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7 Catastrophic Cinematic Dystopias We've Avoided... So Far

The future is terrifying.

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  • Photo Credit: Natalya Letunova/ Unsplash

Ah, those feel-good movies about ghastly future societies—those with the pesky warnings we keep ignoring.

Ever since Metropolis (1927) and Things To Come (1936) flickered to life on the silver screen, films that portend of darker days and totalitarian dystopian times have continued to fill us with morbid fascination. Whether as vehicles by which to count our blessings that such calamities haven’t yet broken upon us, or to nurture a hope-for-the-best-prepare-for-the-worst mindset, the impulse to vicariously experience oppression, censorship, and squalor through cinematic allegory has only gotten stronger, even as we wobble ever closer to some abyss or other.

So sit back in that rattan lounger re-wickered with telephone wire, pop open that decade-old soda, drown some popcorn in possum fat, and savor these (regrettably still-relevant) cautionary celluloid treats. 

Here are seven dark dystopian films to fill you with dread for the future.

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)


The first cinematic adaptation of this classic wastes no time following Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) and his Gestapo-esque pyros as they confiscate and set fire to that most obscene and dastardly of contrabands: books. But that’s what “Firemen” do in this world where vapid televised mass-media is celebrated and encouraged, while books are viewed as haughty, subversive mind poison.

State-sponsored censorship burns at the heart of both the film and the source novel, as does ultimately the triumph of intellectual curiosity. We won’t spoil the end, but if you don’t know it by now, then put down your matches and stream this film, if not read the actual book!


6. As of April, 2022, there are over 1,500 books banned in nearly 90 school districts across the U.S.. Hopefully, the notion of government-sanctioned thugs wielding flamethrowers to burn books remains fictional. 

Logan's Run (1976)


In a computer-run society where the populace living under domed cities is rigorously controlled and kept young, aging is a bitch! Because once you reach thirty, you get euthanized in a public, time-honored spectacle called Carousel. Michael York plays a Sandman named Logan 5, a government assassin who hunts runners that refuse to participate willingly.  Upon learning his utopia is—surprise, surprise—a dystopia, a disillusioned Logan sympathizes with the runners and becomes one himself. 

Logan’s Run weaves serious social issues of free will, population control, and ageism in a campy tapestry of hedonism, skimpy clothing, and over-the-top special effects. If nothing else, it’s a fun nostalgia watch after a glass of wine or two.


4. While computers have come to play a huge part in our lives, rigorous population control and mandatory euthanasia haven’t been codified into law. Yet. 

Escape from New York (1981)


If you don’t do the crime, you won’t do the time, in this case, within a walled-off Manhattan-Island-turned-supermax-prison in the distant future of 1997. After a hijacked Air Force One is taken down by terrorists over Manhattan, an incarcerated bank robber and former soldier, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russel), is given an offer: infiltrate the Island and rescue the US President within twenty-four hours. Succeed and receive a full pardon. Fail, and the micro-explosives he's been unwittingly injected with will detonate. 

A wry commentary on the prison-industrial complex and the police state that shamelessly praises rugged, pro-smoking individualism, Carpenter’s film is still a fun genre-romp of early 80s violence and excess. 


3. Despite the mortifying reality of for-profit prisons today, the logistics and expense of walling and mining an entire city remains mercifully preposterous. 

Children of Men (2006)


For those who cringe at crying babies on airplanes, Children of Men is your paradise: a near-future where the planet teeters at the brink of collapse when no new children have been born for over two decades going. We follow Theo (Clive Owen), a one-time idealist turned government functionary who’s kidnapped by a pro-immigration group so that he can procure transit papers for Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), a young woman who is secretly pregnant. Their aim: to get her to a maybe-real-maybe-mythical Human Project, a secret group of scientists working on an infertility cure. 

Children of Men explores mankind’s devolution into raging xenophobia, distrust, and religious mania when faced with extinction. But the filmmakers also trust in humanity’s penchant for hope and determination as its salvation.

LIKELIHOOD OF OCCURRING IN REAL LIFE (1-10): 6. In a world already led around by at-hand xenophobia, distrust, and religious mania, adding world-wide infertility to the mix would be the ultimate fuse-igniter. Fortunately, we’re left with less decisive pandemics to persevere through and hopefully practice compassion with.

Wall-E (2008)


An adorable evolution of the Roomba, Wall-E is a cleanup robot left on an uninhabitable Earth in the 29th century after humans have turned it into a global junk pile. When a probe name EVE is sent by The Axiom, an ark-ship of surviving humans to check on the sustainability of the planet, Wall-E falls in love with EVE, teaches her the simple joys of old Earth found in its junk, and attempts to return humans back to their mother planet.

The themes of rampant consumerism and over-dependence on technology for even trivial things are very on-the-nose: Wall-E’s first glimpse of humans aboard The Axiom as inert, hover-chair-perambulated masses hooked to multi-media screens while slurping drone-delivered liquid meals isn’t subtle cinema. This is a starter pack for children and an upside-the-head clocking to adults asking us to be better custodians of the only home we have. 


7. Giving mankind credit that it won’t devolve to complete idleness to the point of absolute reliance on technology to get around, we’re still loveable little over-buyers, over-wasters, and managers of teeming landfills and islands of junk floating in our oceans. 

The Rover (2014)


For those interested in a chase film set in an Australian Outback wasteland after societal collapse not starring Mel Gibson, this is your jam. After a robbery goes bad, a trio of thieves steal Eric’s (Guy Pearce) car, a mysterious loner who then goes above and beyond to reclaim his wheels. It’s as streamlined as it gets, but an involving ride nonetheless. 

Set a decade after the worldwide economic collapse, The Rover revolves its rather simple plot around the theme of treasuring love and the small things in a depleted world. All the main characters have suffered great loss, and whatever is in the car that Eric goes to hell and back to reacquire is both surprising and poignant in its ultimate reveal.


8. Economic collapse, military government control, and rampant immigration/emigration is already underway in many parts of the world. It might be time to bone up on those hot-wiring skills. 

The Platform (2019)


Spain offers our final hell-on-Earth, a self-contained exploration of resource distribution and stockpiling that even Covid-driven hoarders would wince at (or maybe celebrate?).  Goreng (Iván Massagué) awakens to find himself in a vertical prison where a central platform brimming with food stops a moment for prisoners to eat before descending to the next level. Prisoners are regularly moved to different levels, so one week they get an early platform and a decent amount of food, and one week they’re on one of the lower levels and screwed.

Resource hoarding and privilege are served hot and plenty in this film, as is sharing the deprivation and suffering of those less fortunate. The hope that those starving above you retain enough humanity to leave you menial scraps delivers the most tension than anything else in this bleak experience. 


9. The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots has never been greater, and the Covid-19 pandemic has given us a glimpse of how too many believe they’re entitled to whatever they can amass, even in a supposedly civilized society.