The 10 Best Dystopias Of The Silver Screen

With Ben Wheatley having just being confirmed to adapt Ballard' High Rise, we take a look back at the best of dystopian cinema.
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If a dystopian society is the opposite of a utopian society, then we’re all, every single one of us, in the midst of our own dystopia. Corruption rules, disease and famine cover the globe and the old ultraviolence rages on almost every continent. It’s not a cheery thought, but it’s fact, not fiction. These issues and more are often tackled by dystopias on the silver screen, the best of which offer an insight into just how wrong us humans might go if we don’t mend our ways. Let them serve as a warning. Let them scare you. Let them break down the boundaries of modern society and be bloody entertaining whilst they’re at it.

1. Children of Men

One of my all-time favourite films. Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 masterpiece explores what would happen if the human race ceased being able to reproduce. It’s 2027 and we’ve been infertile for twenty years, and, knowing the end is near for the human race, refugees from all round the world seek shelter in the U.K, home to the last functioning government. It’s this totalitarian regime, and a group of outlaws, that our man Clive Owen finds himself on the wrong side of, after taking the first child to be born in 18 years into his care.

What makes it such a good film is the intelligent plot (adapted from P.D. James’ 1992 novel) and Cuarón’s commitment to grounding the story in reality. Clive Owen’s Theo Faron is a detached alcoholic, who rides the bus, hates his job and hates what the world has become, but isn’t bothered enough to do anything about it. Once the baby is thrust into his care, a cross-country journey begins as Theo attempts to get the baby to Tomorrow, the headquarters of rebel group The Human Project, who plan to use the newborn to unite the world. The Bexhill immigration camp scenes are phenomenal, and give you some idea what it would really be like to be a refugee, whilst Michael Caine’s woodland hideaway is the dream of teenage boys the world over.

2. Moon

The line between dystopia and science fiction often blurs, and this 2009 Sam Rockwell movie is a great example of how the two can work perfectly together. It’s a fantastically understated film, which explores the fragility of the human mind as Rockwell’s ‘space miner’ nears the end of a solitary three year stint mining helium-3 on Earth’s lunar satellite. As Rockwell’s time comes to an end, we learn all is not as it seems and that Sam is, in fact, one of many clones, set up to endlessly man the station, with no relief or return to Earth in sight. The idea that we’re not unique and individual is a terrifying thought, and Rockwell is just the man to coax a fantastic performance out of Duncan Jones’ material.

3. The Road

2009’s The Road is a grim film, but even this cannot compare to Cormac McCarthy’s dark source material. In the novel we glimpse a pregnant woman, and a little bit later, we see a baby roasting on a spit. No wonder John Hillcoat decided to leave this scene out of his film. Hillcoat has, however, left enough of the source material in to create a fantastically gritty and gruelling road movie about the darkest aspects of human nature. As Viggo Mortensen and his son travel across the barren wastes of America, all they’re concerned with is survival. The unexplained apocalyptic even is unimportant, it does not matter why they’re in this situation, only how they cope with it. As they’re pursued by cannibals and apocalyptic weather, the only thing they can do is keep carrying the fire.

4. Blade Runner

What can be said about Blade Runner that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? Harrison Ford is outstanding as the titular Blade Runner, a man whose job it is to hunt down rough Replicants, robots who have escaped from their menial work details on space colonies, and returned to Earth to live disguised amongst the human population. Visually, it’s a gorgeous noir, full of pattering rain, dark puddles and bright neons. If you haven’t seen it yet, rent a copy, close the curtains and settle in for one of the best movie experiences of your life.

5. When the Wind Blows

When the Wind Blows is a 1986 animated film, based on Raymond Briggs’ (of The Snowman fame) graphic novel of the same name. The adaptation was filmed by Jimmy Murakami, a Japanese director who succeeded in crafting a beautiful film that holds its own against anime classics such as Akira and Howl’s Moving Castle. The film and book centre around a retired couple, who are living peacefully in the countryside until a nuclear bomb is dropped on Britain. It has all the elements of BBC drama series Threads, but there’s a bitter-sweet element of humour to this as James Bloggs does his best to prepare the house for the blast and subsequent fall out, much to the befuddlement of his wife, Hilda. It’s a perfect take on blustering grandparents and parents, and in his 1998 graphic novel Ethel and Ernest, Briggs makes it clear that Mr and Mrs Bloggs were based on his own parents. A fantastic film, but, unlike The Snowman, it should not be watched on Christmas Eve, unless you want to wake up feeling empty and lost.


