Science fiction is unique in that it can ask and attempt to answer questions that have never even been thought of before. It’s why we so often see real life technology taking cues from the science fiction films and literature of years gone by. If people can imagine it, others will try to build it – just take a look at all the stuff we have thanks to Star Trek’s influence.
One of the most popular forms of science- or speculative-fiction is the “dystopian” story, a portrait of a future society that has gone bad, usually through some combination of oppressive social policies and technology that makes it easier for a ruling class to bend the masses to its will.
We’ve seen a large volume of dystopian films in recent years, which some argue is reflective of the huge amount of ‘bad news’ we’re exposed to on a daily basis. If all we hear about is the bad, it stands to reason that the stories we tell will reflect some amount of that.
The point of telling these stories, though, is to try and anticipate the worst before it can happen, to rally people behind ideas and ideals that could prevent an unpalatable future like those depicted in dystopian fiction from ever taking place. These are 20 of the worst dystopias from Hollywood films that we hope will never happen.
20. The Hunger Games (2012)
In the fictional Panem, two children from each of the 12 districts surrounding the Capital must enter “The Hunger Games.” The Games are a fight to the death, set in a large outdoor arena fraught with wild beasts and unnatural elements – and all the contestants, of course.
The Games, we’re told, are a reminder to the people of the districts of the consequences of disobedience. The Games began after the districts rebelled against the Capital, and are a tool by which the people are oppressed. Each district works at manufacturing or at collecting resources, all of which goes towards allowing the Capital to live it up.
19. Idiocracy (2006)
In a future overwhelmed by corporate influence and the apathy of the masses, intelligence has plunged to startlingly low levels. Two of the most average people of modern times are put in suspended animation for 500 years, emerging into a world where crops are watered with Gatorade (and don’t grow), and where people can barely speak and are terrified of anything approaching a coherent thought.
It’s a decent – but way over the top – comedy, but the point it raises is an important one. Even today, there is an unhealthy level of suspicion towards science and intelligence. Is that something that will serve us well?
18. The Matrix (1999)
In a world ruled by machines, people’s minds are trapped inside a virtual reality and their bodies are used as batteries by the robots. A group of humans has managed to escape, and they turn their efforts to defeating the robots both in and out of The Matrix.
The most interesting element of this film is in the dynamic of the Matrix itself. Many of the captive people on the inside live normal lives, with the comforts and troubles of the average person in 1999. The free people of the world, meanwhile, struggle to survive on the outside, and have few comforts, if any. Is it a convincing case for ignorance as bliss?
17. Elysium (2013)
Elysium is a space station for the wealthy, and is off limits to the poor inhabitants of Earth. Earth has become a disgusting hive of corruption and abuse, made all the worse by the overhanging station above.
The scary part: for all the sick and dying on Earth, there is little hope – but Elysium has these medical pods that can cure anything. From cancer to an exploded face, the pods take but a few minutes to cure. That means the rich of Elysium, for some insane reason, must all be the most horrific super villains of all time. There aren’t many other explanations.
16. Children of Men (2006)
What would happen if, one day, all women stopped getting pregnant?
The film picks up 20 years after the last birth of a human child, with war and disease ravaging nearly all of the world. Suicide kits are sold in stores, and the hope of a future for our world is gone.
Until a pregnant woman is discovered. With that, true ugliness is exposed; a group intends to take the woman and her child and use them as tools to further a political agenda. This is a film that examines our selfishness and shortsightedness, and is one of the most compelling dystopian films ever made.
15. Serenity (2005)
In the distant future, with a galactic government spreading its influence further and further and bending unwilling human colonies to its iron will, a group of smugglers are caught in the sights of a special agent intent on capturing a member of their crew.
The dystopian element enters later. We see that the origin of a marauding cannibal force – called the Reavers – is on a planet called “Miranda”, a place where the government attempted to control the emotions of the people to prevent wrongdoing. Those who weren’t turned to cannibals were wiped of any personality at all. This, we’re told, is the ugliness that is “a world without sin.”
14. V for Vendetta (2005)
V for Vendetta follows a man named V, a man who is orchestrating the downfall of the fascist government that has twisted British society into a nightmare state reminiscent of Nazi Germany.
There are interesting parallels in this film to modern life. London’s CCTV cameras are held as an example of the kind of state-sponsored monitoring found in the story come to life. Online group Anonymous, which adopted V’s Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol, has also been criticized for targeting individuals and groups with dissenting opinions and pressuring them into silence, drawing a parallel to the culture of censorship in the film.
13. Wall-E (2008)
The world is overwhelmed with garbage, the human race fled long ago, and a single garbage-compacting robot remains to try to clean everything up for when the people return.
The people are obese to the point of immobility, slaves to a consumer culture that ignores the perils of excess, and ignorant to all that their ancestors left behind so long ago.
It takes little work to connect the corporation at the heart of the problem, “Buy N’ Large,” to the Walmarts of the world, and the film is a grim reminder of the path our excessive lifestyles have us on.
12. Minority Report (2002)
A film that has been cited as a significant influence on modern technology, Minority Report has become ever more relevant in the years since its release. It tells the story of an agent of the PreCrime department in Washington DC, 2054, a man who captures criminals before they can commit crime. When he himself is predicted to become a murderer, he goes on the run and attempts to clear his name of the crime he has not yet committed.
