Utopian/Dystopian Sci Fi Films
How this science fiction utopian/dystopian movie list works
Below is a list of science fiction utopian and dystopian films. I have arranged the movies in order according to my own tastes and interests. I know that some will criticize me for things such as having Logan’s Run before Metropolis, but I have arranged these based on: the impact these films have had on me emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, etc; based on their creativity; based on their abillity to stimulate my intellect; and, of course, based on my perception of their entertainment value. I’ve also decided not to include any anime films because that just opens a door I’m not really willing to go through. For a movie to make it on this list, the utopian/dystopian content should be one of the main focuses of the movie. If it’s a very small element (as in Alien) it will not make the list. I’ve created a short list of a few films that people may say should be in my list but that I feel belong in other categories such as post-apocalyptic films or robot films. The list is based only off of movies that I’ve seen, but I am very committed to watching all the sci fi utopian/dystopian films that I can, so I invite you all to submit your lists of films and I will attempt to watch them. I will first put them in the “have not watched seen” and as I watch them I will rank them somewhere on the list. Remeber though, all the movies on this list are science fiction.
What’s the difference between Utopia and Dystopia?
So, before I get to the list, let’s get a working definition of utopia and dystopia. Utopia means literally “no place” and often refers to a political climate, a sociological mindframe and/or a perfect place where everyone is in harmony or at peace with one another. One of my favorite contemporary artists, Liam Gillick, says this about utopia: “We tend also to associate it with art and architecture or withdrawal and communality….Utopia has come to describe any art movement, architectural moment, political system or communal proposition that doesn’t operate within the terms of modern capitalism. Utopian is the term that refers to the desire for something that is impractical, because it levels and implies harmony, while side-stepping the generalised, lurching linearity of the dominant system. The thinking goes that the attempted application of utopian systems has had to be forced onto people whenever it has been attempted. There has always been a suppression of ‘human nature’ in order to temporarily experience something more enlightening and less guilt or repression ridden.” It is my understanding that a true utopia cannot actually happen in this world if it is to govern or contain a group of people. My ideals are not your ideals. I think films such as Star Trek explore this multiplicity of values and visions quite nicely, although most often from the viewpoint of The Federation. Not that The Federation is perfect, but it seems to be working toward some utopian goal. My reasons for selecting utopian films AND dystopian films is because they seem to often go hand-in-hand: one person’s utopia is a means of control and could be someone else’s non-utopia or even dystopia.
A dystopia is sometimes reffered to as the opposite of a utopia. Some other definitions that I have read on other blogs include: “An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.” Another definition is “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” I think that these definitions are simple and good, but are missing some elements. With these definitions, “post-apocalypse” and “dystopia” can be used interchangeably. I believe what is missing is the element of human control. A dystopia should infer that things are terribly wrong because governing agencies and/or societal structures have caused this to happen. People are in a state of non-peace and non-harmony by force through some type of intelligent lifeform (a non-utopia, or a fascist utopia!). Also, people might be in a state where they do not even comprehend that they are being oppressed and subdued. Post-apocalyptic films, on another note, can be described as portraying a time after some type of disaster that has devastated life as we currently know it, whether the disaster happened through war, plague, act of nature, etc. Just because it portrays the future, or the end of the world does not mean the movie is utopian or dystopian. * * * * *
Remember, these are listed from best to worst.
Definitely Worth Watching
Gattaca (1997) – In a time when genetic engineering is standard and quality traits are scientifically calculated and measured, one person is born naturally. This is my favorite of all science fiction films, let alone utopian/dystopian sci-fi’s. It is beautifully made, has timely relevance, and intense subject matter.
The Lathe Of Heaven (1980) – George Orr’s dreams become reality. One scientist discovers this and attempts to solve the world’s problems. Whenever he attempts this, however, things go terribly wrong. While maybe cheesy at times, this film actually has some great dialog about fixing other people’s problems that many people could learn from.
