The impulse toward the future, dreamed or feared, always ran through the collective imagination in culture between the 1960s and the late 1990s, a period of deep mutations where we already imagined a hypothetical dystopian society.
Just like fashion and politics, cinema also captured in its storylines the anxieties and hopes of an era in flux, projecting them into visions of an eerie and fascinating future.
During that period, the world witnessed a series of political changes from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the awakening of Asian powers, causing the uncertainty and challenges of the present to merge with the prospects of tomorrow into a harsher and often cynical outlook.
However, it is not only politics that has influenced this projection: family and social dynamics also changed with the explosion of the digital age, which profoundly altered the social fabric, leading cinema to stories set in the not-too-distant future, where humanity must reckon with the consequences of its own progress.
The Internet has paradoxically created new kinds of loneliness, underscoring the relationship between global connectivity and individual alienation, a recurring theme and basis for many dystopian story in which the utopia of total connection collides with the shadow of isolation.
In this context, population growth and pollution added a further layer to concerns about the future challenged by human expansion and industrialization, making us ponder the unsustainability of a development model that disregards the planet’s limits.
All these elements have contributed to a cinematic landscape full of tensions and unanswered questions, from which we now take seven adventure films that have shown us a dystopian society looking at the future through the eyes of the past.
Table of contents
Let’s start with a bit of action horror from 1996 that only a few people have forgotten, and many probably never even knew about.
The story takes place in the future (for the time), 2007, in a dystopian Europe where society is in the abyss of anarchy and fear starting in Russia.
It might seem similar to the present moment, but I wonder if director and screenwriter Albert Pyun could have foreseen Vladimir Putin’s expansionist aims.
In this future, a deadly virus will arrive after food and water need to bring what remains of the population to its knees.
Many survivors flee for the promised land in America, whose government confines the immigrants to a reception center.
The center originally had to be a temporary measure, but given the impossibility of accommodating all the fugitives, it became a veritable city of pain and despair.
In one of its uninhabited neighborhoods, a young policewoman checks on a distress call in an uninhabited prison, finding several horribly mutilated bodies on the upper floor, when a mysterious killer murders her colleague.
Having miraculously escaped the monster, she immediately calls for backup, and three other colleagues arrive to help her, but at that point, the creature closes the security doors, trapping them inside and beginning to kill them one by one.
As a B-Movie veteran, Pyun blends fake news reports and an atmosphere of decay and despair with classic, claustrophobic horror in an immigrant confinement zone.
Despite not aspiring to an Oscar, this B-Movie has a unique charm thanks to an excellent direction that builds a terrifying dystopian society you will remember.
The Running Man (1987)
The story occurs in a hypothetical dystopian society of 2017, where the government distracts the public from painful reality with extremely violent television programs.
However, this does not prevent constant clashes and protests against the police, during one of which a helicopter pilot mercilessly slays a crowd of unarmed citizens.
At least, that is the official story the news broadcasts, but, in reality, the man refused to open fire, ending up in jail under the false accusation of being a dangerous psycho.
In prison, he meets some members of the resistance who are trying to oppose the daily lives of the networks, working with them to pull off a spectacular escape.
Unfortunately, after he’s out, they arrest him again, but instead of going to jail, he has an interview with a bigwig who offers him a chance to participate in the most successful television program, The Running Man.
Through decadent neighborhoods, the man and his new friends must survive attacks from the network’s deadly hunters.
This film is a hilarious satire on the ruthless television industry, directed by Paul Michael Glaser, the famous David Starsky of the Starsky & Hutch series.
Although Stephen King‘s novel remains undoubtedly superior, this 1980s action deftly scorns the tyrannies of all times in a futuristic context.
Although merely a merry-go-round of fights and chases, The Running Man seems as prophetic as ever toward social isolation, ubiquitous technology, and the success of reality shows.
Mad Max (1979)
I doubt this movie really needs any introduction, as the dystopian society it depicts has been the basis for dozens of post-apocalyptic stories of all kinds.
At the dawn of a long and successful film saga, Max Rockatansky is a brave young policeman who is part of the Main Force Patrol, the last defense against bandits wreaking havoc on Australia’s highways.
Indeed society as we know it has collapsed. Political order has disappeared, and in its place, chaos reigns. Resources such as fuel and water have become precious and cause for struggle, making survival an exercise in brutality.
Max’s life changes drastically after a violent showdown with the motorcycle thug Nightrider, unfortunately making his town a target for the cruel Toecutter and his gang.
After losing his wife and child, in a rage and desire for revenge, Max climbs into his iconic V8 Interceptor to hunt down and exterminate the gang members one by one.
Although the apocalypse has not yet truly arrived in this story, George Miller makes us realize that the end of humanity is now near, laying the groundwork for a successful franchise whose next chapter will arrive in 2024 with Furiosa, a fantastic character who is practically Max’s female mirror image.
In addition, the film is the start of a very young Mel Gibson career, who, between ups and downs, personal scandals, and professional comebacks, perhaps over the years, has become more mad in real life than as Mad Max.
Needless to count, the influences of this fictional dystopian society in film and television, from the famous manga Fist of the North Star to such emulators as Waterworld or The Walking Dead, where Max’s soul lives on and on with no end in sight.
Logan’s Run (1976)
We continue in the dystopian future of 2274, where the entire human society lives in a utopia inside some domes, being born and dying within 30 years.
Here lives our hero, Logan 5, who, along with his friend Francis 7, are guardians who must kill those who try to escape the horrible “Renewal” ritual through a system of crystals in the palm of each inhabitant that turns black when their time comes.
