A dystopia is typically an imagined place controlled by an unjust system which causes mass suffering. Most dystopian movies present a highly-organised totalitarian regime or a completely disorganised apocalyptic environment. They move away from current reality, and thus, feed the imagination. But unlike fantasy, there’s something uncanny about dystopias which make them frighteningly familiar. The raw material behind these imaginary nightmares is the current reality itself. We can recognise that we may only be a few technological breakthroughs or oppressive authorities or disastrous events away from facing a quasi-dystopia. Dystopian movies have gained much popularity in recent times. They are compelling to watch because they give us a glimpse into a potential reality we never want to experience.
A great variety of dystopian movies have been made in the last few years, which perhaps reflect modern paranoia regarding where the world may be headed. Here are 12 great dystopian movies on Netflix right now, including some new ones:
1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to the groundbreaking Blade Runner (1982) is nothing short of a masterpiece. It builds on, expands, delves deeper into, and even transforms the earlier movie while maintaining fidelity to its themes and tones. It takes place 30 years after the original film, in 2049. K (Ryan Gosling) is a “blade runner” — an officer who kills rogue bioengineered humans called “replicants.” During a mission, he uncovers a great secret which may destabilise the entire civilisation.
The plotline is staggering in its unpredictability and the sheer scale of its ideas. From direction, editing and performances to production design and cinematography, Blade Runner 2049 is stunning in every aspect. The visual innovation is second to none — every frame is psychologically affecting and immersive. The dystopian landscape, the surrealistic visual quality, and the emotive musical score make this film not just a great watch, but an experience to live through. It is a deeply philosophical sci-fi film which explores what it truly means to be human.
2. Mad Max (1979) & Mad Max 2 (1981)
These films were the first two instalments of George Miller’s highly influential Mad Max series. They are iconic dystopian action thrillers where the concept is as exciting as the action. The first film is set soon after the 1973 oil crisis in Australia. It imagines a dystopian societal collapse that stems from an extreme shortage of resources. In the second film, we see a post-apocalyptic environment after the old civilization has crumbled completely.
We follow Max’s (Mel Gibson) violent adventures as he navigates his way through a world where barbarity has become the order of the day. This vision of the future is as desolate as the wasteland Mad Max is set in. The films thrive mostly on brutal action sequences and performances. But the other great element is the intelligent idea which colours the films with a bizarre and sinister atmosphere. A film that can communicate so much with such a sparse narrative is genius.
3. The Platform (2019)
This social sci-fi horror movie from director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia is hard-hitting and truly frightening. A dystopian nightmare with a brilliant concept, it shows great insight into society, class structures, and human nature. It’s set in a tower-high prison-like structure where two inmates are placed on each of its numerous floors. They are fed via a platform full of food that descends from the top floor to the bottom. With each passing floor, the amount of food decreases.
The film presents a harrowing and unflinching depiction of class hierarchy. The touch of genius is in the premise that the positions within the hierarchy keep changing, but people don’t. The contrast between snobbery and barbaric brutality also provides a cutting critique of current times through pitch-black humour. This jarring film about the horrors of the failures of society may be too gory for some, but it drives home an important message.
4. Okja (2017)
Bong Joon-ho’s vision of dystopia in Okja is particularly unnerving because it feels more like the present than the future. Ridiculous comical exaggerations and successfully mutated creatures aside, we might just be there already. The film uses a creative approach to ask serious questions about the ethics of corporate organisations and the treatment of animals. It is about a little girl, Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her best friend, a laboratory-generated “super-pig,” Okja. When the cruel corporation that created the super-pigs for mass consumption takes Okja away, Mija sets out to rescue her.
Mija and Okja then get caught in the clash between corporate greed, animal rights activism, and scientific ethics. The film effectively depicts the problematic nature of viewing animals through a purely utilitarian lens. The warmth of the bond between Mija and Okja sharply contrasts with the coldness of the culture of consumerism. The serious subject of the film is balanced out with slapstick satire. This blend of genres also makes it unpredictable and entertaining.
5. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
This sci-fi dystopian action film is a surprisingly fresh take on the overused tropes of alien invasion and time-loops. It is set in the near future where most of Europe has been taken over by a hostile alien race. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a public relations officer ill-equipped in the battlefield, has been pushed into fighting in the war against them. Soon, he finds himself stuck in a time-loop and must find a way to defeat the aliens with Sergeant Rita Vrataski’s (Emily Blunt) help.
This film brilliantly turns its formulaic trappings on its head and is full of surprises. The pacing makes it exciting and the concept of time is handled remarkably well. Although it is a big, commercial movie, it doesn’t dumb down tricky ideas and manages to give us something original. It provides smart sci-fi, thrilling action, and also well-timed comedy. The war-ravaged landscape and the battle scenes are exceptional in a brutal way. It is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining film.
6. Watchmen (2009)
This unique superhero film presents a dystopian past rather than the usual dystopian future. It is set in an alternate history in the America of 1985, where Nixon is still the President. A dark deconstruction of its genre, it brings out the flaws and psychological sufferings of the superheroes. A group of them come together after one of their own is murdered. The investigation leads to a dangerous conspiracy being unearthed.
It is a complex film with a bleak and sinister atmosphere. The visuals are striking and odd in a manner resembling the feel of the graphic novel it’s adapted from. The characters don’t fit into stereotypical paradigms and are truly interesting. The socio-political themes and the blurred lines of good and evil make it thought-provoking. It is not a perfect film and doesn’t quite capture the subtlety of the original comic. But the style of the film does evoke its source, and it stands as a good watch in its own right.