Logan’s Run (1976) – In the future everyone can have all the fun they want. Life is quite pleasurable. When you hit 30, however, you have to die. Logan used to work for the government but comes to his senses and tries to run away. Some people say this movie has not “held it’s time.” First off, what does that mean? Sure the special effects are not amazing like they can be in some movies today but this story and creativity is far greater than many movies you will watch today in the first place.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) – I have not read the book which is apparently fantastic as well. From what I can tell in the movie, at some point the country is divided and only 1 in every 100 women can become pregnant. Those special women are brainwashed and are strictly controlled so that they can someday become a handmaid and provide children for a richer couple. This consentual and normal procedure leads to some disturbing and emotional scenes. This is a social science fiction that does a wonderful job depicting a corrupt government, overbearing leaders, dogmatic citizens, and depicting how the most prized women must navigate what little freedoms they have.
The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937) – Another brilliant film written by H.G. Wells (there are more below). In this one, eternal angels give a human the power to create miracles in order to see how he will use his power. This lucky man is torn trying to decide how to use his power and can’t please everyone. In an attempt to make the world correct he ends up ruining it. The movie offers a lot that we can continue to think about. H.G. Wells is the master of showing good, the bad, and the ugly of idyllic dreams.
Children of Men (2006) – People got mad at me when I put this in the “post-apocalyptic but not dystopian” section at the bottom so I’ve thought about it and decided that there are enough elements that make this dystopian, however, it’s largely a post-apocalyptic story about hope being lost in a world where women are not physically able to become pregnant. It is set in a dystopian U.K. where everyone is fighting each other because all hope has been lost. Maybe it just confuses the two genres. Either way, it’s an excellent movie…one of my favorite scenes of all times is when they are carrying the baby down the stairs and all the fighting stops for a brief moment while they watch the first baby in years.
Minority Report (2002) – Tom Cruise plays a policeman in the future and arrests people for crimes that they are yet to commit. Their crimes are predicted. When he is next on the list of people to be arrested can he prove that the predictions can be false? This one is nice because it mixes elements of time bending with dystopian government control
Stepford Wives (1975) – Never confuse this with the 2004 remake or you will be sorely disappointed. The Eberharts move out to Stepford where the women are beautiful and take traiditional female roles to the extreme. Can Joanna figure out why her new friends are turning into these weird woman-robot-things? This movie is quite dark and slow paced. However unlike the 2004 remake Joanna has a lot at stake and the psychological terror is palpable.
Soylent Green (1973) – The planet has reached it’s population limits. The streets are filled with people that have no place to go. The richest people are the only ones who can afford fruits, vegetables, and meat. Everyone has to eat…well, Soylent Green, a recycled synthetic snack produced by what appears to be a corporation in cahoots with the governing structures.
Alphaville (1965) – Lemme Caution was sent to Alphaville in order to destroy the city’s operating computer that brainwashes people into believing that they are rational by destroying love and cutting off individuality. This noir film has been an obvious influence for many other movies, including Blade Runner. The film has sensual overtones that are highlighted by the complexity of emotions the characters experience.
THX 1138 (1971) – THX lives in a world where everyone is forced to take drugs to control their emotions and their efficiency of work. When his roommate slips him a few placebo’s he begins to experience life for the first time. He is, however, under video surveillance so the authorities know what is going on. Will his newly discovered humanity give him what he needs to avoid being caught by his stoic authorities? The cover I portray here is from the new special version DVD that has been digitally remastered. Many fans believe the movie has been ruined. Try to get a hold on an older version that doesn’t have souped up car chases and monkey scenes.
Blade Runner (1982) – In this classic, Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard who is called out of retirement when a few replicant androids come to earth in hopes of expanding their lifespans. Deckard is supposed to terminate the replicants. While dystopia doesn’t seem to be the theme as far as dialog is concerned, the overall depiction and feel of the city and bureaucracy give you a real eery feeling that things are bad and wrong. There are three different versions of the film: The final cut is apparently the one that Ridley Scott had the most artistic control over, the director’s cut which was rushed but eliminated the forced-happy ending and narration, and then there’s the theatrical cut, which has the forced narration and happy ending.