However, one day the city’s central computer assigns him the task of infiltrating the Runners, an underground group opposed to Renewal, and finding their hideout outside the city, known as Sanctuary.
To motivate him to act, the computer resets his crystal count to zero, making the other guards think it’s time to hunt him down, while he will try hard to escape along with the beautiful Jessica 6, a Runners’ maiden who first tries to lure him into a trap, but then will be forced to escape along with him.
Not many people remember Michael Anderson, director of Around the World in 80 Days from Jules Verne‘s great novel, but his talents range from drama to war movie or the visionary dystopia of this fantastic Logan’s Run, always with that dash of adventure to set the pace of his stories.
In this sense, the relationship between Michael York and Richard Jordan, friends who become mortal enemies, is very captivating, as is the inevitable but elegant romance between York and the idealistic Jenny Agutter.
Finally, let’s remember the magnificent and very young Farrah Fawcett, former Charlie’s Angels blonde in a small and unfortunate role as a beauty center clerk from the future.
Of course, to see it today, the special effects are a bit silly, but the ideas are still stronger and more effective than ever.
Then I could not avoid recommending Zardoz, one of the finest science fiction films ever and not only of the 1970s, starring the unforgettable Sean Connery.
Once again, we are in the distant post-apocalyptic future of 2293, where society lives into strictly separate classes.
Within communities walled off by invisible barriers called Vortexes, citizens carry a seemingly serene existence, lulling in the luxury of eternal life with abundant food and culture.
Outside, however, we have hunters enslaving barbarians to farm the land, hoping to gain the paradise promised by Zardoz, a flying knucklehead who brings food offerings inside the towns forbidden to them.
One of these exterminators, Zed, violates the pact and manages to enter the Vortex, spared by citizens with mighty mental powers only to be studied and domesticated like an animal.
But by underestimating Zed’s mind, they will only sign their condemnation because the man’s real purpose is to pave the way for the invasion of his fellow exterminators.
My first viewing of Zardoz immediately ignited a passion for the incomparable Sean Connery, a charismatic leading figure in this post-apocalyptic amalgam of savage brutality and refined elegance.
Behind the intricate maze of mysteries, we have the superb hypocrisy of a society that disguises imprisonment as a privilege, also victims of suffocating immortality, a direct consequence of technological progress turned against humanity.
John Boorman, director of such immense films as Excalibur, exploits Zed to trigger a social earthquake, where he elevates the splendid and very young Charlotte Rampling, the spoiled and arrogant leader of Vortex, who becomes an antagonist with increasingly ambiguous overtones.
A film that is already history, where absolute control comes from myth, like the very name of Zardoz, is nothing but a cruel deception against men.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away from the Star Wars franchise, it took place George Lucas‘ directorial debut.
In this dystopian future, we follow an unnamed worker, distinguished from other members of society only by his identification code, THX 1138.
Politicians and rulers are only a distant memory, replaced by ubiquitous computers that monitor and govern every aspect of human life.
The worker’s quiet monotony ends when a woman induces him to refuse the daily psychotropic drugs to ensure population control.
The unthinkable secret relationship that ensues, since sex is illegal and procreation comes only into artificial sacs, results in a pregnancy that cannot remain hidden.
Although the man attempts to maintain an appearance of normalcy, the rediscovery of his feelings and thoughts affects his productivity, compromising his position.
Then when the pregnancy is discovered, punishment is inevitable: the computer system imprisons him to a forced reeducation institution.
Imprisonment, however, does not tame him, and renewed in awareness and will, he escapes to leave a world that is now unrecognizable and incomprehensible to him.
George Lucas paints a sharp and sarcastic portrait of a future dominated by a dehumanizing bureaucracy, in which productive efficiency reigns supreme and individual identity is an obsolete concept.
Famous for the fantasy-adventure epicenter of Star Wars, the director began his career with this inevitable box-office failure that critics soon forgot.
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, it boasts superb performances by Robert Duvall, a future mad-surfing colonel in Apocalypse Now, and Donald Pleasence, famed personal physician to the maniac in Halloween.
Their performance gives this sinister dystopia a fascinating magnetism that deserves to be appreciated beyond the cinematic eras to come, always.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
As I always try to do, we end with fireworks from the best dystopian story in film history, Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut‘s 1960s manifesto from Ray Bradbury‘s literary masterpiece of the same name that is as relevant as ever, even in the context of our modern society.
In a civilization dominated by censorship and repression, Guy Montag is a fireman who, in this upside-down world, is instead tasked with unearthing and burning books, symbols of independent thought and creativity, and therefore a danger to the system.
His meeting with Clarisse, a lively and curious young woman, raises doubts about his destructive task, and the girl’s passion for literature shakes the foundations of Montag’s orderly and predictable world.
Montag will question society’s rigid code, driven definitely to rebellion by the attempted suicide of his wife, Mildred, who is so alienated that she swallows drugs like candy.
So Montag decides to steal a book during one of his fires, triggering an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that will lead to the inevitable confrontation with his superior, Captain Beatty, who is instead firmly devoted to the system.
Truffaut’s vision stamps his signature on the history of the New Wave with a film of powerful social impact that raises profound and disturbing questions about freedom of thought, censorship, and cultural homogenization.
Oskar Werner, as Guy Montag, accurately portrays the torment of a man who struggles between duty and the desire for intellectual freedom with a compelling, at times funny, and ultimately moving performance.
In the dual role of Clarisse and Mildred, Julie Christie offers a critical dramatic duality in her lively portrayal of Clarisse, which contrasts like a punch in the gut with Mildred’s resigned and vacuous one, highlighting the dichotomy between freedom and conformity.