Dystopian Fears: Eight Films That Make You Think

“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?

Vertigo: A Feminist Theory

Alfred Hitchcock, a man who frequently employed Freudian theories uses these theories in the film “Vertigo”. For this analysis multiple psychoanalytical theories were put into used to represent thoughts if feministic approach to the film, these include; Oedipal complex, the ego, the mirror, an uneven look, the gaze and phallogocentrism “penis envy”.


Firstly one must consider the Oedipal complex within the perimeters of a feminist theory, this theory has been crucial to feminism for two reasons; it explains why women throughout history have been considered negatively and have been lass powerful within patriarchy and also because it illustrates that the gendered positions are culturally produced and can be changed.

As far as Vertigo is concerned, this concept is a perfect example of the male gaze and voyeurism. As Mulvey points out “the male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure which is styled accordingly”. The fact that the woman is the object of the male gaze shows that he is the active subject, the woman lacking the phallus and thus gaining access to the symbolic order vicariously, through the male passively, therefore her look is to be looked at. The man is the owner of the phallus and thus occupies a positive position. He is bearer of the look, he looks, the narrative is therefore about him, and it is his narrative. The woman is thus made by his image.


But what is it about the gaze? The process of the look (of classic Hollywood narrative) attempts to pacify the threat and in doing to attempts to violate women. This is because woman is without a phallus and therefore comes to symbolizes either mother or other to the male subject, representing threat of castration, the look is a controlling mechanism created as a symbolic tool against the threat.




North By Northwest: Modernism & Hitchcock

The concept of modernism can be understood in the film by Alfred Hitchcock, “North by Northwest”. The film can be understood as modern in two different aspects, the first being cultural and the second being technological. The cultural aspect is seen through the movies’ use of unconventional themes of deception, mistaken identity and the technological aspect can be seen through the use of filming, set design, costuming and editing and post production.

Alfred Hitchcock typically uses a certain style and mood in his movies, but his typical style of darkness, uncertainty and horror was broken by the film North by North west, he stated that he wanted “something fun, light-hearted, and generally free of the symbolism permeating his other movies.” This statement can be seen as an offence to the movie as it is full of symbolisms’ and it is these symbols which make the film modern. Even the title can be seen as symbolism it is a reference to the play Hamlet, a play which is also unbalanced by the concept of reality.

The most important plot element which represents the idea of modernism as a cultural form in the film is the idea of the “MacGuffin”. In an interviewed in 1966 by Alfred Hitchcock, he illustrated the term “MacGuffin” he popularized both the term “MacGuffin” and the technique, with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept. Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers” It is evident that North by Northwest uses this plot element to engage the audience and does so perfectly this idea of the “MacGuffin”, the physical object that everyone in the film is chasing after but which has no deep relationship to the plot. Late in North by Northwest, it emerges that the spies are attempting to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country. They have been trying to kill Thornhill, who they believe to be the agent on their trail, “George Kaplan”. Indeed, the fictitious Kaplan himself could be the “MacGuffin” of the film as Thornhill, as well as the villains, spend most of the movie vainly trying to track him down. This new concept of plot is an imperative example of modernism within the film North by North West.

An important example of modernism throughout the film is the use of the concept of theatre/play acting, where everyone is in on the reality of the story, except the central character. Each character plays a part, but no one is who they pretend to be. This is reflected by Thornhill’s line: “The only performance that will satisfy you is when I play dead.” There is a constant reference to the idea of “playing/acting” and this is also a modern ploy to confuse the audience between reality and fiction.

Not only did this confuse the audience but also confused the actors. In the role of Thornhill, Cary Grant was distressed with the way the plot seemed to wander aimlessly, and he actually approached Hitchcock to complain about the script. “I can’t make heads or tails of it,” he said (unwittingly quoting a line that Thornhill utters in the film). This quote is very adequate in explaining the element of the film, nothing is what it seems, nothing is black and white, but all shades of grey.

The second important aspect of demonstrating modernity in North by Northwest is the technological aspect. Elements such as filming, set design, costuming, editing and post production are all used in order to make the film modern. North by Northwest took place between August and December 1958 with the exception of a few re-takes that were shot in April 1959. It is important to know that this was the only Hitchcock film released by MGM. This is important as it is relevant to the direction of the film. Hitchcock said that MGM wanted North by Northwest cut by 15 minutes so the film’s length would run under two hours. Hitchcock had his agent check his contract, learned that he had absolute control over the final cut, and refused. The film was made in Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen process, making it one of the few VistaVision films made at MGM. Another important aspect of technology and culture was the fact that one of Eva Marie Saint’s lines in the dining car seduction scene was redubbed. She originally said “I never make love on an empty stomach,” but it was changed in post-production to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.” It is said that the censors felt the original version was too risqué.

The United Nations Headquarters is the site of a scene in the film. At the time, the United Nations prohibited film crews from shooting around its New York City headquarters. Hitchcock used a movie camera hidden in a parked van to film Cary Grant and Adam Williams exiting their taxis and entering the building. This technique, even though it wasn’t planned was really effective in creating a sense of concealment and the audience gains a feel for the movie. This technique is modern for the time and therefore displays how the technique is a tool for how the film represents modernism.

It is clearly evident that through both aspects of the film, culturally and technologically, that the film displays modernism. Through plot elements such as symbols and the “MacGuffin” theory Hitchcock redefines films and cinema, not only are his films modern of the time but also greatly influential to other films which come later.

