Dystopian Movies Through the Ages: From Metropolis to The Hunger Games

With all the climate, economic, political and humanitarian crises the world is dealing with right now, it can be easy to get discouraged.

“The world is an awful place,” you might think. “In just a few short years the world economy will just plain collapse—which might not be so bad, but only because we’ll be too distracted by all the irreparable damage we’ll have done to the Earth by that point to worry all that much about credit card debt and job insecurity. Of course, if political tensions come to a boil and nuclear conflict erupts, I might be dead before then anyway, which I guess would be… good?”

Well buckle up, Sunshine! The world might not be perfect, but at least the government doesn’t kidnap children and force them to fight to the death, like in The Hunger Games, out in theaters today.

As bad as things have gotten at any point in recent history, dystopian movies have always been there to remind us of one simple fact: It could be much, much worse. With that in mind, MovieMaker is taking a look at dystopias through the ages—a dystopian classic from each decade (minus one), 1920s to the present. Now get your act together, humanity, or some of these movies might start to seem much less implausible.

 

1920s

Metropolis (1927)
directed by Fritz Lang

Photograph Courtesy of Kino Video

Image Courtesy of Kino Video

This German expressionist silent masterpiece takes place in the city of Metropolis, where the wealthy few cavort in gardens and party in nightclubs, completely ignorant of the underground workers toiling night and day to keep the city running. Freder, the carefree son of the city’s leader, Joh Fredersen, falls in love with Maria, a working-class prophet who preaches unity between the the leaders and the workers. Unbeknownst to Freder, his father has enlisted the help of the inventor Rotwang—in addition to being one of cinema’s creepiest mad scientists, he also has the most hilarious name—in creating an automaton to assume Maria’s image and sow discord among the workers, giving Jon Fredersen a reason to crack down on them.

Even though the movie is over 80 years old, its theme of class inequality is of particular relevance today, and the film’s amazing visuals have never gotten old. The dual performances of Brigitte Helm, who plays both Maria and her robot counterpart, are nothing short of amazing, the sweet innocence of the peaceful prophet making the unhinged, brutal hedonism of the Maria-bot even more unnerving.

 

1930s

Things to Come (1936)
directed by William Cameron Menzies

Photograph Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Image Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

It’s hard to know what to make of this movie, a propaganda-heavy generation-spanning epic penned by H.G. Wells. It begins on Christmas Eve, 1940 in the fictional British city Everytown, just as the city is attacked via air by an unnamed enemy (given that this is a British movie made in 1936, I think we can all guess who this is supposed to be), decimating the town and heralding the start of a war that lasts for decades and ushers in a new Dark Age. Post-war Everytown is an independent city-state ruled by the “Chief” (Ralph Richardson), who wages constant war against the neighboring hill people in the name of “victorious peace.” Things are pretty bad in Everytown until a new, peaceful civilization not-so-snappily named Wings Over the World shows up to dose the citizens of Everytown with “gas of peace” and usher in a new era free of war. By the year 2036, technology has advanced to the point that humans can be sent into outer space to explore the vast reaches of the universe. From war to dystopia to utopia, all in less than 100 years.

What’s really weird, though, is that Wings Over the World was established by a group of scientists and engineers whose raison d’être is technological progress at all costs. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that tends to be the MO of the bad guys, not the heroes, right? Far from coming across as the saviors of humanity, Wings Over the World seems more like the sort of despotic dystopian regime to be found in some other movie on this list. And at the end of the movie, Everytown leader Oswald Cabal (Raymond Massey) sends his own daughter and her boyfriend, both of whom seem more than a little brainwashed by Papa Cabal’s obsession with technology, on a dangerous mission into space despite the fact that A) it’s likely to kill them and B) the citizens of Everytown don’t approve of the mission, which they see as a symbol of Cabal’s “tyranny.” But screw democracy—this is scientific progress we’re talking about!

