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?

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.

The Evolution Of Cinema

We live in an era of profound technology, technology that provides us with entertainment at our fingertips. Entertainment that needs to continually amp things up to keep us happy, like we’ve built up a tolerance to movies, each time needing deeper storylines, bigger explosions and better actors to satisfy us.

It’s not only about the movie, we’ve even grown weary of the environment that we watch it in. Fear not, they have created an environmental cinematic hierarchy for our viewing pleasure – V-Max, Gold Class, 3D … the list is endless and no doubt going to advance even further – Not only do we want to sit in our reclining extra-large chairs, but we want to sip cocktails too. Popcorn and choc-tops are not enough anymore, we need to have a three course meal while watching our overtly complex, but forgettable movie.

I’ve begun to notice that I’m growing tired of this unsatisfiable lust for bigger, badder, and better – I feel this strange desire to return to the unapologetically simple.

Once a month I make a point to go out and watch a movie alone – I usually go to a local cinema in the middle of the day. It’s like my own little adventure, where I can get lost in the world of the movie.

This month however, I stumbled across Golden Age Cinema.  I saw the words “Date Night” and “Matinee”, I even saw “Cult Classics” and “Obscure Documentaries”.

Then I saw it “The Shinning” Friday the 13th of October at 9pm!

Golden Age Cinema boasted a small screen, humble chairs, popcorn, and choc-tops – simple in the way that it should be.

Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, and Jack Nicholson! The elements couldn’t have aligned better.

So I would wait, wait for this vintage cinema, wait for this cult classic, wait to sit back and let myself fall into a world that isn’t focused on desperately trying impressing me, but knowing that what it offers is one of a kind.

I’m not attempting to promote the cinema itself, upon further research, there are several cinemas in Sydney that offer this type of viewing experience. What I am attempting to promote however is a mild return to the simpler experiences. The taste for adventure that isn’t handed to you on a silver platter.

Photo Credit Golden Age Cinema