Utopias are idealised worlds, free from corruption, repression, persecution, crime and poverty. They have governments that serve the people. Dystopias, on the other hand, are worlds where things don’t work. They represent dysfunctional, unjust societies where the government represses the people, the infrastructure is failing, or (because of a post-apocalyptic catastrophe) there is no functioning government.
In many versions of the dystopian future, society is typically dominated by a totalitarian system or government. This system crushes the people, destroying their free will and independent thought. It may even repress ordinary feelings like friendship, family bonds, and love — all in the name of state control. Examples of this kind of dystopian tyranny include stories like: 1984(1948), Brave New World (1931), and THX 1138 (1971).
A dystopia may be the by-product of a dominant technology: the robot technology in THX 1138 and genetics in Gattica (1997); or when technology itself runs amok and threatens humanity, like Skynet in Terminator (1984). In The Island (2005) and Dark City (1998) technology forms the basis of a society-wide conspiracy.
The cause of a dysfunctional future is often the result of an environmental disaster, or a global nuclear war. Society adapts to cope with the desperate situation — but finds itself unable to adapt back to something more normal. In Avatar (2009) the strength of the military is used to force otherwise peaceful aliens to allow precious metals to be extracted from their planet. The theme of the story is about the planet’s natives fighting to avert environmental catastrophe. In Solent Green (1973) that nightmare has already occurred, due to over-population, a new order has been created, one which helps humanity survive: but it’s based on a lie, which comes with a huge ethical cost. Mad Max (1979), and A Boy and His Dog (1975) are examples of dystopian environments following a nuclear war, leading to a chaotic world without morality, civilisation, or justice.
Dystopias usually produce a collective loss of humanity, with people being reduced to near-serf or a robot-like status, often with the truth hidden from them. The truth may be disturbing: ‘we’ may no longer be in control. Aliens might already be here. In Oblivion (2013) a loyal maintenance worker does not realise that he is working for the alien invaders, and in Dark City a man realises that the city is not a human city, it’s not even on earth. In They Live (1989) the aliens have already infiltrated human society and effectively control the world through stealth means. One imagines this will be the fate of the earth in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978).
Dystopias are often the result of an imbalance of power, which leads to the formation of an elite and an underclass. This is the case, for example, in Metropolis (1927). The ruling elite, often synonymous with large corporations, are cynically manipulating the masses, controlling them through the mass spectacle of violent sports: Rollerball (1975), Death Race 2000 (1975), The Hunger Games (2013), and The Running Man (1987). Sometimes, in Zardoz (1974), for example, the elite is so decadent and out of touch it doesn’t take much for it to crumble. Likewise, in Blade Runner (1982) the replicants come back to visit their creator, but on more equal terms.
Dystopian stories raise questions about ethics, political power, religion, technology, and financial corruption. In Logan’s Run the population has their every need catered for, but the catch is that they are violently and publicly euthanized at 30. And in Seconds (1966) a man can have a second chance at life to live his selfish dream, but what are the things that really matter? While in Judge Dredd (1977) a few decent and incorruptible law officers struggle to maintain law and order in a crime-ridden city — how far should the police go to control crime?
The dystopian story is fundamentally a warning; the projection of our myriad fears about a future. A few years from now we might be struggling in an unfair society with a lower standard of living. Planet of the Apes (1968) is not just a society out of balance, it’s a world where the apes are the masters and humans are killed for sport or used as slave workers. These, and other unthinkable horrors, are wake up calls. They provide a focus point for our concerns: urging us to forge a better society, while reminding us to appreciate what we have now.