Dystopias have never been more popular in pop culture, but what’s the appeal of spending time somewhere awful? Maybe it’s to remind ourselves that things here aren’t so bad, maybe it’s just a chance to imagine how things might go wrong and maybe it’s just a chance to skateboard around some cool ruins. But whatever your reason for wanting to walk down the grim side of the street, SBS On Demand has you covered with the best (and bleakest) in dystopias.
The Handmaid’s Tale
It’s five minutes from now and the USA has become Gilead, a religious dictatorship where the few remaining fertile women are used as breeding stock by the elite and things aren’t that much better for everyone else. This adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel has proved to be one of the defining television series of 2017, perfectly capturing the grim mood in progressive America while giving Elisabeth Moss yet another chance to show why she’s one of the best actors working today. It’s hardly feel-good viewing (some of the episodes early on are almost too gruelling to watch), but that’s why we watch dystopias – to have a better idea of the kinds of worlds we don’t want to happen.
What’s so dystopian about an amusement park? Especially one where you get to kill (or do anything else to) a bunch of extremely lifelike humanoid robots? In this 1973 film written and directed by Michael “Jurassic Park” Crichton, that depends. For some people, the idea of a place where people can gleefully murder what seems to be other people with zero consequences is a grim nightmare in which we gleefully surrender our own humanity to revel in our base instincts free of retribution. And for other people, the problem with the robot amusement park starts when the robots begin to malfunction and kill humans. To be fair, they both have a strong case.
Society tells us that without a job, we’re nothing. So what happens in a society where 80 percent of the population are unemployed? In this French series (named after a Roman torture implement, suggesting fairly bluntly that here work itself is torture), those with jobs live on one side of a massive wall and those without are forced to struggle to survive on the other. Thing is, this age-old divide is starting to crumble. Under duress and on the verge of bankruptcy, the well-off have decided to offer 10,000 “solidarity jobs” to the increasingly unruly unemployed. That’s not exactly good news (remember the title of this show?), and Izia (Leonie Simaga) soon learns that moving from one side of the wall to the other only replaces one set of problems with another.
2001: A Space Odyssey
If the 21st century has has taught us anything, it’s that even in a dystopia things aren’t always massively grim everywhere at once. So while things mostly look pretty sweet in Stanley Kubrick film’s 2001 – not only are there moon bases, but there are commercial flights to those moon bases, which means one thing: moon holidays – once you look closer, you realise it’s not all smiling stewardesses in zero-gravity. The opening sequence with our ape-like ancestors reveals that humanity has violence at its heart, and the notorious smash cut from a thrown bone club to an orbiting space station (revealed in the script to be an orbiting laser platform as part of an arms race in space) shows that technology has only given us better ways to make life a living hell.
It’s not Earth that’s the dystopia in this sci-fi classic from 1956 but Altair IV, home to the mysteriously vanished alien race the Krell. Scientist Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), and their robot Robbie were the only survivors from the first expedition from Earth. 20 years later, a second expedition has arrived, only to find Morbius strangely reluctant to leave. One of the first science fiction films to take space travel and alien planets seriously, and the first to feature a robot with a personality (plus an iconic design), this was groundbreaking in pretty much any direction you care to look, right down to its all-electronic soundtrack. Though, yes, that is Leslie “Naked Gun” Nielsen in a laugh-free role as the square-jawed commander of the rescue mission.
Robot police? Sex is illegal? Everyone’s on mind-altering drugs? If you’re looking for a dystopia, you’ve come to the right place. George Lucas’s first film is a grimly serious look at a dehumanised future where the biggest crime is to fall in love. With a stark, sterile look (pretty much everybody wears identical uniforms and has a shaved head), this couldn’t be further from the bustling, lived-in environments Lucas would later present in Star Wars – but the story of one man’s rebellion against the system might not be all that removed from a galaxy far, far away.
A Scanner Darkly
As the man behind Blade Runner and Total Recall, author Philip K Dick’s futures were rarely feel-good exercises. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of one of Dick’s more mind-melting novels, it’s not robots or brain-wipe holidays that are messing people up, it’s drugs. Specifically Substance D, a high-powered hallucinogen on which one in five people is hooked. This is a great excuse for the government to ramp up the war on drugs to police state levels, which keeps undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) busy spying on his own house, as he’s both a cop and a Substance D addict. Things only get more twisted from there.
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