16 Classic Dystopian Movie Futures (Including a Few That Should Have Happened Already)
Some say the world will end in fire; others, in ice. But whichever way we go, we can take comfort from knowing that once civilization slides into dystopia, some screenwriter will distill our downfall into a few sentences at the start of a movie.
The “dark days to come” opening crawl, title card, and/or narration has been a staple of science-fiction and fantasy films since the silent era, hitting something of a peak in the ’80s and ’90s, when countless cheap B-pictures about crumbling future-worlds relied on a brief intro to cut to the chase. Why spend precious screen time establishing a premise, when it only takes about 10 seconds for the audience to process a paragraph that begins, “The year is 2044. It is a time of dread...”?
So what will our apocalypse look like? By heeding just the first few lines of a handful of speculative SF films, we can get a glimpse of what life will become — in the years ahead, and even in the years that have already happened.
1. In the year 3028, our ingenuity will invite an alien invasion!!!
Titan A.E. (2000)
As “Project Titan” mastermind Professor Sam Tucker explains at the start of this expensive animated flop, humanity’s advancements in the science of terraforming will eventually alarm an energy-based species called the Drej. He proclaims:
Once in a great while, mankind unlocks a secret so profound that our future is altered forever. At the dawn of the 31st century we unlocked another. It had the potential to change humanity’s role in the universe. ...It was a testament to the limitless power of the human imagination. Perhaps that is what the Drej feared most, for it brought them down upon us without warning, and without mercy.
In the movie, Tucker’s son Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) deals with the consequences of our arrogance, and eventually comes up with an elaborate plan to defeat the Drej in deepest space. He also learns his dad’s true lesson: Don’t be too smart.
2. In the year 2670, we’ll forge an uneasy truce with our ape overlords!!!
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
Most of the final entry in the first Planet of the Apes film series is set in the early 21st century—right about now!—and tells the story of how an ape named Caesar fights to keep the peace between his kind and ours, in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. But the movie also has framing scenes set six centuries later, featuring “The Lawgiver” (played by John Huston) saying the following:
In the beginning, God created beast and man, so that both might live in friendship and share dominion over a world of peace. But in the fullness of time evil men betrayed God’s trust and in disobedience to His holy word waged bloody wars, not only against their own kind, but against the apes, whom they reduced to slavery. Then God in his wrath sent the world a savior, miraculously born of two apes who descended on Earth from Earth’s own future. And man was afraid, for both parent apes possessed the power of speech...
The film’s concluding scene of apes and men together, all listening to the Lawgiver’s story, is meant to suggest some hope for a continuing coexistence. But a final shot of Caesar’s statue with a tear in its stone eye — coupled with Apes fans’ knowledge that the 1968 original is set in 3978, after the humans have become enslaved — indicates that this alliance is only temporary.
3. In the year 2139, we’ll all live in megacities governed by martial law!!!
Judge Dredd (1995)
Judge Dredd’s stentorian narrator begins the movie by telling us how climate change ruined everything:
In the third millennium, the world changed. Climate, nations, all were in upheaval. The Earth transformed into a poisonous, scorched desert, known as the Cursed Earth. Millions of people crowded into a few megacities, where roving bands of street savages created violence the justice system could not control. Law, as we know it, collapsed. From the decay rose a new order, a society ruled by a new, elite force. A force with the power to dispense both justice and punishment. They were the police, jury and executioner all in one. They were the Judges.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the titular Judge Dredd is maybe an okay guy? Also, he’s played by Sylvester Stallone, so when he sternly shouts, “I am the law!” his diction is so mushy that it’s kind of adorable.
4. In the year 2072, we’ll be so numbed to war that we’ll get our kicks watching armed gladiators on TV!!!
Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984)
Dystopian science-fiction has been predicting an increase in violence via “reality television” for so long that almost nothing that airs on our actual TVs in 2016 can shock us any more. (Remember: We live in a world where one of the most popular shows on cable drops naked people into the wilderness with no food or water for 21 days, and no one seems bothered by this.) Still, it’s important to note exactly how the decadence of Warriors of the Year 2072 comes to pass:
Decades of war have become part of mankind’s inheritance. Violence is a way of life, and the masses crave it. In an attempt to profit from this addiction to violence, the two major international television networks began broadcasting programs based on pain, brutality, and destruction. These programs became so popular that an intense rivalry for ratings began between the two networks. It grew into a battle more terrifying than anyone could’ve imagined.
