Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Dystopian Future Sci-Fi Movies

Those celebrated philosophers known as Timbuk3 once opined that, “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.” On the other hand, most filmmakers seem to believe that the future will be a very dark, dreary and miserable place instead. With the theatrical release of ‘The Hunger Games’ burning up the box office (and presumably set to do so for quite a while longer), today’s Roundtable seems like a good time to look back at some of our other favorite science fiction films set in a dystopian future.

Before we start, let’s be clear about exactly what qualifies as a dystopian setting. Essentially, the movie should be set in some future year (either near or far, specified or not), where everything pretty much sucks for the main characters. ‘Star Wars’, which is set “A long time ago…,” doesn’t qualify, nor does the bright and shiny future of ‘Star Trek’. Sometimes, the dystopia will have a post-apocalyptic backdrop, but often they’re just the result of an oppressive government or corporate bureaucracy. Wikipedia has a good list of examples.

We’re joined this week by HDD Blu-ray reviewer Steven Cohen. We’ll let him lead things off.

Steven Cohen

While other dystopian favorites of mine like ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Children of Men’ immediately jumped to mind, I’m going with a slightly less conventional take on a future world gone haywire: Woody Allen’s 1973 sci-fi comedy ‘Sleeper‘. Yes, it turns out that dystopian worlds don’t always have to be cast in perpetual rain or constant doom and gloom. In fact, they can even supply a healthy dose of laughs.

After a version of Allen’s usual on-screen persona is cryogenically frozen, the character wakes up to find himself in a totalitarian future society where he eventually joins a band of rebel fighters. Taking inspiration from several classic science fiction novels, the film presents many elements of a typical government-run dystopia, but Allen really plays up the absurdity of it all, taking the ideas into ridiculously humorous territory. Though filled with bits of intelligent satire and social commentary, it’s the movie’s goofy charm that really makes it so memorable, and Allen’s display of physical comedy during his brief tenure as a robot is genius. I certainly love many dark and brooding takes on dystopian futures, but ‘Sleeper’ really stands out as one of the better comedies in the genre by offering a lighter, absolutely hilarious interpretation of Orwellian madness.

Tom Landy

The cult film aficionado in me had to go with a pair of John Carpenter classics for this Roundtable. First, I still love ‘Escape from New York‘, even though it’s more of a dystopian past now that 1997 has come and gone. (That year was still the future when the film was made.) Kurt Russell stars as the eye-patched Snake Plissken, a Special Forces soldier turned prison inmate who’s given a chance at freedom with what is basically a suicide mission to rescue the President of the United States from the heart of a crime-filled, walled-off New York City. Snake only has 24-hours to get in and get out, otherwise the explosives that the government has injected inside his body will kill him. Despite being horribly dated, ‘Escape from New York’ is still a wholly entertaining race against time with one of the best badasses ever on the silver screen.

Secondly, ‘They Live‘ is one of my ultimate guilty pleasures. This low-budget movie stars former professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper as a down-on-his-luck drifter who stumbles onto an alien invasion conspiracy. The aliens have infiltrated the population and appear as regular human beings. Only via a pair of tricked-out sunglasses can Piper’s character see them for what they truly are. He ends up going on an alien ass-kicking tirade. Although Piper is admittedly pretty corny here, he’s got some hilarious one-liners (some of which he ad-libbed himself), and his seemingly never-ending fight sequence with Keith David is just pure awesomeness.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

You’ve probably heard about the staggering success of a little movie called ‘The Hunger Games’ at the box office. It’s also a safe bet that one of your know-it-all friends won’t shut up about how strikingly similar its overarching premise is to ‘Battle Royale‘, an action/thriller out of Japan that has finally made its way to these shores after a decade and change.

If you haven’t gotten the memo on ‘Battle Royale’, the film is set in a not-too-distant future where unemployment is well into the double digits and crime rates are spiraling out of control. The biggest threats prove to be children and teenagers, who steal, mutilate and murder without any fear of the consequences. The Japanese government responds by instituting the BR Act, every year placing a class of forty-something students on a remote island, arming them each with weapons of greatly varying force, and compelling them to fight each other to the death. There are a bunch of rules, but it all boils down to one student standing strong as the final victor. If by some chance several students survive as the clock finishes ticking down, their explosive collars all go kaboom. How this cuts down on crime rates, especially since none of the kids even seem to know the BR Act exists after however many years, I have no idea.

