10 Modern Films With Dystopian Futures

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Science fiction is the modern mythology of our era. And along with documenting our hopes and dreams, science fiction also captures our fears of the future. At best, these nightmarish visions may serve as a warning of a worst-case scenario, a dystopian future world where our ambitions outstrip the cautions unheeded. From a shiny, antiseptic future free of care to a brutal Big Brother techno-totalitarian state or a collapse into a new Dark Age, the eventual reality probably lies somewhere in between. What would a citizen from 100 years ago think of modern society? Would they be amazed by our conquest of many diseases and our comfortable lifestyle, or be alarmed at our modern views on liberty and freedom? Here are 10 modern films, some classic, some relatively unknown, that depict the warnings of dystopian futures.


10. The Mad Max/Road Warrior Series (1979)

Mad Max portrays a dark world where fuel shortages have created chaos.
Inspired by the gas crises of the 1970s, the Australian indie hit Mad Max catapulted Mel Gibson into worldwide fame. The Road Warrior series depicts the ultimate anti-future, a realm where lawlessness rules as society collapses into a dark age. Outlaw motorcycle gangs rule this future as they compete for the remaining pockets of fuel and technology. And for anyone who doubts that future society would devolve into chaos in the face of fuel shortages, look no further than the 2012 fuel crisis in Great Britain. The mere threat of a strike by fuel tanker drivers led to fights at the pumps, panic-buying and hoarding, long gas lines and station closures.


9. Gattaca (1997)

Gattaca raised questions about genetic engineering.
Gattaca is a Brave New World for our times. The film’s title refers to the DNA base sequences of “G, A, T, C.” In the world of Gattaca, genes are destiny as everything from life expectancy to disease probability is known from birth. Gattaca tackles the issues of fate versus free will in a modern technological society. The film also sparked debate about ethical issues involved in genetic engineering, although some critics at the time argued that some of the dystopian issues portrayed in this future world were already present in modern society. For instance, the main character in Gattaca faces discrimination because of his genetic traits; that happened in U.S. society prior to the 2008 passage of the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, or GINA, which banned genetic discrimination in employment and insurance.


8. A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly features an authoritarian world.
A Scanner Darkly tells the tale of a future world where ubiquitous surveillance is established to combat drug addiction. The fictional drug is “Substance D,” and as agent Charles Freck is dispatched to confront a notorious drug kingpin, he finds himself confronting his own fragmented personality. The live-action film was digitally animated to give it a unique look and feel, and juxtaposes personal freedoms with state authority.


7. The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games is a coming of age tale set amid the backdrop of class struggle.
Published in 2008, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins depicts a future world set in America where peace is maintained, but at a terrible price. Once every year, each of the 12 outlying districts must offer up a boy and a girl from the ages of 12 to 18 as a “tribute” in a fight to the death. The themes of class struggle and oppressive government control portray a dark future.


6. Battle Royale (2000)

Battle Royale shares similar plot traits with The Hunger Games.
Battle Royale in based on the Koushun Takami novel of the same name and depicts a future Japan where Japanese schoolchildren are sent to a remote island to fight to the death. In contrast to the Hunger Games, which are carried out with great fanfare similar to a lethal version of the reality TV series Survivor, the Battle Royale is conducted in relative secrecy until the final victor is announced. The ultra-violent world of the Battle Royale underlines the frustrations of a new generation of modern Japanese, and has won a cult following abroad.


5. 12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys is set in a dark, post-apocalyptic future.
Starring Bruce Willis, this film portrays a future world that has been rendered uninhabitable by a virus. Researchers send James Cole (played by Willis) back in time to the 1990s in an effort to gain information about the virus and the mysterious Army of the 12 Monkeys that is thought to be responsible for the outbreak. The protagonist is thought to be insane, and several plot twists bring the viewer to doubt his sanity. The future world of 12 Monkeys is a desperate one, looking to repair its present through its mangled past.


4. V for Vendetta (2005)

In V For Vendetta, a mysterious figure fights a totalitarian regime in Great Britain.
Based on a graphic novel series of the same name, V for Vendetta pits a mysterious masked figure against a totalitarian Great Britain. As in many other dystopian films, the movie takes place in a post-nuclear war world in which a “Big Brother” government rose to power. The heroic masked figure is modeled after Guy Fawkes, who attempted to blow up the English Parliament in 1605. V for Vendetta weaves concepts of anarchism versus xenophobia into a terrifying future dystopian society.


3. Blade Runner (1982)

The dystopian future of Blade Runner is filled with evil humanoids and bounty hunters.
Blade Runner depicts a near-future world of 2019 in which bounty hunters track down and dispose of illegal replicants. This film is loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Blade Runner was one of the first science fiction films to depict a future Earth complete with advertisements, cultural discontinuity, and urban slums side by side with high tech. As he hunts replicants, Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) must confront what it means to be human.


2. The Matrix (1999)

The future world in The Matrix is an illusion.
The Matrix trilogy, starring Keanu Reeves and Lawrence Fishburne, has been one of the most successful near-future science fiction film series of all time. Computer programmer Thomas Anderson (played by Reeves) uncovers a starling fact that forms the premise of the movie; reality as we know it is simply an elaborate simulation, a diversion created by computers in a future reality to enslave humanity as a macabre power source. A small band of freedom fighters in the year 2199 led by Morpheus (Fishburne) liberate Anderson and struggle against cyber-tyranny. It’s food for thought (and central to the theme of the film’s philosophy) that it’s noted that the first Matrix created for humanity was a paradise that failed … do we secretly crave strife?


1. Minority Report (2002)

Several of the future technologies featured in Minority Report are now in development.
Directed by Stephen Spielberg, Minority Report takes a page from Orwell’s 1984. Crime in the future world of 2054 is unheard of thanks to the Pre-Crime division, which goes after criminals before acts can occur. This is thanks to the precognitive abilities of three mutated humans, but when they finger Pre-Crime agent John Anderton for a future murder, the chase is on. Another adaptation from a Philip K. Dick novel, Minority Report poses an interesting philosophical question: How much freedom would we be willing to sacrifice for the sake of security? Spielberg took great pains to realistically portray the future; several of the technologies introduced in the film, such as retina scanners, are in advanced stages of development, and have sparked debates about the dangers of a “Minority Report” type world.

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David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.