“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.
In one of the most peculiar futures ever depicted in a film, the young Ed (son of Tom) Stoppard 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.
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” (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.