I have a lifelong fascination with movies that revolve around killer kids, and ‘Battle Royale’ may be the best of that bunch. The vastly different strategies, the psychological torment, the friendships and romances that blossom, the allegiances that are formed, the geysers of blood spewing from every direction, the cacklingly demented ways these barely-pubescent kids knock each other off… It sure did take an insanely long time for ‘Battle Royale’ to wash up stateside, but a movie like that is definitely worth the wait.

Nate Boss

If limited to two, I’d pick ‘Battle Royale’ and George Romero’s ‘Day of the Dead‘. My thoughts on the former have been summed up already in my Blu-ray review, so I’ll just go into why I love what is often considered Romero’s worst film of the original ‘Dead’ trilogy.

The film focuses almost solely on the idea of dystopian society. What few survivors are left have a major class rift. A mixture of scientists and soldiers, working out of a decrepit bunker, struggle with ever-changing laws and the constant threat of death. The soldiers have taken charge, and with the constant loss of life, have become domineering. Despite a common enemy, they’d rather lash out against their own, and this causes the downfall of the entire system. It’s perfect human pettiness, how we cannot see past our own noses for the greater good… and it has zombies. Lots and lots and lots of zombies. One has to wonder if there’s even anyone holed up within ten or a hundred miles of the group in their underground bunker. There’s no hope, despite the “whirlybird” helicopter being the very representation of escape. Surrounded by death, humanity is imprisoned and weeds itself out.

Aaron Peck

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched ‘The Running Man‘, but I’d venture to guess somewhere around a lot but not nearly enough. A world where criminals fight through a gladiator-style gauntlet of killers in the hope of earning freedom is a world worth living in. Dystopian movies are usually obsessed with violence, the kind of violence that entire societies accept as normal. Here, this contest is broadcast to the world as viewers watch the blood-spattered battles from the comfort of their own homes. One of the reasons why I like ‘The Running Man’ so much is that I always enjoyed the ’80s interpretation of what the future would look like. The tight spandex suits and garish lighting are almost as good as the fighting itself. Plus, the over-the-top ’80s gore is perfectly silly. Seriously, you’ve got to love this movie.

Luke Hickman

I’ve always enjoyed a good dystopic future drama. When I was coming into my own filmwise, ‘Gattaca‘ was the first that I fell in love with. Andrew Niccol’s world is beautifully crafted, the acting is fantastic, the story is original and engaging, and the music is powerful. In fact, when I bought my first DVD player in 1998, if my memory serves me correctly, ‘Gattaca’ was a title that I purchased with it.

M. Enois Duarte

I’m a complete nerd for hardcore science fiction, whether literature, film or television. From the many forgotten dystopian films to choose among, I’m going with the Australian flick ‘The Quiet Earth‘. It’s an incredible story about a scientist named Zac, who may or may not be responsible for the deaths of all living creatures on the planet. The best part of the movie is how Zac reacts to his realization that he’s literally the last man on Earth. Understandably, he goes completely off his rocker and declares himself God in one very inspiring scene. When he finds two other survivors, he figures out what went wrong, and things become complicated. Inspired by different sources such as the novel by Craig Harrison, Richard Matheson’s ‘I Am Legend’ and the long-forgotten 1959 cult classic ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’, this 1985 film also comes with one of the most shocking and perplexing endings ever put on celluloid. If you love meaningful sci-fi, you need to check out ‘The Quiet Earth’.

Mrs. Z

As much as I’m looking forward to seeing ‘The Hunger Games’ (I’m at the mercy of a certain 13-year-old’s schedule), I’ll admit that I’m no expert in dystopian future sci-fi movies. However, when Josh proposed the topic, one film instantly came to mind: ‘Children of Men‘. The film depicts a not-so-distant future plagued by infertility, where hope has virtually disappeared. Strangely, what makes the film so compelling for me is its lack of sci-fi elements. The vision of 2027 isn’t too different from the world we know. There are some penned-in refugees, but flying cars not so much.