There’s a big push now to find and apprehend domestic terrorists and mass shooters before they have a chance to commit a crime, and similar issues of determining guilt before the act do sometimes apply.
11. Daybreakers (2009)
Many zombie films deal with the apocalypse in motion, but Daybreakers instead looks at what happens when the vampires have won.
Needless to say, taking over the planet leads to the sticky problem of finding enough blood to nourish an entire world with a very particular diet. A chance encounter with a group of humans leads the protagonist to a startling discovery: vampirism is curable.
The film tackles ideas like class exploitation and the influence of big Pharma, and while it’s not the greatest effort ever committed to film, it’s entertaining in spurts and, at times, downright creepy.
10. District 9 (2009)
Scary in that it mirrors things that have happened before, District 9 centers on the slums to which alien visitors are relegated after their arrival above Johannesburg. There, they live in poverty, subject to extreme prejudice and possessing few rights.
The film was based on a previous short work done by director Neill Blomkamp, which in turn was inspired by interviews he had conducted asking South Africans how they felt about Nigerians and Zimbabweans. The dislike of aliens in the film isn’t imagined at all – it’s all based on things real people said about other people.
9. Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
It’s a future that would seem unthinkable in today’s information-drenched society, one in which all books are illegal and subject to immolation by the government, but the threat of censorship is alive and well, making the theme of this film one that should last well through the years.
A culture of apathy and anti-intellectualism grows up in the void of information, leading those characters that prize knowledge and learning to find themselves isolated, despairing, and endangered. It’s a reminder to us to never allow attempts at censorship, lest we lose our freedom along with the words.
8. 1984 (1984)
The control exercised over the people of Sealand in 1984 is absolute. Every thought in the heads of the people is a result of government programming, with truth and language now fluid concepts that ultimately have no meaning.
A classic of science fiction, 1984’s story is frequently cited by those worried at the ongoing elimination of rights in the name of public safety, and the work has often been mentioned during conversation about the NSA spying scandal and other instances of increased government surveillance.
7. Equilibrium (2002)
Similar to 1984, Equilibrium takes place in a future controlled by government, this time through the use of chemicals that eliminate normal human emotion. The law is enforced by a group of gun wielding super soldiers who employ a martial art called “Gunkata” to get the greatest number of kills in the shortest amount of time.
As in 1984, the world of Equilibrium begins as a utopia – if you can’t think for yourself, the system must seem rather nice. Follow the rules and a mediocre, pleasant life awaits. It’s when that seed of rebellion takes root in the mind that the world turns ugly.
6. Metropolis (1927)
Possibly the first science fiction film ever made, Metropolis is surprisingly watchable for a film that’s 87 years old. It tells the story of an upper class man who discovers the terrors of life in the undercity, which is where the energy to run the upper world is created. It features an evil Android and an enormous clock machine, both of which would fit in well with the most bonkers of modern sci-fi.
This isn’t actually a Hollywood film, but its influence on the dystopian subgenre is too big not to mention.
5. Soylent Green (1973)
It’ll take some creative solutions to figure out a way to feed the world going forward, and while modern science is all about genetic modifications, Soylent Green proposed something a little more radical.
This hunt for a sustainable food source is a major source of strife in the film, and has led people to abandon traditional ideas of meals and instead focus on eating nutrient-rich wafers made from plankton… Or is it plankton?
This is a film that tackles class divides, environmental concerns, and food shortages. It’s a horrible vision for the world, and one relevant to today’s worries.
4. Total Recall (1990)
The plot of Total Recall almost certainly doesn’t actually happen within the film, but an imagined dystopia in an imagined story will work just fine. The problem is on Mars, where a corporation has a stranglehold on breathable air. Only Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid can save the day, thanks to his repressed secret agent memories.
This film is ridiculous, but there’s no way anybody would ever want to live in the Martian society depicted here. Even the good guy is ready to grab people to use as human shields.
3. RoboCop (1987)
It’s tough to find a “good guy” in the world of RoboCop, and maybe that’s the point. The gangs are running amok, corporate influence is taking over and destroying a huge chunk of the city, and the only one who can clean anything up is a betrayed cop who has been turned into a robot super soldier.
Even at its best in this film, Detroit never looks like a place that would be great to live in, and at its worst the city is a horrifying nightmare. At least modern Detroit hasn’t gotten that bad yet.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner’s dystopia isn’t necessarily the main thrust of the film, serving more as a murky backdrop for the story being told, but there’s no denying that the film’s world is not one that is appealing.
The administering of emotional examinations to determine the “replicants” from the humans is the most troubling element of the film. None of the replicants are particularly robotic, and all display a desire to live, to find happiness. This exploration of what it means to be a person is an important theme, and the arbitrary distinctions that are made should be disturbing.
1. The Road (2009)
There’s a debate as to whether post apocalyptic works like The Road should be considered dystopias. There is no question, though, that this is one of the worst imagined futures ever.
The world is in ruins, some horrible event having killed off almost all of life on Earth. The people who survive are reduced to scavenging, to preying on other survivors and living like feral animals. Supplies are scarce, hope is nonexistent, and even a minor injury can be a death sentence.
What’s the lesson? Perhaps it’s just “don’t let this happen.” Because it’s horrid.