I noticed the bustling in the background during my first viewing of Children of Men, but it was overshadowed by the main plot and everything else going on. It wasn’t until the second or third viewing when I started paying attention.
Realized recently that "dystopian" is among my ideal words in a movie description. You?
— Lexicon Valley (@lexiconvalley) March 6, 2012
I kind of have a thing for the end of the world.
That tweet from Lexicon Valley (one of my favorite podcasts, by the way) merely validated a feeling I’ve had for a while: that I’m a sucker for dystopian films.
I’m still not sure exactly what draws me to this kind of story. Maybe it’s because of the infinite re-viewings of the Back to the Future trilogy, specifically Part II, which focused on people seeing hellish versions of their past or future and fighting to fix them. Perhaps it’s because dystopian films often confirm the fatalism I occasionally feel about our country, culture, and world. In Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning Children of Men, for example, the abject dreariness and totalitarianism that permeate the Great Britain police state of the future appear not only possible but increasingly inevitable given the seemingly hopeless state of political and economic current affairs.
Similarly, in the film adaptation of the graphic novel V for Vendetta, Great Britain (poor old England can’t catch a democratic break) has been taken over by draconian despotism à la Orwell’s Oceania in the preeminent dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or, if robotic uprisings are your thing, the film version of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot tells the tale of formerly subservient anthropomorphic robots who become self-aware and start killing humans.
But the flip side to all this bleakness is the other key component to many dystopian films, the factor that draws me in: what happens at their end. Theo, the protagonist in Children of Men, fights his apathy and regains his spirit enough to save the last hope on Earth. In V for Vendetta, the formerly timid Evey conquers her fears and helps V complete his rebellious (if terroristic) acts in order to expose the regime’s villainy and inspire the oppressed proletariat to rise up against the corrupt government. I, Robot has Will Smith saving the day (as he is wont to do) by conquering the supercomputer VIKI with the help of a specially programmed, friendly robot.
In all of these dystopian worlds the worst things may happen, but these things are not unconquerable. In stories as it ultimately is in real life, freedom conquers slavery; good triumphs over evil; the will to live outlasts the will to suppress. These may be old-fashioned tropes, but they keep bringing me back even to the darkest of tales if only to see how the light arrives again.
Some dystopian films I’d recommend: Minority Report, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, I Robot, WALL-E, District 9, Looper, Dark City. Wikipedia also has a more extensive list.
The Lives of Others (2006) – A German film about a surveillance expert who spies on a playwright in Communist Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Lives of Others won the Best Foreign film at the Oscars and for good reason. Unbearably suspenseful and surprisingly moving, The Lives of Others shows that the best films don’t always come from Hollywood.
Memento (2000) – The woefully underrated and underused Guy Pearce stars as a detective who searches for his wife’s killer after losing his short-term memory. The film plays out in reverse, revealing the story piece by piece like a jigsaw puzzle. Gimmicky to some, the premise demands your attention the more you watch this masterfully chaotic film. Repeated viewings required.
WALL-E (2008) – Of all the post-apocalyptic films I’ve seen, WALL-E is by far the cutest. Two robots—a clunky trash-compactor and a sleek land-rover—meet by chance and fall in robot love? It’s a match made in Pixar heaven. From the skillfully rendered 20-minute wordless opening sequence to WALL-E and Eve’s beautiful ballet in space, WALL-E is animation at its best.
Once (2007) – Boy meets girl. The concept has been overdone, but in Once it’s taken back to basics with two Irish musicians who meet and make beautiful music together and become companions fighting against loneliness. A musical in the most unorthodox way, the deceptively simple songs anchor what is one of the most uplifting and honest love stories I’ve ever seen.
Unbreakable (2000) – Most people prefer writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 mega-hit The Sixth Sense but Unbreakable is surely the superior work, if only for its restrained pace and fascinating characters. Subtly structured in the classic comic book superhero frame, everything in the film from the color palette to the redemptive love story makes Unbreakable perhaps the most underrated film of the decade.
Zodiac (2007) – Paranoia and dread permeate this noir thriller from director David Finch about the Zodiac killer of 1970s San Francisco. Based on the book by a cartoonist who tried to solve the murders, Zodiac represents the best in boiler-plate drama with its slow-building tension, superb ensemble acting, and stunning camera work. There’s no happy ending, but there’s no film like it.
In America (2002) – An overlooked film from director Jim Sheridan, In America features an Irish family newly immigrated to New York City drudging through the trials and tribulations of living in near-poverty. Told through the 10-year-old daughter’s point of view, In America shows a family fighting against tragedy and heartache and sticking together throughout it all.
High Fidelity (2000) – John Cusask is Rob Gordon, music snob and man in crisis. After his latest relationship ends, Rob catalogs his five biggest break-ups and the music that guided him through them. Underscored by a top-notch soundtrack, High Fidelity spotlights the vulnerability that stews beneath masculine hubris. Bonus points for the Bruce Springsteen cameo.
Children of Men (2006) – In a not-so-far-fetched future, the terror-wracked world in Children of Men is in chaos after women become completely infertile. Clive Owen plays a world-weary has-been who reluctantly escorts the only pregnant girl on Earth to safety. Featuring groundbreaking cinematography, Children of Men manages to inspire a ray of hope in the darkest of places.
Almost Famous (2000) – A semiautobiographical work from writer-director Cameron Crowe, this 1970s coming of age tale of a teen rock writer who goes on the road with an up-and-coming rock band is funny and serious, nostalgic and brutally honest. Patrick Fugit shines as the boyish protagonist who enters a world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll and comes out the other end a new person.
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – While Return of the King proved a satisfying conclusion to a grand trilogy, Fellowship of the Ring remains the stand-out installment for its sweeping scope and emotional core. A game-changer in every way, everything from its breathtaking locales to the expertly created creatures makes Fellowship the new standard for the cinematic epic.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) – Sorry, Crash; Brokeback Mountain was the best film of 2005 and one of the best of the decade. Against stunning Western vistas and an elegant score, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger help turn the “gay cowboy movie” cliché into a tragic and somber requiem of a dream deferred. Forget the Joker; Ledger as Ennis del Mar is the best performance of his short career.
A History of Violence (2005) – The only think more enigmatic than the title is the film itself, a profound meditation on violence disguised as a family drama and gangster movie. Viggo Mortensen proves a wonderfully complex character struggling to maintain his identity in spite of himself, while Maria Bello plays the supportive wife stuck in the middle of it all.
Casino Royale (2006) – For the last few Bond movies, James Bond was a joke. But with Casino Royale, nobody’s laughing at him anymore. Daniel Craig, the best Bond ever, turned him back into a fist-wielding badass with class, and Eva Green’ Vesper Lynd proves a sultry Bond girl who won Bond’s heart against his better judgment. Add to that exciting chases and poker games and you’ve got a Bond movie worth watching.
Into Great Silence (2005) – This is a film nobody saw but should. A German documentary about the monks who live at the Blank Monastery in France, there is hardly any talking at all for the almost 3-hour run time instead, we get to watch what the monks do every day, which is, for 6 days a week, live simple lives in complete silence. It’s an exercise in patience, but very rewarding and immensely gratifying to the soul.
The Best of the Rest
No Country for Old Men (2007), Finding Nemo (2003), Grizzly Man (2005), United 93 (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Minority Report (2002), Stranger than Fiction (2006), Half Nelson (2006), Pan’s Labyrinth (2007), The Squid and the Whale (2007)