The future – and the horrors it might hold – have long fascinated moviegoers. More often than not, we imagine our future as one overrun by the less noble tendencies of humanity – corruption, greed, tyranny, environmental destruction, and more. Blade Runner 2049 will be the latest entry in that genre, adding more heft and story to the 1982 Ridley Scott film based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel.
In advance of the release of the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049, which many hope will answer long-standing questions from the 1982 film, some are likely re-watching the Harrison Ford-led original. While that makes perfect sense, Blade Runner stems from a long legacy of dystopian imaginings and their cinematic renderings. Movies as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey to the original Planet of the Apes have imagined stark visions for our future. Here are nine classic dystopian science fiction films to check out before you see Blade Runner 2049.
Modern cinema would look vastly different without Metropolis — Fritz Lang’s imagining of a cold future divided between the wealthy who live safe above the city in high-rises and the working people who toil underground. Its highly stylized use of Art Deco designs, matte painting, light, and shadow has influenced the look of countless films from Star Wars to the first Blade Runner. Made in Germany, the film takes up popular communist and socialist ideologies of the time with its central conflict between the rich and the workers who rise up and fight for equality. It also directly interrogates questions of industrialization, manifested in the robot Hel/Maria who stirs dissent and invokes mass murder in her name. Lang later came to Hollywood, employing his distinct German Expressionist style in a series of memorable film noirs, but nothing looms quite as large as Metropolis in terms of reach and influence. For decades, the film was presumed lost in its original form as nearly one-quarter of the footage was missing, but a series of discoveries and restorations have made the film available in nearly its original form.
Things to Come (1936)
This obscure British film is based on a 1933 H.G. Wells novel The Shape of Things to Come. Less popular than his earlier science fiction work like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, the story focused more on Wells’ outspoken political beliefs for reform, which imagined a centralized economy and meritocracy led by scientists and intellectuals. Wells had a direct hand in production, writing the screenplay. The film is an odd mix of dystopian imaginings and utopian hopes – a second world war (shockingly prescient for 1936) breaks out in 1940 and continues until 1960, at which point the world enters a second Dark Age. In 1970, a pilot named John Cabal (Raymond Massey) arrives in England with tales of a world dominated by technological advancement and global consolidation (eliminating independent nations) — he successfully defeats the tyrannical “Boss” overseeing England. In 2036, a new fight rages between dissidents against technological progress and those who still support an unending quest for knowledge. The film was notable for being one of the first to take inspiration from Metropolis, with a heavy emphasis on futuristic costumes and design (celebrated Gone with the Wind production designer William Cameron Menzies helmed the project).
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
In the wake of World War II and the development of the atom bomb, anxiety over the prospect of nuclear war permeated much of the science fiction of the age. The Day the Earth Stood Still capitalizes on this when a mysterious alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands on Earth bearing an ominous message: abandon all weapons and live in peace or face obliteration from other forces in the universe. Many surmised Klaatu was a metaphor for Jesus Christ with his sudden arrival on earth and message of peace (he even uses the pseudonym John Carpenter/initials J.C. as a human on Earth). Perhaps even more memorable than Klaatu and his warning is the giant metal robot Gort (played by the extremely tall Grauman’s Chinese Theater doorman Lock Martin), who disintegrates soldiers’ guns in one famous scene and is responsible for policing and keeping peace in the universe. The film also features Oscar winner Patricia Neal and blacklisted character actor Sam Jaffe (playing an Einstein type here and putting his real-life degree in mathematics to good use). The film was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly, but the original 1951 film remains one of the most popular science fiction films ever made.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet inspired countless properties in the genre, including the original Star Trek. It was one of the first science fiction films to take place entirely on another planet and feature humans flying a spaceship of their own creation. When a ship lands on Altira IV, crew members led by Leslie Nielsen’s captain discover two sole survivors from a previous expedition there – Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who are strangely reluctant to return to Earth. Their servant Robby the Robot also plays a memorable arc in the proceedings, as one of the first onscreen robots to have a distinct personality and elaborate role as a supporting character, rather than a mere emotionless machine. He was so beloved he’s since appeared in 1957’s The Invisible Boy and 1984’s Gremlins. The film was also notable for its groundbreaking special effects that featured a range of animation from Disney animators in a very rare case of the Walt Disney Company loaning them out to another studio (MGM). As one of the titles mentioned in “Science Fiction Double Feature” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it remains a cult classic.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
