Ever since Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in 1516, in order to name an imaginary island community in his treatise, it became associated with every literary attempt at envisioning a society which is profoundly different in one or more aspects from our own.
However, given the fact that More imagined his Utopia as a generally favorable place to live, the term itself became associated with desirable communities, especially governments (and modes of governing). Dystopia, as an opposite term, was yet to be coined.
Fast forward to 2015: the incredible box office success of The Hunger Games generated a plethora of similar offshoots such as The Giver or The Maze Runner; action films turn to dystopian and post-apocalyptic settings, often combining the two. The trend peaked.
The Simpsons mock this overkill by showing a fictional trailer for a film featuring a terminator-like postman on a horse, after which Homer delivers a long litany of every movie set in a dystopian future that came out in the past few years. He does not even mention films from years before, which altogether amount to a whopping number. Indeed, the 21st century has given us plenty of futuristic food for thought.
To be perfectly honest, dystopia does not necessarily equate an undesirable future, but a futuristic setting is rather a deliberate choice by authors who use it to highlight a terrible destination for mankind in case it stays on a path that it’s on now.
In other words, to create a dystopia is way of issuing a warning about existing or impending dangers. In the 20th century, these dangers were fascism, dictatorships, technocracy, bureaucracy, eugenics – those are the reasons why Huxley wrote Brave New World, Orwell his 1984, or Bradbury his Fahrenheit 451.
Mankind’s often too blind faith in technology is another source of anxiety and probably the main reason why most of these works are set in a technologically advanced society that is, despite its advances, anything but happy or healthy. At this point, a long-time reader of ToC will have remembered an already existing list of dystopian films. Therefore, the purpose of this one is to outline tropes and clichés of dystopian fiction today, as opposed to dystopia in general.
If we assume that different times bring different hardships, we realize the possibility that dystopia from the 21st century feeds from new fears, on top of some of the old ones: rampant consumerism, rising inequality, police surveillance, climate change.
Another reason to differentiate between 20th and 21st century dystopian film, is the advent of CGI which opens up seemingly endless new possibilities for directors. Fantasy worlds and scenarios can now be presented more convincingly and with less money. Below is a list of most interesting and most accomplished films with a dystopian setting in the last 15 years, The Hunger Games series not included, being famous enough and needing no additional mention.
15. Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013)
Earth 2077: Scavengers, the alien invaders, have inflicted so much damage to human settlements, that people are forced to relocate to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The colony is powered by generators which are in turn powered by Earth’s oceans. Tom Cruise’s Jack Harper maintains drones that keep these generators safe from alien attacks, and he works alongside Vika (Andrea Riseborough), who serves as a communication officer.
The two are among a handful of remaining people on Earth, all of whom supposedly serve the same purpose. The pair operates from a towering structure beyond the clouds, as the Earth’s surface is said to be radioactive. However, Jack also has flashbacks from New York which he has seen only on postcards, and which feature a woman he doesn’t remember (Olga Kyrilenko).
The discovery of the exact same woman in a crashed spacecraft will call into question everything Jack knows about his task, the world, the enemy, and even himself. But elaborating more would inevitably result in spoilers.
Praised for its originality, but criticized for severe plot holes and clichés, Oblivion is mostly interesting for its attempts at creating an allegorical story, and being based on the idea of questioning the society and the status quo.
14. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
Although the success of The Hunger Games franchise is undisputed, the concept of teens forced to participate in gladiator-like combat wasn’t its original contribution. It was in fact introduced by this cult Japanese film from the turn of the century.
In a very near future, Japan’s economy is at a dismal state, which caused an increase in violent crimes performed by youths. In an attempt to subvert this trend, the government, being a brutal, militaristic dictatorship, issues an act which enables them to annually select a group of teenagers, isolate them on an island, and force them to fight each other to the death.
Unlike the Hunger Games series, Battle Royale finds it unnecessary to develop the story, and make the plot and characters believable, which results more in a violent, exploitative film than clever satire.
13. Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)
Some viewers and comic book lovers will remember an earlier adaptation of 2000 AD’s Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone. Much more successful than its predecessor, Travis’s Dredd is another solid example of modern dystopia’s exploitative side: using violent pulp fiction to tell cautionary tales about society.
Location: Mega-City One; Population: 800 million. The rest of the American Continent being a toxic wasteland, the entire population settled in a gigantic conurbation spanning from Boston to Washington D.C. Its unprecedented population density generates an unprecedented crime rate, which is why the judicial system was… simplified to say the least.
