Future Imperfect: Our Favorite Dystopian Films

VOTE: Deadly roller derby, sad clones, and a Road Warrior duke it out

None of us much want to spend our leisure time contemplating nuclear annihilation or government surveillance. But that’s what’s so great about the dystopia genre: Set a story 200 years in the future and suddenly our anxieties become entertainment – a space for our brains to wrestle with that which strikes the most fear in our hearts.

Dystopian films wax and wane in popularity, but they’ve been with us since the beginning; as early as 1927, Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis spoke to audience’s uneasiness about wealth inequity and the rise of robotics. Name any real-life horror – war, refugee bans, contaminated food and water supplies, forced sterilization – and it’s surely inspired a piece of dystopian art.

Next week sees the release of Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, the breathlessly awaited sequel to what many count as the greatest dystopian film of all time, Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner. (Well, depends on the version: There are eight different cuts in and out of circulation.) To mark the occasion, we here at the Chronicle decided to dust off our favorite filmic visions of a future imperfect. It’s a vast, rich, rattling canon to choose from, and we went with the very particular, and even peculiar, films that spoke most to us. You can vote for your favorite at the end of this post. Didn’t like any of our picks? Shout it out in our comments board.

Bloodsport: Rollerball (1975)

The most dystopian thing about Rollerball is that in the “not too distant future” the best public entertainment/bloodsport we could come up with is roller derby. No slam on roller derby, but this is America, goddamn it, and if we are going to do bloodsport it should involve monster trucks, dirt bikes, chainsaws, and piles of trashcan meth. Rollerball gets a pass on that because it was the Seventies. How could author/screenwriter William Harrison have ever imagined how truly shitty things would turn out?

He was disturbingly close to the mark, though. The 1975 version of Rollerball takes place next year, in 2018. The world is run by corporations and the unsoaped proletariat is kept pacified by weekly bouts pitting corporate teams against one another. The game itself is designed to prove “the futility of individual effort,” but through luck and cunning, the protagonist Jonathan (James Caan) manages to elevate himself to superstar status. This angers the corporate overlords, who in response remove the rules of the game to make it increasingly deadly in order to get rid of Jonathan. It doesn’t work and, in a final bout, Jonathan kills pretty much everybody except one guy – ostensibly to show that, unlike the corporation he plays for, he still has a heart.

The moral of the story is that, like the virulently maligned Colin Kaepernick, one man can actually make a difference in the world. It’s an uplifting story, although with a classical soundtrack that includes J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor it can feel a little heavy at times. Nonetheless there’s some real entertainment to be had in seeing John Houseman get his panties in a wad and watching rich socialites in evening gowns blow up trees with dope-ass pistols that shoot exploding rounds. Hey Glock … where are you at with that technology? Uh, it’s almost 2018.

Oh, and by the way, there was a 2002 version of Rollerball starring LL Cool J that admittedly amps up the action porn, but Ladies Love hits the same flat note Billy Bob Thornton did playing Walter Matthau’s role in Bad News Bears. This is not to say that Billy Bob and LL don’t have game, just that in each instance they picked the wrong sport. (Currently streaming on FilmStruck.)      – Dan Hardick, Luv Doc/Circulation/Special Events

Sit, Slay: A Boy and His Dog (1975)

In an irradiated wasteland, between Richard Lester’s surrealist nuclear social comedy The Bed Sitting Room and the slam-bam nihilism of Mad Max, there’s 1975’s A Boy and His Dog. It’s a simple tale of two lifetime friends: horny hick Vic (a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson) and his psychically-bonded hound/best friend Blood (his voice in Vic’s head provided by TV cowboy par excellence Tim McIntire, but played by adorably fuzzy mutt Tiger). A few years after World War IV, the pair bicker as they wander through the blasted remnants of middle America in 2024, searching for the last scraps of canned food, and the last remaining women. Yes, the U.S. has become a realm of gun-toting rape gangs, and Vic is the least worst one of the bunch, because he doesn’t kill them after his assault.

The second feature by writer/director L.Q. Jones adapts the dark-as-pitch 1969 satirical novella of the same name by one of America’s most important science-fiction writers/satirists, Harlan Ellison. Jones was a reputation-protecting pseudonym, since the movie is a subversive attack on the cardboard world of horse operas where he (under his real name, Justus McQueen) made his money. Take away the law, and give men guns and a free hand, it argues, and you don’t get Gene Autry putting on a white hat and picking tunes from the saddle. Instead, you’re lucky if you don’t get cannibalism.

