10 Overlooked Classics: Dystopian Films

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5. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

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At the height of the Cold War, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) builds a highly advanced government computer that controls all nuclear weapons systems in the United States. “Colossus,” however, quickly shows a thirst for learning that—combined with its key objective of safeguarding the people—leads to it hooking up with its U.S.S.R. counterpart, Guardian, forming a super-intelligent new system, and holding the whole world hostage. Forbin and his team attempt to take back control, but Colossus deciding to nuke whole Russian towns as a warning puts a stop to their efforts. Maturing from precocious young system to confident supercomputer, Colossus’ security solution is to leave mankind under the constant threat of extinction, providing anybody anywhere puts a foot wrong. It’s despotic, but it also proves sound thinking, the certainty of total annihilation seemingly the only thing that can put a halt to conflict between the two superpowers. Therein lies the irony: It takes the horrible logic of a cold, calculating machine to show humanity how brainlessly self-destructive it can be as a species.


4. Seconds (1966)

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Of all the films on this list, the one with the world closest to ours can be found in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. Setting the tale from coast to coast in prosperous ’60s America, Frankenheimer casts an eye through a thin veil of science fiction to what he sees as a failingly lonely way of life. Approached by a mysterious outfit known as “the Company,” middle-aged family man Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is given the opportunity to fake his death and start over as bohemian California-based painter Tony Wilson (Rock Hudson). Tapping away to the existential core, however, “Tony” only finds his new life as hollow as his old one, a construct populated by Company actors and other “reborns” who just want to sustain the illusion. James Wong Howe’s shadow-infused cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s anxious horror score apply the paranoid sheen to what is really a bleak examination of the contemporary domesticated worker—bleak because, minus the presence of the elusive, amoral Company, Seconds’ dystopian Earth is really our own.


3. Punishment Park (1971)

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Pseudo-documentary-style surveyor of both past and future Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park is willfully confrontational—it’s why Hollywood studios refused to distribute the film on release. (It played at one New York cinema for four days before it was pulled.) In the California desert, a group of young activists are given an option: Go to jail, or go to Punishment Park, and run to the American flag planted 50 miles away over scorching sands before the police catch you first. Most everyone chooses the park, where trigger-happy cops and soldiers lie in wait. Punishment Park is critical both of the regime oh-so-close to the real one of 1971, and of the activists turning to violence as a means to bring peace. This isn’t an easy watch, primarily because what makes the activists angry—police brutality, inequality, bureaucratic injustice, pointless wars—are still making people angry today, 44 years down the line. The real world’s inability to learn and move on is keeping Watkins’ film relevant.


2. World on a Wire (1973)

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Those still banging the drum for The Matrix’s apparent “innovation” should reserve a four-hour slot for Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ornate science-fiction drama World on a Wire, and discover that the idea of our world as a simulation (within a simulation, within a simulation…) had already been covered 26 years prior. Only recently revived as a “lost classic” of Fassbinder’s, it’s hard to imagine how forward-thinking World on a Wire must have appeared at the time of originally airing on German television in 1973. A technical director for a company that’s created a simulation of an entire world within its computers, Dr. Fred Stiller (Klaus Lowitch) investigates personally after his colleagues begin to disappear, and the people around him insist those now missing never actually existed at all. Framed beautifully among the mirrors and tacky futurist décor of 1970s Germany, the film’s styled like the paranoid thrillers that were so popular at the time, only here the distrust grows exponentially—from initially incorporating Stiller’s associates, then the government, to eventually including Stiller’s fellow citizens and the very world he lives in. The fashion has aged, the ideas haven’t.


1. The Trial (1962)

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It’s difficult to classify Orson WellesThe Trial; it’s certainly not of this world, instead seemingly the product of some muted parallel universe. A cynical blend of defeatist anti-thriller and jet-black comedy set in a sparse, loveless city draped in perpetual dusk, the film stars Anthony Perkins (despairingly comical) as Josef K, an office drone who’s put on trial without knowing the nature of his crime. Fluctuating between satire and full-on nightmare, The Trial is dense with ideas and themes for the viewer to wade through along with K, as he’s seduced by harpies and taunted by oddballs on his way to discovering there’s no straight answer to why he’s on trial, and that for a man to ask the question “Why?” in such a world is in itself a crime. The term “ahead of its time” is often applied to the films of Welles, and is more so as we reevaluate his body of work and realize there’s so much more to the other-than-Citizen Kanes in his back catalog. There’s a feeling, though, that The Trial will forever seem ahead of its time—it is nearly impenetrable more than 50 years later. It’s also absolutely unforgettable.

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