It’s not easy creating a dystopian future on film. Ask the producers of “Divergent,” which opens this week (read our review). Not only do they need to establish a demented future where we live under draconian rules, but they must do so over multiple films. Given that there are several different elements to this type of future, from corrupt governments to alien intervention to dizzying technology, it can be like mapmaking in an uncharted area. Sooner or later, you get lost and can’t circle back.
Over the years, filmmakers have tried many different strategies for creating a dystopian future, resulting in genre classics like “Brazil,” “Silent Running” and “Planet of The Apes.” But there were other attempts that aren’t household name titles, films that flew under the radar, were ignored, or took the path less taken, establishing stories so odd that they defied genre. Some of them were satire, some were mistakenly called satire, and some were just misunderstood. Perhaps it speaks to our endless desire to recontextualize, and ultimately answer, the problems of the modern day that we’re constantly looking to the future; where we come together, where we come apart, and where civilization ultimately, truly breaks down.
Here are fifteen under-the-radar dystopian futures you may have not yet seen.
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“The 10th Victim” (1965)
Like “The Hunger Games” but far more swingin’, this hip Italian thriller takes place in a world that needs a good long break from itself. Contestants in a futuristic, televised game learn that they can become winners in “The Big Hunt,” where they alternate being the victim and the hunter ten times, their survival winning them untold riches. It’s the same shock-and-awe techniques employed by films like “The Running Man” and “The Hunger Games,” where the government pretends to empower the people while also placing them under the gun, continuing to remind them who they serve while granting them a dubious level of power over their circumstance. But none of those movies had a duo quite like this: as the victim, Marcello Mastroianni is typically smooth and seductive, as he falls hard for his chaser. That would be former Bond girl Ursula Andress, who looks great cocking a gun and finding her quarry in the crosshairs. Like “The Hunger Games,” the game’s participants are enticed with goods and extravagance, treated to parties and referred to as stars. At the same time, as the hunter Andress is at an impasse, as she’s dealing with corporate pressure to register the kill, to finally escape the world with blood on her hands, but to do it alone.
“Code 46” (2003)
In Michael Winterbottom’s melting pot future, humanity is divided into two castes, one subsisting on indoor city life, the other banished to the desert to roam homeless, identity-less. One needs to acquire a government-sanctioned passport to travel from city to city, and to make sure this process goes off without a hitch, Tim Robbins’ government employee William travels from city to city making inspections. It’s soon discovered that Samantha Morton’s Maria, a lower-class employee, has been forging passports (called “papels,” as most languages have become permanently mixed in this future). Instead of booking her, William falls for the woman, fudging the facts of his work to get closer to her. As a result, not only does William’s amorous pursuit place others in harm’s way, but it gives him a sudden global consciousness, allowing him to trade in and share the experiences and lifestyles of others. Winterbottom’s film is chilly and a bit scold-y at times: William comes across like an uncaring bureaucrat who simply needed to try some exotic foods and cheat on his wife to see what the world has to offer. But within the title lies a specific rule about romantic entanglements, as William learns he’s got an unknown genetic connection to Maria that makes their union impossible. Here, “Code 46” explores not only the “rules” we place on love, but also the ways in which governments try to police it, in the future succeeding even as technology widens a world of romantic possibilities.
“Death Race 2000” (1975)
In the distant-future of the year 2000, things are awesome. Things are so awesome that we’ve invented the greatest race of all time. It’s the Death Race, a cross-country expedition made by teams of daring bravery and untold skill that we joyously televise for the fans. Oh, and you have to win with points, by the way: the best part about the Death Race is that competitors tally these by running over completely innocent pedestrians. Thirty years before reality TV took off, producer Roger Corman introduced us to the idea of real carnage, real mayhem, and real drama beamed into your living room with no judgment and no barriers. “Death Race 2000” subtly acknowledges the direction that mass media was (and is) heading, while providing audiences with a hilarious, stand-up-and-cheer masterpiece, pitting leather-clad returning champ Frankenstein (David Carradine, boss) versus violent upstart Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (a pre-“Rocky” Sylvester Stallone). The movie presents a nihilist view of a death-obsessed future, but not without a lot of laughs: when hospital orderlies roll out the sick and diseased patients to get in the cars’ way, the employees get run over instead for their own fatalism.
