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15 Underseen And Overlooked Dystopian Futures In Film

The Playlist By Gabe Toro | The Playlist March 19, 2014 at 1:19PM

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.
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Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go” (2010)
Mark Romanek’s chilly, upsetting dystopian vision, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, mostly disturbs because of how little overt world-building is actually done. You don’t even realize it’s the future, and that humanity is attempting to pick up the pieces, until you gather certain context clues from what’s going on. Romanek’s film depicts the lives of a group of young children under specific orders to not leave their small, assigned hamlets after they leave school. Rules are rules, and no one questions why they don’t have basic freedoms, why they only have a handful of television channels, and why their wishes to lead a normal life beyond their thirties go unheard. The movie doesn't have a twist, but rather a slow realization as to who these kids are, what role they fill, and how they are ultimately a cog in a machine, not meant to have feelings, emotions or needs. Ultimately, the picture is about how power and entitlement transfers quietly from one generation to the next, and how scientific advancement ultimately gives humans a license to be cruel to other living beings, as long as they’ve created them. Theologically complex, Romanek’s film has a still-beating heart as it explores these ideas while focusing on an aching love triangle between Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan, one that emerges mostly out of horrific, matter-of-fact circumstance. The horror of a dystopian future is that most inhabitants won’t realize it’s a dystopian future.

Southland Tales

Southland Tales” (2007)
What happens when you want to make a movie about a dystopian future but it actually happens in real life before the film comes out? That was the case with Richard Kelly’s pop fantasia, which is basically what would have happened if Stanley Kubrick’s only cultural frame of reference was bad cable television. This poker-faced sci-fi odyssey shows a nation fractured by a terrorist attack on Abilene, Texas, resulting in the development of USIdent, a Patriot Act-like surveillance bill that places the entire country under one rule. The Republicans are making a move on the 2008 White House (the movie was release in ’07, unfortunately) on the strength of Liquid Karma, an efficient way to use water to create oil and end foreign dependency. Movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has developed amnesia and is now being used by a rebel group called the Neo-Marxists as a bargaining chip, hoping to sink the election due to the amnesiac’s new relationship with pornstar Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) despite his eventual marriage into the family of the Republican front-runner. At no point does the over-caffeinated “Southland Tales” make any real sense, fueled by esoteric political rage and post-9/11 fervor. But within its genre concepts, which include Santaros’ clone correctly predicting the slowing of the Earth’s axis, there’s a vision of a world splintered into so many political and ideological factions that no one knows which way is up or down, what’s right or wrong, and what is or isn’t a bipartisan issue.

alphaville-godard

Alphaville” (1965)
The threat human emotion poses to the forces of authoritarian rule has formed the heart of a many a cinematic dystopia, but were any of them as achingly hip as the retro-futurist Paris that doubles as the titular Alphaville in Jean-Luc Godard’s genre mash-up? American actor Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a character from the pulp fiction novels of Peter Cheyney only here transplanted, trenchcoat and all, to a near future in which a docile population submits to the rule of a dictatorial computer. Embarking on a series of missions to undermine this dehumanizing totalitarian regime, along the way he falls for Natacha (a headlamp-eyed Anna Karina), and Godard gently deconstructs the machismo of the PI genre as poetry and love become Caution’s greatest weapons--all complemented by the rich black and white photography of slick nighttime streets, sleazy hotels and coffin-sized banks of analog computers. For Godard, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, though marked of course by wild, philosophical, often nonsensical digressions, especially in the very talky second half, and embellished with his trademark avant garde stylistic flourishes. But here they seem to enhance the stonefaced surrealism of the story rather than archly commenting on its artificiality, making this an easier watch than some of his later work, and one that just oozes sultry noir attitude. In fact, channeling the detached cynicism of the American gumshoe tradition through a filter of insolent, enigmatic Gallic urbanity, “Alphaville” is a strong contender for the coolest film ever made. 

The Quiet Earth

The Quiet Earth”  (1985)
A bizarre New Zealand sci-fi movie directed by Geoff Murphy and based (however loosely) on an equally bizarre 1981 New Zealand sci-fi novel (by Craig Harrison), "The Quiet Earth" investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth's population. Grizzled everyman Bruno Lawrence plays the last man on earth, who was at least partially responsible for whatever happened and who now finds himself in existential disarray (in one of the best, most shocking scenes, he goes into a church and fires a gun at a crucifix). Wonky visual effects and occasionally overwrought, overtly expressive camerawork sometimes undercut the intriguing premise but, especially once the man is joined by two other survivors of "The Effect," the film gets laudably weird–the reason why these three survived, partially given away in the film's trailer, is pretty nuts. "The Quiet Earth" isn't going to be remembered as a stone-cold classic but it is a pleasurably ambiguous, often confrontationally philosophical sci-fi bobble that has rightfully collected a fair amount of cult recognition. And it's worth noting that director Geoff Murphy would go on to have one of the most bizarre directorial careers ever (he directed "Young Guns II," "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" and a way-after-the-fact "Fortress 2" before serving as a second unit director on Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy). 

turkey-shoot

Turkey Shoot” (1982)
Ironically enough, the dystopian future was the very last element added to this gory thriller by director Brian Trenchard-Smith, as it was originally meant to take place in the Deep South. Instead, the film takes us to a futuristic Australia, where rebel factions and disagreeable personalities find themselves herded into prison camps for eventual reprogramming. So inhuman and barbaric is the treatment of the prisoners that the warden thinks nothing of setting up a turkey shoot, where a group of politicians take up arms and hunt the least desirable convicts. Overpopulation, over-criminalization and persecution of lower classes shape the world that Trenchard-Smith has created, leading to a rebellion as the turkey shoot gets out of hand, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted. Wildly violent and over-the-top, this is Ozploitation at its finest, featuring standout star performances by a weathered and masculine Steve Railsback, and a pouty sexpot turn from dreamgirl Olivia Hussey. While it is ostensibly a prison film, subtle hints are given that life isn’t much different beyond the camp, with the citizens under the rule of corrupt politicians who would rather imprison their constituents than help them. Which of course has never been an issue in contemporary life. Nope, never.

This article is related to: Features, Divergent, Michael Haneke, David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Kelly, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Mark Romanek, Michael Winterbottom, Feature


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