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  1. (Originally blogged here)

    Best Dystopian Films


    Utopias had been the dominant literary form rather than dystopias in the past: Plato & Thomas Moore invented and re-invented the utopian society in order to present their political & economic views that did not extend further than coarse socialism. Once communism became a fact in the early 20th century, socialism switched from utopian fantasies to dystopian horror. Once we figured out how horrible socialism could be in reality, the utopian genre was extinct due to the death of the socialist dream. Zamyatin published We in 1921, not long after the Bolshevik coup d’etat, and ended up as the first book to be banned by the Soviets.



    Best Dystopian films



    Blade Runner

    A postmodern dystopian future, released during the height of social anxiety in America that felt threatened by the Soviet Union and the technological rise of Japan. A visually stunning bleak vision set in multicultural Los Angeles, rife with East Asian imagery, plagued by pollution and environmental damage, and peopled with the underclass. A pessimistic blade runner is hired to “retire” out a group of illegal replicants. You’re left with an ambiguous ending: who is a replicant?



    Children of Men

    Mass infertility has never been presented in a more terrifying sense. Cuaron created a world on the brink of genetic self-termination. This “denial of biology” drives home not just the absence of children, but the absence of hope and purpose. Instead of a futuristic society that deviate from contemporary society, Children of Men presents a darker version of our society. This unconventional approach allows for a greater degree of audience empathy.



    Brazil

    Brilliant absurdist film that reflects the lived experience of totalitarian socialism as a nightmare of bureaucratic hell. In other dystopian films, the totalitarian state is efficient, but in Brazil, the state is little more than a vast & sluggish bureaucracy, always delivered in triplicate. Brazil is 1984 improved to better reflect tyranny in the modern state.



    Logan’s Run

    An Aldous Huxley styled pleasure dictatorship envisioned by Ehrlich, where the free love and luxury of the inhabitants of a domed city is occasionally interrupted by the requirement that they must die at age 30. This film hit all three dystopian themes: fear of technology, fear of population control, fear of the loss of individuality, and the fear of environmental apocalypse.



    Dark City

    A city where the sun never shines, with indistinguishable architecture styles, and midnight always brings amnesia to the citizens — due to the experimentation of the Strangers in order to find what makes us “human.” As an urban dystopia perfected where technological control and surveillance of citizens by an oligarchic elite, Dark City clearly echoes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The difference is that an individual wakes up from the Mass Ideology and turns the weapons of the Strangers against themselves.



    Gattaca

    The most utopian-apparent of all dystopian films, Gattaca is set in a near-future where reproduction is no longer a natural process, and rich couples genetically engineer their potential offspring according to a pre-selected template to maximize future opportunities and screen out anything undesirable. However, this automatically builds a caste system and forces the non-genetically enhanced people as the inferior underclass limited to menial jobs, instituting a genetic discrimination. One man, an “invalid,” is determined to make his dreams of being an astronaut a reality and beat the system.



    V for Vendetta

    Set in a future autocratic and totalitarian British empire, V for Vendetta is a liberal dystopian adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel that projects the end of democracy due to wars in the middle east and religious genocide of homosexuals. The protagonist, V is a masked crusader who terrorizes the members of the totalitarian government. His charisma sways the persecuted population to don Guy Fawkes mask and rise up against their corrupt masters and fight social injustice.



    A Clockwork Orange



    The most poignant dystopian film ever that actually hid the totalitarian state from plain sight. A brilliant adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ book, it’s largely about a society on a slow decline towards total collapse. Exaggerated, but superior to the states of Logan’s Run or THX 1138, and more cynical than the inherent democratic socialism of Orwell.




    From the New World

    A dystopian future that also doubles as a supernatural fantasy that contains both dystopian and horror elements. All human beings are born with amazing psychokinetic abilities. Since these abilities can lead to instant death and psychotic breaks, society achieves control over human thought and desire by allowing near limitless freedom to the children and then proceeds to weed out anyone that exhibits personality flaws that can lead to dangerous actions. Therefore, this “false freedom” exists within a system of totalitarian rule that does not appear as a dystopia at all.



    Battle Royale



    Since a totalitarian Japanese government censors art and news, they created a diversion called “The Program” which randomly selects 40-plus 15 year old students to participate in a survival game to the death. This program is designed to weed out rebellious and subversive elements of society, leaving behind only a cowed populace. A pulpy, psychological thriller that inspired more popular chick lit like Hunger Games.