“Never Let Me Go” (2010)
Mark Romanek’s chilly, upsetting dystopian vision, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, mostly disturbs because of how little overt world-building is actually done. You don’t even realize it’s the future, and that humanity is attempting to pick up the pieces, until you gather certain context clues from what’s going on. Romanek’s film depicts the lives of a group of young children under specific orders to not leave their small, assigned hamlets after they leave school. Rules are rules, and no one questions why they don’t have basic freedoms, why they only have a handful of television channels, and why their wishes to lead a normal life beyond their thirties go unheard. The movie doesn’t have a twist, but rather a slow realization as to who these kids are, what role they fill, and how they are ultimately a cog in a machine, not meant to have feelings, emotions or needs. Ultimately, the picture is about how power and entitlement transfers quietly from one generation to the next, and how scientific advancement ultimately gives humans a license to be cruel to other living beings, as long as they’ve created them. Theologically complex, Romanek’s film has a still-beating heart as it explores these ideas while focusing on an aching love triangle between Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield and Carey Mulligan, one that emerges mostly out of horrific, matter-of-fact circumstance. The horror of a dystopian future is that most inhabitants won’t realize it’s a dystopian future.
“Southland Tales” (2007)
What happens when you want to make a movie about a dystopian future but it actually happens in real life before the film comes out? That was the case with Richard Kelly’s pop fantasia, which is basically what would have happened if Stanley Kubrick’s only cultural frame of reference was bad cable television. This poker-faced sci-fi odyssey shows a nation fractured by a terrorist attack on Abilene, Texas, resulting in the development of USIdent, a Patriot Act-like surveillance bill that places the entire country under one rule. The Republicans are making a move on the 2008 White House (the movie was release in ’07, unfortunately) on the strength of Liquid Karma, an efficient way to use water to create oil and end foreign dependency. Movie star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) has developed amnesia and is now being used by a rebel group called the Neo-Marxists as a bargaining chip, hoping to sink the election due to the amnesiac’s new relationship with pornstar Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) despite his eventual marriage into the family of the Republican front-runner. At no point does the over-caffeinated “Southland Tales” make any real sense, fueled by esoteric political rage and post-9/11 fervor. But within its genre concepts, which include Santaros’ clone correctly predicting the slowing of the Earth’s axis, there’s a vision of a world splintered into so many political and ideological factions that no one knows which way is up or down, what’s right or wrong, and what is or isn’t a bipartisan issue.
The threat human emotion poses to the forces of authoritarian rule has formed the heart of a many a cinematic dystopia, but were any of them as achingly hip as the retro-futurist Paris that doubles as the titular Alphaville in Jean-Luc Godard’s genre mash-up? American actor Eddie Constantine plays Lemmy Caution, a character from the pulp fiction novels of Peter Cheyney only here transplanted, trenchcoat and all, to a near future in which a docile population submits to the rule of a dictatorial computer. Embarking on a series of missions to undermine this dehumanizing totalitarian regime, along the way he falls for Natacha (a headlamp-eyed Anna Karina), and Godard gently deconstructs the machismo of the PI genre as poetry and love become Caution’s greatest weapons–all complemented by the rich black and white photography of slick nighttime streets, sleazy hotels and coffin-sized banks of analog computers. For Godard, it’s a relatively straightforward narrative, though marked of course by wild, philosophical, often nonsensical digressions, especially in the very talky second half, and embellished with his trademark avant garde stylistic flourishes. But here they seem to enhance the stonefaced surrealism of the story rather than archly commenting on its artificiality, making this an easier watch than some of his later work, and one that just oozes sultry noir attitude. In fact, channeling the detached cynicism of the American gumshoe tradition through a filter of insolent, enigmatic Gallic urbanity, “Alphaville” is a strong contender for the coolest film ever made.
“The Quiet Earth” (1985)
A bizarre New Zealand sci-fi movie directed by Geoff Murphy and based (however loosely) on an equally bizarre 1981 New Zealand sci-fi novel (by Craig Harrison), “The Quiet Earth” investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth’s population. Grizzled everyman Bruno Lawrence plays the last man on earth, who was at least partially responsible for whatever happened and who now finds himself in existential disarray (in one of the best, most shocking scenes, he goes into a church and fires a gun at a crucifix). Wonky visual effects and occasionally overwrought, overtly expressive camerawork sometimes undercut the intriguing premise but, especially once the man is joined by two other survivors of “The Effect,” the film gets laudably weird–the reason why these three survived, partially given away in the film’s trailer, is pretty nuts. “The Quiet Earth” isn’t going to be remembered as a stone-cold classic but it is a pleasurably ambiguous, often confrontationally philosophical sci-fi bobble that has rightfully collected a fair amount of cult recognition. And it’s worth noting that director Geoff Murphy would go on to have one of the most bizarre directorial careers ever (he directed “Young Guns II,” “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” and a way-after-the-fact “Fortress 2” before serving as a second unit director on Peter Jackson‘s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy).
