These weird dystopian flicks are thought-provoking, unsettling, and even terrifying in their portentous possibility. They’re dark and disturbing and difficult to watch, but they are also wonderful in the rich and strangely beautiful bleak futures they so premonitorily paint.
Children of Men – 2006
Based on the 1992 P. D. James novel of the same name, the terrifying premise of this film is all the more poignant in the wake of the current coronavirus panic. Set 20 years ahead of its time, after a 2008 flu pandemic resulted in global infertility for over two decades, human life is on the brink of extinction. Against the bleak backdrop of a police state and goverment- sanctioned immigrant execution, and with Academy Award-winning cinematography, civil servant Theo (Clive Owen) is tasked with transporting a miraculously pregnant refugee to safety. Just 14 years on, this dystopian narrative feels disturbingly familiar in its reflection of hope for humanity thwarted for corrupt corporate and political ends.
Wall.E – 2008
This is a Pixar movie and a recent release following their acquisition by Disney, so you might expect it to be heavy on the heartfelt – and it is. But it’s also a stark criticism of consumerism, corporatism, and our environmental impact. Set in the 29th century, megacorporation Buy-N-Large has shipped all Earth’s inhabitants off the planet and left robotic trash compactors to clean up. Only one – WALL•E – remains operational. Unusual for its lack of dialogue in the film’s first half, it’s actually more immersive for it; plus the beeps and whirs are as adorable as you’d imagine. In a nutshell, he falls in love with a robot probe – EVE – pursues her across the galaxy, meets the obese robot-served remnants of humanity, and ultimately saves the human race. Aww.
Black Mirror – 2011
In true Sorbet non-binary style, this isn’t a movie at all, it’s a TV show. But in this era, when A-List film stars are more easily able to hop between Hollywood and high-budget series, we’re invoking poetic license, particularly since a list of groundbreaking dystopian movies makes less sense without Black Mirror than with it. Currently comprising five seasons, each with solely standalone episodes, the anthology style allows for the explorations of different alternate present-day or near- future scenarios that all cut close to the bone. As the show’s title references, the scenarios revolve around tech, the ‘black mirror’ being your TV, phone screen, etc. Basically, technology will be the undoing of us all. Put your phone down, Janet.
Her – 2013
It does seem a little strange to ‘genre-lize’ this movie as a romance, when the love story it presents is between a man and his inanimate operating system. On the surface, it presents an eerily possible reality in the not too distant future, as our relationship with AI technology becomes increasingly codependent (TBH I miss Alexa whenever I’m out of town). Yet this love story – as surrealist and satirical as it is sweet and unexpectedly relatable – is filled with humanity. To the musical backing of indie rock classics (Arcade Fire), complemented by oppressive architecture and gloomy, muted colour grading, Her authentically translates the raw desperation of an impossible love, leaving you to wonder, “What does being human even mean, anyway?”
Okja – 2017
Before director Bong Joon-ho basically won all of the Oscars for his 2019 film Parasite, he wrote and directed Okja, a film about a specially bred super pig and a girl called Mija – think Babe, but with Bong’s now signature dark social commentary (did you see Snowpiercer? Also Joon-Ho, also dystopian, also v. good). Here, the commentary is focused on genetic modification, animal rights, and corporate greed. Tilda Swinton’s turn as anti-villain Lucy Mirando, and Lucy’s even more evil twin sister, Nancy, is ghastly good fun, and realised in part by the actor’s study of Ivanka Trump. Fun fact: a visit by the director and his producer to a a Colorado slaughterhouse for one of the movie’s more distressing sequences turned both men vegan.
The Lobster – 2015
Of course it is in human nature to want love, but even more so in this Tinder-esque absurdist black comedy, wherein failing to find that love results in no longer being a part of the human race. In this dystopia, newly single men and women have just 45 days to forge the ultimate human connection – love. If they don’t, they are turned into an animal of their choosing (a lobster, in Colin Farrell’s case). Although most characters in the film range from unlikeable to loathsome, the absurdity is deliciously twisted. Presenting this dystopian world through a science-fiction lens, The Lobster holds up a murky mirror to the societal constructs around forging human companionship in order to survive (or, in this case, to simply not turn into a lobster).
The Handmaid’s Tale – 2017
Since we’ve inlcuded Black Mirror, how could we omit The Handmaid’s Tale? Yes, we know, a TV show, but surely the most harrowing of all the entries here. Watching Elizabeth Moss beaten, humiliated, and enslaved as a walking womb for her new ‘owners’, while being tormented by a sadistically fanatical, and spine-chillingly brilliant Ann Dowd, all punctuated by flashbacks to her happy former life is deeply upsetting at almost all times. ‘Gender-traitors’ and ‘jezebels’ are mutilated or sent to work on the fatally radiational colonies… a rib-tickler it isn’t, but the full realization of the dystopia, first imagined by Canadian super- author Margaret Atwood, is television at its blood-curdling best – blessed be the fruit.
The Scarecrow, Chipotle – 2013
In keeping with the cataclysmic declines intrinsic to dystopias, we end this movie list not with a movie, or even a TV show, but with a three-and-a-half-minute must- watch animated short by Mexican chain restaurant Chipotle. Set to a woeful rendition of Willy Wonka’s Pure Imagination (“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it…”) sung by Fiona Apple, the short tells the tale of a scarecrow who starts work at Crow Foods Factory. Witnessing ‘crowbots’ injecting chickens with growth hormones, and doleful bovines penned up in metal crates to produce a substance labeled “100% Beef-ish”, the Scarecrow travels home, harvests his own fresh vegetables, and opens a burrito stand. That’s my kind of scarecrow.
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