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15 Underseen And Overlooked Dystopian Futures In Film

by Gabe Toro
March 19, 2014 1:19 PM
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15 Underseen Sci-Fi Dystopian Films

It's not easy creating a dystopian future on film. Ask the producers of "Divergent," which opens this week (read our review). Not only do they need to establish a demented future where we live under draconian rules, but they must do so over multiple films. Given that there are several different elements to this type of future, from corrupt governments to alien intervention to dizzying technology, it can be like mapmaking in an uncharted area. Sooner or later, you get lost and can't circle back.

Over the years, filmmakers have tried many different strategies for creating a dystopian future, resulting in genre classics like "Brazil," "Silent Running" and "Planet of The Apes." But there were other attempts that aren't household name titles, films that flew under the radar, were ignored, or took the path less taken, establishing stories so odd that they defied genre. Some of them were satire, some were mistakenly called satire, and some were just misunderstood. Perhaps it speaks to our endless desire to recontextualize, and ultimately answer, the problems of the modern day that we're constantly looking to the future; where we come together, where we come apart, and where civilization ultimately, truly breaks down.

Here are fifteen under-the-radar dystopian futures you may have not yet seen.


The 10th Victim” (1965)
Like “The Hunger Games” but far more swingin’, this hip Italian thriller takes place in a world that needs a good long break from itself. Contestants in a futuristic, televised game learn that they can become winners in “The Big Hunt,” where they alternate being the victim and the hunter ten times, their survival winning them untold riches. It’s the same shock-and-awe techniques employed by films like “The Running Man” and “The Hunger Games,” where the government pretends to empower the people while also placing them under the gun, continuing to remind them who they serve while granting them a dubious level of power over their circumstance. But none of those movies had a duo quite like this: as the victim, Marcello Mastroianni is typically smooth and seductive, as he falls hard for his chaser. That would be former Bond girl Ursula Andress, who looks great cocking a gun and finding her quarry in the crosshairs. Like “The Hunger Games,” the game’s participants are enticed with goods and extravagance, treated to parties and referred to as stars. At the same time, as the hunter Andress is at an impasse, as she’s dealing with corporate pressure to register the kill, to finally escape the world with blood on her hands, but to do it alone.

code 46

Code 46” (2003)
In Michael Winterbottom’s melting pot future, humanity is divided into two castes, one subsisting on indoor city life, the other banished to the desert to roam homeless, identity-less. One needs to acquire a government-sanctioned passport to travel from city to city, and to make sure this process goes off without a hitch, Tim Robbins’ government employee William travels from city to city making inspections. It’s soon discovered that Samantha Morton’s Maria, a lower-class employee, has been forging passports (called “papels,” as most languages have become permanently mixed in this future). Instead of booking her, William falls for the woman, fudging the facts of his work to get closer to her. As a result, not only does William’s amorous pursuit place others in harm’s way, but it gives him a sudden global consciousness, allowing him to trade in and share the experiences and lifestyles of others. Winterbottom’s film is chilly and a bit scold-y at times: William comes across like an uncaring bureaucrat who simply needed to try some exotic foods and cheat on his wife to see what the world has to offer. But within the title lies a specific rule about romantic entanglements, as William learns he’s got an unknown genetic connection to Maria that makes their union impossible. Here, “Code 46” explores not only the “rules” we place on love, but also the ways in which governments try to police it, in the future succeeding even as technology widens a world of romantic possibilities.


Death Race 2000” (1975)
In the distant-future of the year 2000, things are awesome. Things are so awesome that we’ve invented the greatest race of all time. It’s the Death Race, a cross-country expedition made by teams of daring bravery and untold skill that we joyously televise for the fans. Oh, and you have to win with points, by the way: the best part about the Death Race is that competitors tally these by running over completely innocent pedestrians. Thirty years before reality TV took off, producer Roger Corman introduced us to the idea of real carnage, real mayhem, and real drama beamed into your living room with no judgment and no barriers. “Death Race 2000” subtly acknowledges the direction that mass media was (and is) heading, while providing audiences with a hilarious, stand-up-and-cheer masterpiece, pitting leather-clad returning champ Frankenstein (David Carradine, boss) versus violent upstart Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (a pre-“RockySylvester Stallone). The movie presents a nihilist view of a death-obsessed future, but not without a lot of laughs: when hospital orderlies roll out the sick and diseased patients to get in the cars’ way, the employees get run over instead for their own fatalism.

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  • Nix | July 10, 2014 5:06 AMReply

    A dystopia, or the opposite utopia, signifies that there is some kind of government.
    And not the total lack of one as in Walking Dead.
    Though I like walking dead it is not a dystopian future film.