7. Space Sweepers (2021)
This South Korean space opera has been called the country’s first space blockbuster. It is set in a dystopian future where the Earth has become nearly uninhabitable. A mega-corporation, UTS, has built an orbiting home where only an elite few are allowed. The rest have miserable lives and some work as Space Sweepers, collecting space debris. When a motley crew of such Sweepers come across a humanoid robot wanted by the UTS, dark secrets are uncovered and their lives are changed.
This film brilliantly undercuts the glamour of the space opera by focusing on the downtrodden. The characters may be travelling in a spaceship, but they can scarcely afford a new pair of socks. But this approach doesn’t mean that the film looks drab. On the contrary, it’s an absolute visual spectacle, boasting of great cinematography. The film does become quite predictable after a point. But it is still highly entertaining and brings a fresh outlook on its genre.
8. Time to Hunt (2020)
This Netflix movie is a South Korean dystopian action thriller. It is set in a near-future South Korea where the economy has crumbled completely, leaving a dystopian society in its wake. A group of friends conduct a heist to escape this miserable condition and settle in a better place. But they end up stealing from some dangerous gangsters who send a vicious killer after them. A violent chase involving a deadly, unstoppable assassin and plenty of flying bullets ensue.
The dystopian backdrop honestly doesn’t provide much in the way of concept. There are glimpses of the impact of the socio-economic collapse, but they’re not intrinsic to the plot. The merit of the film lies in its technical brilliance. It is built around a formulaic idea, but the striking visuals and blistering action make it exciting. The backdrop evokes an apocalyptic darkness and the assassin, Han (Park Hae-soo), is a menacing, spine-chilling presence. It’s not a great film, but it’s definitely an enjoyable one.
9. Oxygen (2021)
This Netflix movie from director Alexandre Aja is the newest entry on this list. It is a high-concept dystopian sci-fi thriller. What makes it unique in the dystopian genre is that it has only one proper character and one proper setting. A woman (played by Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber with no memory of who she is and how she got there. Now she must figure out how to escape before her oxygen supply runs out. Her only companion and potential assistant is an advanced computer named MILO (voiced by Mathieu Amalric). But MILO can only help if she asks the right questions.
Laurent gives us a magnificent performance here, wonderfully carrying almost the entire film on her shoulders. MILO is eerily reminiscent of 2001’s HAL. Oxygen is an exciting, fast-paced thriller where the confined setting gives a claustrophobic vibe. It reinvigorates the survival drama trope by using high technology and sci-fi concepts which add mystery to the situation. It is an unnerving and genuinely interesting watch.
10. Blame! (2017)
This is a Japanese CGI anime sci-fi action film based on the beloved manga series of the same name. It is set in a dystopian distant future, where the world has completely changed and lethal threats lurk at every corner. It presents a time after civilization has integrated completely with cyber-technology to create automated cities. When a virus causes this system to malfunction, the automatons develop a life of their own and attempt to eliminate humanity.
The movie presents a frightening picture of what happens when the creation turns on the creator. It excels in world-building. The vast landscape of the multi-level city structure which keeps replicating itself infinitely is brought to life brilliantly. The film wisely focuses on a particular story arc rather than trying to compress the entire manga into one film. This makes it feel well-rounded. The action sequences are thrilling, and the visuals amazing. It is a great survival story with a solid dose of mystery and dystopian technology.
11. Minority Report (2002)
Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi action film is a compelling blend of intellectual concepts, a whodunit crime story, and blistering visual extravaganza. It is set in an apparently utopian but actually dystopian 2054 in Washington, D. C. Three psychics known as “precogs” can pick up on people’s criminal intentions and the “PreCrime” police department then catches them before the crime takes place. One day, the precogs predict that the program’s commanding officer, Anderton (Tom Cruise), will soon commit a murder. So he goes on the run to solve the mystery and prove his innocence.
The film explores the scope of free will within a template of determinism. The sci-fi concepts are used smartly to explore the socio-political theme of governmental control over citizens. This topic has only grown more relevant with time. The film also presents an interesting study in character. The action sequences are exciting, and the cinematography is brilliant. The film is a triumph from both conceptual and technical standpoints.
12. Bird Box (2018)
This post-apocalyptic horror thriller film is based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name. It presents a dystopian world where the human population has been decimated by a mysterious entity. Anybody who looks at this entity kills themselves right after. The film switches between two timelines. One is the present, five years after the end of the world, when Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her two children try to reach a safe place while being blindfolded. The other timeline is presented in flashbacks, showing how the world ended.
Director Susanne Bier does a good job in showing a bleak and hopeless world. Some of the scenes are truly terrifying and the film explores the psychology of fear well. It is let down by plot problems, and is overly simplistic and predictable at times. But the interesting concept, the dark tone, and the great performances, especially from Bullock, make it worth a watch.
There we are! These are some of the best dystopian movies streaming on Netflix. Several science fiction authors have stated that the genre is not meant to predict the future, but to prevent it. To that end, dystopian movies and dystopian art in general serve an important purpose in popular social perception. They provide us with a perspective through which we can examine our own lives and present times. The movies listed here present 12 different imaginings of where we don’t want to be. Besides these, the classic The Truman Show (1998) as well as Divergent (2014) and Cargo (2017) are also currently available for streaming on Netflix. Interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), is another interesting option.