The 10 Essential Dystopian Films

Dystopias is a sub-genre of sci-fi I love. It has provided us with great novels like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Some show a world run by a dictatorial government while others show a society on the verge of collapse and many attempt political or social commentary. All portray a society that is not functioning properly, and it shows something we all fear seeing.

Of course there have been many great movies from this subgenre, so let us look at some of the best cinematic offerings. There are many great candidates – which meant movies like THX-1138, Dredd, Mad Max and Akira just missing out making this list.

10. Brazil

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Not to be confused with the South American nation, Brazil is a movie from 1985 by Terry Gilliam and had an ensemble cast that included Jonathan Pryce, Michael Palin, Robert De Niro and Bob Hoskins. Brazil is essentially Gilliam’s version of George Orwell’s 1984, but acting more as a satire and ramping up the absurdist comedy.

Brazil follows Sam Lowry (Pryce), a government worker who discovered an administrative error led to an innocents man being wrongfully arrested. As Sam attempts to right the wrong, it leads him into conflict with the state and gets him involved with a resistance movement. But as the movie progresses the lines between reality and fantasy get blurred.

Brazil was a flop when it was first released but it is now a cult classic, having an 8.0 rating on IMDB. It is a very surreal movie with Sam constantly fantasizing about a woman and has plenty of dark humor. It twists 1984 by showing that a regime with this amount of bureaucracy that would make errors and the state would do everything it can to cover up their mistake.

Gilliam creates a very dark and industrial world and Brazil has become of his most iconic movies.

9. V for Vendetta

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Since its release in 2006, V for Vendetta has become a cult classic and a banner movie for left-wing activists – being used as a symbol by Anonymous and the annual Million Mask March. V for Vendetta is based on a graphic novel by Alan Moore and it adapted by The Wachowskis and served as James McTeigue’s directional debut – his only good movie.

V for Vendetta is set in the near future where Britain has turned into a fascist stage after a viral outbreak. But one man stands up against the ruling Norsefire party and its leader (John Hurt) – a freedom fighter only known as V (Hugo Weaving) who wears a Guy Fawkes mask. After going on a mission of vengeance against the people who experimented, he goes out to united the people of Britain to overthrow government.

The movie version of V for Vendetta is a loose adaption of the graphic novel, changing it from the Cold War to the War on Terror and acted a criticism of George W. Bush and Neo-Cons instead of Thatcherism. The movie version also makes the world more black-and-white then in the graphic novel where authoritarianism and anarchism were as bad as each other.

Despite the changes from the graphic novel V for Vendetta is one of the better adaptations of Alan Moore’s work, having some excellent translations of the graphic novel’s scenes like the flashback to V’s origins, V’s killing of Delia Surridge and the torture of Evey. V for Vendetta was an entertaining sci-fi action movie which did not dumb down its political themes. Even if you do not agree with its politics V for Vendetta still entertains.

8. Robocop

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Robocop is an example of a classic 80s action film and was as intelligent as it was violent. Inspired by Judge Dredd Robocop was written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner and was Paul Verhoeven’s first Hollywood movie.

Robocop is set in a bankrupt, crime-ridden Detroit (the more things change the more they stay the more they stay the same). The city is primarily run by Omni Consumer Products (OCP) and the police has been privatized. The police are on the brink of striking. To fight the crime epidemic engulfing the city OCP resurrect a cop who died in the line of duty, becoming the titular Robocop.

Robocop was as much a political satire as it was a sci-fi actioneer – taking the ideas of Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher to their extremes where the state roles back to the extend it not even provide essential services yet still willing to spend millions on laser defense systems. There is also plenty of dark humor and enough OTT violence to satisfy anyone’s bloodlust. It’s one of the best action movies and sci-fi from the 80s, standing alongside classics like The Terminator, Aliens and Die Hard.

The sequel made the world look even worst where crime is so rampant that there is a conga line of death and theft, people are addicted to a new drug and a little league team robs a convenience store.

7. Battle Royale

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Coming from Japan is Battle Royale, a movie that anyone who say they are as a film fan have to see. Like many of the other dystopias on this list Battle Royale was based on a novel and it has been adapted into a manga series before being made into a movie.