“Turkey Shoot” (1982)
Ironically enough, the dystopian future was the very last element added to this gory thriller by director Brian Trenchard-Smith, as it was originally meant to take place in the Deep South. Instead, the film takes us to a futuristic Australia, where rebel factions and disagreeable personalities find themselves herded into prison camps for eventual reprogramming. So inhuman and barbaric is the treatment of the prisoners that the warden thinks nothing of setting up a turkey shoot, where a group of politicians take up arms and hunt the least desirable convicts. Overpopulation, over-criminalization and persecution of lower classes shape the world that Trenchard-Smith has created, leading to a rebellion as the turkey shoot gets out of hand, and soon the hunter becomes the hunted. Wildly violent and over-the-top, this is Ozploitation at its finest, featuring standout star performances by a weathered and masculine Steve Railsback, and a pouty sexpot turn from dreamgirl Olivia Hussey. While it is ostensibly a prison film, subtle hints are given that life isn’t much different beyond the camp, with the citizens under the rule of corrupt politicians who would rather imprison their constituents than help them. Which of course has never been an issue in contemporary life. Nope, never.
“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.
You can’t really be a leading man in Hollywood unless you hit the gym a few times. But in the seventies, if you had an action role, you just showed up, which is exactly what Sean Connery did following his early stints as James Bond for director John Boorman’s sci-fi trip-out. As a result, for those who haven’t seen the film, it’s impossible to not think of Sean Connery looking adorably doughy in those red leotard overalls with an impossible ponytail, his very presence promising audiences a trip into the unknown. But once you have seen this film, Connery’s questionable sartorial choices represent the least of your questions. This futuristic world finds the Earth divided between celestial beings of eternal life, and savage mortal hunters serving the ancient god Zardoz. Promoting violence over sex, Zardoz becomes the final word for the Brutals which Connery’s Zed counts himself as a member. But a plot by the Eternals turns Zed into a pawn for a deadly game that, ultimately, will bring death into the Eternals’ world. While Zed’s world is built on a lie, it’s the Eternals and their supposed utopia that proves to be rotten, a place where death has no presence, and life has henceforth ceased to have meaning. Everybody tends to dress better than Zed, however. That getup has not aged well at all.
“Time of The Wolf” (2003)
The apocalypse has come and gone by the opening of Michael Haneke‘s “Time Of The Wolf,” the Austrian helmer’s sole entry into the science fiction genre, but that doesn’t mean that the worst is over. Far from it. Society is still crumbling around the central family, led by matriarch Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who are struggling to survive in a world in the aftermath of an catastrophe (drinking water is scarce, and livestock are set aflame). And in the opening minutes, they’re robbed, and have to watch as the patriarch (Daniel Duval) is murdered, forcing them to flee, until they eventually come under the questionable protection of tinpot despot Olivier Gourmet, who has control of the uncontaminated water. It’s about as much fun as you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic Michael Haneke film—i.e. no fucking fun whatsoever—but it’s impeccably directed and performed, by Huppert especially. And what elevates it above, say, “The Road,” are the hints that the director gives—without ever over-egging it—that he’s not really talking about some futuristic dystopia, but about the places in the world—Kosovo, Somalia, wherever—where people eke out desperate existences in circumstances all too similar to those of Anne and her family.
“A Boy And His Dog” (1975)
Vic and Blood are the characters of the title, a simple orphaned teenage boy and his lovable canine friend. And that’s just about where the normal elements of this Harlan Ellison adaptation end, as Vic is milling about in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Blood is a telepathic dog helping the boy get laid. This may be the end of the world, a nuclear wasteland that’s mutated some and killed most, but Vic just wants to spend time with his buddy. The two of them lay about and amuse themselves as the world around them sits in tatters, but this dissonance discontinues as the duo comes across a small town not only preserved from the destruction, but rendered in a 1950’s style suburbia. With nothing left, we only have the ability to retreat. Of course, this society is paranoid and self-destructive, and Vic ultimately ends up getting involved in their dangerously reductive horseplay, tied to a girl and a plot to overthrow the town’s leadership. Most dystopias feature this idea, that some will yearn for structure and clash with others who actively reject it. Ultimately, the latter strategy proves appealing for Vic, who won’t bend his allegiance to Blood, his very best friend at the end of the world. —With additional contributions from Jessica Kiang
Now we’re at the end… of this feature, not the world, so we want to hear from you. Any end of everything movies we missed that you like? Do any of the ones listed here deserve more love? Let us know in the comments section. Also, additional must-reading for the syllabus: 20 Oddball Sci-Fi Films Of The 1970s.