Law enforcement is now in the hands of Judges, who combine the holy trinity of judicial functions: judge, jury, and executioner. Dredd (Karl Urban) is one such judge, a veteran at that, paired with a rookie with psychic abilities, Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby).
A particularly violent execution of three drug dealers brings Dredd and Anderson to Peach Trees (an ironic euphemism given the setting), a housing tower, and pits them against Ma-Ma, a ruthless drug kingpin (Lena Headey). Despite being essentially an action film, Dredd has elements of satire in its depiction of post-atomic United States as a violent society where police brutality is a moot point.
12. Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)
Quite possibly the only movie that can be qualified as a dystopian comedy, Idiocracy is the brain child of Mike Judge, a versatile author behind famous animated series Beavis and Butthead, and King of the Hill, films like Office Space, as well as the currently running series Silicon Valley. As the author’s pedigree would suggest, Idiocracy fuses social commentary with fart jokes and manages to elicit many laughs.
The premise revolves around a U.S. Army librarian, Joe (Luke Wilson), as average as can be. These “qualities” are exactly what gets him selected for a top-secret suspended animation experiment, along with Rita (Maya Rudolph), a prostitute.
A comical plot twist leads to the experiment being neglected, and ultimately forgotten about, and our protagonists left in stasis for half a millennium. When they awake, they find that the U.S.A. have degenerated into an anti-intellectual, hyper-consumerist country, where stupidity is the norm and even such average people can be regarded as geniuses.
11. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)
Much like Dredd, Snowpiercer follows the trend of many recent dystopian films which are essentially action movies with a dystopian background, thus making them easier to attract viewers.
Snowpiercer takes place in a new ice age accidentally brought about by people, as a result of a failed experiment to subvert the trend of global warming. Human loss reached extreme levels after the incident, and the remaining lucky few (around a 1000, actually) have occupied a single globe-trotting train powered by a perpetual motion engine.
The allegory that the film reaches for deals with unfair wealth distribution, as the population on the train is sharply divided between the rich in the front and the poor in the tail. A revolution ensues under the leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), who is mentored by Gilliam (John Hurt), and with the assistance of the expert who designed the train’s security features, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho). Their advance toward the front sections of the train is an allegorical journey through a class system.
10. Elysium (Neill Blomkamp, 2013)
With only a few months apart between the two, Elysium is a sort of a companion piece to Snowpiercer. They share a common theme, but not the execution. Instead of depopulation, the future of Elysium is marked with overpopulation and pollution to such an extent that the rich and the powerful have decided to move to an artificial terraformed orbit habitat – the titular retreat from Earth’s afflictions.
It is indeed a utopian setting, but only at first glance, because it is perfectly aware that their affluence depends on the dystopia below. Elysium’s Defense secretary (Jodie Foster) is ruthless in selfishly defending their lot, because they enjoy not only luxury, but also state of the art medical care.
This is what Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is poised to get, after suffering a terrible workplace injury which includes a fatal amount of radiation. To get there, he must hijack information from his former boss, a citizen of Elysium (William Fichtner), and soon enough, somewhat reluctantly, go from saving his own life to spearheading a revolution.
Alike its Korean counterpart, Elysium reaches for action scenes and a sci-fi setting as an attempt to market his social commentary more successfully. In this attempt it fared better than Snowpiercer, but nevertheless didn’t accomplish an entirely believable story.
9. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
The idea of a robot as an anthropomorphic sentient machine was first introduced by Czech writer Karel Čapek in 1921, much before any such concept was turned from fiction to reality.
Nevertheless, from the outset, it became a cornerstone trope in science fiction. It illustrates both the hopes and fears of men, by depicting a machine outsmarting its maker, and the ramifications of such a development. It also serves as a device that evokes questions of human nature, and the distinguishing feature of humans. To this extent A.I. is no exception.
One such robot – android – is played by Haley Joel Osment in the Kubrick-Spielberg project based on a short story by Brian Aldiss, titled Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. The film is set in a not-too-distant future where global warming has flooded the coastlines and caused the deaths of many people.
Mechas, sentient humanoids, have been designed initially as an attempt to compensate the loss of workforce. Subsequently, one company that produces Mechas creates David, a child-like humanoid programmed to display love towards his “parents”. He is tested on a family with an ailing son, who is placed in suspended animation until a cure is found. After initial resistance, the mother accepts David, but the family is forced to abandon him when he is mistakenly perceived as hostile to their son.
Combining narrative elements from both Spielberg and Kubrick sometimes leads to a conceptual conflict, but is nevertheless thought-provoking. A.I. is also an example of a project that waited long to be realized, mostly for suitable advances in technology which would enable all the sci-fi elements to be presented in a plausible fashion.