From Divergent to the the Hunger Games series, it’s clear that dystopian entertainment — books, films, and television — continues to be a hot genre. Dystopian films may be the hot ticket in 2015, but the genre has a rich history both in literature and film. You may be asking: what exactly is a dystopia? The simple definition is that it is the opposite of a utopia. Whereas a utopia is defined as a community or society with desirable or perfect qualities, a dystopia is just the opposite, a community or society in which characteristics are frightening or undesirable. From that basic definition, the actual defining characteristics start to become murky, but dystopian film and literature tends to focus on society as leading to dehumanization, the focus on powerful totalitarian governments, the effects of disaster on society, and many other qualities that lead to alienation when met with the society as a whole.
With that being said, here are seven of the most famous and well-known dystopian films of all time.
7. Children of Men (2006) – Alfonso Cuarón
If you were to try and pinpoint the start of the recent surge in popularity for dystopian-genre films, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 sci-fi movie Children of Men could be seen as one of the key works in the popular culture shift. Directed with Cuarón’s trademark visual flourishes and award-winning cinematography, Children of Men tells the story of a world where total infertility of the human race has put society on the verge of collapse.
Loosely based on P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men, the film adaptation takes place in the year 2027 when two decades of infertility have led to worldwide chaos with the United Kingdom being the last functional government. But when civil servant Theo Faron crosses paths with a West African refugee who is likely the only pregnant woman on Earth, he becomes her unwilling caretaker on a journey that puts them up against the totalitarian government, nefarious political groups, and whatever else stands in their way. Earning very positive reviews upon release, Children of Men is often noted for its innovative one-shot sequences, which Cuarón would later employ in Gravity (2013.)
6. Fahrenheit 451 (1966) – François Truffaut
Based on Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel of the same name, Fahrenheit 451 was famed French New Wave director François Truffaut’s first color film and his only English language film. A classic dystopian story, Fahrenheit 451 focuses on an oppressive futuristic society where literature is banned and a totalitarian government hands the task of seeking out and destroying literature to a governmental force known as the “Firemen.” However, one member of the Firemen, Guy Montag, begins to question his task and slowly finds himself aligning with a hidden sect of society that seeks to save literature from destruction and free society from the grasp of the government.
Upon release, the film earned mixed marks from critics and has still not necessarily seen a complete turnaround when it comes to reception. Martin Scorsese has spoken about the film as being underrated, writing that, “The series of shots from Fahrenheit 451 (another underrated picture) where the camera moves in close-closer-closest on a character in imminent danger, which I admit I’ve duplicated many times in my own films.”
5. Akira (1988) – Katsuhiro Otomo
A landmark of Japanese animation, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 1988 dystopian cyberpunk film Akira remains one of the greatest of the genre, animated or not. Based on Otomo’s manga of the same name, Akira focuses on the teenage biker Tetsuo Shima and the leader of the bike gang Shotaro Kaneda as they are caught up in a Earth-shattering plot in a dystopian vision of Tokyo in the year 2019. The basic story follows Tetsuo as he discovers his psychic powers and attempts to free the imprisoned psychic Akira, but that would leave out a lot of the intricate plotlines that can be overwhelming on a first viewing, but is understandable given the film’s 2,182-page source material.
Akira’s animation continues to stun nearly thirty years later and Otomo’s vision of a rebuilt, glossy “Neo-Tokyo” that looks beautiful from afar, but is decaying at the ground level is one of the more disturbing visions of the future.
4. Brazil (1985) — Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam’s unique style of filmmaking has always lent itself very well to the dystopian genre (12 Monkeys, based on Chris Marker’s classic film La Jetee, is another strong entry), but Brazil is usually considered the best film of Gilliam’s career and one of the strongest entries in the dystopian film genre at large. A satire of a dystopian, bureaucratic society in which an inept totalitarian government rules and poorly maintained machines dominate life, Brazil tells the story of Sam Lowry who goes on a journey to find a woman who appears in her dreams and inadvertently becomes embroiled in a conflict involving a suspected terrorist. With Gilliam’s trademark visual flourishes and a style that presents the world as terrifying and ridiculous, often at the same time, Brazil plays like a fever dream of what could happen when an incompetent government is saddled with too much power.
3. Blade Runner (1982) — Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi neo-noir masterpiece Blade Runner may not fit perfectly into the classifications of dystopia (which is itself a very malleable category), but it ticks off enough of the designations to be considered. Blade Runner depicts a futuristic dystopian Los Angeles in the year 2019 where organic robots called replicants have been invented by mega-corporations and subsequently banned on Earth, relegated to work on off-world colonies. The main thrust of the story revolves around Rick Deckard’s mission to track down a group of escaped replicants who have arrived on Earth, but the vision of Los Angeles itself becomes one of the defining characteristics of the film. Run-down, overpopulated, and with huge class discrepancies and high pollution, Blade Runner’s vision of Los Angeles is that of a society in alarming decay even if Scott chooses to let it simmer in the background of a neo-noir story.
2. Metropolis (1927) — Fritz Lang
The oldest film on this list, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent German expressionist masterpiece Metropolis is just as stunning today as it was 87 years ago. The first feature length sci-fi film ever produced, and also the most expensive up until that point, Metropolis tells the story of a Freder, the wealthy son of the city’s ruler, as he attempts to bridge the vast expanse between classes in a futuristic urban dystopia. Much maligned upon release, Metropolis gained traction through the years, proving that the film was simply too far ahead of its time. Today, the film is considered by many to be Lang’s magnum opus — both the crowning achievement of the silent and German expressionist era as well as one of cinema’s masterpieces.
1. A Clockwork Orange (1971) — Stanley Kubrick
One of the most controversial films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella A Clockwork Orange is now considered one of the greatest dystopian films ever made after going through years of censorship and criticism. A Clockwork Orange tells the story of a young, charismatic sociopath named Alex who leads a gang of like-minded individuals on a rampage through a futuristic dystopian Britain seeking out what Alex refers to as “ultra-violence.” But when the other members of Alex’s gang betray him, leaving him to be captured by police, he is later subjected to controversial behavioral conditioning before being used as a pawn for political gains. While critical reception was somewhat mixed upon release, as were many of Kubrick’s films, the movie has slowly positioned itself in the upper echelon of the director’s films and has become a permanent staple of pop culture.