Post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world stories have been grabbing moviegoers’ attention for decades. People often wonder what the world will be like in the future, and dystopian movies satiate that curiosity. Human beings’ existence inevitably impacts the well-being of this planet and these dystopian stories elaborate on the breadth of that impact. Climate change, population control, and water and food supply are equally troublesome things that people likely do not think about on a daily basis, but they are certainly things we should be worried about. Dystopian movies give us a visual depiction of what our world could look like if a disaster or crisis strikes that we are unprepared for.
These types of stories are fascinating for that very reason. We may know that the likelihood of destroying our planet or starting wars over food that would cause society’s downfall is possible, but still, most of us can’t actually imagine these things actually happening. That’s what draws us to these movies because we can’t really picture our society crumbling and fighting for our survival. Movies take our imagination about dystopian society and make them look and feel real. Many of these movies are set in the United States, so it hits close to home for American audiences.
The U.S. is highly populated and large geographically. So, to see this incredibly vast and expansive country in complete shambles after the fall of society is both strange and captivating. The storylines and character arcs in dystopian movies are usually completely engrossing as well, which only enhances the appeal of these post-civilization movies. They often expand on existing problems in the U.S. or in the world in general, therefore making it feel more realistic. With dystopia now on your mind, here are ten great movies about dystopian America:
Many movies of different genres take place in New York City, so we have seen the city’s five boroughs put through various situations and events. Still, seeing the city that never sleeps without its typical hustle and bustle is discomforting.
I Am Legend depicts NYC exactly like that, with no one hurrying down the streets or horns constantly honking. It would be a barren wasteland if it wasn’t for the numerous sleek buildings still standing because there are simply no living beings in sight. Except for Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his German Shepard companion, the last two remaining survivors of a devastating plague that wiped out most of humanity and turned the rest into vicious monsters. Robert and his dog, Sam, go about their new daily routine of testing out antidotes on rats and sending out radio messages to potential survivors instructing them to meet at the South Street Seaport. At night, Robert barricades himself and Sam in their Washington Square Park home to protect themselves from the Darkseekers.
I Am Legend is the type of dystopian movie that we fear because if it happened in real life, we know it would mean the end of the world as we know it. Nonetheless, it’s also something we want to watch because we root for the survival of Robert, and therefore the human race.
In the year 2274, society appears to be idyllic in the dome-enclosed city where little to no work is required and people are free to live a life of pleasure. There is a catch, however. Once a person reaches the age of 30, they are required to participate in a ritual ceremony called the Carrousel rite, which promises a chance at rebirth, but is really a death sentence to control the population. People who try to escape this fate are called Runners, and the people tasked with tracking them down are called Sandmen.
Logan’s Run follows one of these Sandmen as he discovers the truth behind what really happens at the Carrousel and decides to flee the dome city with another Runner named Jessica (Jenny Agutter) to the outside world that they call the Sanctuary. Once they escape the dome, they discover that the rest of the country has become wilderness, and end up in the remains of what was Washington D.C. It is there that Logan (Michael York) and Jessica learn what’s true and what is a myth about both the Carrousel and the Sanctuary.
The wave of young adult dystopian novels-turned movies experienced a surge in the early 2010s. One of the many adaptations that was made during the time was James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States after a massive solar flare devastated the planet and left a deadly disease known as the flare in its wake.
It follows a teenage boy named Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) after he wakes up disoriented in an elevator that brings him to a place called The Glade that is governed by about 30 other teenage boys. None of them have any recollection of their pasts or any idea why they are stuck in this place, which surrounded by a giant maze patrolled by bioengineered creatures called Grievers. When a comatose teenage girl arrives shortly after with a note, their life of captivity is disrupted. The boys divide into two factions, those who are willing to risk their lives for a chance to escape, and those who want to cling to the little they do have.
Stephen Spielberg has worked in many film genres throughout his over 50-year career in the industry, but in the early 2000s, he took a special interest in the dystopian genre. Set in the not-so-far-off future where the polar ice caps have melted and all the coastal cities of the world have drowned, A.I. Artificial Intelligence follows an 11-year-old boy named David (Haley Joel Osment), a sweet kid whose love for his adoptive parents is real, but he is not.
David is an AI-powered robot child who is capable of feeling human emotions and love for others and was adopted by a woman whose son was kept in a cryo-stasis. When her real son returns home, David’s life changes completely. The movie mostly follows David in his journey through what’s left of the U.S. to becoming “real” to regain the love and affection of his adoptive mother, but it also shows a dystopian world where instead of struggling to survive, humanity advanced and continues to thrive despite the state of the world’s climate situation. It also shows that love comes in many forms, even when the world has drastically changed.