Referenced Material

Alfred Hitchcock. North by Northwest, 1959
Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/239856?redirectedFrom=MacGuffin#eid
Video of Interview. http://www.gointothestory.com/2010/07/mcguffin-by-hitchcock.html

Lost In Translation: Ibsen’s Modernism

This article focuses on Ibsen’s theories and ideas on realism and ethics. Ibsen brings the focus of ethics to drama, he does this by explaining that drama involves the content by the historical world which pertains to the present time (the time it was received). Another concept that seems to have started these ideas is Spinoza’s ideas that the world is a constantly changing place that is evolving and progressing in a way that is unpredictable and unstable these ideas are compared to the ideas that were previous that the world was fixed and unchangeable, this theory then leads to the idea of the individual which sparks the idea that the human is both rational and spiritual.

With relation to the film “Lost in Translation” I believe that Ibsen’s ideas come through when we begin to analyze the separate marriages of both Bill and Charlotte. Ibsen says that we define ourselves by commitment, by how we live, think and respond to others, Charlotte (Johansson) is living a life of uncertainty, both in her career choice, marriage and overall direction in life. Charlottes Husband is underwhelming and provides her no authentically shared human intimate experience, a very important factor in her quest for self. Charlotte then meets Bill, a man who can offer her this Ibsinian idea of authentic human experience, which plays with the ideas of ones ability to grow within the social fabric of capitalism and marriage.

Ultimately this tepid affair provides and insight into both characters marriages and on weather they are passionately committed or half hearted in their loyalties to their spouses. Ultimately we are not given an insight into the last words between Bill and Charlotte, we are uncertain even if they are their last words, this realistic approach to the ending of the film brings a raw sense of realism to the storytelling process. The lack of closure to the film is a strong statement that eventually one thing or another happens but realistically we will never know what lies ahead.

Apocalypse Now: Sound, Image, & Editing

Let’s talk about the role of sound, image, and editing. Specifically in the film Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

The opening scene – sound, image and editing are the pivotal elements and techniques that make this scene so incredible and captivating. The scene starts with a passive serene jungle, interrupted by helicopters which swarm the jungle, and as the tree line goes up in flames “the End” by the Doors begins to play, a song which represents death and futility. The use of editing is blurred with the intertwining images of present and past, the war and the aftermath. Through impeccable placement of layering faded scenes, editing, sound effects, imagery, music and editing, this scene works incredible well with all these elements thus making it one of the greatest opening sequences of any film. Apocalypse now is a heart wrenching, gripping and advanced film which in my opinion uses sound, imagery and editing to make the film work in more advanced ways than any movie of the time it was made.

Sound is a crucial element to this scene, the movie begins in darkness, a blank screen and all we can hear is the beating cycles of a helicopter blade, haunting us, throughout the scene the helicopter noise fades away only to come back louder and eerier as we delve into the jungle. It seems that when the jungle catches on fire we simultaneously begin to hear the ghostly and melancholic voice of Jim Morrison singing”The End” a song with lyrics such as “This is the end, my only friend, the end” giving us the feeling of death, war, futility and loss. While this song is being played the sound of the helicopters flying back and forth is evident and disarming as it tends to get louder as the helicopters appear and softer as they leave the area of the scene, these continuous overlays of sound effects on top of the music draw us back to the reality of the war and disastrous things happening to the jungle.

The process of editing in this scene is undeniably skillful and effective, from scene 10 until scene 18 there are two layers of scenes being seen through the use of fading and dissolving techniques, we are able to respond and see both scenes, we are faced with the continuous images of the war in the jungle fading in and out from fire, helicopters, tribal people, the burning jungle at night, the smoke filled jungle during the day with helicopters swarming like locusts, it is chaos, violent and alarming, while the contrasting image faded on top is a close up of a mans face, opposite side down, he is still, calm, stationary all he does is blink for the most part. The dissolving from the jungle scene to the man alone scene seems to start gradually showing less of the jungle and more of him until the end scene where there is no longer any lingering images from the jungle scene and all we are left with is the image of this man lying on his bed, with a gun next to him.

The use of imagery in this film is apparent and austere we are shown what is relevant and important to the narrative and without any dialogue we know and understand the story. The main thing that I noticed with this film was the use of colour, in the beginning we are shown this green jungle with clear crisp blue sky and can almost smell the fresh air and then we see it attacked by a polluted yellow smog and eventually covered with a contrasting yellow orange and red fire, the colours are so vivid the we can almost feel the heat of the flames I find it intriguing the contrast of elements and colours and conclude that this is a technique set in motion by the use of imagery. The other way I found imagery to be effective was through symbols and narrative, in those 20 scenes there is no dialogue only the use of editing, sound (sound effects and music) and imagery, it is the imagery that tells the story, the helicopters, the flames, the war, the man/soldier we can associate these images to the story that we conceive in our own minds and therefore have a more emotionally intelligent reaction to the film.

I think that sound; image and editing work exceptionally well in this scene, but work even better when all these three elements become cohesive and tell the story together. The scenes that I have chosen clearly demonstrate how these techniques can be used together, especially scene 10 where all these elements are working together, firstly we have the editing, two scenes faded on top of one another, secondly we have the images that are being shown, the war and jungle of the past in opposition to the man alone in the aftermath of the present and most importantly the music which ties all these elements together making them seamless and cohesive. It is evident that sound, imagery and editing were fundamental techniques that made this scene beautiful to watch.