While the movie does explore interesting intellectual themes, it doesn’t skimp on the action. There’s a terrifying ambush near the beginning of the film that took my breath away, and the chase scenes are filmed in long continuous shots that made me feel like I was part of the action. The film also features haunting imagery and an ending that leaves plenty of room for conversation. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in this version of the future, but I did enjoy spending a couple of hours there.

Josh Zyber

Blade Runner‘ and ‘Metropolis‘ are a given for this category. Can we all agree on that? That no one above picked those titles is a reflection of what obvious choices they are. I’m also going to set aside Terry Gilliam’s satirical masterpiece ‘Brazil‘ and the sublimely inventive Jeunet & Caro black comedy ‘Delicatessen‘. As dearly as I love each of those films, I have a real soft spot for “near future” sci-fi movies, especially those where the dystopic future is so ridiculously close to the time of filming that the year has already come and gone in the real world.

Tom already wrote about ‘Escape from New York’, which is set in the crime-ravaged future of 1997. I also want to throw in the giddily idiotic Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle ‘Timecop‘. Released in 1994, the film is set in the far-flung future of 2004, where time travel technology is not only possible, but so commonplace that the government had to establish a special agency called the Time Enforcement Commission to police criminals from manipulating history for personal gain. While the 2004 future is not initially portrayed as a dystopia, it eventually turns into one when head timecop JCVD returns from a mission to discover that the villain of the piece, a corrupt Senator played by Ron Silver, has adjusted the timeline to launch himself into political power and put the world under his thumb. He’s a lock for the Presidency, has shut down the TEC, and erased any record of our hero’s existence. Oh no!

The script for this movie is outrageously stupid. Its narrative logic concerning time travel causality and temporal paradoxes makes no goddamn sense at all. Nonetheless, I find the film hilariously entertaining, especially its depiction of the crazily futuristic world of 2004. Did people in 1994 really think that the world would change that much in just ten years? The tank-like cars that everyone drives are an absolute riot.

I also want to throw out an honorable (or dishonorable, depending on your perspective) mention to ‘Predator 2‘, which takes place in 1997 – the same year as ‘Escape from New York’, and only seven years from its own release. In this one, L.A. is a blazing chaotic war zone overrun by violent drug gangs, yet everyone dresses in loud colors and big hair like it’s still the ’80s. I love it.

Which dystopian sci-fi movies do you enjoy? Tell us in the Comments.


    • Ha. Totally agree with you on that one. I watched it on TV once in the middle of the day on a Saturday. I couldn’t believe I was laughing at some of the idiotic stuff in that movie, but I was.

      • Classic movie, the scenes at the beginning describing how society ends up the way it is are totally hysterical. If your a fan of Futurama and haven’t seen this movie then what are you waiting for. It’s basically as close as we are going to get to a live action version.

  1. Alex

    I’m a big fan of the future-scenes in the Terminator series, and I make no bones about it, but I love Terminator: Salvation. Whatever else you say about the movie, the post-apocalyptic world they created for it was magnificent.

    I kind of look at the Alien franchise as a bit of a dystopia as well, as the Weyland-Yutani corporation seems to control everything and everyone without mercy or compassion, only looking at the bottom line. True, you don’t get to see all that much of the world, but I’d say it qualifies.

  2. Alex

    Incidentally, the opening chapters of P.D. James’ “The Children of Men” are some of the best dystopian science-fiction, heck, some of the best fiction I’ve ever read.

    While the movie and the book share little more than the central conceit of humanity’s infertility, the movie did a marvelous job of capturing that feeling.

  3. August Lehe

    Funny, as a 30-40 year old, Blade Runner, Escape From New York and Terminator. were a blast. Now, I don’t think I would see them if you PAID ME! Yes, I have Blu Ray copies, so I am officially a hypocrite!

    • Oh man, if you haven’t watched the restored director’s cut of Blade Runner then you need to turn in your geek card Stat!! The job Ridley Scott and his crew did to restore that and bring it into HD is nothing short of mind bending and is an example of how a “Special Edition” ahem (looking at you George) should be done. There is literally every version of that movie if you buy the right set and I mean EVERY version. Granted it’s only one movie but it’s how George Lucas SHOULD do a Special Edition of the original Star Wars trilogy, but he never will because he’s gone insane, tsk tsk.