The most bizarre component is that this is a comedy of sorts – especially when Vic is convinced by a female survivor (Susanne Benton) to head to the Down Under. That’s where the last remains of small town America has been buried, a pasty-faced pastiche of mom and pop and apple pie. That’s also where Ellison and Jones stick the knife in deepest, as Vic is confronted with all the willing women he could possibly ever want, but his excitement is derailed by the interjection of good old family values, and a traditional view of sex arguably no less warped than what he left behind. (Currently streaming on Amazon Prime and FilmStruck.)      – Richard Whittaker, staff writer

Nature Doesn’t Nurture: Long Weekend (1978)

When nature revolts, don’t go expecting giant ants, à la Them!, or humongous bunnies, as in Night of the Lepus and so many other MST3K episodes. Sure, the Union of Concerned Scientists have lately moved their doomsday clock to mere minutes before midnight, signaling that a nuclear cataclysm is perilously close at hand, but for a more realistic and unnerving portrait of our dystopian future, look no further than Colin Eggleston’s 1978 Ozploitation masterpiece Long Weekend.

Unlike Al Gore’s ongoing and so futile mission to save the planet from mankind, Long Weekend subverts the expected end-of-days scenario by employing extremely sparse dialogue; the second half of the film unfolds in near silence, shattered only by screams, stunningly evocative foley work, and Michael Carlos’ jarring electronic score. The story – by Everett De Roche (Patrick, Road Games) – is seemingly simplicity itself. Enduring a fractious period in their relationship, middle-class couple Peter (John Hargreaves) and Marcia (Briony Behets) take a weekend off and head to the seaside for some “us” time. What begins as an already off-kilter depiction of cracked domesticity becomes oh so much worse when the couple absentmindedly trash the local flora and fauna. In return, the natural world, from kangaroos to sharks, snakes, and even the woods themselves, appear to take on a particularly malevolent sentience.

That’s more than you need to know already, but a better way to describe this deceptively nuanced, dystopian nightmare is “Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds except it ain’t just birds, pal.” Hargreaves and Behets are utterly believable, and so are Long Weekend’s furry and feral comeuppances. Ecological hellscape, Old Testament plague-a-thon, or just a really fucking downer of a holiday, Eggleston’s film is absolutely the literal, living end.       – Marc Savlov, contributing film critic

Mad About the Max: The Road Warrior (1982)

Long before he barreled down a dusty Fury Road, Mad Max drove the paved white lines of an unforgiving Australian wasteland in The Road Warrior, the second installment in George Miller’s post-apocalyptic fantasia featuring the archetypal loner hero then played by a sexily stubbled Mel Gibson at his most effortlessly handsome. The precious fluid in short supply in this 1982 sequel (released as Mad Max 2 everywhere but the States) is not water but gasoline, a narrative conceit that cannily tapped into lingering fears of a world running short of juice following the 1979 energy crisis. (The movie’s homoerotic punk aesthetic of flaming orange mohawks and revealing assless chaps likely tapped into other anxieties of the time as well.)

Human life is worth less than a full tank of petrol in the bleak future of The Road Warrior, a futuristic Western in which a lawless horde of cutthroat marauders lay siege to an outpost where a ragtag group of survivors operate a small derrick pumping priceless crude to the surface. Enter the Man in Black Leather, a burned-out shell of man who redeems himself by getting behind the wheel of an oil tanker to lead his people out of the desert to the promised land. In its last quarter hour, the movie becomes a dystopian version of Stagecoach, a breathlessly executed orgy of pumped-up choppers, tricked-out muscle cars, stripped-down dune buggies, and customized monster trucks in pursuit of the underdog Max. This caravan chase sequence is nothing short of remarkable, showcasing death-defying stunt work choreographed without the benefit of any special visual effects, much less CGI. Many today may consider Miller’s exemplary Mad Max: Fury Road as the foremost action film of its kind, but The Road Warrior did it first and, for those of us still wowed by its technical audacity, arguably did it better. (Currently streaming on MAX Go.)       – Steve Davis, contributing film critic

Sad Max: Le Dernier Combat (1983)

In Luc Besson’s arthouse answer to The Road Warrior, an unexplained (and unexplainable) event has left the world broken down to rubble and dust, and left the few remaining humans, seemingly only men, mute. Pierre Jolivet (listed only as “The Man” in the credits) lives a solitary life scrounging up parts for a makeshift airplane. After stealing a battery from a group of water-hoarding, finger-collecting gangsters, he takes off across the desert, but soon goes down in a desolate city.