See, the problem isn’t that we like to watch people kill each other, it’s that we can’t decide which murder-show to watch. Possible solution: We need a national referendum limiting TV networks to airing only one murder-show at a time.
5. In the year 2057, a health crisis will leave us indebted to a ruthless medical technology company!!!
Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
The ambitious musical Repo! takes an unconventional approach to the opening crawl, rendering it in comic book panels that read as follows:
The not-too-distant future. An epidemic of organ failures. Millions die. Chaos! Out of the tragedy, a savior emerges. GeneCo! GeneCo’s payment plans cheat death… for now. GeneCo carves out a new niche: Surgery as a fashion statement! GeneCo also develops Zydrate, an expensive and addictive painkiller. Grave-robbers sell a cheap version of Zydrate on the black market, extracted from the dead. Rotti Largo, GeneCo’s founder, lobbies a bill through congress. Organ repossessions are legalized! … For those who can’t keep up with their payments, the Largos send in Repo Men!
That’s a lot of premise to pack into just a couple of minutes of colorful art. But the essential information is the same as so many other dystopian sagas: The world went to hell, we trusted someone to straighten everything out for us, and in the process we got screwed. Any similarities between the world of 2057 and the world of 2008 (or, now, 2016) is wholly intentional.
6. Also in the year 2057, our sun will start to burn out!!!
As if it isn’t bad enough that all of our organs will be randomly exploding in 2057, our solar system’s central star will ... well, let’s let physicist Robert Capa (played by Cillian Murphy) break it down for us:
Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven, left earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose to create a star within a star. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to the Icarus Two.
So there you have it. Our best bet to keep our sun from bricking is to hook it up with a portable charger. (Just like your sputtering iPhone, but with fewer annoying pop-up warnings.) Pick your poison: Hearts and lungs spontaneously decaying or the big freeze?
7. In the year 2035, a pandemic will drive us underground!!!
12 Monkeys (1995)
If it makes you feel any better, the environmental disaster at the center of 12 Monkeys was supposed to happen 19 years ago. At the start of the movie, a time-traveling mental patient (played by Bruce Willis) predicts this in the year 1990:
Five billion people will die from a deadly virus in 1997. The survivors will abandon the surface of the planet. Once again the animals will rule the world.
So even if this disaster had come to pass, within about 40 years we’d have adjusted somewhat to the new reality, while letting the animals have their day. And who doesn’t like animals?
8. In the year 2033, a comet will have plunged us into a global drought!!!
Tank Girl (1995)
Never let it be said that Rebecca “Tank Girl” Buck (played by Lori Petty) doesn’t look for the bright side of a bad situation. At the start of her story, she says:
Listen up, ’cause I’m only telling you this once. I’m not bedtime story lady, so pay attention. It’s 2033. The world is screwed now. You see, a while ago this humongous comet came crashing into the earth. Bam, total devastation. End of the world as we know it. No celebrities, no cable TV, no water. It hasn’t rained in 11 years. Now 20 people gotta squeeze inside the same bathtub... so it ain’t all bad.
This is true! It would be fun to take a bath with 20 other people ... provided that one of them wasn’t the hyperactive, singularly grating Tank Girl. It’s also good to know that when the Earth’s water supply dwindles, it’ll be because of an astronomical fluke, and not because we’ve been indiscriminately poisoning the environment for the past century.
9. In the year 2029, we’ll be futilely resisting the oppression of artificial intelligence!!!
The Terminator (1984)
The first Terminator movie takes place mostly in the present day, for reasons sort of explained in the opening title card:
The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present.
