The future… may not be all that bright. The world can be a pretty grim place, so it’s no wonder that many have wondered what tomorrow would hold if these trends continue. With this in mind, Ed Boff looks at a selection of grim, dark futures on film, and how they link to this week’s Elysium. One important distinction should be made before starting; post-apocalyptic movies aren’t being counted. A dystopian movie should be about a reflection on society, and that doesn’t work if, in-story, there is no society …
Metropolis (Main Picture)
One of the first epic science fiction films is also one of the best dystopias, with its themes turning up time and time again in the genre. A production that pretty much bankrupted its studio, Fritz Lang‘s vision of the future was based around a conflict of class. The concept of the conflict between the rich and poor has always been a potent theme in these stories, and Elysium is no exception. Here Lang offers a potent vision of a wondrous vision of the future, but also the human cost of making it work.
The story involves the love between the son of a major industrialist and a “voice of the people”, Maria, complicated by his father’s machinations with a mad scientist and his robot. Across it’s now restored three hour runtime, the film offers startling imagery, not just of future technology, but contrasting mythology. A generator is seen at one point as the mouth of a demon, one character is portrayed as the whore of Babylon, and more. It has been a huge inspiration to many over the years, from the creators of Superman to its anime sort-of remake. Interestingly, for a silent movie, it’s had a big influence on music over the years, from Kraftwerk, to Queen‘s Radio GaGa, to this …
In the seventies there was a major boom for this sort of movie, with many notable titles released. THX-1138, Rollerball, Logan’s Run – all in one boom period. There’s a number of possible reasons for this, probably the biggest one though is what was going on in the real world at the time. Seventies America was a time of tumultuous change and social upheaval, and that’s what fuelled many of these movies. If you told people then that these movies are what life would be like next week, given how things were, they’d believe you.
Soylent Green is credited as being based on Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, but has more in common with The Population Bomb from around the same time. Charlton Heston plays a cop in a New York that’s horrendously overpopulated (40 million people), investigating the murder of a Soylent food corporation executive. What he uncovers is probably the most spoiled movie twist since Rosebud, but it’s still an enjoyable film knowing that. Oddly, the film only seems vaguely interested in the whole “mystery” angle, focusing instead on the world building. Of particular note is veteran actor Edward G. Robinson, for whom this was his last film. He gets the film’s most moving, but at the same time horrifying, moment in a government sanctioned suicide clinic. When it came to sheer grimness to visions of tomorrow, no decade beats the seventies.
One of the grandfathers of the whole genre is of course George Orwell’s classic novel 1984. There have been quite a lot of adaptations of it over the years, but it’s often more interesting to see the films inspired by it. Who’d have thought one of the most successful takes on the concept would be from one of the Monty Python team? Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil, even though it works so well as a comedy, is one of the most affecting satires ever put on film.
Brazil follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), an employee of the Ministry of Information, as he tries to find the (literal) woman of his dreams (Kim Griest). What follows is a journey through a society that’s choking to death on its own bureaucracy, portrayed by an all-star cast (including Robert De Niro as a vigilante plumber!). Through incredible dream sequences it shows the power of imagination to escape a world that’s engineered to ‘make things easier’ for us, but is actually more complicated than ever. A lot of why this movie works can be summed up with a moment in a Santa’s grotto. “And what do you want for Christmas little girl?” “My own credit card.”
The dystopian future is often good fare for action movies, and Elysium looks like it understands that perfectly. Having one man going up against a corrupt system with futuristic settings and technology is a perfect set up. There have many films of this ilk such as Equilibrium and to a degree Robocop. For this list’s pick, there’s Fortress, a lesser known title from 1993 from Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon.
John Brennick (Christopher Lambert), for breaking population control laws and fathering a child, is sent to the Fortress, a prison complex. The prison is privatized and run by a corporation, in a neat bit of satire of the time. The thing this film does well is take some of the old tropes of dystopia, cyberpunk and prison break movies, and finds new things to do with them. One example is that the prisoners are kept in line by devices in their bodies. Instead of the usual brain implants or Battle Royale collars, these are called “intestinators”. A fun script, taking some old ideas in different directions and solid production and direction make this one a good benchmark for ‘one man against a future’ fare.
For one of the (at the time of writing) most scarily plausible terrible futures, it takes the same mind that gave us Beavis and Butthead. Mike Judge‘s satire uses the old set up of ‘frozen today, wakes up in the future’ concept (a la Buck Rogers and Sleeper) to great effect. Luke Wilson is the average Joe ‘volunteered’ for a military cryogenics experiment that lasts… slightly longer than intended. In the intervening five centuries, the average IQ has plummeted, the idiots now rule the Earth, and he’s now the most intelligent man on the planet.
This comedy is merciless in its concept of a world where those that enjoy Jersey Shore are now in charge. It displays a huge imagination in its range of gags, from all water being replaced with an energy drink, to the number one TV show being “Ow, My Balls!”. Yet it still makes a proper point about the dumbing down of society, of the dangers of not nurturing true talent enough and of disposable modernity. It’s vistas of endless mountains of waste and refuse are reminiscent of Wall-E, and it tackles similar issues, in a somewhat less family friendly way. For one that will make you laugh yet despair at the same time, this is fully recommended.