If you’ve followed the news over the past few years, you would be forgiven for thinking that we live in a fairly dystopian world already.
But the best dystopian films are a terrific way of reminding yourself that things can still get an awful lot worse.
Defining the word dystopian is a tricky task. Dystopian films can be science fiction or true to real life. They can be a comedy, horror, or anything in between.
What the best dystopian movies manage to do is to take us to a dystopian future (or present) and create a twist on reality that regular movies do not. They make you think and they also tend to come with some incredible special effects too.
In this guide, we will outline our pick of the 25 best dystopian films in the history of cinema.
Buckle up, it’s going to be one hell of a ride!
For many people, the Matrix is the epitome of what we expect from a dystopian movie.
The original was the first of a trilogy made between 1999 and 2003 by the Wachowskis and starring Keanu Reeves in the lead role of Neo alongside Carrie Ann Moss (Trinity), Laurence Fishbourne (Morpheus), and Hugo Weaving (Secret Agent Smith).
The concept behind the movie is that Neo realises that the reality he is living in is an artificial construct designed to placate humanity.
Cue some amazing graphics of people trapped in pods, some time-and-space defying fights, and the good old-fashioned battle between good and evil.
The original Matrix movie is still generally viewed as the best, thanks to its relatively tight confines, strong script, blistering pace, and Keanu Reeves as a young man on a mission.
The two original sequels are more expansive while the more recent movie, The Matrix Resurrections, takes things to a whole new level.
The Hunger Games
Dystopian movies have never cut through to pop culture in quite the same way that The Hunger Games franchise managed to.
The Hunger Games movies are based on the young adult novels written by American author Suzanne Collins and star Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland.
The movies are set in the ruins of what was North America and see the Capitol of the Panem nation requires the twelve districts of Panem to send one boy and one girl to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised event in which they must fight each other to the death.
Survival is the focus in this post-apocalyptic world and The Hunger Games brings all the regular teenage angst to bear in this terrifying vision of the future.
The movie series consisted of four movies, with a future spin-off already in the pipeline too. This is mainstream dystopian movie making at its very best.
The Truman Show
The Truman Show was a revelatory dystopian movie when it was released in the 1990s. It was set, not in the distant future or some post-apocalyptic world, but in a normal suburban world.
It stars Jim Carrey in a subtle and nuanced performance at odds with his usual zany, high-octave performances.
He plays Truman Burbank, a man content in his ordinary life but oblivious to the fact that he is, in fact, living in a reality TV show where everything is controlled by a man in the sky (Christof played superbly by Ed Harris).
As Truman begins to understand his reality, the movie is packed with heartfelt moments, powerful monologies, and surprises aplenty.
This is movie-making of the best possible kind. And it is all the more chilling in its dystopian vision which could be the reality for any one of us right now.
2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey is a sci-fi classic and one of legendary director Stanley Kubrick’s seminal works and based on a classic story by Arthur C. Clarke.
It is the movie which defined the Space Opera genre and is packed with ground-breaking special effects, powerful classic music, and an innovative use of limited dialogue.
It is the premise of 2001 that makes it dystopian. The spaceship is controlled by a sentient super-computer, an artificial intelligence, which goes by the name of HAL and is on a mission to Jupiter following the discovery of an alien monolith.
As the astronauts start to have concerns about HAL, his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and from there, things go downhill fast.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a timeless classic, one of greatest movies of all time. and while many class it as straight-up sci-fi, if a rogue, sentient super-computer isn’t dystopian, I don’t know what is.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is the great dystopian novel, written by George Orwell, whose name gives rise to the term Orwellian, which can be used to describe many of the movies in this list.
It is fitting that in 1984, the seminal film version of this book was made, starring John Hurt as Winston Smith, as he goes about his controlled life, smoking state-made cigarettes, watching propaganda, and rewriting the news to fit the requirements of the Ministry of Truth.
