Cinema’s Top 10 Most Dystopian Post-Apocalyptic Futures


With Oblivion out this week, it seemed like an appropriate time to have a look at a few movies that took the time to craft a properly bleak and dark post-apocalyptic future-scape. Today’s list detailed the most fucked up, horrible, dangerous, and brutal post-apocalyptic future dystopias that films have offered us thus far. Pay close attention to the title of today’s list, for that’s exactly what we’re looking for: cinematic scenarios that represented a future in chaos as a result of a catastrophic off-screen event. The film had to have taken place after this world-changing, society-crippling occurrence: and the more dangerous the aftermath, the better. Thus, to make today’s ranking, the future in question had to present an absolutely terrifying picture of things to come after the shield of civilized society cracked. This was a generous list in terms of choices, so your author had to be especially ruthless when making decisions about which films would be included and which had to suffer the quiet indignity of an honorable mention. To keep the choices within a reasonable range, zombie films were excluded, for that was a list all to itself. Also, on cinematic principle, the list turned its back on the touring freak-shows that were Waterworld and The Postman. There, they’ve been mentioned, so let us never speak of such things again. The Matrix wasn’t included because, technically, that was a dystopian “now,” as that movie supposed that what is experienced in the moment is actually an artificial reality (thus not a “future” dystopia). Other contenders that might just as easily have gotten a spot included Wall-E (just not frighteningly dystopian enough), I Am Legend (mostly because it sucked), A Boy and His Dog, V For Vendetta, Equilibrium, Children of Men, Back to the Future II, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Pitch Black, Brazil, 9, Running Man and Idiocracy. Most of these movies certainly qualified to make the cut, or just missed out because there was no apocalyptic “event,” but mostly, they didn’t present futures quite as fucked up as, say…

metropolis-movie-poster-1926-102043358610.) Metropolis

Motorhead wrote a song to honor this film, which is about everything this author needed to give it a spot on this list or any other. Lemmy is as close to a living man-god as any creature ever to grace the planet with the imprint of his foot, so if he has anything to say about this flick, it’s a win. German filmmaker Fritz Lang has been frequently lauded as a brilliant visionary for tackling complex themes at a time when his chosen medium was in its infancy. Sensitive to the Marxian sensibilities of his audience, even if they themselves weren’t aware of it, Lang told the story of a privileged young man searching for purpose after he realized the human cost of his opulence. Though the catastrophic apocalypse was never really fleshed out, it seemed obvious in Metropolis that some staggering event had occurred to transform society into a clearly divided two-caste system.

In the film, while the people living in plush skyscrapers rested comfortably in their utopian paradise, the other half of the world was below ground working like a pack of galley slaves to keep everything running smoothly. Accidents seemed to frequently occur in the bowels of the mighty metropolis, and these weren’t the toe-stubbing kind, either. The film’s protagonist saw no less than a dozen workers blown all to hell during his brief visit below, and the rich assholes running the show were worse than a board of Wal-mart executives. Those pricks actively sabotaged worker attempts to organize, going so far as to construct a cyborg infiltrator (more on that a little later). A true masterpiece of cinema that set the stage for every movie listed here today, without exception, Metropolis is more than worthy of the opening slot.

imagesCAZ53ABU9.) The Book of Eli

Sure, The Book of Eli was unapologetically corny and featured some of Gary Oldman’s very best (worst?) yell-acting, but it also had a lot of heart, and knew its audience. It followed the adventures of Denzel Washington’s “Eli,” a seemingly untouchable drifter who was in possession of the Bible, and some fierce fighting skills. He was chased throughout a majority of the film by Oldman’s “Carnegie,” who lusted after Eli’s Bible as a way to secure power in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. True to this list’s parameters, the story took place a few decades after an event that left the U.S. void of any government or social order, and what remained of the country certainly appeared dystopian.

While the film was largely predictable and pedantic, there were some very noteworthy moments, which included any where Denzel was laying waste to groups of attackers (he never seemed to get many one-on-one scenarios), and another where there was a subtle call-out to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf via a “George” and “Martha” reference. (That alone pushed it well into the ranks of consideration.) In case one has any desire to see this film, this author will hold off on revealing the “surprise” at the end, which was indeed kind of funny for about fifteen seconds. If nothing else, check this one out for the machete action, and Mila Kunis, who is always a delicious sight on-screen, and was still four years away from being born when this next film came out…