Metropolis (1927) – The world is a factory, operated by the poor class, who must live underground, for the richer classes. There is an underground movement to bring down the capitalist regime however. What? This movie is nearly 100 years old? If it weren’t for the films silence and it’s lost footage I would have thought otherwise. This is said to be one of the most influential films of all times. It certainly still surpasses much of what continues to be put out today. And, recently, the entire footage for the film has been found and is to be released in 2009.
Wall-E (2008) – I know some people will think I’m ridiculous for putting this above Brazil. Hey, at least I didn’t rank it the #1 sci fi movie of all time as some have claimed. Humans have deserted a trashed and uninhabitable earth and it’s Wall-E’s job to clean it up so they can come back. 700 years later, humans have become fat blobs that do nothing but buy the latest cool fashions and drink the latest, biggest drinks. Interestingly Wall-E does not attempt to fix their sociological problems, but through his charm he helps awaken them to their potentials. Using the word “cute” to describe this movie is not a bad thing, it’s actually a good movie.
A Boy and His Dog (1975) – There are two basic types of survivors after World War IV: the brutal savages that roam the surface of the desolate planet, and then those who live underground, are incapable of reproducing, and their leaders resemble dogmatic religious Victorian zealots. There is a wonderful blurring of utopia and dystopia in this movie in that what is a post-apocalyptic and dystopian world is the one our hero wants to return to, while the one that has attempted to sustain life has lost it’s ability to grow and has really out of touch with reality. Brilliant.
H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1960) – A man invents a time machine and travels through time, experiencing both WWI and WWII, thinking they are the same war. By accident he ends up traveling thousands of years in the future where humans have become dumb and docile and are being controlled by Morlocks. The movie is old, a little cheesy at times, and has an awful amount of macho sexism, but if you can get passed that, it’s fun.
Fantastic Planet (1973) – Definitely a product of the revolutionary movements of the late 60’s and early 70’s just the same as Sleeper and Silent Running, but this movie has some creepy and psychedelic moments that leave a serious and lasting impression. Draags are a dominating species that take what to look be humans as their pets. The Draags spend all their time tripping out and trying to find some sort of greater consciousness but completely ignore the lives and emotional needs of humans, treating humans the way we (in real life) might treat an ant.
Sleeper (1973) – Miles goes to the doctor for an ulcer problem and wakes up 200 years later after being cryogenically frozen. The United States no longer exists and people seem to be subdued by consumerism. But he was brought back to life for a reason. While I thought the movie was too silly and maybe even contained hints of pretentiousness, I really liked that it addressed the idea that one utopia is a controlled regime and that those leading counter movements can easily succumb to the same problems. In a great dialog at the end of the movie, Miles says, “In 6 month’s we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose; political solutions don’t work.”
Brazil (1985) – The premise of this movie is fantastic. The world operates in a list of rules, procedures, administration and bureaucracies. One man is arrested because of a little problem in the bureaucracy and Sam Lowrey attempts to fix the problem. But, as bureaucracy goes, he finds it a mess to work through and before he can fix the problem, he has become mistaken as a criminal by wasting the Ministry’s time. As far as execution of the movie…it’s really zany, keep an open mind and you should have fun. There are more than one version. From what I know, the Love Conquers All version is NOT the one the director is happy with and the ending is different.
1984 (1984) – Based on the famous book, and really maintains the feel of the book quite nicely. The country is run by a totalitarian government that brainwash the citizens with false histories and the elimination of words from languages. They oppress the citizens through strict surveillance and the though police. Some break free from this oppression and the further removed they are from what they knew the closer they become to being captured by the thought police. One thing I appreciate about this movie is that it does not substitute action for dialog as many movies do, instead it seems to use language, just as the totalitarian government does, to show us the human will in its goodness and in its ugliness.