Battle Royale is set in a near future Japan after the economy has collapsed and many young people react by using violence and striking against the school system. To regain control the Japanese government introduce the BR Act, an annual event where one unfortunate school class has to fight to death on an island within three days. One middle school class is randomly picked to compete and the students react in to their situation in different ways – some fight to survive, others try to act normal, a group attempt to sabotage the game, a couple commit suicide in refusal to fight and some embrace the contest. Hence why some people see The Hunger Games as a rip-off of Battle Royale.

Battle Royale is a fantastically violent movie that Hollywood would not dare to make. It is creative with how it dispatches many of the kids and brings out the personalities of many of the competitors – there were more characters in Battle Royale then in The Hunger Games yet we got to know more about them than in the Japanese movie.

Battle Royale is also a darkly funny movie at times and it is one of the most popular Japanese movies in the West. But it does have a very surreal ending and the sequel was poorly received.

6. Never Let Me Go

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Never Let Me Go is based on a critically acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was named the best novel of 2005 by Time magazine. The book was adapted by director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) and screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Ex Machina) and featured a Great British cast.

Never Let Me Go is different to many dystopias because it is set in the past, from the 1970s to 1990s in an alternative version of Britain. In 1952 a medical breakthrough is made to allow humans to live beyond 100 – but it comes at a cost of an underclass of clone who do not live beyond 30. The movie itself focuses on three clones, Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), from their days in school to their final days where they have to donate their organs.

Never Let Me Go is a sad and tragic movie that gives the dystopia subgenre a very realistic edge. The clones are indoctrinated from a young age to stay healthy and accept their destiny in life is to donate their organs or care for and support other clones when they have to make their donations. The clones do not attempt to run and escape, the most they do is try to delay what is going to happen, they accept their fate. The system of control is a sophisticated vicious circle where the clones are given jobs to care for each other and keep themselves obedient.

There are beautiful little touches to make the world feel more authentic, from the clone children only being given broken to toys and people looking away from the clones, avoiding eye contact and ignoring their existence. It is a wonderfully stark dystopia.

5. Gattaca

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The sci-fi movie Gattaca was Andrew Niccol first film as a writer and director and it is easily argued that it’s his best. Gattaca is set in a near future America which has become eugenics based society. People have been split into two groups, generically selected individuals who are conceived through IVF and love births, naturally conceived people. The love births are second class citizens, made to do remedial jobs and live in poor conditions. However one man, Vincent (Ethan Hawke) avoids that fate by assuming the identity of a genetically selected individual and advances within a space tech company. But when a murder is committed on the premises its puts Vincent at risk of being discovered.

Like Never Let Me Go Gattaca attempts to show a more realistic version of a dystopia, indicating a future that might happen, how prejudice could evolve and touch on issues of genetic discrimination, such as in healthcare. Niccol put a lot of thought and detail into the make-up and mechanics of the society while also telling a story about Vincent’s struggles. Niccol also gave the world of retro-future look to help make it stand out.

4. Blade Runner

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Based on the Philip K. Dick novel’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner is often considered one of the best sci-fi ever made. It is also seen to be Ridley Scott’s masterpiece and an excellent example of the neo-noir sub-genre.

Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles in 2019 (not long to go). The world is overly populated and highly polluted – most animals are extinct, and the majority of animals that are left are clones. Humanity has been able colonize space and replicants, genetically engineered humanoids are used to conduct the dangerous work. Replicants are forbidden to live on Earth and as a failsafe only have a lifespan of four years.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a blade runner, a man whose job is to find and kill any escaped replicants. Deckard is hired to find four highly advance replicants that have fled to Los Angeles but as he conducts the mission his own humanity is questions.

Blade Runner was a movie known for its ground breaking special effects and art-direction. The flying car sequences and the cityscape are still breathtaking and Scott and his team did an excellent job of making a dark and depressing version of the future. Many movies attempted to copy its look like Highlander II: The Quickening, Super Mario Bros. and Judge Dredd, misunderstanding they needed to copy Blade Runner quality, not its visuals.

Blade Runner was a notorious flop when it first released and studio interference lead to a version with a voiceover and the happy ending in the countryside. Blade Runner has been recut many times and fans have collected the different versions of the movie.

