“Utopian” describes a society that’s conceived to be perfect. Dystopian, however, is the exact opposite — it describes an imaginary society that is as dehumanising and as unpleasant as possible.
I love a good dystopian storyline, be it novel or film. This is a comprehensive list of, in my opinion, the most disturbing ones. These films reflect broad social concerns and ideologies, it’s because of this that these films transcend space, time, culture, and language.
The reason I have such an affinity for anything dystopian is because they provoke thought about our society, and its fears. These films provide a meaty piece of food for thought – so go on, take a bite.
1. The Time Machine 1960
Scope: Space/Time Continuum, Communist Utopia, Capitalist Dystopia, Evolution
H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895 during the Industrial Revolution of late Victorian England. England at the time had a capitalist economy based on rich people making their money off the backs of poor factory workers. Wells was a socialist. The Time Machine starts off as a deceptive communist utopia that is ultimately revealed to be an exaggerated future vision of capitalist dystopia.
Food for thought question: What does our distant future look like? How can we make sure that our future is safe from catastrophe?
2. Children Of Men 2006
Scope: Species, Reproduction, Fertility
Women struggle to fall pregnant, it’s common. In today’s society, there are an array of conditions that create infertility in women. But what would happen if women stopped falling pregnant altogether? What if that was it for the entire human race?
This film explores the question of fertility, and the importance it has, not only on our society, but on our species.
Food for thought question: How important is the fertility of our women, and why are so many women struggling to fall pregnant ?
3. The Matrix
Scope: Technology Control, Apocalypse, Reality
This world inside the computer fabricates what you hear, smell, see, taste and even touch. The computers feel that by controlling every minute detail of what humans are allowed to experience they are bettering the human’s lives while also preserving their own. This is a great example of technological control. These advanced machines have progressed so far as to oppress the very beings that created them. Because they have isolated and incapacitated each human, they completely control all sources of information, independent thought, freedom, or true individuality, all characteristics of a dystopian society.
Also, the natural world, the world taken over by machines where each human’s body actually resides, has been completely banned from The Matrix, so much so that only a tiny fraction of the population even have knowledge of it. These many facts combined with the reoccurring theme of control and technological dictatorship help cement in our minds that The Matrix is the perfect dystopia.
Food for thought question: What is reality? How can we be certain of it? What fears do you have of technology control?
4. Battle Royale 2000
Scope: Totalitarian, Death Games, Nihilistic Youth
Battle Royale, a high-octane thriller about senseless youth violence, is one of Japan’s best-selling — and most controversial — novels.
As part of a ruthless program by the totalitarian government, ninth-grade students are taken to a small isolated island with a map, food, and various weapons. Forced to wear special collars that explode when they break a rule, they must fight each other for three days until only one “winner” remains. The elimination contest becomes the ultimate in must-see reality television.
A Japanese pulp classic available in English for the first time, Battle Royale is a potent allegory of what it means to be young and survive in today’s dog-eat-dog world. The first novel by small-town journalist Koushun Takami, it went on to become an even more notorious film by 70-year-old gangster director Kinji Fukusaku.
Food for thought question: What do we classify as entertainment? Are our reality television shows becoming far too cruel and exploitive? What will this lead to?
5. Planet Of The Apes 1968
Scope: Cosmology, Evolution, Hierarchy, Origin Of Species
What if we weren’t the most intelligent species? What if human’s weren’t in control? Planet Of The Apes crosses dimensions in order to portray what it would be like if Homo Sapiens weren’t the evolutionary pinnacle – but Apes were.
Food for thought question: What would it be like if we weren’t at the top of the food chain? Why are we at the top of the food chain?
6. Her 2013
Scope: Transhumanism, Relationships, Love, Intimacy
Her is a meticulous and creepily seductive criticism of our techno-orientation toward transhumanism. It is the dystopian film of our time, a haunting glimpse at the near future.
The transhumanist theory is that, when you strip away the illusions, we’re all basically Operating Systems. We’re, as Descartes first explained, conscious machines. A problem, though, is that our bodies are really bad machines. They cause us to be limited by time and space, and they cause us to die. The dependence of our consciousness on really defective hardware causes each of us to face personal extinction. It also causes us to be a lot stupider than what a conscious being would be located in a better machine. That conscious machine wouldn’t face our barriers to personal and intellectual growth or, for that matter, for experiencing love.
Food for thought question: What is artificial romance/relationships? If you could have a perfect connection with artificial intelligence, would you choose that relationship over an imperfect human one?
7. Frankenstein 1931
Scope: Science, Technology, God
There is a lesson here regarding our future potential to create beings that our sentient like ourselves – the technological hopes of the hour being uplifting and AI – that we need to think about the problem of homelessness when creating such beings. All highly intelligent creatures that we know of with the remarkable exception of the cephalopods are social creatures therefore any intelligent creature we create will likely need to have some version of home a world where it can be social as well.
The dangers of monstrousness emerging from intelligence lacking a social world was brilliantly illustrated by another 19th century science-fiction horror story- H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (there’s a movie version with Marlon Brando – who has seen better days).
Bonus: In Mary Shelley’s novel she gives us insight into the origins of evil in the absence of such a world. Because it cannot be loved, Victor’s Frankenstein’s creation will destroy in the same way his every attempt to reach out to other sentient creature is ultimately destroyed with the creature telling his creator who has left him existentially shipwrecked.
Food for thought question: What do we consider playing god and what do we consider scientific revelation? Are we responsible for the life we create, if so, to what extent? How far are we willing to let science take us?
8. Ex Machina 2015
Scope: Technology, Artificial Intelligence,Fear
Unlike Frankenstein, Ex Machina resembles on the surface, the real victims of the film’s conflicts — which impressively run the gamut from “man-vs-machine” to “man-vs-man” to “man-vs-God” — are not the creator, his creation, or the unwilling “everyman” participant. It’s every digitally-connected man and woman on the planet, who for the sake of convenience or conformity or commerce have put themselves at the mercy of tech leaders guided by greed, hubris, a lack of principles, or all three.
In order to find the parts needed to build his monster, Dr. Frankenstein robbed graves — an ethically questionable move but essentially victimless. The men and women he pilfered were all already dead. But when the new tech elite build their monsters, they’ll go after the living.
Food for thought questions: Does being scared about AI have more to do with our fear of each other than with killer robots? What is the human? Can that thing be replicated?