45.1 Essential Dystopias

Notes on the genre in general and explanations of my compilation follows the list.

Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
The Great Dictator (1940, Charlie Chaplin)
Animal Farm (1956, Joy Batchelor and John Halas)
"Twilight Zone" - Time Enough at Last (1959, John Brahm)
La jetée (1962, Chris Marker)
The Trial (1962, Orson Welles)
Lord of the Flies (1963, Peter Brook)
Alphaville (1965, Jean-Luc Godard)
Fahrenheit 451 (1966, François Truffaut)
Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner)
A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
THX 1138 (1971, George Lucas)
The Omega Man (1971, Boris Sagal)
Soylent Green (1973, Richard Fleischer)
Sleeper (1973, Woody Allen)
The Stepford Wives (1975, Bryan Forbes)
Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel)
Rollerball (1975, Norman Jewison)
Logan's Run (1976, Michael Anderson)
Mad Max (1979, George Miller)
Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky)
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980 - Irvin Kershner)
Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
Red Dawn (1984, John Milius)
The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984, Michael Radford)
Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven)
The Running Man (1987, Paul Michael Glaser)
Akira (1988,  Katshuiro Ôtomo)
Demolition Man (1993, Marco Brambilla)
Heavy Weights (1995, Steven Brill)
The Handmaid's Tale (1990, Volker Schlöndorff)
Ghost in the Shell (1996, Mamoru Oshii)
Gattaca (1997, Andrew Niccol)
The Truman Show (1998, Peter Weir)
The Matrix (1999, The Wachowskis)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001, Steven Spielberg)
Metropolis (2001, Rintaro)
Minority Report (2002, Steven Spielberg)
V for Vendetta (2006, The Wachowskis)
A Scanner Darkly (2006, Richard Linklater)
Idiocracy (2006, Mike Judge)
Children of Men (2006,  Alfonso Cuarón)
WALL·E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
District 9 (2009, Neill Blomkamp)

Dystopias aren't simply bad places - they're good places gone wrong.

Stories about simply bad places encompass most any type of fiction.  Few writers sit down to design perfection.  Those that do become the target of our dystopias.

If WALL·E were simply about a place with a lonely robot, it wouldn't quite fit the bill.  Instead, its about a future earth where humanity has become so consumed by consumption, the paradise was lost and earth fell.  WALL·E ups the ante with another related dystopia - the spaceship Axiom.

The Truman Show - Jim Carrey - Seahaven

The Truman Show - Jim Carrey - Seahaven

The borderlines are fuzzy, as they are with any genre.  In literature, Dante's Inferno is a very bad place, and was designed as a societal critique, but it doesn't seem to belong.  Parts of Gulliver's Travels might fit.  George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is the quintessential example, even though it's missing one of the usual genre elements - his villains really are in it just out of personal greed.

I've included the obvious ones, (Metropolis, Blade Runner) as well as a few selections not always included in the dystopic canon.  (Heavy Weights, The Truman Show)  I tried to pick from a variety of genres, time periods, styles and political leanings.  The .1 refers to a TV episode.

For most of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the primary source of utopian thought came from the socialists, and so the socialists were in turn the primary target of anti-utopian thought.  Dostoevsky was an early writer - his underground man didn't fit into the rational utilitarian world of the Crystal Palace, his "devils" made a mess of things and his Grand Inquisitor laid out the Big Brother trope.  Speaking to Jesus, he explains how he has secretly suppressed man's freedom  for his own good:

Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.

Despite secular utilitarianism's recent historical dominance of utopianism, religion's ability to do so has not been lost on the dystopists either.  In school, wrote a paper on how 1984 was a critique of Christendom; my teacher vehemently disagreed and gave me a D.  Less debatable film examples I've chosen are Animal Farm, Planet of the Apes and The Handmaid's Tale.

Cult of Reason Paris France Fête de la Raison 1793

Cult of Reason Paris France Fête de la Raison 1793

Although the major real-life dystopian states (Robespierre's France, Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany) are gone in the West, Saudi Arabia and Iran certainly qualify.  Terroristic Islam bears an enormous resemblance to the terroristic socialism of the late 1800's/early 1900's.

Evangelical Christianity in the West often bears the marks of utopianism.  Secular political correctness has been mocked to death in the United States, but rules in France and Britain, where there are now more security cameras than citizens.

An evening spent reading Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins should also convince one that scientific utilitarianism is still alive and kicking.  Consumer capitalism as well has offered its own brand of utopianism; one that's been continually dystopianized for at least 150 years.

Dystopias are rarely accurate predictions of the future.  They're not necessarily supposed to be.  They help us determine our values as a society and make us question and re-think out plans.  They offer the cold shower of humility to the blood-soaked body of human hubris.

On a personal level, they can nudge us out of our habits of fear.  How often have we sacrificed depth, beauty, truth or love for comfort, safety and perceived security?