Thursday, August 20, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Dystopian Movies

If I have learned one thing from the movies, it is that the future is going to suck. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie when in the future, things are better. Governments keep falling, the world descends into chaos, and we lose our simple humanity. These 10 films are the best of what is called the dystopian genre. I suspect there to be some controversy here. Is Videodrome really a dystopian movie? Yes, it certainly is about how our society is losing its humanity, it just happens to be at the beginning of the process, instead of somewhere in the middle like most of the movies. Where is A Clockwork Orange you may ask (which, I will say is better than any film on this list)? Well, it’s not really a dystopian movie is it? It is not about how we have all lost our humanity, but how one person lost his. Call it nitpicking if you want, but I’ll stick with my opinion thank you.

10. Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
While certainly not the first anime film, Akira was a landmark in the genre – one of the main reasons why anime exploded in popularity outside of Japan in the 1990s. Katsuhiro Otomo’s film is a brilliant action movie and intelligent science fiction film, featuring great animation and complex themes. The movie is about Japan in the wake of another nuclear like blast that destroys Tokyo. Now, decades later, Neo-Tokyo is an island off of Japan that is full of political strife, terrorism and gang violence – most notably between warring motorcycle gangs. Akira presents Japan after the nuclear explosion as a lawless wasteland, full of generational conflict, as the younger generation sees nothing for them in the new Japan. It is impossible to watch the film and not see the parallels between the Japan in the movie, and the one right after WWII. Akira shows that not all cartoons are for kids – and in fact, some of them are downright brilliant.

9. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
Gattaca takes place in the not too distant future, where pretty much all babies are made in a lab to be genetically perfect individuals – completely free of any defects. The story centers on Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who was conceived the old fashioned way, and as such is not genetically perfect. He dreams of being an astronaut, but knows full well that he cannot ever reach his dream, because his genetics will hold him back. But then, he strikes on an idea – he “buys” the identity of a genetically perfect man (Jude Law), who was once a world class swimmer, but was so disappointed in “only” winning silver despite his perfect genes, that he attempted suicide, leaving him paralyzed from the waste down. He agrees to sell Vincent the genetic samples he needs to impersonate him, and Vincent appears to be unstoppable – getting into the Gattaca space program, and being a star navigator. But as his mission launch approaches, a murder throws the whole scheme into doubt, as they start to close in on an “invalid” because one of Vincent’s eyelashes found at the scene. The film is brilliant at showing how the new eugenics program, dehumanizes everyone, not just the invalids like Vincent. Vincent is discriminated against not because he is not good enough or smart enough, but because he does not have the right DNA. Meanwhile, while Jude Law is the perfect man, he too is dehumanized because his superior DNA puts so much pressure on him to succeed, that anything less than perfect in unacceptable. Gattaca was underrated when it came out in 1997, and is still underrated today. A truly great film.

8. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is a film that sees the future of world being television. In the movie, television will take over every aspect of our lives, and we become powerless to stop it. James Woods plays a TV executive who runs a sleazy TV station in Toronto, which essentially broadcasts soft core porn. He wants to take his station to the next level though, so when he stumbles across Videodrome – a TV show apparently being broadcast out of Malaysia, which is essentially Snuff TV, he pirates it and starts airing it on his own station. But Videodrome is much more sinister than simply a snuff show – it starts to control your mind, causing disturbing hallucinations (the most memorable of which is when Woods’ torso becomes a bloody VCR, and he inserts a tape into it), and causes brain tumors. Videodrome is really an attempt to control the minds of people in North America – to cut out the undesirables, and replace everything with television. Cronenberg’s films was way ahead of its time in 1983, and is perhaps still way ahead of it. The film that truly let people know that this crazy Canadian was actually a genius.

7. The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
The Road Warrior is far and away the best of the Mad Max trilogy, and one of the best action films ever made. It takes place in the sun burnt future – the entire country seems to be a giant desert. Energy shortages have wrecked havoc on the country, and two warring factions have gone to war over oil. What little remains of the government is completely powerless. Max is a drifter, still reeling from the death of his family at the end of the first film, and he likes it that way. He comes across an functional oil refinery inhabited by a group of mostly peaceful settlers. The problem is that the war factions are outside, and want all the gas inside – and are willing to do anything to get. The Road Warrior is a masterwork of action filmmaking – car chases that are actually thrilling and original, a great central character, and interesting supporting characters – the villain in the hockey mask, the Gyro Captain, and the Feral Kid, are the most memorable. The Road Warrior sees an all too possible future in stark and unforgiving light. Will things get better? The movie holds out hope at the end, but for Max, his world is already destroyed.

6. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
The kids in Japan are not alright. Unemployment has skyrocketed to unbelievable levels, and the students are starting to revolt in schools. The adults are scared of this new generation, and so they pass the Millennium Education Reform Act – better known as the Battle Royale act. Each year, one class of students are forced to play a game. They are taken to an island, outfitted with explosive collars, even a survival pack and a weapon (some better than others, as some get guns and knives, and others get frying pans, etc) and given three days to kill each other. If at the end of the three days there is more than one student still alive, then their collars will explode and kill them all. In some ways, the film echoes William Goulding’s Lord of the Flies. Some characters are more than willing to kill their fellow students, and former friends, and even relish the opportunity to do it. Some rebel against it by refusing to kill, or to try and take down the government operators on the island, along with their teacher (Takahasi Kitano) who is running the game. Others simply give up and kill themselves. Battle Royale is a very Japanese movie (which means the rumored American remake would have to do something to Americanize the story, something they failed to do when they remade the very British Lord of the Flies in America). Battle Royale is one of the more violent films you will ever see – it got lots of controversy and was decried by the Japanese parliament, and despite its huge cult status in North America, there was never an actual theatrical release as studios were too scared of the violence. Still however, Battle Royale is a masterwork. A film that looks at a society that has allowed fear to overtake them, and that completely undervalues human life. A masterpiece.

5. The Trial (Orson Welles, 1962)
Before I saw Orson Welles’ The Trial, I would not have thought it possible to adapt Franz Kafka’s work to the screen in any meaningful way. But Welles’ film is one of his masterpieces. A surreal, comic nightmare of a film where the protagonist Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) is told he is being charged with a crime, but it never told what it is. Josef spends the film seeking the advice from one person after another, none of which is helpful at all. He tries in vain to defend himself when he is finally brought to his strange trial, but no one is interested in what he has to say. Welles himself gives a remarkable performance as the Advocate, a man of weird circular logic, who Josef hires to represent him, but despises. The Trial is a truly strange, truly surreal movie and presents us with a nightmare scenario. Josef cannot possibly prove his innocence, because he has no idea what he is being charged with. He is not alone at being charged with crimes like this – lots of people have been, and no one is ever acquitted. The movie looks at bureaucracy run amok. It is a visually stunning film by Welles, but because it is so strange, it has divided critics and audiences since its release. If you are a fan of Welles like I am though, it is a must see.

4. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Scientists have created such lifelike robots, known as replicants, that it is almost impossible to tell the difference between them and real humans. Following a replicant revolt, they are declared illegal on earth. The most recent models, known as the Nexus 6, are the most advanced yet, and have a built in failsafe of a 4 year life span – so that they cannot develop real emotions, attachments or ideas of revolt. But four of these Nexus 6 replicants have escaped in Los Angeles, and falls on Deckard (Harrison Ford) to track them down and “retire” them. There is a combat model (Rutger Hauer), a nuclear fuel loader, an assassin, and a “basic pleasure model”. He then discovers that there is an even newer version of the replicant – one that is built to believe it is human. The main replicant is Roy, the combat model, who knows that his life is coming to end, and wants to go to his maker, Tyrell, and ask for an extension on life, and forgiveness for his sins. The film is about what happens when humans play God. They have the technology to make robots who can think and feel like humans, but does that mean they really should? Is it okay morally to kill the replicants, even if they are not human, because they still feel like they are? And is Deckard really a replicant himself, and like Rachel (Sean Young), the replicant he falls in love with, just not be aware of it? No matter how you answer these questions, it is undoubtable that Blade Runner is one of the best science fiction films ever made. Note: About the whole Deckard as a replicant theory, I have always believed that Deckard is in fact a replicant, and just does not know it. It is the unicorn that Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves Deckard at the end of the film that convinces me. Deckard dreams of unicorns all the time, but never shares this with anyone. Why then, would Gaff leave him the origami unicorn, unless he knows what Deckard dreams of, because Deckard’s memories have been implanted – and are false? One of the things I love about the film though is that this is never implicitly stated. You can make of it all what you will.

3. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
One day, women just suddenly stop getting pregnant. No one can figure out why they cannot get pregnant anymore – whether it’s something wrong with the women or the men or what, but it has now been 18 years since the last child was born. The world is slowly dying. Most of the governments around the world have collapsed as they have descended into chaos, leaving only England standing. Millions of refugees have flooded the country, but are mainly kept in compounds, and the country has essentially become a military police state. Theo (Clive Owen) was once an activist, but now is nothing more than an apathetic bureaucrat. His wife has left him, and he has only one friend, an aging hippie (Michael Caine) who spends his time caring for his catatonic wife. But Theo has connections, as his brother is a high ranking government official. So when his wife (Julianne Moore), who is still an activist shows back up in his life and offers him a lot of money for travelling papers for a friend of hers, he agrees. What he does not realize is that the woman she got the papers for is pregnant. When Moore is killed, Theo takes the woman, Kee, and tries to get her to the Human Project, a group of scientists who want to cure human infertility. But the activist group wants Kee to stay where she is, so they can use her as a political tool. So Theo takes Kee into one of the refugee camps, just as a full scale uprising is starting, so that he can get her to the boat with the human project. Children of Men is a brilliant movie – Cuaron’s camera never rests, and the entire movie has a kinetic, restless energy to it. It is a disturbing view of the future, but also a Christian parable. Through the course of the movie, Theo rediscover his humanity, and fights to save it in everyone else. Since no scientific explanation is ever given to why kids stopped being born, or how Kee got pregnant, we are left to assume that it was God’s work – first punishing humanity for its sins, and then starting anew with Kee and her baby. Children of Men is one of the best films of the decade, and a truly horrifying vision of the future, although unlike many films on this list, it does hold out hope for tomorrow.

2. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis is the film that without which, I doubt any of the other films on this list would exist. It is one of the most influential films in history, and set the standard for science fiction films in general – a standard that has rarely been beat in all the decades since. Metropolis is set in the future – a harsh, Art deco city state, with a rigid class system. The upper class lives high above the world, in the vast skyscrapers, while the workers live underground, endlessly toiling to sustain the lives of the rich and powerful. The son of the city’s leader becomes infatuated with a beautiful young worker woman, and when he follows her below ground, he is amazed and disgusted by the treatment of the workers. An explosion kills many workers, but before the dead are taken away, and the wounded tended to, more workers are brought into replace them. As the son starts to see more and more of the mistreatment, he becomes determined to bring the two classes together. But his plan is put in danger, when an old rival of his father’s (who was in love with his mother, and devastated when she choose the other man, then died giving birth to the son), has created a humanoid robot, that he plans on using to get the workers to destroy themselves – and the city. Metropolis is a masterpiece – many of the images have been used countless times since (all the rows upon rows of discouraged, mindless workers drudging into work for example), and is also a supreme example of silent movie making. For my money, Lang was the greatest of silent movie directors (and when he moved into sound filmmaking in the decades following the 1920s, he created several other masterpieces as well). If you have any interest in cinema history at all, then Metropolis is a must see.

1. Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)
Again, I am sure that my choice for number 1 on this list will be somewhat controversial, because with the exception of Roger Ebert, few critics have ever truly realized the genius of Alex Proyas’ 1998 film (of which, Metropolis is a huge influence on). But I considered Dark City to be a truly great film – one that deserves as much praise as it can get. Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) wakes up one morning with no memory of who or where he is. He eventually pieces together some of these things, discovers he is wanted for murder, and that he is has a beautiful wife, Emma (Jennifer Connelly). He is trapped in a city in perpetual nighttime, and every day at midnight, the city, and the people in it, just stop what they are doing, and things are changed by The Strangers, a group with telekinetic powers. Murdoch is an anomaly, as he woke up one day with the same ability of The Strangers, and now represents a threat to them. Dark City strips away everything we value about humanity – it makes the humans into little more than shells and The Strangers manipulate their memories, making them into new people almost every day, in their misguided attempt to understand humanity (they are particularly interested in the nature vs. nurture theory). Dark City creates one of the most distinctive movie landscapes in cinema history, a cityscape that seems both futuristic, and straight out of the past. It is a dark, foreboding film through, visually stunning, complex and alive. The film ends on a happy note – or at least what qualifies as a happy note in films like this. The characters, for all their flaws, at least have their humanity back. A true masterpiece.

1 comment:

  1. I always love to watch dystopian movies. This list of top ten movies is really interesting and I would love to see all movies of this list but yeah!! I have seen one movie from this list i.e. The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981), and I love this movie.