Five Great Dystopian Films
In general, most films released by Tinseltown are meant to pacify the masses… keep us in a state of calm submission, and perhaps even steer the populace toward certain ends predetermined by movie studios, governments, big business, or a combination of all of these. Propaganda in the movie industry is nothing new.
With that said, sometimes a studio will bravely release a film with a deeper message. One that terrifies with its brutal reality and prophetic warning… and perhaps inspires us to recognize the world for what it is and do something about it. Below is my list of the top 5 films that achieve these aims, in no particular order.
V for Vendetta
People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.~ V for Vendetta
I will never forget the first time I saw this film in the theater. I didn’t know what to expect, and by the time it was finished, I was weeping. This film is a moving love letter to Freedom. It is a vicious warning to traitorous governments. It is an inspiring message to the masses. To the weak minded this is just another action/superhero movie. To those of us who are awake, this is the kind of film that makes you jump out of your seat and applaud.
Check This Out shows a world not that different from ours. Imagine the U.S. in 10 years, perhaps less. A reality where once free people live under the tyranny of state sponsored religion, with a power hungry ruling elite that pushes religious and moral zealotry upon citizens, who feel they are powerless to resist. Until someone comes along and reminds them what it was like to be free… and challenges them to take it back.
I recall my misty eyed response to the following scene, when V takes control of the state sanctioned television station, and makes his case for freedom to the citizens of his country.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever. ~ O’Brien in 1984
1984 is the quintessential warning and rally cry to the people. This film based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four brought the name Big Brother into popular culture. In the book and in the film, Big Brother is an entity that speaks for the oppressive government. The eerie irony of the name Big Brother is that the population is supposed to look upon “him” as a benevolent and protecting force, when as we all can see from the comfort of our homes… he is anything but kind. He is the face of fascism. He is the figurehead for injustice and tyranny. In a telling scene from the film:
O’Brien: What are your feelings towards Big Brother?
Winston Smith: I hate him.
O’Brien: You must love him. It is not enough to obey him. You must love him.
I find it funny and sad how we can so easily recognize the ruse of Big Brother in this cinematic masterpiece, but we so woefully mistake our own oppressors as deliverers. Take heed. Orwell wrote this novel many many moons ago, and in this culture of surveillance cameras and RFID chips, I fear that Orwell may have been too optimistic with his futuristic views.
Listen carefully. I’m from a warren where life is free. Where you can do is as you wish. ~ Bigwig from Watership Down
Based on my all time favorite book by Richard Adams, Watership Down is a treasure. Seen by many as merely a cartoon about rabbits trying to find a safer warren, this film is bigger than that. This is a story about people as much as it is about rabbits. It is about Fiver, a rabbit who is also a seer. He receives a vision of his home’s impending destruction. He gathers the other members of his community and they embark upon a journey to find a safer place to live. Along the way they encounter other communities that are run by fascist dictators. The rabbits struggle to free themselves of this police state, and are tested all along the way. They learn that freedom is more important than relative comfort and safety, and it is a lesson we all could be reminded of, especially in these troubled times.
Memorable scene from Watership Down.
The Handmaid’s Tale
In the days of evil and anarchy you had freedom to, now you are granted freedom from. Don’t underrate it. ~ Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale
The first time I saw this film, I didn’t quite get it. However, it left a subconscious impact upon me that caused me to seek it out years later. Upon watching it again, I was mortified. The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. It is a dystopian totalitarian fantasy and nightmare. The tyrants in this film are not the usual fare. Here we have well to do women in pearls that rule with an iron fist.
The United States, now renamed Gilead, has become a male-controlled police state dedicated to the oppression of women. With that said, men are not really present in this film. The men are either roaming the corridors of power, fighting as soldiers called Angels, or (if they are nonwhite) relegated to far away colonies in badly polluted and destructive areas of the globe. This leaves the women of the elite in charge on the homefront… and that is the focus of the tale.
The hierarchy is as follows. There are women called the Aunts. They wear shades of brown and act basically as Law Enforcement. There are the Wives, who wear Blue. They preside over their large houses in the suburbs. There are Marthas, who wear grey, and are pretty much housekeepers. And then there are the Handmaids. These women wear bright red and have been stripped of all of their rights. In order to be named a handmaid, you need only one qualification. You see, pollution has rendered most women infertile, therefore Handmaids are women who are still able to bear children. This is their only mission in life. To continue the human species. They are brainwashed, tortured, and kept under the thumb of the religious zealotry of this terrible government.
The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary. Male supremacy, pollution of the planet and the political power of the religious right are the poisonous fruit that lead to such tyranny. And we are now warned.
Thou art a subject of the divine, created in the image of man, by the masses, for the masses.~ OMM from THX 1138
George Lucas’ first feature film delivers a world of incomparable suppression of the masses. Here we find citizens clad in institutional white, made pliable by government mandated drugs that weaken the mind and ensure compliance. These oppressed people spend their days working in shifts at a factory, and when they are not working, they shop or confess their sins to a manufactured messiah that they can reach via conveniently placed phone booths. Entertainment consists of mind numbing porn and violence. Anyone who deviates from the “norm” is quickly reported to a nameless and faceless bureaucracy, and they are mercilessly punished.
The “government” has taken away conventional names and given everyone a depersonalizing moniker. Our hero in this film is THX 1138. In his process of awakening, he begins to see things for the way that they are, and launches a plan to escape this terrible reality that has been created for him.
Clearly, Lucas borrowed quite heavily from classics such as “Brave New World” when he wrote the screen play for this film, but it is no less potent. When one considers the amount of dependence we have placed on psychiatric drugs in modern times (Nearly a quarter of Americans are now on some form of drug for “mental illness”) it is important to view films like this with an open heart and a sense of urgency for our possible future.
This list is limited to 5 for the purposes of this article, but there are many more films in this genre that I would recommend.