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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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Sleeper, Woody Allen

Sleeper” (1973)
“What kind of a government you got here?” asks Miles Monroe (Woody Allen), woken up after 200 years of cryogenic freezing to discover a society in the grips of of a totalitarian dictatorship, “It’s worse than California!” As part of Allen’s “earlier, funnier” oeuvre, “Sleeper” uses this basic, familiar premise as a jumping off point for a little satire, a lot of silliness and an opportunity to parody just about every single science fiction trope that’s ever been popularized, as Monroe falls for a ditzy socialite with a dawning revolutionary conscience (Diane Keaton), and becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate the leader, or at least his nose. But as sketched-in as this dystopia is (really it’s a loose frame on which to hang a bunch of gags that skewer the pretensions of today—or at least of 1973), it’s the details that really stick in the mind. There’s a Jewish robot tailor (voiced by Jackie Mason), there’s the misinformation Monroe mischievously continues to feed people about the 20th Century (Charles De Gaulle was “a famous french TV chef, taught you how to make soufflés”) and of course there’s the Orgasmatron—a machine that brings the occupant to orgasm quickly, efficiently and very unromantically. The Marx Brothers by way of Benny Hill and Buster Keaton, “Sleeper” is still one of Allen’s most freewheelingly pleasurable early films, but it’s a slapstick farce with a surprisingly heartfelt moral: the world’s a mess, but that’s because people are a mess, and if the alternative is oppressing and subduing the population, then embracing the chaos is the only option.


 “Branded” (2012)
In one of the most peculiar futures ever depicted in a film, the young Ed (son of TomStoppard plays Misha, a Russian ad executive obsessed with the history of advertisement and propaganda. However, a reclusive former ad guru lingers in the shadows, ready to sabotage one of his campaigns. Sure enough, a wrongful death built around fast food, reality programming and bulimia turns one consumer to a martyr, making Misha’s (literally) touched-by-the-gods ad-man into yesterday’s news. A years-long sabbatical away from civilization leads him to reinvent himself, returning to Russia to get his revenge and defeat the laws of capitalism, which he images as giant logo-faced CGI blobs descending upon cities. The futuristic Russia of “Branded” is littered with advertisements, mostly shining through an overcast, forever crowded cityscape suffering from over-population. What’s interesting is that when the hero returns, he wages war not just against companies, but against advertisements themselves, creating a “victorious” totalitarian state where our hero rules with an iron fist. And then there’s a good half hour more. “Branded” is non-stop inexplicable, particularly because it showcases a dystopian future where people live underneath iron rule, then proceeds to argue that what the people need is MORE DYSTOPIA. As if that weren’t unusual enough, the bulk of the film’s action depicts our hero’s struggle against those CGI beasts with industry logos as if it were a Roland Emmerich film, as they slowly descend upon Leelee Sobieski’s (yep) overfed, fast-food-devoted son, like a snake preying on on the innocent. “Branded” at least stands alone as being one of the strangest visions of the future ever put on film.


Quintet” (1979)
Few people remember this, but in the time shortly after “Star Wars,” studios were so hungry for another big sci-fi adventure hit that they entertained pitches from just about everyone. And that includes Robert Altman, who curiously shopped the completely un-cinematic “Quintet” to executives in a moment where his career couldn’t be any colder. It’s delicious to imagine the looks on their faces when they saw exactly where all their money had gone. Dry even by Altman standards, this thriller takes place in a secluded post-apocalyptic global winter, where people barely survive by playing a simple game called Quintet. Ultimately, the results of the game turn deadly, as star Paul Newman finds himself trapped in a maze of double crosses and political agenda. But the game itself, a sit-down table effort, is laboriously explained throughout the film and seen to have an elaborate series of rules: you can see a sarcastic Altman pitching the game itself as something kids might play after they’ve seen the film. There’s not much explanation as to how the participants found themselves buried in snow, playing a children’s game to the death. But Altman’s dry, dreary vision of the end of the world suggests all parties involved don’t have much to live for beyond the game itself.

The Blood of Heroes

The Blood of Heroes” (1989)
Games seem to figure into some dystopian futures. Ultimately, there’s nothing left except competition, so why not come up with some rules to lend an air of civility to the proceedings? Rutger Hauer, in arguably his grizzled-leading-man prime, plays a veteran competitor of a game called The Game (the film’s superior alternate title is “Salute To The Jugger”). The years have been unkind to him, and now he barely survives the desert wasteland of no home, no cities, no civilization. Jugger is all they have left, particularly a young upstart played by Joan Chen. When she displays an abnormal aptitude for the game, Hauer sees her as a shot at redemption, and possibly as a way to regain admittance in a hellish underground society that he used to call home. Directed by “Blade Runner” writer David Webb Peoples, the film feels like a believable document of a world with no boundaries: cruel, but with a sliver of justice in the Jugger, the game that turns savages into men, and men into legends. And the game itself, played with a ball, teams, shoulder-pads and a few football rules, is actually, believably playable, a reasonable mutant game having risen up from the ashes of yesterday’s world.

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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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