Okay, maybe that doesn’t actually explain much. The problem — at least as far as the machines are concerned — is that while they’ve tried their best to purge the scourge that is humanity in our now not-too-distant future, we’ve been pushing back too hard. So they send Arnold Schwarzenegger to 1984, to kill the mother of the man who’ll become humanity’s greatest champion. (We could point out that the real reason why the “final battle” is being fought “here, in our present” is because it’s cheaper for filmmakers than trying to build the world of 2029. But why quibble?)
10. In the year 2019, we’ll be paranoid about the humanoid robots who live among us!!!
Blade Runner (1982)
The future in Blade Runner isn’t as bleak as in some of the other films on this list, but there’s still plenty in this opening crawl that should give audiences in 2016 pause:
Early in the 21st Century, The Tyrell Corporation advanced robot evolution into the Nexus phase: a being virtually identical to a human, known as a Replicant. The Nexus 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-World as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a Nexus 6 combat team in an Off-World colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth… under penalty of death. Special police squads—Blade Runner Units—had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
The dense, dark Los Angeles in this movie is apparently only three years away. And the description of the entities that we ask to do our dirty work — but don’t want in our own backyard — has plenty of modern-day parallels, from bombing-drones to migrant laborers. Blade Runner may not be hardcore dystopian, but it is discomfiting... in large part because so much of it seems plausible.
11. In the year 2017, we’ll be too poor to go out, so we’ll stay home and watch dudes get killed on game shows!!!
The Running Man (1987)
As with Warriors of the Year 2072, here’s another movie that thinks we’re fated to spend most of our time in the future watching people get very badly hurt on television for our amusement. The difference is the reason why:
By 2017, the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the state, and a sadistic game show called The Running Man has become the most popular program in history. All art, music, and communications are censored. No dissent is tolerated, and yet a small resistance movement has managed to survive underground. When high-tech gladiators are not enough to suppress the people’s yearning for freedom ... more direct methods become necessary.
So here it’s not “decades of war” that’ll destroy our sense of right and wrong, but rather the end of any semblance of financial security. Since the game show in question is super-popular just one year from today, that should mean that the economic collapse happened a while back—to give all the world’s governments time to organize a militarized response. That should also put our minds at rest a bit, as we nervously eye our 401Ks and check to see when the next season of The Bachelor debuts.
12. In the year 2008, climate change will cause flooding in our major cities!!!
Split Second (1992)
Now we head back into the past, for a 24-year-old science-fiction/cop movie that’s eerily prescient about the actual perils we’ve seen — and will continue to face — in the 21st century:
After forty days and nights of torrential rain, the city is largely submerged below water, a result of the devastating effects of continued global warming. The warnings ignored for decades have now resulted in undreamed-of levels of pollution, where day has become almost endless night…
The city in question is London (as opposed to New Orleans, Brooklyn, or Miami, which have all been hammered by rising water in our real world). This future soggy metropolis is patrolled by a hard-bitten police detective (played by Rutger Hauer), searching for a serial-killing supernatural monster. The movie is part Blade Runner, part Predator. But what’s scariest about Split Second is its chilling vision of now.
13. In the year 1999, our high schools will become lawless battlefields!!!
Class of 1999 (1989)
The robotic narrator at the start of this Class of 1984 sequel describes a nightmare version of our educational system:
In 1992, there were 543,767 violent incidents in American high schools. In some cities, the areas around these schools were beginning to fall under the control of violent youth gangs. By 1997, the number of violent incidents had tripled. Gangs had taken control of large sections of these cities. Some schools were shut down. The year is 1999. The gang-controlled areas have become known as Free-Fire Zones. Kennedy High is located in the middle of a Free-Fire Zone. The police will not enter. There is no law. The Department of Educational Defense has been formed to reopen the schools and control the gangs.
Again, it’s somewhat of a relief that the time for this academic hellscape passed 17 years ago. But on the other hand, it wouldn’t take a lot tweaking to update this premise for this age of metal detectors at schoolhouse doors.
