Humanity seems to have a pretty dismal view of the future, even though the future is in our own hands.
Dystopian fiction is present in all forms of media, often with a futuristic sci-fi bent that paints a grim outcome. Authors, scriptwriters, and filmmakers have frequently used the art of storytelling to warn us of the dangers of technology, politics, and social divide.
Dystopian movies in particular often have an extra punch because we can see that grim reality unfold right before our eyes and ears—and those cinematic experiences can be quite good.
But beyond mere entertainment value, what are the deeper messages that we need to take away? Here are the best dystopian movies that teach us something important.
10. The Hunger Games (2012)
The Hunger Games is pretty heavy-handed in its critiques of modern American culture: classism, exploitation, capitalist consumerism.
The movie centers on a post-apocalyptic society in the year 2147 where real people are placed in a live tournament to the death where only one survives—all in the name of reality TV entertainment. This tournament is broadcast throughout the nation for all to watch.
In reality, the “Hunger Games” serve as a form of punishment for the 12 Districts (which are separated by class) for their attempted rebellion years prior. The punishment is that each District must choose two people to sacrifice as tribute to the Games.
The Games are used as a tool of oppression and fearmongering by the wealthy elite, who glamorize the tournament for amusement.
The book series by Suzanne Collins was a hit among young adult readers, then adapted into a movie franchise by Gary Ross. The four films star Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence (who ironically became a celebrity commodity herself with its success).
9. Never Let Me Go (2010)
Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed dystopian novel is an accumulation of beauty and lightness, mixed with horror and fear. Mark Romanek’s movie adaptation is no different and perfectly captures the visceral, dream-like quality of love amidst dark science fiction.
Never Let Me Go is set in an idyllic English boarding school, where students are brought up under constant supervision and forcibly cut off from the outside world.
What’s not immediately clear—to the characters or the viewers—is that the students are clones. These clones are replicated from ordinary citizens and used for their organs when they become adults.
The story acts a warning against the free use of scientific experimentation without any moral consideration.
8. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s time-traveling sci-fi thriller was inspired by the 1962 short film La Jetée by Chris Marker.
12 Monkeys follows the back-and-forth journey of James Cole between time periods: a dystopian future in 2035 and “present day” 1996 (which was true at the time the film was released).
The future is ravaged by a deadly virus that forces humanity underground, so Cole is sent back to 1996 to investigate the cause of the outbreak—but he’s accidentally sent back to 1990 and incarcerated in a mental hospital.
12 Monkeys is a dystopian story about the subjective study of memories and time, showing us how the past is a fixed state that can never be altered no matter how hard we try.
7. Metropolis (1927)
A key movie from the German Expressionist movement, Metropolis is a highly-stylized sci-fi movie that came to influence many of the other films on this list (including The Matrix and Blade Runner).
Metropolis was audacious and revolutionary for its time, standing as one of the pillars of early silent cinema. Directed by Fritz Lang, it takes place in a futuristic utopia where Freder (played by Gustav Fröhlich) uncovers a bleak world of oppressed workers underground.
Lang drew aesthetic influences from Cubism, Bauhaus, and opera during the Weimar period. As for its allegory, Metropolis reflects the state of Germany’s sociopolitical climate in the 1920s.
Adapted from Thea von Harbou novel from 1925, Metropolis offers a visual representation of inequality and exploitation beneath the glossy surface of modernization.
6. 1984 (1984)
You may have heard the term “Orwellian” to describe a state of bleak, totalitarian domination. That’s because it comes from George Orwell, who wrote a number of books, the most enduring one being the allegorical dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984).
It’s often compared to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which also explores futuristic dystopia through a different lens.
Whereas Huxley proposes that humanity will be brainwashed using pleasure and materialism, Orwell suggests it’ll be done through complete censorship and control. Orwell’s authoritarian landscape of Oceania is widely studied as a caution against totalitarianism.