      Terminator and Escape from New York are two of my most favorite movies of all time as well and while the Blu-Ray editions out now are far better than anything else these movies have still not received the Special Editions they deserve since being released on Blu-Ray. God knows they released them enough times on DVD.

  4. JM

    There are so many to choose, it feels like all sci-fi films are Taco Bell.

    Gattaca, Sleeper, Delicatessen, and Battle Royale were my first thoughts. Off the top of my head, the only ones I have seen are…

    A Scanner Darkly, Wall-E, Mad Max, Starship Troopers, Strange Days, Dark City, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Robocop, Total Recall, I Am Legend, Waterworld, 1984, The Book of Eli, Equilibrium, The Matrix, District 13, Ghost in the Shell, Demolition Man, Fahrenheit 451, Twelve Monkeys, and Westworld.

    Does The Dark Knight count?

    Is James Cameron still planning to do the Seven Samurai-esque Doomsday Protocol?

    For me #1 is a tie between A Clockwork Orange and V For Vendetta.

    I think what I love most about the dystopian genre is the anarchy.

  5. EM

    Several good films have been mentioned. I’m going to suggest Death Race 2000, a 1975 satire set a couple of decades after the “World Crash of ’79”, which led to the United States’ becoming the United Provinces under the auspices of Mr. President and his Bipartisan Party. The film follows the Transcontinental Road Race, a bloodsport in which racers score points by running down pedestrians. Sound grim? Actually, it’s a fun, over-the-top action film with plenty of laughs.

  6. Well, one that came to mind was Demolition Man, although it is debatable as to whether that is a bleak future, and the only people that it seemed to suck for was Sylvester Salon and Edgar Friendly.

    For a couple of the movies I want to list, I am like, “What do you call the Not-So-Distant future” or a future that sucks? For example, Lost In Space may fit in this category, but does War of the Worlds count? It depends how far into the future is “In the future”. What about X-Men? You could argue its in the not-so-distant future, but does it necessaraly so a bleak future, or just that people are being downtrodden?

    What about Surragates? While it paints a bleak future, everyone seems happy with the status quo. Alien doesn’t take place on Earth.

    Oh, just thought of a great one – Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. I don’t care what anyone says, I love this movie.

    I think that is just about it for movies that haven’t been listed yet.

    • CK

      I wouldn’t count something like War of the Worlds, that deals with a bad situation as it is happening. If it was about the bleak aftermath of the alien invasion, then it could work. X-Men might work, considering it does take place “in the not too distant future”, but personally I wouldn’t count it as it is still practically present day and not much different from the real world.

      Surrogates I could go with; even though the people seem happy enough, it still seemed like the point was that the experience was just a facade that people had come to accept.

  7. hurin

    Can’t believe no one mentioned ‘Zardoz’.

    My favorite is ‘Brazil’, followed by ‘The Running man’ and ‘They Live’.

    • EM

      I would have mentioned Zardoz but wanted to keep my reply brief. Zardoz is the apotheosis of awesome, not to mention the awesome of apotheosis. Like Death Race 2000, it’s one of those high-concept flicks that manage to deliver violence and sex while getting all philosophical. Another movie I would have mentioned is the original Rollerball, a sort of twin to Death Race 2000, in that they were released the same year and both feature violent sports as a focal point of control of the masses as well as a doorway to the overthrow of the system.

  8. I’m with Tom, on Escape from New York and They Live (Just got the Italian Blu Ray! Looks great, considering!). I’d also have to add Robocop, Starship Troopers, Running Man and Demolition Man, as other’s have mentioned… Love Josh’s inclusion of Timecop (Still got my HD-DVD!). Always had a soft-spot for that film, despite its silliness. 😉

    Oh, and how could I forget Logan’s Run?? I love that film! 😀

  9. I only saw Twelve Monkeys once, but I would say that’s pretty darned dystopian. I mean, it’s as bad as the ruined Earth in The Matrix, but without the nifty computer program to make you feel good!