When you hear the words “dystopian future,” what comes to mind in terms of films and literature?
Is it a post-apocalyptic story occurring hundreds of years from now? Or a vision of a not-so-distant future with significant human injustice and suffering?
Some of the best dystopian films portray a dark and bleak vision of human societies, containing visually stunning imagery and brilliant social commentary. Some films, like Children of Men or The Hunger Games, are set in an oppressive, undesirable, frightening dystopian future.
So if the ideas behind these futuristic stories are so dark, why is the dystopian genre so popular, particularly with younger viewers? The best dystopian movies are not pop culture stories about aliens or zombies, and they usually contain a much deeper theme.
Although typically set in the future, dystopian themes actually touch on many of the social issues and harsh realities of the present. In a world consumed by war, disease, famine, global warming, and social injustice, perhaps these films are a stern reminder or reflection of where things may go if humanity continues on the same path.
With that said, let’s take a look at the best dystopian movies ever made!
The Allure of Dystopia
The best dystopian movies are those which not only challenge us on a personal level but also help us understand and recognize the dangers of social evils. A totalitarian regime, a catastrophic environmental outcome, an overdependency on artificial intelligence – all are fears that exist today.
Dystopian features and shorts use these negative aspects to glimpse where we might be headed as a society.
These types of themes often illustrate a world where human existence has reached its lowest point and where the decisions of a few malevolent forces control the needs of the many.
Not only are they futuristic interpretations, but they can also provide a mirror into today’s current issues.
In some ways, these bleak imaginings could be considered cathartic as they help us realize our modern world’s social errors.
What are the Best Dystopian Movies Ever Made?
Let’s review 25+ of the best dystopian movies ever made (in no particular order) – did any of your favorites make the cut?
1. 1984 (Michael Radford, 1984)
Based on George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984 presents a chilling dystopian world where freedom and individual rights are stripped away, and a powerful surveillance state known as Big Brother reigns supreme.
The movie masterfully depicts the loss of personal identity and the constant monitoring of every action, word, and thought.
However, amidst the bleakness and despair, a flicker of hope remains – the indomitable human spirit in the form of a lowly clerk (John Hurt) who dares to love in a world stripped of emotion.
2. V for Vendetta (James McTiegue, 2005)
Derived from a 1988 DC Vertigo comic book series, V for Vendetta tells the story of a British masked anarchist (Hugo Weaving) who saves a young woman (Natalie Portman) from the secret police and attempts to ignite a revolution against an authoritarian regime which rules through fear and propaganda.
This visually stunning film set in the near future provides grim social commentary on a dystopian society that isn’t as far removed from our own as we might like.
3. The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
Based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, The Road follows a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they try to survive in a post-apocalyptic world that is devoid of any plant or animal life while steering clear from gangs of armed cannibalistic rapists.
Strong performances lead to a haunting film that captures a desolate future filled with human aggression and little innocence.
4. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
In a near-future Detroit ravaged by crime and societal collapse, a police officer named Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is brutally killed by a vicious gang of drug dealers, only to be reborn as a powerful cyborg.
Though intended to counteract crime as a thoughtless machine, Alex’s memories still exist within his mind, driving him to gain revenge on those responsible.
Robocop is a human story and an effective satire on the future of commercialism and technology. Although extremely violent, it is a harrowing story of redemption, revenge, and corruption.
5. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
Nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Brad Pitt), 12 Monkeys revolves around a deadly virus that wipes out most of humanity and forces the survivors to live underground. James Cole (Bruce Willis), a prisoner from the future, is sent back in time to find the virus’s origin.
This sci-fi thriller provides an off-beat experience of an ordinary man trying to rewrite history and save mankind even though those in power in the future specifically forbid it.
6. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
In the year 2027, the U.K. has become a police state where all immigrants are either imprisoned or executed, and human fertility has been wiped out by man-made ecocide.
A civil servant named Theo Farin (Clive Owen) discovers a refugee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who has managed to get pregnant and must risk his life to help her escape the madness.
Based on the novel by P.D. James, this cautionary tale of a society struggling through totalitarianism and environmental catastrophe succeeds as a social drama and, at times, feels all too real.
7. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)
In a future post-America, the Capitol of Panem maintains its hold on 12 districts by forcing them each to select a boy and a girl, called Tributes, to compete in a deadly tournament called the Hunger Games.
Based on the book series by Suzanne Collins, this film tells the story of 16-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers on behalf of her little sister when she is unexpectedly chosen for the Games.
Catapulted into a battle of survival, Katniss finds herself in an unfamiliar world of allegiances and betrayal as she defies the ruling class to save those she loves.
8. Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976)
Based on a 1967 novel by William F. Nolan, this science fiction film contains an underground dystopian society where to maintain adequate resources, no one is allowed to live past the age of 30.
Each citizen is implanted with a life clock in their left hand at birth, and those who attempt to flee their fate are hunted down by a specialized police force called the Sandmen.
Although Logan’s Run appears dated today, the special effects and world-building were quite ambitious for 1976. The terrifying storyline is still relevant today, as resource depletion is more of a concern than ever.
9. Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, 1971)
All plant life on Earth is extinct. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is one of four crewmen on a cargo spaceship filled with plants returning to Earth for reforestation.
Gradually Lowell begins to discover that his plants on board are dying from lack of natural sunlight, so he must figure out how to save the greenhouse and complete his mission.
Silent Running is a charming film that, unlike most of the films on this list, can be viewed by the whole family. Dern in the lead role is a strong, subtle addition, and the film contains some pretty decent special effects for the time.
10. Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981)
Set in the then-future of 1997, Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists with the U.S. President (Donald Pleasance) on board. The President manages to escape the plane before it crashes into the World Trade Center and lands on Manhattan Island – now a prison for America’s worst criminals.
Once the President is taken hostage, the governing police force recruits Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to go in and rescue the President within 24 hours, or he will die.
Escape from New York is a clever mixture of high-octane action, satire, and suspense, focusing on antihero Plissken, who is forced to execute a rescue mission for a governing body he despises.
11. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
Minority Report is a science fiction film by Steven Spielberg that takes place in 2054, where criminals are apprehended before their crimes are committed thanks to the help of three psychics known as “Precogs.”
Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) finds himself predicted to commit a murder and ends up on the run from his own police unit.
After kidnapping one of the psychics, Anderton discovers a possible flaw in the psychic’s vision, which could unravel the entire judicial system he has supported his whole life. Reminiscent of another Spielberg/Tom Cruise partnership in War of the Worlds, Minority Report paints a bleak future devoid of free will or choice.
12. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner showcases Los Angeles as a dystopian futuristic city in 2019 where synthetic humans known as “replicants” are created by a powerful corporation to work in space colonies.
When some of the more advanced replicants escape the colonies and return to LA, a veteran cop named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is tasked to hunt them down.
Widely regarded as one of the best sci-fi dystopian movies of all time, Blade Runner is a complex film that features remarkable special effects and elaborate sets. Though Harrison Ford delivers a great performance, it is the late Rutger Hauer as lead replicant Roy Batty who steals the show.
Keep an eye out for Hauer’s gut-wrenching monologue at the end of the film – it’s as haunting as it is beautiful.
13. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, based on the 1962 Anthony Burgess novel of the same name, takes place in a futuristic Britain with a vicious gang leader named Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell), committing an array of atrocities, including rape, battery, and ultimately murder.
Once captured, Alex’s rehabilitation is as brutal as his own acts of violence, leaving him at the mercy of his former partners and victims.
A Clockwork Orange is a fascinating portrait of distinguishable dystopian societies and complex human emotions – it is at once violent, disturbing, courageous, and controversial. It’s no wonder A Clockwork Orange amassed a huge cult following in the years after its release.
14. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J Schaffer, 1968)
Loosely based on the French graphic novel, Planet of the Apes is a story of three astronauts who crash on an unknown planet after being in deep hibernation.
The astronauts wander the planet only to encounter a group of armed and intelligent apes who end up killing one of the astronauts and lobotomizing another. The third astronaut, Taylor (Charlton Heston), is held captive but ends up befriending two of the apes, who then help him escape – leading to a horrific discovery.