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6. District 9

District 9 is a fantastic film which deals with many of the same themes as Children of Men. South   Africa’s slums are overcrowded and the gap between rich and poor widens everyday. The big difference is, it’s not human refugees filling the slums, but aliens, whose ship crashed on Earth many years ago. These aliens, referred to as ‘prawns’ are confined to an area known as District 9, keeping them safely away from the richer humans. It’s all well and good if you’re one of the humans, until that is, you expose yourself to alien technology and slowly begin morphing into a prawn. Director Neill Blomkamp is about to release his follow up, Elysium, another sci-fi which also stars the fantastic Sharlto Copley. I’ll be re-watching District 9 in anticipation.

7. 12 Monkeys

It’s sort of difficult to make out what’s actually going on in this brilliant Terry Gilliam effort, but then, that’s half the beauty of it. The plot basically centres around Bruce Willis’ convicted criminal, a man who is sent back in time to the late 90s, to discover the source of a virus that forced the surviving humans to live underground. As soon as he lands on Earth, Bruce finds himself arrested and thrown in a mental institution where he meets batshit millionaire’s son, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). As Willis searches for the mysterious cult of the 12 Monkeys, he starts to question his own sanity as 1990s America beats him around the head. It’s a great film and it’s nice to be reminded of a movie where both Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis sink into their characters, as opposed to the majority of their recent output, which are very clearly big ‘Brad Pitt’ or ‘Bruce Willis’ vehicles.

8. V for Vendetta

It’s London, but not as we know it. We’re all fed up with our day to day lives, and if you’re not, you’re doing something wrong. It’s refreshing to see London portrayed as somewhere we recognise, but with strong shades of totalitarianism shining through. For me, the best aspect of a dystopia is taking this familiar world, and changing it, ever so slightly, so that it becomes something new altogether. That’s what made 28 Day Later so brilliant, and that’s what works here. The film also features great performances all round, with Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving and John Hurt all at the top of their games. It’s a shame Alan Moore chose to distance himself from this adaptation of his graphic novel, as it really is a classic. It’s not just coincidence that V’s mask was adopted by those occupying Wall Street.

9. Outland

Post Bond, Sean Connery immersed himself in a number of fantastic projects. The Man Who Would Be King, Murder on the Orient Express and A Bridge Too Far all stand up to the best of Jimmy’s sub-rosa activities. However, Outland, with it’s portrayal of deep-space corruption remains one of my favourites. Connery plays Federal Marshal William O'Niel, a man who is assigned to watch over a mining platform in outer space. O’Niel soon realises that the workers are being sold powerful psychedelic stimulants to help them work faster, a ploy which has resulted in a number of deaths. The bosses try to get O’Niel on board, but as you might expect, he’s having none of it, and settles back with his trusty shotgun to wait for bad guy re-enforcements to arrive on the next supply shuttle. Like Blade Runner, it’s an extremely moody and atmospheric piece that concentrates on one man’s fight against a world that does not understand him.

10. Looper

This decade’s answer to The Matrix?’ No, Looper is a much better film. To begin with, there’s nothing wasted here. There are no superfluities or pretty distractions, each scene reveals exactly what it needs to in order to move the plot forwards, and nothing more. A lot has been made of just the right amount of attention being given to the time-travelling elements of the plot, and they’re right, it works perfectly, as does almost everything about this film. The ending was a fantastic surprise for me, we had our happy ending, but not in any Hollywood sense of the word, and for that, I love Looper. It’s also the best Bruce Willis has been in years, and of course JGL, Emily Blunt and Paul Dano are brilliant, as always. Best scene of the film? When Paul Dano’s future self is sent back and tries to escape the Loopers, only to have bits of his body hacked away as the younger Dano is tortured. Grim brilliance.

Tom Ward’s first novel ‘A Departure’ is available here, and you can follow him on Twitter, here.