Dystopia is widely imagined as a world or society, typically under the control of a totalitarian government, that is deemed nightmarish and frightening. The sci-fi genre is one that frequently incorporates dystopian elements in order to depict a nightmarish future mostly run by aliens or undesirable, power obsessed creatures or simply to strip down the ugliest facets of the human nature. Cinema has seen a wide variety of genres blending the dystopian elements to craft compelling stories that are thematically ambitious and philosophically powerful. Let’s take a look at top dystopian movies ever made. You can watch some these best dystopian movies on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime.
17. The Lobster (2015)
Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist dystopian drama tells the story of David whose wife leaves him and he is transported to a hotel where he along with several other people are forced to find a romantic partner within 45 days, failing which they will be transformed to an animal. The absurd plot mocks the contemporary society which is filled with lonely souls struggling to cope up with the harsh realities of romantic relationships and life in general. It’s a brilliant satirical commentary that offers insights into modern life, romance and the idea of finding one’s soulmate. We are often fed with the idea of finding our true love right from our childhood, and our whole existence revolves around the journey of discovering that person we believe is THE one for our life; but when life hits your hard, you realize there are no fairy tales and soulmates. And ‘The Lobster’ brutally thrashes this idea.
Colin Farrell is brilliant in the lead role and his performance is, without a doubt, one of the highlights of the film. The way he conveys emotions in a very restrained, subtle manner is commendable and it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in that role. I personally prefer the frightening realism of ‘Dogtooth’ over the absurdist dark fantasy of ‘The Lobster’, but I must admit that it’s an astonishingly bold, ambitious film that pushes the boundaries of storytelling in ways you haven’t seen before.
16. Alphaville (1965)
One of Jean Luc-Godard‘s greatest works, ‘Alphaville’ masterfully combines elements of science fiction, dystopia and neo-noir to craft a truly dazzling cinematic experience. The film tells the story of a US Secret Agent who arrives in the distant space city of Alphaville in order to find a missing person, then destroy the city and its evil, tyrannical ruler and also a highly powerful computer called Alpha 60, that controls the minds of the people of the city. With a wild, bizarre story-line, Godard crafts a strikingly inventive piece of sci-fi that laid the foundation for the genre, and we can see the film’s influence on several other great dystopian pieces. Like most of Godard’s works, the film is replete with symbolism and astonishing visuals. It is deeply intellectual and the narrative can be extremely challenging to follow. It is a masterclass in world-building and Godard literally transports you to a bizarre cinematic world that gives you insights into his eccentric genius.
Another striking aspect of the film is how well it has aged over the years. In fact, it looks even better now, as some of the themes the film deals with resonate well in today’s times. Godard uses several elements of classic Hollywood and blends them beautifully with the film’s setting, which elevates the experience to a different level altogether. You might hate Godard for his audacity, but this is a film that must be seen to get a better understanding of his vision, cinematic influences and his philosophy and ideas about the world in general.
15. Time of the Wolf (2003)
‘Time of the Wolf’ is probably Michael Haneke‘s weakest film and is nowhere near as powerful and effective as his other works. The film takes place in an unspecified time in France where some kind of a disaster has taken place and there is scarcity of food and water everywhere. A family returns home to find it occupied by strangers who kill the husband. The rest of the film follows the mother and the kids, accompanied by a boy, struggling for survival in a land that bares witness to the ugliest facets of human nature.
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14. Mad Max (1979)
The first installment in the epic dystopian action franchise from Down Under remains a stone cold classic. Directed by George Miller and starring Mel Gibson, the film focuses on a policeman who single-handedly takes on a violent motorcycle gang after killing one of their members. The film widely polarized critics at its release with the renowned Australian social commentator Philip Adams famously trashing the film, calling it a “special favorite of rapists, sadists and child murders.” But over the years, it began to attract a large cult following and has since been revisited and revalued by many critics which lead to the film’s growth in stature as one of the most influential films of the dystopian sci-fi/action genre.
13. Dark City (1998)
Alex Proyas’ ‘Dark City’ is highly reminiscent of ‘The Matrix’, aesthetically and in some parts of the story. The film is about a man who wakes up one night in a hotel and remembers nothing. However, a phone call tells him that he is being chased off by a group of frightening creatures who control the entire city. The film is highly stylized with very darkly toned visuals that set up the nightmarish atmosphere of the world its set in and seamlessly blends elements of the neo-noir and action genres. The film was a big commercial failure but over the years, fans of the sci-fi genre have revisited the film and is now held in high regards as one of the most important sci-fi films ever made. One of the underrated dystopian movies.
12. V for Vendetta (2005)
‘V for Vendetta’ is set in a futuristic Britain subdued by a totalitarian government. A rebellious fighter revolts against the society and along with a woman named Evey, plans to use terrorist tactics with the aim of bringing down the oppressive government. Directed by James McTeigue from a script written by the Wachowski Brothers, the film tackles a wide range of issues including homosexuality, terrorism and totalitarianism. The inherent rebellious tone of the film makes for a fascinating watch and the complexities of the issues it deals with make the film even more relevant today than it ever was. In 2008 Empire Magazine ranked the film as the 418th greatest film of all time.