264769_1020_A8.) Mad Max, et al –

Some of you film purists and Mad Max apologists out there will probably whine, complain, or otherwise bray obnoxiously about this ranking position. Yet didn’t things go a bit backwards in this film series? One would think that the collapse of civilized society would bring about the chaos the audience witnessed in the first installment, but also that the murderous orgy of violence would linger for more than just a couple of years. Yet by The Road Warrior, it seemed as if pockets of civilization were already beginning to organize and buddy-up as a unified act of defiance against Lord Humungus and his hordes. Hell, when Thunderdome came out, the future had moved on another fifteen years and the first traces of a society, albeit a pretty brutal one, were there for any to see. Bartertown had functioning electricity, industrial machinery, and running vehicles, not to mention a political system that allowed for a means to negotiate and resolve conflicts! Of course, this too was pretty straightforward, for the law simply held that all contracts had to be honored, disputes played out in fights to the death, and that all punishment was meted out via a wheel of discipline. Sure, this wasn’t fancy livin’, but it certainly wasn’t a desolate wasteland without order.

Still, though, the Mad Max universe was pretty fucked up, even if it did seem to get better over time. In the first film, not even the gangs seemed to have any organization or focus: it was just a country-wide killing contest. Mel Gibson’s character, “Max,” suffered the death of his wife and child at the hands of a group of maniacs that didn’t even really have a reason for ruining the poor bastard’s life. Indeed, the post-apocalyptic dystopia in that flick was raw-dog. What little order that existed was quickly crumbling, and those few pious, good-natured people who still had balls enough to poke their head above the covers often found that violent consequences followed from so bold an act. Though things did seem to get better by the time the second movie came out (The Road Warrior), the situation was still pretty hard-core. Although the good guys had gotten their shit together and started organizing, so had the baddies, and their cruelty and lust for violent destruction had only matured with time. All three movies presented fairly difficult scenarios for anybody looking to survive the trials Australia had thrown before its people, and demanded that even the most honorable of the survivors get their hands a little dirty. Like this next film series’ vision of the future, even the heroes had to devolve a bit to combat the evil that surrounded them…

escape-from-new-york7.) Escape From New York, et al –

If I ever have children, let it be known to all those reading that my first-born son will be named “Snake.” Kurt Russell’s most enduring character was a hero that landed on the scene at the most perfect possible moment; the film’s director, John Carpenter, has always maintained that Escape From New York was a cinematic reaction to the Watergate scandal. The film’s main character, Snake Plissken, was full of the anti-establishment anger and suspicion that had cracked the moral foundation of a nation only a handful of years before the picture’s 1981 release. Though most of the euphoric rebellion of the 1960s counter-culture had long since burned off, the antiestablishment stance of the once-proud youth-movement still remained, and found a companion in the cynicism that pervaded a country still raw from a President’s betrayal. When the feds turned to Snake to save the President, the audiences of the day felt they had a man they could trust on their hands, for while he was a hero in the classic mold, he also hated the government and spared few kind words on their behalf. This was the kind of protagonist 1981 audiences were looking for, as he satisfied an enduring need to root for a bad-ass while still maintaining a healthy distrust of the government.

As for the setting, it was appropriately dystopian in a post-apocalyptic kind of way. According to the movie, World War III was just wrapping up in “the future” of 1997, and the crime rate in the U.S. had shot up by something like 400%. As a result, Manhattan had been walled off and turned into a prison without supervision, thus allowing the inmates free-reign over their surroundings. The President had been kidnapped and taken to this slaughterhouse, and the government’s only hope at seeing their Chief again was put in the hands of a former special-forces soldier turned rogue thief. While some may point to the fact that the United States did indeed still exist and that the future, there was definitely more going on here. Sure, there was some semblance of order and established society, yet at what cost? The country had been gutted by a third World War and one of the greatest cities on the planet had been effectively abandoned to the dregs of society. On the outside, the President couldn’t even take a plane somewhere without getting kidnapped, and when he was on the up-and-up, he seemed to have no qualms about sacrificing his people for his own ends. Sure, this wasn’t a future filled with fire-breathing monsters, murderous cyborgs, or even aggressive cannibals, yet it sure as shit wasn’t a picnic, either!

omega-man6.) Omega Man –

It’s too bad I Am Legend took a midnight shit on this most hallowed 1971 horror classic, for in spite of Charlton Heston’s hammy acting, the script’s self-righteous attitude, and the laughable make-up effects for “The Family,” this movie was a scorcher! Heston played “Neville,” a U.S. Army physician that had put the finishing touches on a serum to inoculate himself from a plague sweeping the globe. This illness was a result of a biological exchange between the U.S.S.R. and China, and right before what was believed to be the last corners of humanity fell victim to the disease, Neville inoculated himself with the good juice. This eleventh-hour immunity gave him protection from the effects of the plague, which took on a murderous albino-like form for the infected who banded together as “The Family.” Mysteriously compelled to destroy the mutant hordes running rampant around what Neville clearly deemed HIS city, the mother fucker went N.R.A. on the swine, and gave the world a hint of things to come for a man soon to lose his mind in real life. Neville holed up in his penthouse apartment and distributed cold justice in the form of merciless, hard lead. Using plastic explosives, infrared high-powered rifles, and nicely furnished sub machine guns, Neville made it fucking rain.