He embarks on an affair and is arrested by the Thought Police who schooled him in the art of doublethink and sent to Room 101 where he is tortured and broken down by the state interrogators.
Orwell’s dystopia sees people deprived of their free will and basic human nature by a society which may seem like a bleak vision to us now, but which was all too real during the Cold War and which, today, is becoming all too close to reality in places like Communist China.
Idiocracy is another movie that creates a dystopian future from an entirely different perspective.
It stars Luke Wilson as Joe Bauers, a US Librarian who agrees to take part in a hibernation project. He wakes up in the Year 2505 in a dystopic society in which mass commercialism has dumbed down society so much that Bauers is swiftly proclaimed the most intelligent person in the world.
It is a world in which people’s lives are dominated by failing tech and over-consumption, while economic crises and food shortages are crippling the world. Bauers is promptly appointed to a senior Government role and tasked with solving these problems and taking on a corporate giant.
Idiocracy was created by Mike Judge primarily as a social satire. It sparked controversy due to some associating it with eugenics and the concept of a genetically inferior man.
But it has become a cult classic in more recent years, both for its valuable social commentary and the classic mid-noughties silliness that Wilson was much better known for.
Children of Men
Alphonso Cuarón’s Children of Men takes us to a classic dystopian futuristic world in the not-too-distant future where two decades of human infertility have left the human race on the brink of disaster.
Civilisation is collapsing and asylum seekers, arriving in the UK are subject to detention and persecution.
The film stars Clive Owen as civil servant Theo Faron who finds himself helping Kee (Clare Hope-Ashitey), the last pregnant woman in the world to survive the chaos and mass suffering and begin to rebuild the human population.
Alongside them is an array of great performances from the likes of Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Caine, and Charlie Hunnam.
The whole film is dark and sombre and Cuarón creates some truly chilling and terrible visions to punctuate the story. It is visually powerful, conceptually stunning, and one of the best dystopian movies ever made.
Logan’s Run is set in a utopian future society which is anything but perfect.
To keep the consumption of resources sustainable, everyone is killed when they reach the age of 30. The movie follows Logan 5, played by Michael York, who was a sandman tasked with killing those who reach the fateful age and try to avoid the inevitable and enjoy a second act.
Now he’s reached that age too and along with his partner, Jessica (Jenny Aguter), he is trying to escape and reach a mythical sanctuary where people can have a better life and live out their lives in peace.
They escape the dark city, encounter a robot that also catches runners, and meet an old man who is proof that life can go on after the age of 30. But can they convince everyone else?
Logan’s Run is truly one of the dystopian classics being both a sci-fi thriller and a chilling conceptual realisation of a future world.
That this film was made in the 1970s and remains as timeless today as it was then is a testament to what a truly great film this is and definitely up there with the best dystopian movies ever made.
Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, doesn’t make easy films. But in Brazil, he created a dystopian film that is both dark and shrouded in dystopian themes, yet at the same time extremely funny.
It stars Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, a bureaucrat trying to track down a woman who appears in his dreams. But in a society dominated by malfunctioning machines and Orwellianesque levels of state surveillance and control, this is not something that comes without risks.
With characters such as Ida, Sam’s mother who is obsessed with plastic surgery and an all-star cast featuring the likes of Python alumni Michael Palin, Robert De Niro, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, and Ian Richardson, and Gilliam’s trademark darkly surreal design and direction, Brazil has rightly become a cult classic.
Not many other films on this list are funny, but Brazil is genuinely hilarious at points which, for my money, makes it hands-down one of the best dystopian movies of all time.
Planet of the Apes
When you talk to anyone about dystopian movies, the chances are Planet of the Apes is one of the first film names that comes to mind.
The original film was made in 1968, was a critical and commercial success and remains one of the most popular and best dystopian movies of all time.
The plot follows three astronauts, in suspended animation whose ship crashes on an unknown planet in the distant future where apes are the dominant species.
They are captured and observe the ape society before seeking to prove there was a previous non-simian society on the planet.
