The Best Dystopian Movies

Actor Tom Hardy in George Miller's 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road
Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Jasin Boland/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 

A dystopian sci-fi movie is a film that depicts a world in which society as we know it has either collapsed entirely into chaos or suffers from extreme social and political turmoil.

Did You Know?

Steven Spielberg's 2001 dystopian sci-fi film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence was originally a Stanley Kubrick project. Kubrick previously directed the dystopian film A Clockwork Orange (1971).

What Is a Dystopian Movie?

Dystopian films are often marked by dark thematic tones and frequently depict lone characters (who are usually heroic, but not always) standing up against the oppressive and chaotic society around them.

The word "dystopia" is the antonym of "utopia." While utopia means an ideal society, "dystopia" is a society in which humanity struggles against many challenges. Because of that, dystopian movies are most often sci-fi films and depict society in the near future.

Some examples of dystopian societies depicted in films are ones challenged by incurable disease (1995's 12 Monkeys), climate change (2001's A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2013's Snowpiercer), overpopulation (1973's Soylent Green, 1976's Logan's Run), totalitarian governments (2000's Battle Royale), the aftermath of nuclear war (2010's The Book of Eli), or crime (1971's A Clockwork Orange). However, in some cases the cause of societal change or collapse is never explained in the film.

Though dystopian films depict fictional future societies, the content is often meant to comment on current-day issues and suggest what might come in the future should society progress down a certain path. For example, the 1967 novel Logan's Run (later adapted in a 1976 film) asserts that the student demonstrations and youth counterculture of the 1960s would one day result in an explosion of the youth population, to the point that humans would need to be executed on their 21st birthday as a measure of population control. Similarly, films like Escape from New York (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) depict crime-ridden worlds and were released as headlines of urban violence frequently appeared in the media.

Best Dystopian Movies

From the earliest dystopian movies to the more recent releases, these are some of the top dystopian movies.

of 05

Death Race 2000 (1975)

Actor Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000 (1975)
Sylvester Stallone in Death Race 2000 (1975).

New World Pictures

Producer Roger Corman's 1975 B-movie masterpiece anticipates that the most popular sport 25 years in the future would be a cross-country road race in which the ruthless drivers would score points for mowing down pedestrians along the route. Despite its low budget, Death Race 2000 is one of Corman's most popular films and features David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone.

of 05

Escape From New York (1981)

Actors Kurt Russell and Harry Dean Stanton in a scene from John Carpenter's 1981 film Escape from New York
Actors Kurt Russell and Harry Dean Stanton on the set of "Escape From New York".

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Image

This 1981 film is set in the then-future 1997, when Manhattan has been turned into an anything-goes prison for the country's worst criminals. Kurt Russell portrays World War III veteran-turned-criminal Snake Plissken, who is forced to infiltrate Manhattan to rescue the kidnapped president of the United States. Director John Carpenter mostly shot the film in East St. Louis, Illinois, an economically depressed city that the crew was able to convert into chaos-striken Manhattan streets.

of 05

Brazil (1985)

Actor Jonathan Pryce in a scene of Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil
Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce on the set of Brazil, written and directed by Terry Gilliam.

Embassy International Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam explores the absurdity of government bureaucracy in this 1985 dystopian fantasy/black comedy. Johnathan Pryce stars as a low-level government worker, Sam Lowry, who is tasked with resolving a situation in which a typographical error causes the arrest of the wrong individual for terrorism. Sam soon becomes an enemy of the government himself when he begins to question his role in the matter.

of 05

The Mad Max series (1979-2015)

Actor Mel Gibson in a scene from Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
American actor Mel Gibson on the set of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior written and directed by George Miller.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

The Mad Max film series portrays post-apocalyptic Australia and features the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a police officer-turned-drifter after witnessing the murder of his family. Though Max intends to only look out for himself, he frequently finds himself in situations in which he is forced to act as a hero.

Mel Gibson portrayed Max in the first three films (1979's Mad Max, 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). Thirty years later, the series was revived with 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, which starred Tom Hardy. All four films were directed or co-directed by visionary filmmaker George Miller. Mad Max: Fury Road in particular received widespread critical acclaim and won six Academy Awards.

of 05

The Hunger Games series (2012-2015)

Actors Jennifer Lawrence and Jon D. Brooks in a scene from The Hunger Games (2012)
Jennifer Lawrence and Jon D. Brooks in The Hunger Games (2012).

Murray Close/Lions Gate Films Inc.

Adapted from the bestselling young adult novel trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games depicts a post-apocalyptic North America in which poor children are forced to compete in a battle to the death. The film adaptations starring Jennifer Lawrence (released as four films from 2012-2015) were incredibly successful and grossed nearly $3 billion at the worldwide box office.