Of course, this happy paradise couldn’t last forever, and since the film needed a second and third act, things had to get messy. Neville was captured and put on trail by “The Family,” only to escape, learn of other survivors, get captured again, escape again, then die a martyr’s death in the Christ pose. All that aside, this was actually one hell of a ripping yarn, and was absolutely brimming with crisp action, outstanding violence, and fairly inventive plot twists. As far as a future dystopia, this one fit the bill in every conceivable way. The movie took place after a serious catastrophic event, and involved a dire scenario where humanity as it is now understood was on the verge of extinction. On top of all that, the bastards looking to wipe out Neville and his kind were organized! They had a structured government, power hierarchy, and even a legal system. With this kind of order and their obvious dedication to the task at hand (killing humans to make way for the new albino order), it’s a miracle Neville lasted as long as he did! Yet when it comes to dystopia, this would fall into the mid-level category: a ‘medium’ if it were a salsa. To get into the ‘caliente’ category, mother fuckers would have to start getting eaten…

doomsday-25.) Doomsday

The director of Doomsday, Neil Marshall, is a true artist, and a brave pioneer in an industry that seems to shy away from high-end gore flicks. Time and again, Mr. Marshall has come to the table with cracking features that operated just south of ludicrous, but well beyond what might be considered realistic fiction. His first feature film, 2002’s Dog Soldiers, was a savage journey into the Scottish highlands, and detailed the systematic elimination of a British Special Forces unit by a family of murderous werewolves. The action was crisp, the plot elements smartly positioned, and the performances superb. Much like Mr. Marshall’s next foray into the horror genre, 2005’s The Descent, the director avoided using CGI enhancement or computer generated effects wherever possible to give his picture a more authentic, traditional look, the results of which were nothing sort of spectacular. Both movies were outstanding examples of inventive, practical, quality filmmaking in a genre that has numbed most viewers via a dizzying array of 21st century special effects and torture-porn vignettes. Doomsday followed in the director’s traditional path, yet was afforded a far larger budget than its two predecessors: something that provided for a far larger scope for the story and its characters. The movie told the story of a virus that quickly spread throughout the U.K., and the government’s attempts to get the contagion isolated and under control. A more traditional illness that simply killed people (rather than transform them into irrational flesh-eating mutants), the film’s story took place a couple of decades after the initial outbreak.

Rhona Mitra played “Major Eden Sinclair,” who went into the quarantined Scottish portion of the country to locate a rumored cure for infection. Once on the other side of the quarantine wall, Sinclair and her companions found that things in the northern end of the U.K. were about six different shades of fucked up, however. Sinclair’s physician friend, Sean Pertwee’s “Dr. Talbot” was literally roasted alive and eaten whilst the rest of Sinclair’s crew was tortured, beaten, or eventually killed. Some relief came after Sinclair and the remainder of her group happened upon a more structured and civilized group of immune survivors, yet instead of going murderously cannibal, this group simply turned medieval. No, seriously. When Sinclair and her posse rolled up on “Kane” and his crew, they found that this sub-section of apocalyptic survivors had reverted to 12th and 13th century tactics. They rode about on horses, utilized armor, and hacked the shit out of people with enormous fucking blades. When it comes to the ranking, again, people were roasted and eaten alive not to mention…well, do we even need to go on? Seriously, a man was turned on a spit, cooked whilst living, and then consumed. If you need a more dystopian future than this, society would have to break down completely, even to the point where governments (wildly corrupt and murderous though they may be) don’t even exist any longer…

The Road movie poster4.) The Road –

It’s difficult thing to capture the thematic and emotional essence of a novel and translate that into a different artistic medium, yet that’s exactly what Mr. Hillcoat did with his cinematic version of The Road. Never one to pander to any particular genre, Cormac McCarthy writes for a very narrow audience that appreciates a minimalist approach to literature. “The Road” did not provide many answers for its readers, and instead opted to throw them into the narrative after the two main characters were well on their way into their journey. In the book, a father and son wandered through the ruins of a United States stripped bare and devoid of resources following an unnamed apocalyptic tragedy, one whose occurrence didn’t seem to promise anything in the way of a recovery. The few humans still clinging to life were starving and mostly separated into murderous gangs that had a taste for human flesh, as there was little else to eat. The story tracked a father’s attempts to keep his son (roughly 11 or 12 years old) intact in both body and soul while still trying to harden the child up some. The book was an unflinching exploration of what it means to be a father in the most trying of circumstances, and how paternal instincts have the ability to transcend even the most horrific trials. The story was very deliberate with its tone and style, and never allowed its characters the luxury of an easy answer or happy ending, something the film tried very hard to capture.