The ending (spoiler alert), which is one of the most famous in all movies, sees the surviving astronaut realise that the planet is in fact earth.
Planet of the Apes spawned four follow-up movies, a TV series, an animated series, a film remake directed by Tim Burton, and three further film versions.
There is something about talking apes and the demise of the human project that keeps us hooked. Or it could just be that these are all extremely good films.
A Clockwork Orange
Back to Stanley Kubrick again and some more conventional dystopian world-building in a Clockwork Orange – a cult classic that was banned in many countries for a long time due to its extremely violent content.
Based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, a charismatic teenager who leads a gang on regular bouts of ultra-violence in a dystopian near future.
After a gang insurrection is quelled, they invade a wealthy woman’s house but she is accidentally killed and the gang leave Alex to take the rap.
After a few years in prison for murder, Alex is offered an experimental aversion therapy designed to make him feel nauseous at the sight of violence.
He is released, but ostracised and ends up in the home of a former victim who seeks revenge leading to Alex attempting suicide. But his hospital treatment leaves Alex’s therapy null and void and he is ready to commit violence again.
The dark tone of A Clockwork Orange is unsurpassed in any dystopian film and the violence is horrific.
But the movie was a comment on the route society was on when it was made and sadly it remains as relevant today as it was then. It is also one of the most infamous movies of all time.
Gattaca’s science fiction vision of the future is a biopunk one in which children are grown in a lab to ensure they have the very best genetic qualities.
It stars Ethan Hawke as Vincent, a rare God-child who was born naturally but faces genetic discrimination as a result.
He tricks his way into a job as a space navigator but is drawn into a murder investigation and his lab-grown brother is the police officer in charge leading to a renewal of their sibling rivalry.
The movie ends with Vincent’s cover being worked out but those that do are willing to give him a chance.
With an all-star cast including Uma Thurman, Jude Law, and Alan Arkin, Gattaca takes eugenics to its inevitable conclusion with dark and troubling consequences.
Blade Runner has become such a figurehead for dystopian movies that it almost needs no introduction.
The film is a loose adaptation of the classic and wonderfully-named story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Sci-Fi great Phillip K. Dick; Blade Runner is set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where synthetic humans, known as replicants are manufactured to work in space colonies.
But a group of rogue replicants have returned to earth and it falls to a burnt-out cop, Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, to stop them from wreaking havoc.
Blade Runner features stand-out performances from Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, and Edward J. Olmos. But the design is the real star of this film which brings the dark and miserable in which these characters exist to life like few other films have.
Blade Runner 2049
The Blade Runner franchise consists of two movies and we have kept the second film in the sequence separate for good reason.
Blade Runner 2049 was made 35 years after the original movie and while Harrison Ford and Edward James Olmos reprise their roles, it is a sequel only in the broadest sense of the word.
In the new movie, Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant who works for the LAPD to kill rogue replicants. After it emerges that replicants can reproduce, a kill order is put out for the child of a replicant in an effort to prevent a world war between replicants and humans.
K begins to suspect that he was born rather than created and memories of an orphanage lead him to Decker, the truth about the baby, and a race against time to do the right thing.
Blade Runner 2049 won several Oscars mostly for its special effects which are, as you would expect, a step up on the original. But it is the world-creation that really sets Blade Runner 2049 apart and makes it a fitting follow-up to the earlier movie of the same name.
Level 16 is in many ways the polar opposite of the Blade Runner franchise. It isn’t packed with star names and doesn’t depend on big special effects. What it does offer to great effect are a compelling narrative and a gripping plot.
The action plays out in the Vestalis Academy, a kid of English boarding school for young women who are being taught feminine values so that they can be adopted by families.
The story follows Vivian (Katie Douglas) who has followed the rules carefully since being subjected to a serious but undefined punishment for breaking them in the past.
Vivian has reached to Level 16, the highest level in the school but questions begin to rise about the environmental hazards that keep them indoors, the Russian security guards, and the vitamins and vaccines they are being given.