 

1940s

For some reason, there weren’t too many dystopian movies made during this decade. I guess pessimistic sci-fi epics just weren’t high on many moviemakers’ list of priorities… wonder why

 

1950s

On the Beach (1959)
directed by Stanley Kramer

Photograph Courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment

Image Courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment

The most optimistic movie on this list, On the Beach depicts a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia wherein the the only place human life hasn’t been completely wiped out is Australia. Gregory Peck stars as Dwight Lionel Towers, the commander of an American submarine whose crew survived the nuclear apocalypse by virtue of being underwater when it happened. After making their way to Australia, the crew of the USS Sawfish meets up with the last survivors of the human race, who are preparing for death as a cloud of nuclear radiation makes its slow, inevitable progress toward their island nation. So why optimistic? The characters in On the Beach look at their encroaching doom as an opportunity to do things they’d always wanted to do but never did, like fall in love or take up car racing. It doesn’t matter how idealistic you are, we all know what people would really be doing in this situation: Hoarding the government-provided suicide pills to sell at a profit, rioting in the streets and looting, looting, looting. In On the Beach, the extinction of humanity is actually rather peaceful… once the whole “mushroom cloud” phase is through, anyway.

 

1960s

La Jetée (1962)
directed by Chris Marker

Photograph Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

Image Courtesy of The Criterion Collection

The plot of La Jetée will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Terry Gilliam’s 1995 dystopian thriller 12 Monkeys, which is based on this short film by French writer/director Marker. The film takes place post-World War III in Paris—or, more accurately, under Paris, as radioactivity has made the Earth’s surface uninhabitable and driven what few survivors there are into the sewers. Life’s not good for anyone, but the particularly unlucky get chosen by The Experimenter (Jacques Ledoux) to be test subjects as he attempts to send people through time so they can solicit help from past and future generations. Most of his tests are unsuccessful, his guinea pigs either killed or driven insane, but one man (Davos Hanich) is able to travel, not only to the past, but to the future… not that things end up particularly well for him, either.

As chilling as the plot of La Jetée is, the most remarkable aspect of the film is its cinematography: Black-and-white still photos, which are overlaid with a third-person narration that relates the events of the film in unsettlingly clinical prose. Though technically devoid of movement, La Jetée comes to life in the mind of its viewer, and one can almost see movement in each individual frame.
Also from this decade: The Trial, Planet of the Apes, Alphaville

 

1970s

Soylent Green (1973)
directed by Richard Fleischer

Photograph Courtesy of Getty Images

Image Courtesy of Getty Images

Say it with me now: “Soylent Green is people!” It’s the year 2022, and overpopulation has led to the near-complete depletion of the planet’s resources, to the point that only the super-rich can afford actual fruits, vegetables and meat, the unwashed masses having to survive on an ever-dwindling supply of “Soylent.” (Soylents Red and Yellow are “high-energy vegetable concentrates,” and the more-popular Soylent Green is—well, you know.) When a high-up in the Soylent Corporation is murdered, Detective Thorne’s (Charlton Heston) investigation into the case leads him inexorably closer to the knowledge of what humanity’s food supply is actually made out of. The movie ends on an extremely depressing note—Thorne, like his mentor Sol (Edward G. Robinson, in his last film role), pays for his knowledge with his life, and though with his dying words he entreats his boss to spread the truth, you’re left feeling that even if people do find out they’re being forced into cannibalism, they’d probably be too hungry to care.
Also from this decade: A Clockwork Orange, Logan’s Run, Mad Max, THX 1138, Sleeper, Death Race 2000, The Omega Man

 

