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15 Underseen And Overlooked Dystopian Futures In Film

Features
by Gabe Toro
March 19, 2014 1:19 PM
19 Comments
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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” (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” (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”  (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” (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.

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19 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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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