After a gruesome discovery, the girls are faced with a battle to save their lives which leads up to a powerful and dramatic conclusion.
Minority Report is Tom Cruise vehicle and a Stephen Spielberg film meaning big budgets but also big concepts.
The film, based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, is set in the near future in a police state where a police department known as Precrime arrests people for crimes they haven’t committed yet, based on the advice of three psychics known as precogs.
Tom Cruise plays Precrime Chief John Anderton alongside an all-star cast including Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, and Max von Sydow. His character joined up after his son was kidnapped and never found and he is depressed and using drugs.
When the precogs predict that Anderton will kill a man, he runs and subsequently discovers that one of the three precogs sometimes sees things differently from the other two. The subsequent action turns the whole system on its head as Anderton fights for his own freedom and what’s right.
Minority Report was a blockbuster in every sense of the word, but it has subsequently been redefined as one of the best films that both Cruise and Spielberg have made and indeed one of the top dystopian movies ever made too.
Mad Max is another true classic of the genre throwing Mel Gibson on the road to Hollywood superstardom and creating the vision of a post-apocalyptic wasteland that so many that have come after have tried to mimic.
The first Mad Max movie follows Max Rocatansky (Gibson), a police offer in the near future in an Australia where society has collapsed and food and resources are scarce.
His wife and child are killed and after exacting his revenge, he becomes a wanderer in the wasteland and begins to help other pockets of civilisation to survive and overcome the threats they face.
The original Mad Max movie was a low-budget classic that immediately spawned two sequels, Mad Max 2 and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
The franchise was rebooted in 2015 with Tom Hardy taking on the lead role and Charlize Theron appearing too.
Two further movies are also in the pipeline, meaning the Mad Max franchise, which did so much to put dystopian movies on the mainstream map has a long way to go still.
Metropolis is by some distance the oldest movie on this list and in many ways the most important too.
This classic Fritz Lang movie was made in 1927 and is a silent film set in the city of Metropolis, a futuristic utopia where wealthy people live wonderful lives.
One such person, Freder Frederson spots a woman and children one day who unwittingly lead him to an underground world of workers who keep the utopia running.
Freder’s father John created Metropolis and when Freder starts to advocate on behalf of the workers, he fights back alongside an old colleague and inventor Rotwang. But Rotwang has his own plans that could turn both worlds into anarchy.
Metropolis was a visionary movie of its time and is still revered for its visual effects, its use of robots and other sci-fi staples. It was so far ahead of its time and still holds up as a movie today.
Undoubtedly, Metropolis is not just one of the best dystopian movies of all time, it is one of the best movies of all time period.
Battle Royale is a Japanese dystopian horror movie and Hunger Games fans beware; this is the movie that inspired everything you love about your franchise.
Battle Royale follows a group of Japanese high school students who are taken to a deserted island and forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian government who believes the Battle Royale will help to curb junior delinquency.
What follows is an orgy of violence, suicide, and psychological drama as some kids fall apart and others rise to the challenge with gusto. But ultimately, only two children will survive.
There are clear parallels with the classic Lord of the Flies scenario in Battle Royale, albeit with far more blood and guts being spilt.
Battle Royale was at the vanguard of Japanese horror movies in the early noughties that brought us The Ring and other such classics.
But this is the one that creates a dystopian reality which is at the same time terrifying but also not that far removed from our own reality.
Escape from New York
Escape from New York was made in 1981 and imagines a fearsome future USA in the year… 1997.
Manhatten is now a maximum security prison which becomes a bit of a problem when Air Force One, carrying the President, is hijacked and crash lands there.
Fortunately, he encounters a new prisoner who goes by the name of Snake (played with a sneering charm by Kurt Russell). Snake has 23 hours to get the President out of Manhatten and save his own life too.
But the President is captured by a warlord, the Duke, forcing Snake to team up with an old partner who has betrayed him in the past. They have to work together to save the President and themselves.
