The dystopian futures that work the best are those born out of our own present-day reality.
We all have experiences of state interference, exploitative corporations too big for governance or a new technology with drawbacks that outstrip innovation. Wireless earphones anyone?
Movies give us the opportunity to explore the issues facing our world from a different perspective, posing questions about how scenarios could play out in the future.
Here are 10 films depicting a not so bright vision of what the world could be like if we’re not all careful.
10 Sunshine – a world without sun
In Sunshine (Boyle, 2007, UK/USA) the sun is dying, causing a global winter. The crew of Icarus II is on a mission to reignite it.
As they get near their destination they discover the Icarus I intact and decide to board the ship to see if its bomb is still viable.
The crew’s proximity to the sun affects their mental state and the mission starts to unravel.
Sunshine is incredibly dark but also strangely euphoric, with its trance soundtrack and mesmerizing visuals.
Set in 2057, the film’s events occur within our lifetime but fear not because some scientists think our sun has another 5 billion years to go.
9 A Scanner Darkly – the drug dependant society
Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly (Linklater, 2006, USA) is set in a world where a significant proportion of the population is addicted to an illegal drug called Substance D.
Arctor, Keanu Reeves, is an undercover agent trying to identify the head of the supply chain. The cop’s identities are hidden, even from each other, resulting in Arctor himself becoming a prime suspect.
In A Scanner Darkly, it is not clear where the system ends, or who is in control. The characters’ perception of themselves and others is eroded to the point where everything has lost its meaning.
8 In Time – time is money
In Time (Niccol, 2011, USA) is set in 2069. People are genetically engineered to be healthy and live indefinitely, except time has become currency.
After 25, people have one year. They can work to earn time credits which increase their lifespan but basics, like a cup of coffee, are paid in credits.
The elite live in a separate zone where they hoard credits, inflate prices and reduce wages so that the poor live short miserable lives but the rich can live forever.
In Time is compelling because its vision of the future is only a slightly exaggerated, more technological version of how things already work.
7 A Clockwork Orange – moral decay
Adapted from the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange (Kubric, 1971, UK/USA) is set in a futuristic England where young people, detached from their parents and bored with wider society, take pleasure in crime and ‘ultra-violence’.
Gang leader Alex is caught, convicted and experimented on by the state as part of a programme to reform criminals by altering their free will.
Offenders become sick when confronted by violence. After his release, Alex’s lack of free will significantly affects his position in society, flipping his former life on its head.
Clockwork questions whether behavioral programming can ever have a positive outcome.
6 Cloud Atlas – born to serve
Cloud Atlas (Tykwer/Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 2012, USA/HK/DE/SG) depicts many futures, each containing some degree of tragedy or heartbreak.
Based on the book by David Mitchell, it sees characters reincarnated into different time periods, circumstances and bodies.
Spanning from 1849 till 2321, the most dystopian section of the film is 2144 where workers are genetically bred to serve in the fast-food industry.
They live and sleep at their workplace and are enslaved by a false ideology designed to stop individuals thinking about the world beyond service.
Things are bleak but rebirth offers the chance for redemption.
5 Westworld – ‘the ultimate resort’
Westworld (Crichton, 1973, USA) is set in Delos, a theme park populated by robots. There are three sectors; Roman World, Medieval World and West World.
Guests participate in detailed role-play while scientists work behind the scenes to maintain the robots.
Guests are essentially living in a society free from moral constraint, where robots are treated in ways that it would be unacceptable to treat humans. The robots malfunction and fight back.
It is no surprise that Westworld has been adapted into a new TV show for HBO.
Michael Crichton’s work has prompted adoration and imitation through the years, even inspiring the classic Simpsons episode Itchy and Scratchy Land.
4 Alien – ‘building better worlds’
A future where aliens unexpectedly pop out of air vents is bad enough, but what really makes 2122 a bad year is the way intergalactic corporations ignore their duty of care towards their employees in the name of profits.
In Alien, (R. Scott, 1979, UK/USA) Ellen Ripley discovers that the Weylan-Yutani Corporation had given her ship’s computer a secret directive to capture an alien specimen and that Ash, the science officer, is actually an android tasked with completing the mission at any cost.
Throughout the Alien series, the actions of Weylan-Yutani become increasingly unethical.
Check out Alien 3 for a particularly bleak experience.
3 The Purge – social cleansing
The Purge (DeMonaco, 2013, USA/FR) takes place in 2022, where the ‘new founding fathers’ have come to power based on an economic plan to reduce crime and the population through a yearly ‘purge’.
All crimes are legal for 12 hours, supposedly releasing tension and making people better citizens.
However, the purge disproportionately affects the working classes who are less able to afford to protect their homes from attack.
The concept of The Purge and the moral questions raised sparked many people’s imaginations.
But we only need to take a short look around the globe to see that for many, state-sponsored murder is a horrible reality.
2 Blade Runner – ‘more human than human’
Set in 2019, Blade Runner (R. Scott, 1982, UK/USA/HK) depicts a world where the gap between the haves and have-nots is so large that the elites live at the top of high towers with everyone else in the streets below.
The Tyrell Corporation make replicants for dangerous jobs in space.
They are not permitted on earth because of their killer temperament, and lack of distinguishability from humans, but the replicants have other ideas.
Blade Runner is an enduring classic thanks to accurately predicting the continuing trend for wealth to trickle ever upwards.
An untitled sequel starring Ryan Gosling and Jered Leto is due for release in 2017.
1 Terminator – technological apocalypse
Skynet, a defence system created by Cyberdyne technologies, became self-aware in 1997 setting into motion a War between men and machines.
The human resistance is succeeding so Skynet sends a terminator android (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back to 1984 to assassinate Sarah Conner, (Linda Hamilton) the mother of resistance leader John Conner, before she conceives.
Terminator (Cameron, 1984, USA) and its sequels offer up the ultimate dystopian nightmare, a self-induced apocalypse caused by willingly handing over too much power to big technology companies with little regulation. Prescient, right?
Also, everyone manages to appear effortlessly cool despite the impending nuclear holocaust.