14. In the year 1998, we’ll be out of gas and be using our cars as houses!!!
George Carlin narrates this broad political satire, and his description of how the world goes awry tends to ramble. He starts with the dinosaurs, then jumps ahead to the peanut-farmer:
What you’re looking at is downtown Pittsburgh, one million B.C. Those two big guys are fighting for a parking space. This is where our story begins. If they could have just learned to live together like decent human beings, they’d still be around and there never would have been an energy crisis. But they died out, and what was left of them turned into fossil fuel. Oil. See, it’s not cute when eleven tons gets cranky. Their problem was they were all teeth and no brain. Which brings us to this guy. Jimmy Carter was President of the United States when everybody started to notice we were running out of dead dinosaurs. No more gas to run our cars. Fights at the pump. People getting nozzle-whipped. So what was his solution? He made a speech. ... When America finally ran out of gas, an angry mob broke into the White House and lynched him. Along with three or four of his snottier cabinet members.
This goes on for a while, before finally getting to the actual story, involving a hippie politician (played by John Ritter) and a culture dominated by scroungers in track-suits. Americathon was made in the era of gas-lines and post-Watergate malaise, and so it expresses a deep cynicism about politicians of all stripes — from ineffectual liberals to corrupt conservatives selling huge chunks of the country to oil-rich sheiks. This vision of a destitute, nomadic future America isn’t rooted in any kind of cogent social critique beyond, “Everything’s stupid.” Which means it could be re-released in 2016 with very few modifications.
15. In the year 1997, an out-of-control crime-rate will force us to use the entire island of Manhattan as a prison!!!
Escape from New York (1981)
Speculative fiction often really predicts the present, not the future, such that we can look back at these movies — and TV shows, novels, comic books, and prog-rock albums— and learn a lot about what was keeping the artists of the past up at night. Judging by the 1980s version of dystopia, the biggest problem facing the world was a rise in crime so dramatic that soon the crooks would outnumber the law-abiding. This article you’re reading right now could easily have been populated almost exclusively with ’80s B-movies where society herds our most violent citizens into special “zones.” Did the widespread urban blight of the ’70s really shake up our science-fiction writers that much? Or was everyone just trying to create their own version of the coolest “bleak prophecy” movie of the era, Escape from New York? Just read the opening crawl for John Carpenter’s action/comedy/fantasy masterpiece:
In 1988, the crime rate in the United States rises four hundred percent. The once great city of New York becomes the one maximum security prison for the entire country. A fifty-foot containment wall is erected along the New Jersey shoreline, across the Harlem River, and down along the Brooklyn shoreline. It completely surrounds Manhattan Island. All bridges and waterways are mined. The United States Police Force, like an army, is encamped around the island. There are no guards inside the prison, only prisoners and the worlds they have made. The rules are simple: Once you go in, you don’t come out.
That’s a premise so awesome that even the most morally upright individual might want to encourage an increase in crime, just to make Carpenter’s nightmare a reality.
16. In the year 1984, we’ll be living in the world of 1984!!!
Though it’s far from the first piece of dystopian literature, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has become the prime example of the genre, with its vision of authoritarian governments and groupthink. The novel has been adapted to the screen multiple times—including in 1984 — but one of the most fascinating versions was produced in Orwell’s home country just seven years after the book was originally published. How serious is the 1956 1984? So much so that it has both an opening card…
This is a story of the future. Not the future of space ships and men from other planets, but the immediate future.
… and opening narration:
From the devastation wrought by the atomic raids of 1965, three great police states rose to divide the world. Oceania, Eurasia, and East Asia. Atomic weapons were abolished, but not war itself. Only by retaining the strain and tension of continual conflict, the ruling parties enforce absolute power.
As with many of the other movies on this list, both the printed and motion picture versions of Orwell’s story describe the widespread worries of its own time: in this case, the deep disillusionment that ensued during the Cold War, after well-intentioned populist/progressive/collectivist movements had been co-opted by dictators.
Even though the “future” it introduces is 30 years behind us now, 1984’s concerns aren’t that quaint, any more than the fears of nuclear annihilation, widespread famine, violent crime, or environmental devastation have gone away. So let these opening crawls, cards, and narrations serve two purposes. One: As a reminder to stay vigilant. Two: As a reassurance that while it’s true the world may be ending, according to our gloomiest fiction-writers it’s been happening for over a century now.
In other words: The apocalypse takes time.