Escape from New York was written and directed by John Carpenter and features Donald Pleasance, Lee van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Dean Stanton. There were sequels but there is no denying that the original film was the best and a classic of the genre.
Cube is a 1997 Canadian movie which opens with a grotesque death in a square room followed by five people meeting in a similar room. They don’t know each other, they don’t know where they are, or why they are there.
One of the men has been exploring and tells them that there are more rooms, some of which are booby-trapped. As they move from room to room, the suspense grows. One of the party admits that he designed the outer shell of a cube and knows its dimensions.
They use this knowledge to work out that the numbers in each room are its coordinates but as they try and get to the edge, emotions and tensions run high. Will they escape before they destroy each other?
The setting is dystopian, and the premise is too, but it is the age-old premise of putting strangers together in a challenging scenario that makes Cube such a stand-out movie.
There are other movies of the same name made in Japan and one coming from the US. There were sequels too. But for sheer originality and world-building, the original Cube movie is unbeatable.
This is the only movie on the list which features super-pigs. A corporation has bred them and sends them around the world to see which type will be most successful.
Fast-forward ten years and in South Korea, a young girl named Mija and her super-pig called Okja have a close bond. But when Okja is declared the winner, it is to be sent to New York.
Mija follows Okja to Seoul where she manages to rescue it but it is then sent back by animal rights campaigners to try and entrap the corporation that created Okja for mistreating animals.
They end up in New York where they have to battle to save Okja from the slaughterhouse and also have the fate of the other super-pigs in their hands too.
Okja’s dystopia is a clear comment on the meat industry and modern farming practices. But its power is gained from how close to modern reality it already is.
There is a great cast of Korean actors alongside standout performances from the likes of Jake Gyllenhall and Tilda Swinton. A very different dystopian movie, but a very, very good one.
Videodrone was David Cronenberg’s first Hollywood-backed movie. It was a box-office flop but is now considered a cult classic.
Set in the near future, Videodrome tells the story of Max Renn (James Woods), the controller of a TV station that broadcasts sex and violence. He comes across a feed from a channel called Videodrome that shows movies of people being tortured and killed for sexual pleasure.
Renn wants to buy up the channel, but in trying to find its source, he ends up on a hallucinatory and deeply surreal journey alongside his girlfriend, who likes kinky stuff too, played by Debbie Harry.
Videodrone blurred the reality between what we see on TV and what happens in real life long before internet tools made that second nature for so many people.
It is a deeply disturbing vision of the future but still troublingly close to the world today when we think about the power of information, TV, and the internet.
The City of Lost Children
A French movie from Jean-Pierre Jeunot and Marc Caro, the creators of Amelie, the City of Lost Children has all the quirkiness of Amelie but transports it to a dark and troubling futuristic world in which children are abducted by a mad scientist.
The scientist in question, Krank, is unable to dream and wants to steal the children’s dreams, something which he believes will also help him to reverse the ageing process.
But when he captures Denree, his brother, a fairground strongman called One (Ron Perlman) sets off to rescue him and along with a friendly orphan uncovers the truth about the City of Lost Children.
This film has some high-octane action, but it is the design and steampunk feel to the world that Jeunot and Caro create that makes this one of the most visually striking and powerful dystopian movies of all time.
Soylent Green is set in an alternate history timeline in which the climate crisis has caused the oceans to die and resources to run out.
Made in 1973, the movie is set in the year 2022 and foresees a climate crisis far beyond anything that Greta Thunberg could dream up.
In this world, the movie follows an NYPD detective, played by Charlton Heston, who are investigating the murder of an influential businessman.
When a Priest that the business confessed to is also murdered, the truth about the Soylent Green, Red, and Blue wafers people have to eat emerges. And it isn’t pretty.
Soylent Green is a movie which has had mixed reviews both at the time of its release and subsequently.
But it chimes extremely well with the narrative of the ecological disaster and climate crisis that we are told about these days and, as far as climate dystopia movies go, this one is definitely up there with the best.