Far from the now-archetypical Lone Wastelander, grimly hunting for gas with a sawed-off shotgun, The Man is a hopeless romantic. After settling in a hotel bar, he drinks and weeps as he fruitlessly tries to read from a book, surrounded by his trinkets – paintings, photos of women and couples, the fine dinner service he carries in a suitcase. He is quintessential emo: desperate for love where there is none left.

In the same city, The Brute, played by Jean Reno, tries to connive or force his way into a clinic that is in the care of a wary Doctor (Jean Bouise). What The Doctor has hidden inside is unknown, but The Brute wants it, and he has the focus of a predator with his prey in sight. The Brute belongs in this world: an alpha warrior with no need for words, taking trophies from the weaker wanderers who cross paths with him. They are nothing but the spoils of war to him.

What makes Le Dernier Combat so different than most post-apocalyptic fare is its heart-on-its-sleeve sentimentality. After their paths meet, The Man and The Doctor develop a friendship that is, more than anything, sweet. There is no macho posturing between them, only a love of food and art. The only two words spoken in the film pass between them, and the moment is heartbreakingly warm.

The Last Battle between The Man and The Brute is not for revenge, or frontier justice, or valuable resources – it’s for the hope of love, and the civilization of romance. Without love, all that’s left is the brutal, meaningless solitude of survival.       – Jason Stout, Art Director

Women of the World, Take Over: Born in Flames (1983)

The setting is the future, New York City 10 years after the Social Democratic War of Liberation. Yet the future depicted in Lizzie Borden’s 1983 film Born in Flames is not one of laser guns and spacesuits. Borden's American future looks remarkably like the present (even more than 30 years after this indie film’s making). Rape, daycare, and discrimination are still unresolved issues in this new society. With sexual oppression the norm, women in this post-revolutionary world are still faced with the strategic decision of how to effect a social structure that is responsive to their needs and goals.

Four groups of women activists, each reflecting different ideological/tactical positions within the women's movement, are featured: The Women's Army, led by black lesbian Adelaide Norris (Jeanne Satterfield), is a racially mixed group that organizes feminist protests and labor demonstrations, and engages in vigilante actions against men caught harassing and raping women. Phoenix Radio is a black women's underground station with roots in soul, reggae, and gospel, operated by Honey, whose velvety voice encourages intuitive resistance. Radio Regazza is a white women's underground station rooted in punk rock that features the musical rapping of Isabel (Adele Bertei), whose poetic prodding encourages active resistance against generalized enemies (“Ram the darkness with your rhyme"). The Socialist Youth Review editors are a group of women "intellectuals" who work within the Party to analyze and establish correct policy on "women's issues.”

After Women's Army leader Adelaide Norris is laid off her construction job, she grows increasingly militant and decides to adopt terrorist strategies, but is thwarted by her imprisonment for illegal gun running. Murdered in prison, her death provides the women's movement with a genuine martyr as well as a unified enemy in the form of government and media deception and doublespeak. The various women's groups catalyze new alliances, re-evaluate their former methods, and abandon strategies that purport to effect change from within. Violence becomes a plausible tactic in a world characterized by zero options.

Beautifully made, courageously edited, and swift-moving, this challenging, humorous, and provocative film is a work that is both humanist and revolutionary. (Currently streaming on FilmStruck and Fandor.)       – Marjorie Baumgarten, contributing film critic

Bad Sportsmanship: Brazil (1985)

Is Brazil a perfect film? If you would have asked me that question as I stumbled out of the local cineplex circa 1985 (I was 14), my answer would have been a resounding no. Despite whatever substances were influencing me (at least two that I remember), Terry Gilliam’s film baffled me. I was too young, you see. I had grown up quoting Monty Python and falling in love with Time Bandits (a profoundly personal film for me). I thought Gilliam’s new film would be a similar flight of his singular imagination, and while that turned out to be true, I wasn’t having it. Altered states aside, I just didn’t get it. I wanted to, but the film traffics in so many heady ideas that I was ill-equipped to process it.

Smash cut to a few years later: I’m a little older and a whole lot wiser (for a teenager), eagerly ingesting all manner of culture and ideology, and I watched Brazil again. And it clicked. It clicked hard. Everything just dropped into place, so much so that I daresay the film (for better or worse) had a strong role in making me the person I am today. I identified with Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce), thwarting authority for love, inadvertently setting off a conspiracy through his actions; a love story wrapped up in one of the most trenchant visions of literally the most boring and drearily violent future, bogged down with endless paperwork, bureaucracy, and blood. This is how we go out, in a fog of euphemisms (information retrieval = torture; excised/completed = death; freelance subversion = terrorism). Gilliam, along with co-screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown, created an Orwellian world that fits the dystopian worldview, but concerns itself with the tedious and dehumanizing prospect of a future of mindless busy work. It’s a world where one clerical error condemns a man to death, where our hero dreams of battling demons (in samurai form) to escape his drudgery, only to be caught up in a terrorist plot that might just be a figment of his overactive imagination. Its bleak and uncompromising ending only made me love it more. Is Brazil the perfect film? You better believe that’s a resounding yes ... but needs to be signed in triplicate.       – Josh Kupecki, Screens Editor