11. RoboCop (1987)
This Paul Verhoeven directed cyberpunk sci-fi thriller takes a look at a dystopian Detroit where crimes and murders have been normalized. The story revolves around Alex Murphy, a cop who is brutally murder but is brought back into life as a superhuman law enforcer named as RoboCop. The film takes a bold look at corruption, greed for power and control and hypocrisy of the media and its frightening influence on the society. It’s visually stunning and takes a different route away from the conventionality of its genre and portrays the American society in all its flaws and fears.
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10. Minority Report (2002)
Perhaps not among Steven Spielberg‘s greatest works but ‘Minority Report’ is still a solid piece of enthralling sci-fi. Set in a dystopian future where a technology makes it possible for cops to track down criminals even before they commit their crimes. John Anderton is wrongly accused of such a crime and the film is about his attempt at proving his innocence. Masterfully directed by Spielberg, the film is replete with breathtaking visuals and some awe-inspiring sequences. It’s one hell of a fun ride but also manages to be thought provoking and emotionally engaging.
9. THX 1138 (1971)
This might seem like a controversial opinion but I genuinely think that ‘THX 1138’ is George Lucas‘ greatest film. The film is set in a dystopian future where people are mostly drugged, prohibited from sexual intercourse and are under total control of the society. Things take a turn when some of them reduce their drug intake and begin to get a clearer picture of life around them. Lucas’ unpolished cinematic vision is clearly on display here in a very dark, cold depiction of distant future society that isn’t far from possibility. The film wasn’t instantly acclaimed during its time and was rediscovered much later to garner a very strong cult following.
8. The Quiet Earth (1985)
This little gem from New Zealand has to be one of the most fascinating sci-fi films I’ve ever seen. A man wakes up to find himself alone on Earth. There are cars and buildings but there seems to be no sign of human life. However, he comes across two more survivors and things begin to turn more complex. The film moves at a glacial pace with the first hour entirely focusing on building the atmosphere and seems to take place in real time. ‘The Quiet Earth’ must be watched for its inventiveness and the silent questions it poses on humanity, life and existence.
7. 12 Monkeys (1995)
A deadly virus breaks out in 1996 and destroys all human lives. A man is sent back in time to discover the cause and origin of this virus so that scientists can work on developing a cure. Directed by the maverick filmmaker Terry Gilliam, the film brilliantly depicts a terrifying future that seems frighteningly possible. Gilliam’s cold, eccentric vision makes this less of an emotional experience but instead makes you think of the frightening possibilities that exist well within the realms of human existence. ’12 Monkeys’ is sci-fi at its most intriguing, frightening and most importantly, believable.
6. Brazil (1985)
The wildly eccentric cinematic genius of Terry Gilliam has given us some of the most original, inventive works of cinematic art. ‘Brazil’ is a satire that takes the form of a dystopian sci-fi genre in order to mock totalitarianism and bureaucracy. The film’s darkly humorous tone goes well in line with the inherent eccentricity of the storyline. ‘Brazil’ was widely acclaimed for its bizarrely brilliant visual aesthetics and is today considered to be one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.
5. The Matrix (1999)
‘The Matrix’ changed the way sci-fis were made in Hollywood. It’s a shame that the Wachowskis never managed to produce something that came anywhere near breathing distance of this roaring masterpiece; not even its sequels. ‘The Matrix’ is set in a dystopian future where reality is beyond control as human lives are subdued by machines. The film is a technical marvel and displays remarkable inventiveness and audacity. And unlike many sci-fis which have aged badly, ‘The Matrix’ still manages to hold up well, not just from an aesthetic point of view but even in terms of the content and storytelling.
4. Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang’s pioneering sci-fi drama takes place in a dystopian future where the vast population of the city are segregated by classes. The son of the city’s ruler falls in love with a beautiful girl who belongs to the working class and this turns the story as he realizes that his father is part of the system and that he needs to figure out some ways to bring parity among classes in the city. It was widely praised for its visuals but Lang was criticized for the film’s apparent political messages. ‘Metropolis’ laid the foundation for the genre and is one among the first feature length movies of the sci-fi genre.
3. Blade Runner (1982)
Ridley Scott‘s masterpiece is a startling portrait of a dystopian Los Angeles filled with genetically engineered creatures. A man, who is a retired blade runner, is shouldered with one last assignment which is to hunt down a group of bio-engineered replicants that pose a threat to humanity. Known for the controversies regarding the studio executives’ frequent interruption, the film wasn’t taken in as an instant classic at the time due to the different versions that were released. However, despite the initial mixed reviews, the film attained a massive cult following and is today regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made.
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2. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuaron‘s wildly ambitious dystopian thriller takes place in 2027 when humanity is faced with the threat of extinction after failing to reproduce for more than 18 years. A masterclass in direction, the film is famous for its long takes that brilliantly manages to build tension in a way you’ve never experienced before. Some of the sequences are absolutely jaw dropping and the film tackles the technical aspects of the story with remarkable authenticity. Watch out for that nerve-racking car sequence. It’s as brilliantly riveting and emotionally involving as sci-fis can get.
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1. A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Whatever Stanley Kubrick did turned into something legendary. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is among his most acclaimed works and continues to be regarded as a masterpiece of the dystopian sci-fi genre. The film’s take on the inherent value of an individual’s freedom still rings true in today’s times and scarily enough, the depiction of the world it creates now seems relatable. While the violence depicted in the film might not seem very effective today, the content has surely aged well. It’s a masterful examination of violence, nihilism, freedom, morality, corruption in the society.
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