1980s

Escape from New York (1981)
directed by John Carpenter

Photograph Courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studio Canal

Image Courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studio Canal

Everything you need to know about this film can be deduced from two simple words: Snake. Plissken. Even if you know nothing about this movie besides the name of its main character, you can be reasonably sure of a few things: It’s an action movie, probably featuring a badass who doesn’t take to authority in the lead role, with plenty of other over-the-top characters to fill out the cast. Frequent use of animal prints and/or leather is probable. Chances of this being an ‘80s movie: 99 percent. And that, my friends, is pretty much all you need to know about Escape from New York. OK, there’s a plot, albeit a ridiculous one: It’s the year 1997 (hey, it was the future then!), and all of Manhattan is now a maximum security prison, which ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) must infiltrate in order to rescue the President, who was stranded after Air Force One crashed over the island. But who cares? The plot is overshadowed by all the crazy clothes, feathered hair and whacktastical one-liners that put the “80s” into this “80s classic.” And when your main character is named Snake Plissken, that’s really how it should be.
Also from this decade: Brazil, RoboCop, They Live, Blade Runner, Akira, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, 1984

 

1990s

The Matrix (1999)
directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski

Photograph Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Keanu Reeves stars in this game-changing sci-fi classic, in which… ah, who am I kidding, you know this one. While its two sequels didn’t exactly live up to the hype, The Matrix was a rare beast of a sci-fi action film: An R-rated epic, it gave audiences a healthy dose of brain food to go along with its gunfights, kung fu and skin-tight black pleather. Sure, the idea of the real world being an artificial construct used to keep humanity docile is nothing new (among the things The Matrix is accused of having shamelessly stolen from are: William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer, Grant Morrison’s comic book series The Invisibles and Alex Proyas’ film Dark City), but still, it’s nice to be given something to think about in between fight scenes. Neither The Matrix Reloaded nor The Matrix Revolutions did much to expand the intriguing dystopian premise presented in the first film (not in a way that made sense, anyway), but the fact that the two later films were such disappointments only makes The Matrix look better in retrospect.
Also from this decade: Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, The City of Lost Children, Tank Girl, Twelve Monkeys, Gattaca, Dark City

 

2000s

Battle Royale (2000)
directed by Kinji Fukasaku

Photograph Courtesy of Toei Company

Image Courtesy of Toei Company

Ah yes, the movie The Hunger Games writer Suzanne Collins is most frequently accused of ripping off. The setup of the two is, admittedly, similar: A group of kids are are forced to a remote location to fight each other to the death for public entertainment. While it’s true that The Hunger Games is more violent than most teen books, Battle Royale really exploits its gruesome premise for all it’s worth. (Let’s just say a fair amount money was probably spent on fake blood.) In addition to being more violent, several factors make Battle Royale an all-around more morbid film, primary among them the fact that a single ninth-grade class is chosen for the game, meaning its 42 participants are being forced to kill their best friends, rivals and sweethearts. Some take the high road: Shuya and Noriko, seen earlier in the film making googly eyes at each other while en route to their “field trip,” refuse to kill anyone. Then you have students like Mitsuko, a rebellious outcast who uses the game as an opportunity to gleefully butcher the classmates who were mean to her. Unfortunately for them, that’s pretty much everyone.
Also from this decade: V for Vendetta, Children of Men, Idiocracy, The Road, Equilibrium, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, WALL·E

 

2010s

Never Let Me Go (2010)
directed by Mark Romanek

Photograph Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The odd man out amongst dystopia movies, Never Let Me Go is devoid of cyperpunk, anti-heroes, government conspiracies or even violence—though certainly not death. The film takes place in an unspecified future time shortly after humanity has figured out how to cure just about every major disease: By cloning human beings for the purpose of harvesting organs from them. Main characters Ruth, Tommy and Kathy grow up in a boarding school isolated from the rest of humanity, with their health carefully monitored to make sure the hearts, lungs and livers that will eventually go to other people are being kept in tip-top shape. Neither the movie nor the book it was based on show much of this future society that has managed to make illness obsolete, and what glimpses we do get show a world not that different from ours. To everyone in the outside world, things couldn’t be better—but it’s the clones, sacrificial lambs to the God of modern medicine, who have to pay the cost. While many dystopian movies have the oppressed minority rise up to overthrow an unjust regime, by the end of Never Let Me Go, Kathy, the only main character left alive, has come to accept her eventual fate. Yeah, it’s a depressing movie.
Also from this decade: In Time MM

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