Planet of the Apes came at a time when Hollywood filmmakers began casting aside classic movie tropes in favor of more grounded outcomes. Kubrick had just released 2001, and Romero had just made a certain zombie apocalypse movie. Planet of the Apes was no exception—arguably one of the bleakest endings to a film up until that time.
15. Mad Max: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
This post-apocalyptic sequel to the 1979 cult hit opens with former police officer Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) scavenging the wilderness of Australia for food and fuel.
This time, Max finds himself entangled with a group of settlers who have fuel to spare but are at the mercy of a vicious biker gang. Rediscovering his humanity, Max must decide between helping the settlers or escaping with the fuel.
A sequel that is much more action-packed and intense than the original film but still smart and clever. The chase scenes are frantic, and the stunts are spectacular. Not only has The Road Warrior been hailed as one of the finest action movies of all time but also one of the best sequels ever made.
16. The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)
The year is 2017, and the U.S. has become a totalitarian police state where a violent game show called The Running Man – where captured criminals fight for their lives against armed mercenaries – is the most popular program on TV.
Framed and arrested for a mass murder he didn’t commit, former cop Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) is forced to become a contestant on the game show.
An entertaining action film based on the 1982 Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) novel, The Running Man was ahead of its time in predicting the rise of reality TV and extreme game shows. But the highlight is the sleazy gameshow host, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), who is a perfect foil to Richards.
17. The Matrix (The Wachowskis, 1999)
This action/sci-fi film introduces a computer programmer named Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), who spends his evenings as a notorious hacker named Neo. Obsessed with finding out about “The Matrix,” Neo is approached by Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), who offers Neo a choice between two pills (Reality or Status Quo).
Once Neo discovers the terrifying truth, he finds himself running from a group of evil agents determined to capture Morpheus at all costs. Not just an analogy for AI-run-amok, The Matrix is hailed as a science fiction classic with state-of-the-art action sequences and groundbreaking special effects.
18. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
This updated version of the classic film has Tom Hardy playing the role of Max Rockatansky, an apocalypse survivor haunted by his past. Following imprisonment in a fortress run by a ruthless tyrant, Max forges an alliance with a warrior named Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who ferries a group of innocent women away from the tyrant’s clutches.
With non-stop action and as one of the best chase movies of all time, the group journeys through the desert wasteland as the tyrant and his henchmen ruthlessly pursue them. Nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Fury Road is the Mad Max movie Miller always wanted to make.
19. I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004)
Set in Chicago in the year 2035, artificial intelligence has reached an unprecedented level, with robotic humanoids serving human beings under three main laws. When the CEO of US Robotics, the leading manufacturer of these next-gen automatons, dies in what appears to be a suicide, it is up to police detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) to investigate.
Mistrustful of robots due to a former tragedy, Spooner is skeptical about the suicide from the start; and eventually discovers that the robots may have figured out a way to break the three laws.
Not unlike Blade Runner, I Robot shows a future dependent on artificial intelligence to serve the interests of humanity. However, the same AI evolves to a point where it is serving its own interest as well. With today’s world undergoing a similar transition, films such as these are more relevant than ever.
20. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)
Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a construction worker who dreams of going to an off-world colony on Mars, visits a company called Rekall to implant false memories of his dreams.
The procedure goes awry, and Quaid discovers that his dreams might just be suppressed memories as he finds himself on the run from nefarious forces. When Quaid returns to Mars, he must help a group of rebels overthrow the tyrannical government and restore freedom to the planet.
With a thoughtful and elaborate storyline, this Philip K. Dick adaptation is far better than the average Schwarzenegger vehicle of that time, and it will leave you wondering – was it all just a dream?
21. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
Gattaca presents a near-future society where children are genetically selected with the best hereditary structure. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), a man conceived through natural means, dreams of
going into space but struggles to overcome the existing genetic discrimination. Gradually he figures out a way to impersonate a former swimmer (Jude Law) with valid genetic makeup to pass the space program and achieve his dream.
A provocative and absorbing drama that questions the ethics of modern science through the lens of prejudice. The idea that only the best of our species should be allowed to thrive is as disturbing as it is cautionary.
22. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)
Imagine a future where machines turn on the human race and enslave us. This is the main theme of The Terminator, which has a murderous cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) being sent back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of the human resistance leader who will one day overthrow the machines. Her only hope is a human soldier (Michael Biehn) sent from the future to keep her safe.
A bold and violent film, The Terminator spawned a franchise, though it was the best of the series at showing the horrors of the dystopian future it promised. It was also the first film to feature Schwarzenegger as a villain – not to mention his popular catchphrase, “I’ll be back.”
23. The Purge (James DeMonaco, 2013)
After an economic meltdown, a new political party takes office in America and passes a law called “The Purge,” where once a year, emergency services are suspended for 12 hours, and citizens are permitted to commit crimes without consequence.
As James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family hide in their home while the event occurs, the purgers eventually find the Sandin family and begin to assault them. With the help of neighbors, they are able to fight off the purgers, only to be later ambushed by the neighbors.
A truly horrifying premise where anything goes, and the worst of humanity is exposed. The idea behind The Purge is what makes the film so effective – a situation in which even your friends and neighbors can become your enemy.
24. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)
The latest chapter in the Blade Runner franchise follows the events of the 1982 original, where bio-engineered replicants are slaves to the human race. The story opens with a replicant called “K” (Ryan Gosling) who is tasked by the LAPD to hunt down and kill rogue replicants.
The journey takes K to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who informs K that he is the father of a child born through a replicant experiment. Instead of apprehending Deckard, K instead turns on his creators in order to help Deckard find his long-lost daughter.
This sequel is a worthy successor to the original film. It contains brilliant cinematography and strong performances by its entire cast. It also manages to keep the audience guessing as to whether or not Deckard is, in fact, a replicant himself and ends on a somber note, much like its predecessor.
25. Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)
The year is 2022, and the effects of overpopulation and pollution have caused mass environmental destruction, with only the elites permitted to live a normal life.
Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) is an NYPD detective hired to investigate the sudden murder of a wealthy board member of the Soylent Corporation – a food processing company that creates sustainable food sources. Thorn discovers a vast conspiracy that threatens not only his life but the future of mankind.
Soylent Green is a dark, cynical, and courageous film, which is the terrifying exercise of corporatism gone wrong. What is even more frightening is that in our real world – one year after this story takes place – we face many of the same issues as the people in the film.
26. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
This dystopian action thriller from Japan has a group of junior high students forced into a televised fight to the death at the hands of a volatile totalitarian government.
What starts as an innocent field trip becomes a nightmare as the students are taken to a remote island to kill each other until only one winner emerges. To survive, a trio of friends band together against their classmates and government soldiers to escape the island unharmed.
A controversial film upon its release, Battle Royale still managed to garner critical acclaim due to its intense action and startling fight scenes while also leaving audiences with a foreboding of what might be.
Common Questions About Dystopian Films
Is The Walking Dead a dystopia?
Dystopian films are a glimpse of what the world could be if humanity doesn’t work to change the negative aspects of society. Dystopian films usually show societies where great suffering and injustice have resulted from an environmental disaster or a tyrannical regime. In the case of The Walking Dead, we arrive at a time when the world has already reached a dystopian level. One might argue that it’s more of a utopian story as there are no classes or oppressive societal control – just survivors trying to defend themselves from the undead.
Is Interstellar a dystopia?
Interstellar may not be clearly defined as dystopian, as the story begins at a time when there is no oppression or blatant conflict. However, it does point to dwindling resources and the need to find a more hospitable world – which is the essence of dystopian stories.
What was the first dystopian movie?
In 1927, a German filmmaker named Fritz Lang directed a silent film called Metropolis. A story about a wealthy but endearing man trying to abolish the divide between the upper and lower classes, with disastrous results.
Final Thoughts on Dystopian Movies
To be clearly defined as a dystopian movie, the key element is always a society in turmoil that suffers at the hands of a controlling force. It could be suffering between different classes of people – the poor and the elite, for instance.
Maybe it’s the suffering of that in which we create, and we are the controlling force.
To be a compelling dystopian movie, there should be suffering and injustice, but there should also be hope, perseverance, and compassion.
The best dystopian movies showcase the horrors of societies and the struggle to survive and overcome. They should challenge us, enrich us, and inspire us to be better.
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