This science fiction film capitalized on Cold War suspicions about the “other” and fear of the unsuspecting enemy living in our backyard (hysteria that fed things like McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist). Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the story of a strange illness that prompts patients to insist to a local doctor that their loved ones are impersonators. The malady is revealed to be caused by aliens already living among humanity, creating what is known as “the pod people” — alien impersonators who have replaced specific individuals in the town. This required the main cast to have full body casts made for an infamous scene where the “pod people” are revealed. Director Don Siegel wanted a more pessimistic conclusion, but the studio pushed for an uplifting ending, resulting in two cuts still being in existence today. The film and its themes of fear of being overrun or hoodwinked by others devoid of humanity and compassion still resonate today – it has been remade three times, most recently in a 2007 version starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
On the Beach (1959)
On the Beach represents a far more sobering and realistic take on a dystopian future than the futuristic, space-age atmosphere of many of the films on this list. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins all star in this bleak tale of survivors living in Australia after nuclear warfare has annihilated the planet. Astaire made his non-musical acting debut in the film, while Peck signed on for an opportunity to espouse his pacifist, anti-nuclear views on screen. Stanley Kramer, who became known for his unflinching examination of social and political issues, made a bold statement in only his fourth film behind the camera. Ambivalent in its attitude toward technology that has the power to both aid and destroy mankind, the film represented a far more ambiguous take on the threat of nuclear holocaust and questions about humanity’s role in our own destruction and degradation. It remained one of the most brutally honest films about nuclear devastation until rising paranoia in the 1980s inspired a spate of new movies on the subject.
Available on: DVD
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
Based on Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name, Fahrenheit 451’s chilling depiction of a future where reading is illegal and all literature is burned remains one of the most horrifying and prescient dystopias ever put onscreen. Bradbury understood the role of controlling information and distributing government-approved jargon in creating a passive populace who are puppets of the media. François Truffaut, one of the visionaries of the French New Wave, took on this book adaptation as his first English language and color film. Oskar Werner portrays Guy Montag, a “fireman” whose job it is to round up and burn books, but who finds himself falling in love with literature and a mysterious book smuggler (played by Julie Christie doing double duty as smuggler Clarisse and Montag’s wife Linda). Many fans of the book disliked Truffaut’s adaptation and its emphasis on visual style over some key aspects of the plot, but it remains a major entry in the evolution of dystopian cinema. What’s more – it helped cement and perpetuate the legacy of the novel, which is set for another film adaptation starring Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) in 2018.
Soylent Green (1973)
Set in the year 2022, Soylent Green combined science fiction with police procedural as Charlton Heston’s Detective Thorn investigates the murder of a wealthy businessman (played by Joseph Cotten) in a world beset by environmental disaster and destruction. Most of the population survives on rations from the Soylent Corporation, which ends up playing a key role in Thorn’s investigation. Thorn finds himself drawn into a web of conspiracy and cover-ups that put his life in danger. The film’s final chilling revelation is so jarring and such an unexpected twist that it earned a place on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movie quotes list. Because much of the world’s problems are caused by overpopulation in the film, the set designer took pains to fill every nook and cranny of the New York City sets with garbage, people, and more, to convey a sense of overcrowding. The author of the novel that inspired the film, Harry Harrison, did not like many of the changes made to the story, but he appreciated that it still hammered home the message that humanity must work to ameliorate pollution and overpopulation.
Logan’s Run (1976)
In Logan’s Run, the year is 2274 and humanity lives in seeming utopian harmony, where everyone is young and beautiful. But it is secretly a dystopia under strict population control – all individuals must die in a ritualistic ceremony known as the Carrousel when they reach their 30th birthday. Michael York stars as Logan 5, a security guard tasked with hunting those known as “runners” who attempt to escape this fate – along the way he becomes disillusioned with the laws of his society and begins to suspect all is not as it seems. Farrah Fawcett has a brief supporting role – 1976 marked a major year for her with the release of her iconic bathing suit poster (which earned her this movie role) and the beginning of Charlie’s Angels. Logan’s Run bears a lot of similarities to Rick Deckard’s replicant hunting cop in Blade Runner. Set in 2274, the movie sought to warn viewers against a society that only prized youth and beauty, which many felt was a backlash to the 1960s counterculture movement and the rise of youth culture. The film convinced producers that there was a market for more mature science fiction films, paving the way for movies like Blade Runner and even spawning a short-lived Logan’s Run television series.