    Honorable Mentions

    1984: the archetype of all dystopian films that critiqued the Stalinist communism with an all-powerful, all-knowing state bent on total control over its citizens.

    Soylent Green: the perfect consumerist solution made necessary after the US suffered a total economic & environmental collapse.

    City of Lost Children: visually amazing French film where a brutal overlord rules an island, and creates a machine that drains the dreams of others.

    Ghost in the Shell: a dystopian world set in the cyberpunk future where both humans and cyborgs can be hacked. An analysis of the existential nature of humanity as embodied shells.

    THX 1138: an excellent version of the traditional Orwellian state undermined by an incongruent critique of consumer capitalism (Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.)
  2. (Originally blogged here)

    Before I get into the list, I think a distinction between dystopian and post-apocalyptic films is necessary. Both classifications have been run together too often in recent years to the point that they’re nearly indistinguishable. However, a good understanding of cinema requires clear and distinct earmarks of each genre, and that will lead to a rich & robust discourse.

    The Dystopian genre is distinguished by a lack of a specific global catastrophe that dramatically impacted society, for it is more about a possible future our society could bring about, while an Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic one is about the fallout, how human beings cope in the aftermath.

    The Dystopian genre is clearly a sociological critique that sometimes includes humanist elements in which the main character discovers a fatal flaw within his/her so-called utopia. Society has reached some social perfection or transcendence at the expense of something important – be it a class, loss of individual freedom or abdication of human nature. The post-apocalyptic genre leans closer to the ecological critique in which the environment has become the antagonist, an inhospitable place, because civilization no longer offers a safe haven for the self-interested activities of man.

    As I made the list, I was shocked to discover how many great dystopian films there were, and how few good post-apocalyptic ones existed. The built-in advantage of cinema to portray a possible world should not matter to either genre. Then again, dystopian films are often deeper on a philosophical level than the post-apocalyptic, thematically. The best dystopian films are listed here.


    Best Post-Apocalyptic films



    WALL-E
    Long after mankind has abandoned a trash-filled Earth for luxurious lifestyle aboard spaceships, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class cleans up the mess. WALL-E eventually develops a personality, collects trinkets, and eventually encounters others. The first 45 minutes is easily the finest I’ve ever seen on film. A fantastic critique of consumer culture that is also secretly a nostalgia for things. Beneath the environmental destruction is a fondness for consumer goods, complicating the overt critique of consumerism.



    Road Warrior

    The gold standard that determined the post-apocalyptic world in the 80s as post-nuclear Australian world, filled with leather and spikes and belts, the slap-dash vehicles and that razor boomerang. The film is basically an allegory of human life without oil where a vicious marauding gang attacks a group because they operate the only oil refinery for miles in a depopulated world. The best of the Mad Max trilogy, it combined the classic western archetype of the wandering stranger who walks in town and helps out.



    Akira

    A classic anime masterpiece based on a great manga that chronicles the competition between rival biker gangs as they speed through a post-nuclear version of neo-Tokyo. However, the cyberpunk gang members are interrupted by children with psychic abilities and they awaken a dormant super-human force that goes out of control.



    The Matrix

    Indeed a post-apocalyptic film, since the true reality consists of a wasteland filled with dominant machines that employs human beings as batteries. A computer hacker discovers the true nature of the Matrix, and finds his destiny as the One and joins an underground resistance society against the machines.



    28 Days Later…

    A violent post-apocalyptic world filled with people infected with a virus that drove them to a murderous rage. A terrific homage to zombie and invasion films like Dawn of the Dead and Omega Man, 28 Days Later… is a relentless thrill-ride that does not let up until the final frame.



    The Road

    One of the most bleak and depressing films of all time where a survivor and his son travel south for less inhospitable climate in order to find solace from a world ravaged by an unspecified nature. With starvation and cannibalism right around the corner, The Road is an endurance test for anyone.



    Planet of the Apes

    An early dystopian film that succeeded at the box office, it included a terrific social commentary where a group of astronauts land on a world populated by civilized apes. The ape world is totalitarian and has a caste system, and they treat the humans as inferior species. Upon escape, the lone survivor flees to a forbidden zone and realizes he landed on