The movie adaptation was exceedingly brave with its approach, for with the exception of some edits that excluded a few extraneous scenes from the novel, most of the details from the original source material made it into the picture. Like the book, the film adaptation did not provide any explanations for the dystopian future except for the acknowledgement that some “thing” had definitely happened. This event was catastrophic enough to block out the sun and rain down a steady stream of ash, which in turn was sufficient cause to taint the water supply, kill all crops, and eliminate nearly every organic life form on the planet. Also in a deliberate nod to McCarthy’s original story, the movie’s characters were never given any names, but rather were identified as their station within the book’s world (i.e., “man,” “son,” “woman,” etc.). The director, Hillcoat, created a visual landscape that properly matched the desolate world the novel inhabited, and remained true to the sparse atmosphere of the book. Eerily reminiscent of pictures widely circulated after Hurricane Katrina, The Road connected images of a very tangible past to a fictional universe that didn’t seem all that far off. Many were shocked at how quickly law, order, and civility evaporated in deference to the destruction and chaos that ensued following the flooding of New Orleans, and it’s a historical undercurrent that is never far removed from the film. In a matter of days, people in southern Louisiana had reverted to a primal Hobbesian state when only weeks before they had been functioning members of an organized society. Both the book and film version of The Road were reminders that it does not take long for the animal within to emerge, and that this retreat is welcome for more people than one might imagine.

the-terminator-1984-03.) The Terminator –

Dammit, you can’t trust robots. This film’s ranking gnawed at your humble author, for humanity seemed to be on the up-swing by the time the first film’s future-characters started sending commandos and killer robots back in time. Indeed, Reese told Sarah Connor that the resistance, battered and reduced as it was, had all but won and was on the verge of taking their planet back. Yet that was in the year 2029, roughly thirty-two years after Skynet became self-aware and decided to give the world a thermonuclear dick-slap. That means humans had to scratch out a miserable, rat-eating, bullet-dodging life under the boot-heels of a robot super-horde overcome with blood lust for over three decades. Sure, The Road was no picnic, but at least the survivors of that apocalypse only had to deal with other humans. In the Terminator universe, one has to imagine that threats came not just from the cyborgs programmed to seek and destroy humans, but also from those fellow survivors who likely would have cut another man or woman’s throat if it meant even one more day in safety. Personally, this author finds it hard to believe that humanity could survive for so long were we at the mercy of the machines: that greed and notions of self-preservation would transcend any movements toward unity and eventual rebellion. Then again, this fictional universe sprang out of the same mind that gave the world Titanic and Avatar, so one should probably take that into consideration.

All in all, the future of humanity looked pretty goddamned bleak. The only true picture audiences saw of the chaos (prior to the regrettable Salvation installment) came from a dream sequence Reese thought back upon early in the first installment. The carnage of the nuclear holocaust left the world littered with destruction and the remains of the fallen; the few human survivors that did exist seemed to be in a constant state of war with machines of varying degrees of sophistication, all of which seemed loaded and ready for their next human-homicide. Resourceful little swine that we are, the mechanical bastards seemed to have a hard time snuffing out the resistance, yet had changed tactics enough to get a little closer to their prey via a human-tissue camouflage technique. If it wasn’t bad enough that the machines had a hard-on for humanity’s extinction, they started getting sneaky in their old age! Those cunts started using a tissue camouflage that made it nearly impossible to tell the difference between a real person, and a machine posing as one. Normally in a post-apocalyptic universe, a survivor can at least count on the fact that society and technology have broken down enough that everybody is pretty much on the same hobo-level, be that person a hunter or amongst the hunted. With the Terminators, that shit went right out the window. While humans were preparing their rat burgers and rat fries in their Al Qaeda caves, the machines were outside running sensor sweeps in their flying warships and sending out platoons of cyborgs to infiltrate the lines. To match this level of oppression, a filmmaker would have to up the ante and see to it that something bigger, meaner, and more dangerous than a machine was out on the prowl…