    I agree with THX1138 and Soylent Green as a dystopian future films.
    I think Daybreakers is one as well.
    I'd call a society of blooddrinkers pretty dystopian.
    It is based on the Omega man and The last man on Earth.
    But I'm not sure if those are Dystopian films.
    They're pretty movies though.

    ps: English is not my native language. So all you spelling nazi's can f*** off.

  • Tim Briffa | August 25, 2014 7:26 AM

    There is no apostrophe in 'nazis.'

  • Sen | April 23, 2014 1:41 AMReply

    Never Let Me Go isn't set in the future. In the world of the film, medical breakthroughs occurred in the 1950s that led to longer human life spans (as a result of cloning and organ donation). So the film is set in an alternate present.

  • Ian | April 7, 2014 3:58 PMReply

    I'm gona add Cathal Black's "Pigs". "Cosmopolis" is also worth a look.

  • hardbonemac | April 6, 2014 7:38 AMReply

    " N O W " our 24 7 365 reality....and brought by a mass of asholes who want us....
    the list is about 45 lightyears long..... nsa, goverment,other goverment, and so on...
    number 234.456.000 then is realty tv like tunglecamp...

    more dystopia is not able...

  • Tomahawk #57 | March 25, 2014 12:40 AMReply

    In response to the last line in the "Blood of Heroes" review, The Game/Jugger is not only "playable" but there are currently leagues in Australia, Poland, Germany, the UK, and within the US there are leagues in Colorado, Ohio, and Southern California. It must be noted, though, that the sport is played with padded weapons and heavy on safety rules, usually playing in uniforms or jerseys, with So. Cal. (Juggers of the Wasteland) as the only armored, full-contact League. Videos of games in various countries are on YouTube, with the Juggers of the Wasteland playing at post-apocalyptic events.

  • pol | March 21, 2014 1:15 AMReply

    Yeah, some bad celluloid above. However, Code 46 was pretty good, as was Blood of Heroes. But Zardoz?

    I have a script with something along the lines of Branded, which I thought dropped the ball. A pretty cool dystopian vampire society showed up in Daybreakers.

  • Rob C | March 20, 2014 12:51 PMReply

    I really liked pre-Batman Christian Bale in "Equilibrium". Sure, the action scenes were a little far-fetched with all the "gun-fu" going on but the idea was intriguing.

  • Jan | March 20, 2014 11:50 AMReply

    Forgot the 1971 classic, THX 1138, with Robert Duvall.

  • Jamie T D | March 19, 2014 3:59 PMReply

    Never Let Me Go is underrated and tonally very sad. It is a fantastic film with great performances from the three leads.

  • Nope | March 19, 2014 5:27 PM

    Never bought for 1/2 of 1 second that anyone in their right mind would have any interest in whatsername over Keira Knightley. Talk about unrealistic. Have always despised her as an actress, and despised her in the film. Also hated the overwhelming need to prioritize the bland, terrible, completely unbelievable threesome over what was actually an intriguing personal journey in the novel.

  • Crazyxcrazy | March 19, 2014 2:23 PMReply

    Some films are better unseen and forgotten

    Don't waste your time on shit like Code 46 and Southland Tales

  • Will | March 20, 2014 1:44 AM

    Southland Tales is bizarre, terrible, incomprehensible, and everyone should see it at least once.

  • James | March 19, 2014 9:02 PM

    Meanwhile I love Code 46. Saw it twice in theaters and own the DVD, as well as the German Blu-Ray even though the audio is out of synch:) I think it's a highly underrated sci-fi film with stunning photography, a beautiful score and a design aesthetic that quite clearly influenced Spike Jonze's HER, which originally costarred Code 46's Samantha Morton. As they say opinions are like a certain body part, we all have them.

  • MAL | March 19, 2014 4:04 PM

    I really liked Code 46 when I saw it several years ago and have been meaning to have another look. Glad to see Never Let Me Go and The Quiet Earth on this list as well. Zardoz is a jaw-droppingly must-see gawdawful film.

  • Jaymole | March 19, 2014 1:43 PMReply

    There are some turkeys in there and I'm not talking about Turkey Shoot.

  • SherlockJr | March 19, 2014 1:39 PMReply

    Le Jetee, World on a Wire, Death Watch, Soylent Green, et cetera. But good list.

  • Brett | March 29, 2014 2:01 PM

    Good list. I'll add On a Silver Globe.

  • Fear Death By Water | March 24, 2014 11:20 PM

    The Omega Man is not the Grandaddy ... you forgot The Last Man On Earth! For shame!

    Missed: Delicatessen, Logan's Run, and The Handmaid’s Tale

  • Bartleby | March 21, 2014 6:59 PM

    I second Soylent Green! And while we're at it, how about the great grandaddy of The Walking Dead? The Omega Man

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