Often, dystopian worlds in film are close to our own, and it’s precisely because these worlds—functional, if not pleasant visions—change according to how society looks at the time of their creation that dystopian cinema can never become redundant. The dystopian subgenre is a branch of science fiction, and like all great sci-fi, the best examples have a good deal to say about the world we’re living in right now. By setting a dystopian movie in a familiar environment, often in a near future where the problems of our present are exaggerated for effect, a filmmaker can explore sociocultural, environmental and political issues better than in perhaps any other genre. With dystopian takes all the rage in pretty much all mediums, let’s take a look at some examples you might have overlooked.
Predating The Truman Show by almost two decades, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch depicts reality television with striking prescience as the anything-goes format it would become. Shot on location in a Glasgow eternally splashed with rain, Death Watch presents a future where disease has been all-but eradicated. As the agony of death has become “the new taboo,” TV producer Vincent Ferriman (Harry Dean Stanton) sends an employee (Harvey Keitel) to record the last hours of a woman slowly dying from an incurable illness (Romy Schneider), in the process turning her into an unwitting media personality. “We decided you’re the best,” Ferriman tells Schneider’s Katherine Mortenhoe when she protests the network’s decision to turn her misery into a story viewers oppose morally but tune into nonetheless. The film’s a simultaneous takedown of both the aggressively entitled media and us, the numbed audience, gasping at shocking programming as we in turn further the demand.
Just as cinema can’t seem to figure out a way to do Akira in any format other than anime, it would struggle to recreate—despite all the available practical effects or innovations in CGI—the robust animated cityscape of Rintaro’s Metropolis in live action. The titular city, so opulent, so grand, is four levels deep, cascading down from the gleaming surface into dilapidated older zones, built over and ignored by the prosperous. Metropolis’ world, divided into a gloating 1% and the angry, abandoned remainder, is a highly literal reinterpretation, some would say, of the post-2008 bailout era. Only in this hypothetical future, the elite have gone one step further, by cutting out the middle man, doing away with manual labor by successfully mechanising everything, and keeping the money usually reserved for the workers to themselves. A subtly presented scenario? Nah. A frighteningly possible one? You bet. And it’s all set to a swinging Dixieland jazz soundtrack, no less.
It features Anthony Perkins and Ava Gardner as Australian survivors of the apocalypse, Gregory Peck as an American submarine commander whose entire family has been wiped out, and Fred Astaire as a renowned English scientist succumbing to end of the world-induced depression. The backdrop is an Australia being sent back to the Dark Ages thanks to dwindling resources, the result of a nuclear war that’s cleansed the rest of the earth and produced a deadly radiation cloud on its way to this last safe haven. If it isn’t clear from the description, On the Beach is a strange meshing-together of populist Hollywood moviemaking circa 1959 and a much darker source text, the overall off-tone eeriness intensified by the fact that a studio took Nevile Shute’s relentlessly grim novel and tried to make a more palatable film out of it. It’s still Shute’s world, though: Melbourne residents either habitually go about life as normal or indulge in fatalistic hedonism, chugging diminishing supplies of alcohol or—in a deeply unsettling scene—holding amateur race car rallies where the drivers, aware of everybody’s imminent doom, explode around the track in violent wrecks as gathered crowds continue to cheer.
Human beings find themselves coexisting with giant blue humanoids on a faraway rock in Fantastic Planet, an eccentric cutout stop-motion animation from director Rene Laloux that turns people into the pets of higher beings one hundred times their size. Laloux’s film is written so as to be rich in allegory—the film’s dominant establishment figures, the gigantic humanoid Draags, and the literal little man struggle to coexist at a time when, upon release, the Cold War still raged, and the peaceful ’60s had given way to an altogether angrier counterculture—but it’s also inescapably a uniquely surreal artwork. The Draags’ planet is home to creatures seemingly plucked from the creators’ grooviest dreams, while the meditation process of the humanoids themselves, which sees the Draags transforming in shape and color before us like some weird acid trip, is perhaps most indicative of what kind of far-out time Fantastic Planet was made in.
It’s arguable whether you could even call the world of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a dystopia, though that’s how it seems to end up. A remake of the better-known 1956 version of the same name, Philip Kaufman’s gritty late-’70s take focuses on a health inspector (Donald Sutherland) and his assistant (Brooke Adams) as San Francisco comes under attack from alien creatures covertly replacing human beings with emotionless “pod people.” The film’s ruthlessly downbeat, and pulsing with fear from its spooky first shot of a cameoing Robert Duvall swinging mindlessly on a swing set (though nothing quite comes close to the sight of the alien pods sprouting human copies, sickly silhouettes of flesh and gore). The pod people, however, propose that it’s really a utopia they’re creating—one free of individuality, but one that’s also free of pain and distress. So the question remains: Is the world of Body Snatchers really dystopian at all if mankind no longer feels the burden of suffering?
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s difficult to classify Orson Welles’ The 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.