Westworld (1973) – What if it were possible to go on vacation to a place where anything was possible and where you could fulfill your dreams? Well, that is possible in Westworld, a city created to mimic the wild west with functioning human-replica robots that you could shoot! This was written by Michael Crichton and is an obvious precursor to Jurassic Park. That’s right, things in this vacation utopia go terribly wrong. This could have been higher on the list, however by the end of the movie it turns into a cat and mouse chase and I am personally less interested in that.
Zardoz (1974) – People have attained the ability to live forever, but in an executive moment, only the rich and civilized were granted immortality. Everyone else lives a meager existance and worship a flying-head called Zardoz. Sean Connery’s character, Zed, attempts to destroy Zardoz and discovers the land of immortals. This movie really nicely combines sci fi, dystopian themes, and fantasy. It’s a bit campy and over-the-top but really is a fun watch with some intelligent content.
Silent Running (1971) – Earth could no longer sustain it’s forests and there are no longer any plants on earth. Instead the forests are kept floating in outer space until it’s time to bring them back home. When budgets get cut and the forests have to be destroyed, Freeman Lowell, the forests’ caretaker has to make a decision to follow orders or not.
Zero Population Growth (1972) – Maybe it’s because I had very low expectations, but aside from some just-barely-average acting the movie is inventive, fun, and a little over the top. Other people think the movie is terrible. It’s like Soylent Green meets the Diary of Anne Frank. The earth is overpopulated, crowded, and polluted, and a new law is in place that women cannot have babies for the next 30 years. Breaking this is punishable by death. One woman wants to have a baby so she has to figure out how to hide. I thought there were some great futuristic museum scenes, and I thought the tension between the neighbors, who could spill the beans, and our heroes was nice.
BIG NAMES MOVIES – I feel that the big name movies are obvious that they are, for the most part, good utopian/dystopian sci fi films and that I don’t need to go over them.
Mostly Worth Watching
The following films are just a rung down the ladder, to me, as far as must-sees go.
Quintet (1979) – The world has become a frozen wasteland. People continue to die, it’s quite normal, and there is no real hope for living. In order to pass time, people play a game called Quintet, where there is only one survivor. This is an unusual movie that most people haven’t heard of, so I think that novelty makes me like it even more. The reason this movie is in this section and not post-apocalyptic is that while it clearly has major post-apocalyptic elements, it addresses the social climate, how the remaining population organizes itself for better or worse. Does anyone disagree?
H.G. Wells’ Things To Come (1936) – This movie is absolutely fantastic. Power through the first 30 minutes and you will see some of the most creative futurescapes ever. It’s also one of the rare movies that address the thin line between utopia and dystopia (others that do this include Sleepers and A Boy And His Dog). A country goes to war under the guise of progress and is desolated. We see the land as it is transformed into one of peace. But can the peace last forever and should it? Unfortunately the movie is very old. I actually enjoy the old black and white dusty and dirty film look, but the sound quality is terrible – at least half the time you can’t even tell what’s being said. I couldn’t find subtitles either…that’s why this film is not closer to the top.
Total Recall (1990) – Most people who saw this when it first came out remember it because of the lady with three breasts and the gross-out special effects in a few scenes. While those things now seem like old special effects the movie actually makes for a pretty decent futurist sci fi action flick where you can implant memories into your brain so that you remember vacations you never actually went on. This company is trying to hide a secret from Schwarzenegger’s character and he soon learns that they are trying to make profits off the working class by hoarding their oxygen while they are on this distant planet.
