Hunger Games is set 75 years after a failed uprising, America is no more and replaced by the nation of Panem. Panem is divided into district based on the resources they can supply. Because of the uprising, The Capital punishes all the districts by forcing them to provide two children aged between 12 to 18 to fight to the death in a televised Hunger Games. The Capital citizens’ live in wealth and extravaganzas as most of the outside population live in poverty, with the poorest willing to put their children’s names into the Hunger Games Reaping multiple times to increase their food and fuel previsions. In some of the districts, they train children to compete in the Hunger Games and the continent is sparsely populated, making isolating the districts easier. The Hunger Games, as well as The Capital, enforce their rule using propaganda films, controlling resources, having local administrations with occupying forces and can use genetically engineered animals like the Tracker Jackers.
3. Mega City One, 22nd Century – Dredd
Based on the 2000 AD comic book series, Dredd is cult action movie with plenty of violence. In the future a nuclear war decimated the world: the world’s population lives in Mega Cities and the rest of the planet is an uninhabitable radioactive wasteland. Mega City One spans from Boston to Washington D.C. and has a population of 800 Million. Most of them live poverty and crammed into high rise buildings. Crime is beyond an epidemic as only 6% of crimes reported get responded to, gangs dominate the high rises and the only law enforcement are the Judges who can use any means necessary to stop the criminals. But even the Judges are at constant risk of death and corruption.
2. Air-Strip One, 1984 – 1984
George Orwell’s 1984 is one of the famous dystopia novels and a seminal work in the genre. It is a novel that has brought about terms like Big Brother and Room 101, which have become part of the modern lexicon. Orwellian has also become a term to describe totalitarian regimes. 1984 received three major adaptations, a theatrical release in 1954, a BBC TV adaptation in 1956 and the John Hurt version in 1984 (see what they did there). 1984 is set in the territory of Airstrip One, formerly Britain, which is part of the nation of Oceania, which is run by a totalitarian regime that keeps everyone under surveillance, even in their own homes, most of the population live in poverty, resources are deliberately kept low and The Party is able to rewrite history to suit their own needs. Oceania is constantly at war with the nations of Eurasia and Eastasia and there Thought Police constantly on the look out for dissenters. If anyone is caught they are tortured and brainwashed into loving The Party before they are executed. It is a bleak, hopeless world.
1. Britain 2027 – Children of Men
There are many despotic societies that either have authoritarian or totalitarian regime or collapsing from the ground-up: Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Children of Men shows a world that is suffering from both. Children of Men is set in one of the most hopeless scenarios possible, a scenario where no children have been born for over 18 years. In Britain a dictatorial regime brings in draconian laws, harsh law enforcement and an anti-immigration policy that would make UKIP leader Nigel Farage proud. Terrorism is rife, bandits and gangs control the countryside and the population is in despair. Despite this, Britain is in a better state than the rest of the world as major countries and cities fall and many people see this Britain as a promised land. Even if you accept the optimistic ending that The Human Project is able to save humanity, the world would still most properly suffer a massive population collapse.