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70 years of ‘1984’: Dystopia on film

  • Dystopic worlds have featured in some of the most radically inventive films of all time.
  • From ‘La Jetée’ to ‘Akira’, we pick eight reality-warping cinematic dystopias

Consumer culture caught up with dystopia when the first Hunger Games film became a hit. What used to be a subsection of sci-fi cinema is now a sprawling genre unto itself. A search for “dystopia" on Netflix yields some three dozen titles, many aimed at the Young Adult demographic. Finding new ways to show society falling into disrepair is big business now. Though dystopian cinema (and TV) is flourishing, this is hardly a recent genre: It has existed since (at least) 1927, when Fritz Lang made the silent fantasia Metropolis. As subsequent generations deal with new and pressing problems, we see these reflected in films about broken worlds, violent sects and totalitarian governments, nightmare visions brought to life using everything from arthouse severity to eye-popping animation.

Brazil (1985)

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Dystopian cinema is usually a grim affair, which makes Terry Gilliam’s Brazil a singular achievement. Though it doesn’t skimp on the horrors of a 1984-like society, it’s also a bona-fide comedy, drawing on Franz Kafka, Jacques Tati’s struggles with modern life, and the surreal sketches of Monty Python (Gilliam was the sole American member of the group). A timid bureaucrat who dreams of being a winged knight, a giant flame-spewing samurai, workplace scenes straight out of a Mack Sennett two-reeler, Robert De Niro as an anarchist repairman—Gilliam reaches in so many directions that all you can do is hang on. Skip the Michael Radford-directed 1984; this is as horrifying and much more fun.

Punishment Park (1971)

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No film-maker has dealt with dystopic scenarios as frequently as Peter Watkins. His most controversial effort might be Punishment Park, in which anti-government protesters—hippies, feminists, Black Power activists—are rounded up and made to cover 53 miles of desert without food or water, chased by American law enforcement authorities. If they survive, they go free. Watkins shoots it like a vérité documentary, using non-actors to play both sides. Things got so tense that fights broke out during filming—and the result is harrowingly real.

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La Jetée (1962)

It’s 27 minutes long and made up of still images. It’s also one of the greatest films of all time. La Jetée has lost none of its hypotonic power since its release in 1962. This “photo-romain" by French director Chris Marker is set in a post-World War III dystopia, with the populace living underground; the only hope left is to travel back in time to access resources and help. Marker uses only black-and-white photographs and a voice-over to narrate this story, which forces the viewer to imagine everything from medical experiments to nuclear holocaust in the shadowy images. Terry Gilliam based the 1995 feature film 12 Monkeys on this, but Marker’s vision remains unique.

Stalker (1979)

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Cinematic dystopias have been around since the 1920s, so it isn’t surprising that films sometimes seem to predict actual dystopic scenarios. In 1986, the Chernobyl disaster forced the Soviet authorities to declare a “zone of exclusion", an area rendered too dangerous to live by radiation. Seven years earlier, Andrei Tarkovsky, one of Russia’s greatest directors, made Stalker, about three characters journeying through a dangerous wasteland called the “Zone". Shooting in deserted power plants and factories, Tarkovsky created unforgettably eerie images. The film will forever be connected to the nightmare of Chernobyl; guides who conduct illegal tours of the sites still refer to themselves as “stalkers".

Akira (1988)

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Katsuhiro Otomo’s anime feature is often bracketed with Blade Runner (1982) as a work of grungy post-apocalyptic fiction set in a blasted shell of a world. But Akira also harks back to an earlier dystopian work, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), with vicious street gangs running amok and fascist authorities conducting experiments on their members. Otomo adapted his own long-running manga, kicking off a cyberpunk anime wave that never subsided. There’s really no downplaying the importance of this film—whose influence can be seen in everything from The Matrix (1999) to The Dark Knight (2008)—or the kinetic energy that bursts from the hand-drawn images, Shōji Yamashiro’s pulsating score and those primal screams of “Tetsuoooooo".

Never Let Me Go (2010)

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You would never guess Never Let Me Go is dystopian fiction just by looking at it. Mark Romanek’s 2010 film, with a screenplay by Alex Garland and based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, has a melancholy beauty that befits the relationship drama it essentially is. We follow the lives of three students (played by Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley) in an English boarding school who eventually learn that they have been raised as “donors"—clones who exist to supply vital organs to humans. There’s a way out, though: If two of them are in love and can prove it, they can ask for a “deferral". Scientific advancements aside, the world of the film is no different from ours, and the debate over ethical treatment of “almost-humans" is one we are already starting to have.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

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Blade Runner’s place as the best Philip K. Dick adaptation is undisputed, but the paranoia that’s so central to Dick’s writing is best captured by A Scanner Darkly. The 1977 novel tells the story of Bob Arctor, an undercover drug enforcement agent who becomes addicted to a drug called Substance D and starts losing his grip on reality (to add to the confusion, the agents wear special identity-masking suits). Director Richard Linklater made an inspired decision to use a technique called rotoscopy, in which live action footage is shot and then animated. The hallucinatory effect this produces is perfect for a film about mind-altering drugs. Linklater assembled an eclectic cast—Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and a wonderfully nervy Robert Downey Jr—and didn’t mess with the original text much. That he didn’t have to is a testament to the plausibility of Dick’s dystopia, where personal identity is a fluid concept and Big Brother is keeping tabs on everyone.

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