Michael Radford took a stab at bringing this heavily detailed classic novel to the big screen. John Hurt stars as Winston Smith, a “prole” (working-class man) whose job is to constantly rewrite history under the watch of Big Brother.
5. The Lobster (2015)
Yorgos Lanthimos is an auteur with distinct style: black comedy, deadpan deliveries, ambiguity, and avant-garde cinematography.
The Lobster is the first in a sort of anti-Hollywood trilogy that’s followed by The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Favorite. It takes place in a surreal future where singles are given 45 days to find a life partner or else they’ll be turned into an animal.
Colin Farrell stars as David, who’s escorted to a strange hotel after his wife leaves him. The hotel is strict on its rituals and forces its guests to watch propaganda videos—and everybody’s “deadline” can be extended by capturing singles who are living in the forest.
“Quirky” would be an understatement for The Lobster, which can be read as a message against society’s (and the media’s) obsessive need to find a partner in order to be “complete.”
4. Minority Report (2002)
Tom Cruise loves a good sci-fi action movie, and this is one of his best. Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg, is based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 novel of the same name.
Cruise plays John Anderton, the head of a futuristic crime unit that predicts crimes before they happen and arrests the perpetrators before they can commit the crimes.
These predictions come from three “Precogs” who have psychic abilities, and one of them comes to predict that John Anderton himself will commit murder in 36 hours.
“Science has stolen most of our miracles,” Minority Report warns us. The film is a constant battle of free will versus fate, combining the world of Hollywood with ancient philosophy.
Just as 12 Monkeys suggests the past is always fixed, can the same be said about the future? It’s an interesting question to set your mind to, which Spielberg presents in his usual thrilling way.
3. The Planet of the Apes (1968)
The Planet of the Apes is such an iconic film because viewers don’t even realize it’s set in a dystopian setting until the end.
Heston stars as Taylor, an astronaut who crash lands on a curious planet 2006 years after his departure from Earth in 1972. He’s quickly captured by a group of armed gorillas and put in prison.
In this world, it’s the apes who do all the talking while the primitive humans remain mute. Themes of animal rights, immigration, and race are symbolized through the reversed roles of animal and humans.
The Planet of the Apes has had a vast number of remakes and sequels following its success, but none have managed to top the original.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner was hell to make, but the tension on set ostensibly helped with the film’s dreary tone. The overcrowded, neon-lit cityscape of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic shows the adverse affects of over-consumption and mass advertisement.
The dystopian Los Angeles was inspired by the urbanism of Hong Kong and Tokyo, putting an apocalyptic spin on modern living. Blade Runner stars Harrison Ford as a hunter of Replicants (bio-engineered beings that look like humans) who have escaped.
It’s rare for a sequel to meet the bar set by an original—especially a film that’s as culturally significant as Blade Runner. But Denis Villeneuve pulled it off in the gorgeously shot sequel Blade Runner 2049 starring Ryan Gosling.
1. The Matrix (1999)
Few films have had as much impact on the action genre (or even cinema as a whole) as The Matrix. The trilogy revolutionized action sequences on the big screen with its use of sleek, innovative CGI inspired by Japanese animation.
In The Matrix, everyone believes they’re living in the year 2199; in reality, it’s 1999 and everyone is living in a shared simulation. But anyone who’s aware of the simulation is able to bend the laws of nature and physics via programming.
Keanu Reeves plays Neo, a computer specialist who’s unplugged by the rebel Morpheus. Morpheus offers a choice: the Red Pill or the Blue Pill? Taking the Red means waking up to the truth of the Matrix. Taking the Blue means staying blissfully asleep within the simulation.
The Matrix forces viewers to consider their own choice between the real world and the virtual. It explores the role of free will and recognizes that there’s more to life than meets the eye.
The world of The Matrix has become so deeply rooted reference in pop culture. You’ve probably heard it yourself: when something weird or illogical happens, it’s called a “glitch in the Matrix.” Right?