Sci-fi dystopias are a dime a dozen, but ones that feel truly unique or distinct are much more rare. A great sci-fi movie creates its own version of reality, even as the world in which its story is set also comments on the realities of our world.
Each movie on this list features a carefully crafted world that feels entirely real to the viewer, in spite of how miserable all the characters in the movie might be. These are carefully crafted worlds, which only helps them resonate more fully with the one we actually live in.
Filled with the kind of vivid detail that only Paul Verhoeven could imagine, Total Recall is set in a 2084 where Mars has been colonized, and people who look like Arnold Schwarzenegger work construction.
The movie’s plot features a series of events that may or may not be reality, but what’s most impressive about this movie is the way it visualizes the many technologies that make up its dystopian future. Total Recall is unafraid to show us Mars, and when we finally get there, it’s well worth the wait.
Set in a distant future in which the U.S. has been devastated by climate change and is now both smaller and significantly less populous, The Hunger Games imagines a future where 12 districts are ruled over by a single Capitol that oppresses them in part by forcing some of their children to fight to the death.
That idea, which has its basis in history, is strong enough, but what makes this franchise’s dystopia feel so grounded is the way the dress and behavior of those with privilege is nearly perfectly contrasted with those in the districts who have nothing.
Set in a world where humans exist simply to supply energy for machines, and are living in only a simulacrum of reality, The Matrix came at a moment when the world was teetering on the edge of something new. What made the movie such a smashing success, though, was the way it contrasted the pristine, but artificial world of the Matrix with the horrific dystopia of the real world.
The Matrix argued that the real world was well worth saving, even if it was fundamentally broken, and its sequels fleshed this idea out even more, even if some people hated them.
The great reveal at the end of Planet of the Apes is part of what made the movie so legendary, but even before we get to it, Planet of the Apes gives us a world run by apes filled with its own rules and legal structures.
What’s so striking about the movie is the way most of it plays out like a legal thriller, in which a human attempts to explain why he has the ability to speak on a planet where most humans do not. Although its final moments turn Planet of the Apes into a warning about the atomic age, the movie’s depiction of its titular planet is interesting long before then.
Plenty of great movies have been made about the fallout from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, but none imagines a more terrifying future than Akira.
Set in a world in which an atomic bomb was dropped on Tokyo 30 years earlier, the movie follows a young boy who is attempting to save his friend from a government experiment. When his friend’s powers begin to manifest, though, we see the secrets of the Japanese government on full display, as well as a horrifying metaphor for the trauma of living through the atomic bomb.
Set on a version of Earth that’s covered in trash and has long since been abandoned by the human race, Wall-E tells the story of a trash collector robot who inadvertently discovers that Earth can be saved. The journey he goes on, which eventually turns into a love story, is beautiful in its own right, but Wall-E also imagines a future in which mankind still exists, though it has been almost entirely immobilized.
Its version of Earth, one in which the entire planet is now a desert, is even more stark, and Wall-E remains one of Pixar’s most overt political statements and one of its very best movies.
The world of Blade Runner and its sequel feels so vividly realized, from its futuristic, pyramid-like architecture to its hologram technologies, that it almost runs away with this competition. The production design in both of these movies is legendary, as is the idea of replicants who are almost impossible to distinguish from people.
When combined, these two movies suggest a world both entirely remote from our own and somehow familiar, and it’s that combination that makes both movies so alluring.
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