Set a futuristic Los Angeles in 2019 (which at the time was 37 years into the future) where human-like androids called Replicants have become illegal on Earth after they started a mutiny on an off-Earth colony instead of aiding society as they were designed to do. A specialized police unit, called Blade Runners, was created to “retire” any Replicants who still remained on Earth.
Former blade runner Richard Decker (Harrison Ford) is called out of retirement when four dangerous combat-model Replicants are discovered on Earth trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, the company that created them. The dystopian design of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner sees L.A. as a technologically advanced city, but also a city where crime is rampant and the fear of Replicants taking over is real. Except, not all Replicants are seeking to destroy the human race.
Stephen Spielberg was back on his dystopia kick just a year after A.I. Artifical Intelligence with his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Minority Report. The story takes place in 2054 where crime is virtually eliminated in Washington D.C. thanks to a specialized police unit called “Precrime”. They use three people called Pre-Cogs who have the ability to see into the future to predict crimes and stop them before they happen.
Leader of the Precrime unit John Anderton (Tom Cruise) believes in the system wholeheartedly, until one of the Pre-Cogs predicts he will murder a victim he doesn’t even know in the next 36 hours. John decides to figure out the minority report, which may tell a different version of the Pre-Cog’s prediction and prove his innocence. This is another film where the depiction of dystopian society showcases an advance society rather than a crumbling one despite whatever the state of the world may be. Even the seemingly flourishing societies, however, have their flaws. Imagine being accused of a crime days before you supposedly will commit it.
The first Terminator movie set up future dystopian environment of Los Angles when the T-800 Terminator model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent from the future to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and her unborn son John Connor at the request of Skynet.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, ten years have passed since the first Terminator tried to kill them. John, the future leader of the human resistance against the machines, is now a healthy ten-year-old boy. However, a newer and more advanced model of the Terminator called the T-1000 has been sent through time by Skynet to fulfill the first model’s mission of killing John. The sequel ups the ante in terms of its dystopian society and elevates the ever-present threat that Skynet poses on all of humanity.
In Alex Garland’s sci-fi horror film Annihilation, a cellular biologist and former U.S. Army soldier named Lena (Natalie Portman) puts her name forward for an expedition in to a quarantined zone where animals and plants are mutating due to an alien presence. The disaster zone is mysteriously called the Shimmer and is located in Blackwater National Park in Florida, where a meteor landed three years prior. Lena’s husband ventured into the area before her, but he came home after a year away without the rest of his crew and with his mind deteriorating. Soon after arriving at the eerie disaster zone herself with her own crew, Lena realizes that the laws of nature don’t apply there and nothing is what it seems.
Something that sets Annihilation apart from other dystopian films is that this shows the audience the beginning stages of how a society gets to that point. It shows the multiple crews of scientists who venture into the unknown to figure out what happened and how to prevent it from spreading to no avail. Once something like that occurs, it’s nearly impossible to set things back the way they were. It also touches on the psychological aspect of events such as this and how human beings are not prepared to handle what they don’t understand.
The Wachowskis changed the game for sci-fi movies when they released their pop culture phenomenon The Matrix in 1999. The film is set in a truly dystopian world where society is unknowingly trapped in a simulation created by intelligent machines to distract human beings while they use their bodies as sources of energy.
Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a computer programmer by day and an expert hacker named Neo by night in the Matrix who has always questioned his reality. It isn’t until he is contacted by legendary hacker Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) when he is targeted by the police who want to keep him trapped in his simulated reality. This leads Neo to join the rebellion against the super-powered machines devoted to keeping humanity under its regime. The Matrix is quintessential viewing for anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction and its well choreographed action sequences paired with a complex storyline make it one of the best dystopian films of the 20th century.
The immense popularity of Suzanne Collins’ YA book series is in large part responsible for not just the uptick in movie adaptations of YA novels, but specifically adaptations of YA dystopian novels in the 2010s. The Twilight Saga’s start in 2008 certainly increased popularity for the YA book genre, but The Hunger Games took that popularity to a new level. Set in the North American continent, the former United States is now split into 12 districts and a Capitol region in what is now called Panem, a totalitarian society ruled by the heartless President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Each year, a male and female teenage representative from each district is selected to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a brutal competition that forces its competitors to eliminate the others until one teen is left standing, and it is broadcast to all of Panem for the Capitol’s entertainment and the districts’ horror. The citizens of Panem already must fight for survival in a country where food is scarce, and the government is unforgiving, but the addition of an annual game where teenagers must literally fight to the death for the pure amusement of the only wealthy people left in society is despicable, and unfortunately fitting for a dystopian society. The determination of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her comrades, however, provide the necessary hope for the citizens of Panem that change can happen.