Thursday, March 25, 2010


In literature, the term "Dystopia", in contrast to a "Utopia", refers to an environmental context in which a story is told that you would not wish to live in because there is something terribly wrong with it. This does NOT include situations where the world is simply oppressed by some evil empire. In that case, it's not the world itself that is messed up, just the entity currently in power. It also usually does not refer to bad places that are set apart from the rest of the world. No, in a dystopia, EVERYONE is screwed. It is the thing both the good guys and the bad guys have to deal with.

In science fiction, although a dystopia can be set on some other world altogether, the best ones are set in Earth's future, which has changed for the worse either by natural evolution or some great catstrophe. These have greater impact because they hit close to home. One of the first of these was a great silent film from the 1920's called Metropolis and directed by Fritz Lang. There is a beautifully restored release on DVD that I finally got a chance to view not too long ago and I think it is a must see for any fan. I recommend getting the commentary subtitles because it is difficult to follow in many parts due to the generational gap as well as missing footage. There are themes involving Greek mythology, Catholic tradition, and class disparities that floated in the common psyche at that time.

Recently, these types of movies have become more mainstream. A new wave of them broke in the 80's with big name stars on the billing like Blade Runner and Mad MaxThe Matrix series is, in my opinion, one of the best in recent years. But there are so many, both good and bad, that I thought it would be interesting to try to list them, or at least the more widely acclaimed ones. So here goes, sci-fi only, with some added shuffling:

Fahrenheit 451
Soylent Green
Logan's Run
Planet of the Apes
THX 1138
Blade Runner
Dark City
Matrix Trilogy
Terminator: Salvation
Aeon Flux

These are borderline, in my opinion, because they involve futures that are different, but not necessarily dysfunctional:
Minority Report

Didn't Make the List:
I did not include dystopias based on populations wiped out by disease, like I Am Legend, or by global war, like Mad Max or Waterworld, where the only sci-fi aspect to them is the cause of the catastrophe itself. 12 Monkeys is like that, and it additionally involves time travel, but the main story happens BEFORE the catastrophe rather than after and focuses on it's prevention. A few bonafide dystopias were left out on the embarrassment factor, including Johnny Mnemonic.

A final category are the few films that are bold enough to create a future in which the entire earth has been destoyed, like Titan A.E. and Battlestar Galactica. I think I'd put them in the space opera category instead but they are certainly related.

Do you have a favorite sci-fi dystopia that's not listed?

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