Future Suck! My Favourite Movie Dystopias
Science Fiction has captivated audiences ever since Georges Méliès blasted a space rocket into the Man in the Moon’s eye in Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) 120 years ago. Perhaps more than any other genre, sci-fi has the ability to confound and amaze, encapsulating all our greatest ambitions and darkest fears for the future, often in the space of one film.
One of the most common sub-genres is the dystopian fantasy, often presenting a bleak, fantastical vision of some point in the distant (or not-so-distant) future through the lens of the present day’s concerns. From the soaring cityscapes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the scorched post-apocalyptic hell-scape of Mad Max: Fury Road, these films give us some of our iconic flights of imagination.
Here are a few of my favourite movie dystopias…
The year is: 2505 A.D.
How badly does it suck? Pretty Bad.
Mike Judge’s inspired comedy imagines a society dying of idiocy. Our everyman hero Joe (Luke Wilson) volunteers for a cryo-sleep experiment and wakes up 400 years in the future to discover a world so dumbed down that he’s now the smartest person on the planet.
Thanks to his relatively high IQ, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) tasks him with solving the world’s multiple crises. If he fails, it’s death by monster truck…
The world of Idiocracy is in terminal decline, on the brink of disaster because everyone is too stupid to do anything about it. Most of their tech is on the blink, automated in the distant past so even a moron can just about operate it. Culture has become so imbecilic that the nation’s favourite TV show is Ow, My Balls! a clip show of a guy getting repeatedly hit in the nuts. Energy drink has replaced water, even to irrigate crops.
Idiocracy is a comedy that is far more terrifying than some of the more serious entries on the list. It’s a rare example of a sci-fi set a bit too far in the future to be plausible, simply because the world it portrays feels like where western culture will be in about 30-40 years, let alone 400. Seeing this for the first time during the Trump presidency felt like watching a documentary.
I will say this: I’d probably vote Terry Crews for president if I got the chance…
Escape from New York (1981)
The year is: 1997 A.D.
How badly does it suck? It’s not good, but there are some silver linings.
America is stuck in the middle of a Third World War with Russia and China, but at least it hasn’t resulted in mutually assured destruction - yet. As a result of the devastating conflict, the nation is a violent police state and Manhattan has been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison. Sentencing is a one way ticket as the villains of New York fight it out in a savage dog-eat-dog environment. It’s absolutely the last place you’d want the President (Donald Pleasance) to bail out of Air Force One on his way to a vital peace summit…
Bad times call for a badass saviour, and the 1997 of John Carpenter’s cult classic is so awful that all they can muster up is Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a disenfranchised ex-Special Forces antihero on his way into Manhattan anyway for robbing the Federal Reserve. Plissken isn’t too keen on rescuing anybody, but Police Commissioner Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) persuades him by injecting a micro-bomb into his neck that will explode in 22 hours.
New York is reduced to a dark, tribal, rubble-strewn warzone fought over by feral gangs, not unlike certain parts of the city a few years before the film was released. It’s a classic ticking bomb thriller with a nihilistic ending - Plissken just couldn’t care less if the world burns.
Carpenter’s vision of 1997 was a little off, a relatively benign year where the biggest summit meeting was Oasis visiting Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. 40 years after Escape from New York hit theatres, we can watch with nostalgia for the World Trade Centre, where Plissken lands his glider on his way into the city. After 9/11 the U.S. didn’t quite wall off a whole city, but it did create Guantanamo Bay detention camp to chuck suspects indefinitely. Trump also vowed to wall off an entire country as part of his election promises, but only managed to construct 80 miles of new barriers along the 2000 mile border with Mexico.
The year is: 2173 A.D.
How badly does it suck? It doesn’t look bad at all...
... considering America is now a totalitarian state run by a dictator’s nose long after society was reset by an accident with a nuke. People seem happy enough, living in incredible retro-futuristic houses and taking very hippy-ish courses like a PhD in oral sex. Nevertheless, there is the inevitable band of scrappy rebels plotting to overthrow the leader.
Enter Miles Monroe (Woody Allen), a neurotic, nebbish jazz musician and owner of a health food store in Greenwich village, awoken from a 200 year cryosleep. Since he’s the only person alive who isn’t biometrically tagged, he’s now the ideal candidate to help the rebels bring down the regime.
Allen and Diane Keaton have plenty of slapstick fun with all the goofy sci-fi gadgets, most of which send up existing concepts, other sci-fi films of the time (2001: A Space Odyssey, THX-1138) or early ‘70s trends. Some of the best moments include comically huge GM fruit and veg, putting a fresh spin on the old slippery banana skin gag; a silver orb that has replaced passing around a joint at parties; and a cubicle called the Orgasmotron, which people use for a quickie without even getting undressed.
The year is: Everywhere in the 20th Century
How badly does it suck? Life’s a depressing grind...
... in Brazil’s smoggy retro-futuristic world of barely functional machinery overseen by petty bureaucrats squabbling over half a desk of elbow space. The public are demoralised by 13 years of terrorist bombings and an omnipresent hydra-like surveillance state set up to subdue, obfuscate, sow suspicion, and brainwash with mindless slogans (“Happiness - we’re all in it together!”) With terrorist suspects forced to pay for their own interrogation and torture, it’s a place where undesirable elements can be made to literally vanish under a mound of paperwork.
Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is a low level pencil-pusher who dreams of escaping his dreary existence as a winged superhero soaring above the grim metropolis. After a typo causes an innocent man to die in “information retrieval,” Lowry gradually starts awakening to the labyrinthine horror of the system, represented by the ugly invasive ducts winding through every home and public space. His fate is sealed when he meets a young rebel (Kim Greist), who is the spitting image of the woman in his heroic dreams.
Released the year after the prophetic date of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, Terry Gilliam managed to out-Orwell 1984 with his bleakly funny vision of a world all too familiar to many viewers. As with all the best sci-fi dystopias, Brazil is a film that feels even more relevant today with its depiction of petty, incompetent bureaucracy, invasive surveillance, and a wheezing world sleepwalking into totalitarianism. Thankfully Gilliam had the guts to fight the studio for his brilliantly feel-bad ending.
The Matrix (1999)
The year is: circa 2199 A.D.
How badly does it suck? It’s a double whammy of awfulness...
... if you ever find out what is going on: not only has a cataclysmic war against sentient machines reduced mankind’s population to a few scrappy rebel types living deep underground, the evil bots even breed humans as living battery packs. To keep their power source quiet, they have also immersed humans in The Matrix, a simulated world just the perfect level of ‘90s suckiness to prevent arousing suspicion. So instead of riding unicorns, racing DeLoreans, or conquering planets in VR, everyone is stuck doing crappy jobs just like in real pre-war life.
Thankfully there is a Chosen One. Thomas Anderson, aka Neo (Keanu Reeves), is a programmer by day, hacker by night. He is sought out by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne Jr), the mysterious leader of the rebels, as mankind’s last hope against the marauding robots.
Many of the concepts in The Matrix were prefigured by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World on a Wire in the ‘70s, a two-parter about the designer of a virtual world who realises he is also an AI entity living within a simulation. The concept isn’t a new one, but has become increasingly mainstream over the last decade or so, with Elon Musk as one of the most high-profile advocates of the simulation hypothesis.
With advances in VR and haptic technology creating ever-more realistic simulated environments, surely it will only be a matter of time before there are virtual worlds indistinguishable from reality, and perhaps exceeding it.
Planet of the Apes (1968)
The year is: 3978 A.D.
How badly does it suck? Just about as bad as it could without the total extinction of the human race.
Three astronauts crash land on a primitive planet to discover that intelligent monkeys are running the show while humans, dressed mostly in loincloths, are hunted and enslaved. Lobotomies and castration are standard practice. Just when you think it couldn’t get much worse… the planet turns out to be Earth long after a nuclear war.
Our chiselled hero Taylor (Charlton Heston) does his best under the circumstances, helping some of the humans escape and riding off into the Forbidden Zone with a fetching local woman named Nova (Linda Harrison). The famous final scene, with our despairing hero on his knees damning mankind to hell, is one of the great shock endings of all time. It must have packed a massive punch when unsuspecting audiences first saw it not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Demolition Man (1993)
The year is: 2032 A.D.
How badly does it suck? On the face of it, not too badly at all.
The mega-city of San Angeles is calm, peaceful, affluent, and violent crime is a thing of the past. Everyone is happy all the time. Only after a few minutes here you might realise that it does actually suck: the swear box has gone from the initiative of annoying office colleagues to legal fines, and anything mildly harmful, naughty or unhealthy has been outlawed. If you don’t like it, you can always go live in the sewers and eat rat burgers with the smelly rebels…
Into this squeaky clean environment comes super-violent criminal Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) from the early ‘90s, defrosted from his cryo-sentence. The law enforcement officers just don’t know how to deal with him and quickly thaw out John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone), a maverick LAPD cop nicknamed “Demolition Man” for all the stuff he blows up while catching bad guys. He teams up with cheerful San Angeles cop Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) to take down Phoenix and his brutal band of newly awoken cronies. Although Spartan deserves to go straight back on ice for referring to sex as “the hunka chunka.”
Demolition Man is one of my guilty pleasures, and for such a silly movie it gets quite a few things about the future right. We’re not fully there with self-driving cars just yet, but society is gradually becoming more health conscious. The film predicted Zoom meetings, albeit in a more literal form, with a monitor for each attendee mounted in chrome chairs around a boardroom table.
More interestingly, it anticipates modern trends with bad language becoming a fineable offence - it really is the ultimate nightmare for the anti-woke. Imagine what the penalty is for hate speech and racist memes? It’s also a very non-contact world which feels very familiar in the time of Covid-19, with handshakes replaced by an elaborate circular wave a few inches away from the other person’s palm. As for sex, it has been replaced by a headset which gives participants a virtual shared orgasmic experience. With people sexting since the mid-2000s and studies finding that millennials and Gen Z people have less casual sex than previous generations, the idea of contactless intercourse in the future doesn’t seem too far fetched.
There is one innovation that we haven’t caught up with yet, with three seashells replacing toilet paper. How exactly does that work?
Those are just a few of my favourite movie dystopias. Which are your picks? Let us know!