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” (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-“Rocky” Sylvester 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.