271572_1020_A2.) Reign of Fire –

Hell-to-the-mother-fuckin’-yeah. This movie could kick your favorite movie’s ass! Why? To start, it’s about dragons and humanity’s struggle to survive in a world nearly destroyed by the sudden appearance (or reappearance, they never really worked that out) of the creatures. On top of that, this movie had Gerard Butler, Christian Bale, and Matthew McConaughey in a movie that didn’t have a love scene or relationship triangle within a hundred miles. In the film, dragons had emerged from the recesses of the planet to establish their rightful place as masters of this domain. The back story narration spoke of humanity’s attempts to combat the reptilian beasts, yet apparently every missile we shot at the fuckers only made them stronger (don’t ask how that works, just go with it). Thus, by the time Reign of Fire caught up with its main characters, humanity was on the ropes and was really just trying to keep out of sight. That is until the Americans showed up and reminded the world who owned this fucking planet!

Sure, the dragons had destroyed all of the world’s major cities, burned most of those resident’s alive, and greedily consumed the ash, yet this didn’t mean that the Yankees were done fighting. When McConaughey and his crew showed up in the U.K. they had armor and air support to go along with their troops, not to mention a pretty sophisticated method for bringing the dragon bastards down in mid-air. Yet even with their technology and ginormous American balls, the dragon slayers needed a little help, for this was one hell of a dystopia. The skies were almost always thick with fire-breathing beasts, and all advanced infrastructure, technology, and resources had long since burned. The few weapons and implements at our heroes’ disposal came from the Americans, and even those were in dire need of repair and resupply. Basically, it’s a miracle McConaughey and Bale even made it to a final showdown with the super-dragon, let alone survived the encounter. True, Bale and the chopper pilot chick were the only ones who actually did make it through the showdown, yet even that has to be viewed as nothing short of a God-send. Of course, awesome movie that this was, Reign of Fire wasn’t about to let those damned, dirty dragons have the last laugh, thus a victorious ending ensued. This movie, unlike our final #1 entry, wasn’t keen on the creatures of this world getting over on the rightful masters of this domain…

imagesCA5ORS4S1.) Planet of the Apes –

If you know of a more depressing, putrid, miserable vision of things to come, then I’d like to hear about it, because this movie set a pretty visible high-water mark in the post-apocalyptic dystopian genre. For Christsakes: the monkeys took over! Humans went ahead and blew the world all to hell, leaving what remained to the simian parasites who we all know have long-dreamed about usurping their rightful masters. Charlton Heston played “Taylor,” one of three astronauts who emerged from deep-space hibernation only to find their vessel crash landed on a “strange” planet. Taylor and his crew determined that it had been roughly two thousand years since their departure, a disconcerting fact that might have troubled them further had they not quickly found themselves in the middle of a monkey hunt! Before Taylor knew what was happening, a mutant race of bipedal simians were killing and capturing all the humans they could shake a stick at. Once he was confined to the klink, Taylor managed to display enough intelligence despite a nasty neck wound to convince a pair of chimp scientists that he was worth a closer look. Of course Taylor also had to contend with the despotic Dr. Zaius, a high-end administrator who wasn’t above cutting the nuts off some uppity human to keep the peace.

In the end, Taylor was able to get away with one hell of a nice piece of ass, yet fell into despair when he learned that he was on Earth all along, and that the monkeys had taken over after mankind blew its own planet all to shit. Say what you want about today’s picks, but this author simply couldn’t stomach ranking anything above a future dystopia where the dirty goddamned apes have the upper hand. At least you can fight dragons, killer cyborgs, or cannibals, but in Planet of the Apes, we’d lost! Just how the fuck is that even possible, anyway? I know this film didn’t exist in the same universe as those other pictures, but I find it hard to swallow that we’d ever submit to monkey law, even after two millennia with our nuts in a sling. But that’s okay, we’re not talking about the plausibility of these scenarios, just the measure of terror each elicits in yours truly. I, for one, will be deep in the cold, cold ground before I kneel before a simian overlord, no matter what the circumstances. It’s for this reason that your humble author broke first-person protocol with this last entry, and gave the highest possible marks to a film that thoroughly scared the piss out of three generations of movie-goers. Nobody knows what the future holds, yet I think we can all agree that if this movie taught us nothing else, it’s that we can’t sleep on the competition: their day may yet come.

by Warren Cantrell

About Angela

Angela is the Editor-in-Chief of Lost in Reviews. She and Ryan created Lost in Reviews together in 2009 out of a mutual hatred for all the stodgy old farts currently writing film reviews. Since launching the site, Angela has enjoyed reviewing indie films over all other films, picking up new music from all corners of the world and photographing live shows. She is the co-host of Blu Monday and a member of the Kansas City Film Critic Circle.

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