Death Race 2000 (1975) – Not sure if 2000 refers to the amount of miles the race is, or if it implies that this was a not-too distant future. The movie is a mildly over-the-top portrayal of a future where the government provides twisted and addictive entertainment to blind citizens to their agendas. The French are blamed for all the country’s problems. There is a small group that attempts to put an end to the country’s worst display of morality-loss: The death race. The weird thing is that it is the death race that you actually end up watching the most of and pulling your own entertainment from; the death race becomes fun to watch. I really didn’t enjoy the ending where the heroes just change the entire government as if they know exactly how everything should work. Their new world is little too idealized.
Code 46 (2004) – There’s a lot going on in this movie, but it is somewhat of a romance in a world where the government is authoritarian, can erase people’s memories, and implant viruses in people’s bodies in order to track them. Tim Robbins’ character, William, finds Maria who forges insurance information (they are almost some type of passport) for those who cannot normally obtain them. William was sent to find her and have her turned in, but instead develops feelings for her.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) – I had a difficult time trying determining if this should go in the utopian/dystopian section or if it should just be a movie about a computer taking over the world. Obviously I decided it belonged here but I kept it lower on the list because of my hesitancy. Here’s the deal: Basically, the United States and the USSR create computer defense systems that allow the world to live in a utopian peace state. The computer attains sovereign control and peace on earth is attained only through submission to the computer. The movie ultimately is less about the computer and more about the decisions to obey it. I wonder if this is how the Matrix started?
They Live (1988) – A real winner of a movie with Rowdy Roddy Piper from the wonderful John Carpenter. This comes across more as a B-flick that shows some of Piper’s wonderful wrestling capabilities while retaining a pretty reasonable message. That message is that we have all been blinded to the manipulation and are deceived by consumerist propaganda. Terribly ugly aliens have taken over the world and leech off human’s inability to control their spending but none of us even know it. We are the true zombies, no?
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) – The governement is a fascist one and has outlawed all sorts of artistic expression because that sort of thinking breeds rebellion. Firefighters destroy books which are illegal to own and read. One firefighter picks up a book and reads and his entire life changes. A lot of people would rank this movie higher than I have. I thought, of all the older but good sci fi films I’ve, seen this one seems to be less relevant, unless you are talking about censorship, then it could have some implications.
Rollerball (1975) – Not to be confused with the newer version with LL Cool J. I would really like to see the newer version. Like Death Race, the country that we live in is a utopian place where the natural progression of suburbanism seems to have taken its course, everyone is compartmentalized and does what they’re told. A corporation runs just about everything, including the gruesome sport of Rollerball. The Michael Jordan of Rollerball is a threat to the corporation so they kindly ask him to step down. What happens when one man defies the system? It ain’t pretty. Some major similarities to Death Race, but not as goretastic. It actually approaches the subject matter from a more mature angle, but it seems the compelling components are lacking a little.
Serenity (2005) – The reason why this movie is so low on the list is because if you have not seen the original Firefly series this movie may not phase you as interesting. I hated the movie when I first watched it, but after some strong suggestions I watched Firefly and fell in love with the series. The movie is a good way to end the series because it was pulled off the air. The authoritarian Alliance experimented with the brain of brilliant young River but she has escaped and they are trying to find her and destroy her before their secret gets out. We get to see how that the humans greatest enemies, The Reavers, were also created by the Alliance who attempted to cover up their mistake. Again, if you didn’t watch the series you may not like this as much as you should.
MOVIES I DON’T LIKE
These are way down the ladder for me, and they are still in order from bad to worse. I wouldn’t bother with them unless you are reviewing movies or starting a list like this…Before you get mad at me, please look at why I have placed them in this section. If you disagree, please start your own list and see what other people think of you.
Demolition Man (1993) – Why is it not worth watching? I just feel that this is mostly a cheesy action flick. It was fun many years ago when it portrayed the future in new ways to us, but in general, it’s just a bunch of one liners and early 90’s action. If there was a third tier here, like “might be interesting to you” this one would be there.