The Miracle of Life: Children of Men (2006)

Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian thriller Children of Men, based on P.D. James' novel, has become one of the more relevant films, unequivocally more distinctly vital now than during its 2006 release.

Taken place in an entirely feasible version of 2027, after 18 years of human infertility, the United Kingdom is the only functional government left, though thoroughly oppressive toward immigrants attempting to enter. The story centers around the disbelieving Theo Faron (Clive Owen), a former activist turned civil servant who's been asked by Julian (Julianne Moore) to help a young and very pregnant refugee to safety.

The film's bleakness, and numbness to it, jump out front and center. The viewer sees the traditional third person angles, as well as angles just inside of character periphery, on a swivel. Moreover, it is inside the Italian neorealist and cinema verité influenced angles that the director's smart usage of media (and its particular mediums) as a motif and evolving device that makes the film of its time, and the present Trumpian day. To start, Cuarón provides a seemingly inconspicuous shot of a weary and pensive coffee shop audience, holding on to a news anchor's every word, as he reports on continued deportation of illegal immigrants; in Cuarón’s vision, the 24/7 news programming transforms beyond propaganda into the transmission of a de facto god body.

Throughout, there are symbolic overtones of religion, Christian iconography, Hindu scripture, and allusions to Nazism and Holocaust. One of the more underrated features of the film is Theo's visit to his cousin, Nigel (Danny Huston), behind the highly protected walls of government and high culture as peak gentrification.

The timing of the movie's release is critical, planted in the midst of another sociopolitical zeitgeist: the height of the problematic and much publicized "War on Terror," and only five years removed from 9/11. It was the start of our current brand of news, one that was supposed to furnish the public the previously hidden information it desired. Of course, as in the film, we're at the point of media oversaturation and a scary rise in propaganda. That’s not the only aspect of Children of Men to feel prescient. The current travel ban, DACA removal, and the especially anti-immigrant rhetoric together communicate a sentiment that we are perhaps only a socio-environmental catastrophe away from realizing the vision of James' novel. (Currently streaming on Starz.)      – Kahron Spearman, contributor

“It was there, on the moon, that I fell in love with a rock”: World of Tomorrow (2015)

Not many films have the emotional wingspan to inspire both existential dread and a quiet call to carpe diem because “now is the envy of all of the dead.” Fewer films yet manage that feat in a mere 15 minutes’ running time.

Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated short “World of Tomorrow” marked a straight-to-the-moon apotheosis of what the Austin animator has been doing his entire career: animating complex ideas with crude stick figures. The seeming simplicity of his line drawings are part of the joke – and Hertzfeldt’s films are achingly funny. The ache is important: They’re funny because they hurt.

Initially conceived because the analog artist wanted to teach himself digital animation, “World of Tomorrow” begins with a call from the future. A third-generation clone named Emily (voiced by Julia Pott) gets in touch with her originator, called Emily Prime, because the world is ending and Emily wants to retrieve a memory from Emily Prime that will bring her comfort in her final days. From there, clone Emily time-travels with Emily Prime in a sort of walking-tour of the clone(s)’ lives and love affairs, on Earth and in space.

Emily Prime is voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece, at the time only 4 years old; Hertzfeldt recorded her exuberant semi-gibberish and weaved it into the narrative. Her toddler-talk provides a contrasting ballast to the heartbreak of clone Emily’s stoic recitation of loss and disconnect. Not gonna lie: Shit gets real bleak.

The future doesn’t sound like a happy place. But it does feel familiar, with its intimations of income inequality and a hyper-mediated, picture-in-picture-in-picture way of keeping real connection at an arm’s length. More personally, and poignantly, the “glitching” third-gen clone Emily is greeting her death the same way regular, aging and deteriorating human bodies do: losing memory, lamenting mortality, and wanting so much to relive the fleeting, seemingly inconsequential moments that stick with us to the bitter(sweet) end. (Currently streaming on Netflix. A sequel, “World of Tomorrow Episode Two,” debuts this fall.)       – Kim Jones, Editor-in-Chief

Poll: Dystopian Films


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