3. A Clockwork Orange

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The cinematic adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is often considered one of Stanley Kubrick greatest movies which is a hell of an achievement considering his filmography.

A Clockwork Orange is a mostly faithful adaptation of the novel, set in Britain in the near future where the young run amok. Influenced by drug filled milk gangs terrorize the public with robbery, rape and a bit of the old ultra-violence. One gang leader is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), a 15-year-old, is arrested for murder and after two years in prison he is given a chance to commute his sentence when he volunteers to take part in a psychological experiment to ensure he can never do an evil act again.

Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange after his plans to Napoleon bio-pic felt through and he wanted to make something quickly and relatively cheap. It was an obvious success, showing a world where society is tearing itself apart and both the government and the public would response with authoritarian actions.

Burgess was influenced by B.F. Skinner’s experiments on operant conditioning and pushes them to their extremes. He was also a committed Catholic which influenced the moral debate portrayed in the movie, whether it’s better to be good but have no free will or have free will but use it to be bad. Kubrick kept the religious themes and showed Christian iconography throughout.

A Clockwork Orange is a highly influential movie, critics often compare movies like Bronson and Filth to the Kubrick classic while The Warriors where colorful gangs dominate in New York City.

The movie garnered controversy because of its violence and lead to  Kubrick self-banned A Clockwork Orange in the UK. The ban was only lifted after Kubrick’s death in 2001.

2. Metropolis

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Metropolis has a number of distinctions to its name – besides from being considered one of the first dystopian films, it is also one of the best sci-fi, silent, and German movies ever. Released in 1927 Metropolis is set in a futuristic city where society is split into two groups, the rich who seek physical and intelligential pursuit but also live a life of opulence while the poor toil underground keeping the city running. The poor are on the brink of revolt but they are told by their leader, Maria (Brigitte Helm), to wait for the Mediator who would unite the working and ruling classes. In the midst of this world Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of the leader of the city falls for Maria and disguises himself as a worker to find her while the mad scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) plans to use the revolutionary fever to get revenge against the leader.

The description would lead you to think that Metropolis is a Communist movie, but in reality it is a Christian-Socialist flick, using religious themes, ideas and iconography throughout. Unfortunately Metropolis was a personal favorite of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels.

Metropolis was directed by the legendary Fritz Lang (M, The Big Heat) and it was a grand spectacle. The film cost 5 Million Reichsmarks, which is roughly around $200 Million in today’s money, and it took nearly a year to shoot. It scales were breathtaking, using models and matte paintings that still impress today, used 37,000 extras and the robot transformation sequence still holds up today. Sadly the movie only made 75,000 Reichsmarks at the box office and despite the 2010 restoration, some scenes are lost.

Metropolis is a must see, working as a sci-fi epic and as a deeper experience.

1. Children of Men

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Topping the list is 2006’s Children of Men. Loosing based on P. D. James’ only sci-fi novel, Children of Men is deservedly seen as Alfonso Cuarón’s magnum opus and one of best sci-fi movies of the 21st Century.

Children of Men is set in 2027 18 years after the last child in the world is born. Britain becomes a police state where law and order is breaking down; terrorism is rife, immigrants are rounded up for deportation, bandits roam the countryside and the small town of Bexhill-on-Sea has turned into a war zone. Britain is doing better than the rest of the world as many of the world’s cities, from Moscow to Seattle, have fallen.

Theo Faron (Clive Owen) was a political activist turned jaded civil servant who ends up being embroiled with a group who has the first pregnant woman in 18 years and ends up being protector for humanity’s last hope.

Children of Men is a politically charged movie taking British immigration policies to its extremes and acting as a commentary on the War on Terror. Like A Clockwork Orange and Metropolis Children of Men is also religious themed being centered on a woman giving birth to the mankind’s salvation and having people turn to religious extremism such self-flagellating.

As well as being a great dystopia movie Children of Men is a fantastic technical feat using long takes and the famous six-minute long war scene. It was a great movie for creating a slightly futuristic world with small technological advances but smartly keeps it in the background.

The book and the movie are very different beasts, but there are both great in their own way.

Kieran Freemantle
Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.