Gas-s-s-s (1970) – A bonified B movie. A gas is released, everyone over 25 dies, and the youth are left to make sense of the world. It actually sounds like it could be a great utopian movie, but it ends up just being super pretentious (worse than Sleeper). I guess at the age of 25 everyone automatically sucks and are worthless to society and the youth are the real heroes. So, if we all just have one big young-person party, we’ll all live happily ever after. I don’t buy that stuff.
Idiocracy (2006) – Why not? Most people give me a really hard time for this. My basic explanation is that the premise is amazing but the execution is piss poor. I can’t take this farce serious…and why should I? I feel as if they are dumbing it down for us and not leaving anything to our imagination, I just feel force fed and I don’t like that. Sorry if you do.
The Island (2005) – Why not? The Island is basically a rip off of Logan’s Run and THX 1138 without giving them any real credit. So, if you have never seen those movies, you could like this. If you have seen those movies, this one feels like a joke. I have nothing more to say about this one.
A Scanner Darkly (2006) – Why Not? Again, a lot of people have given me flack for making this one sound terrible…so if you would like to watch it feel free. If you think it should be on the list, make your own l ist. This movie was plagued with bad acting, and, unfortunately turns a good story into an uninteresting movie. The “cartoon” look also could have been interesting but I feel it adds absolutely nothing. I’m not the only one who feels this way, it didn’t get superb ratings on rottentomatoes either…
Aeon Flux (2005) – Why not? Riding the train of the Matrix, Aeon Flux falls short of captivating. Why? Because people don’t want something that only excels in special effects without having a good execution. The movie could have been fun, and may have been at a couple points, but ultimately is dull.
Equilibrium (2002) – Why Not? Another movie that has caused people to get mad at me for not giving it a higher ranking. Out of all of them, this is the one I’m most sure that I would never change the status of. I think the people who like this movie have not seen most of my other recommendations. The other movies that would fit into the “in the future people are suppressed by drugs” category are very thoughtful and offer much more to the movie-watcher than this Matrix rip-off.
The Stepford Wives (2004) – Why not? In this version of the Stepford Wives, there is nothing at stake. The wives aren’t going to lose their lives, nor do they have their femeninity and humanity to protect. They are simply wives that get turned into robots, but only with a small computer chip so they don’t die. This overly happy and overly dramatized movie had some potential with using pop colors and sleek design but falls way short of being either entertaining or thought provoking. It does the original version a major disservice.
Dark City (1998) – Why not? Whoa, I cannot believe that this movie got a 76% on rottentomatoes. I have to ask why? Not only is the acting terrible, but the characters are never developed, nor believable, and the story is not enticing. I sat through one and a half hours of a poorly developed story only to get 10 minutes of a reasonably creative dystopian twist ending where we find out that these alien things are experimenting with the humans in the city so they can understand what it means to be human. But even the movie fails to show us why “being human” is such a great thing. The process of getting to those reasonably interesting 10 minutes is just not worth it.
Renaissance (2006) – Why Not? I just could NOT get into this movie. I didn’t think the black and white drawing look helped the movie at all, I did not see the point in it. If we are supposed to be thinking about the way it uses lighting or portrays advertising then we can say that movies like Blade Runner really blow this one out of the water on all levels.
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A few more sections:
HAVE NOT SEEN – BUT WILL WATCH SOON AND UPDATE
POST-APOCALYPTIC BUT NOT UTOPIAN/DYSTOPIAN
12 Monkeys (1995), I Am Legend (2007), Mad Max (1979), The Omega Man (1971), Planet of the Apes (1968-73), The Quiet Earth (1985), Sunshine (2007)
UTOPIAN/DYSTOPIAN BUT NOT NECESSARILY SCI-FI
District B13 (2006), V For Vendetta (2005)
DYSTOPIAN ELEMENTS PLAY TOO SMALL A ROLE TO BE A DYSTOPIAN FILM
AI Artificial Intelligence (2001), Alien (1979), The Fifth Element (1997), I Robot (2004)