There are a handful of stories in the history of literature and cinema that have given us an insight into our worst inclinations. 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World are not just some of the most important novels of all time, they are also great examples of stories that vividly illustrated our tendency towards tyranny.
These stories introduced many to the ideas of collectivism and authoritarianism, but they struggled to appeal to wide audiences.
Cue the 80s and the Hollywood machine is in high gear. The blockbuster movie comes to the fore in the late 70s with the likes of Jaws and Star Wars and with it, cinema becomes a huge beacon for spreading ideas. The stage was set for cinema to deliver these themes and concepts to much large audiences.
The new generation of films exploring themes of totalitarianism would be genre films. These films would be more accessible, delivered in easy to digest packaging like action, sci-fi and satire. Many of them would receive mixed reactions on release, but would go on to be cult hits, lasting the test of time, while predicting some of the most prominent issues facing us in the modern age. Things like safetyism, mob justice, corporatism and political correctness. And they all did it with a sense of style, humour and innovation.
So kick back and enjoy some of the most prophetic films of the last 40 years.
From Director Paul Verhoeven, the visionary behind Starship Troopers and Total Recall , RoboCop is a 1987 action sci-fi film that depicts a dystopian crime ridden Detroit in the year 2029.
Widely regarded as an absolute classic, the film is a disturbing and prescient portrayal of the United States of America in decline. A tale of late stage capitalism, a culture gone mad and a population blinded by consumerism and malevolent media.
The film centres around OCP, a giant corporate entity that makes products for government, hospitals, prisons and space exploration.
In the movie OCP attempts to privatise law enforcement in coordination with a corrupt government. The RoboCop program is a cybernetic police officer that becomes known for his brutal efficiency. RoboCop becomes an effective law enforcer, but slowly begins to reconnect with his humanity amidst a backdrop of his morally bankrupt employers, blind consumerism and the insidious news media.
The film explores themes of crony capitalism and fascism as a privatised police force takes brutal control by way of government collusion. In 2022 we see eerie parallels in the rise of a corporate technocrats and robotics. Boston Dynamics, WE SEE YOU!
Ever wondered what a world without crime would look like? Well we’ve got you covered.
This is another scifi/action movie, made by first time filmmaker Marco Brambilla, but unlike RoboCop, Demolition Man depicts a utopian future where all danger and free thought has been vanquished. What’s left is a nauseatingly politically correct, totally safe city. A city with security cameras on every corner, a social credit system and ATMs that will issue you infringement notices for saying bad words.
Actor Rob Schnieder perfectly sums up the film with a line in the film delivered as his character (a Police officer) is confronted with the actions of a dangerous criminal. “We’re police officers, we’re not trained to deal with this sort of violence”.
Another brilliant detail that conveys the conformity and coercive culture depicted in Demolition Man is demonstrated but Taco Bell being the only restaurant to exist in this city. Yes, you read that right. No other food exists apart from Taco Bell.
The movie shows us what “safetyism” taken to its absolute extreme would look like. It portrays in vivid detail what humanity totally detached from our nature, freedom and creativity would degenerate into.
Fight Club is another absolute cult classic movie that really stands up to repeat viewing. It’s is a must watch and resonates profoundly as we watch western cultures become further and further emasculated.
Based on the book by self proclaimed “transgressional” novelist Chuck Palahniuk and made by acclaimed Director David Fincher, the film has drawn praise not just for the washboard abs of megahunk Brad Pitt, but also for its ultra honest portrayal of modern masculinity (or the lack there of).
The protagonist, played by Edward Norton, struggles with a lack of meaning, finding only emptiness and narcolepsy in his soulless work and consumerist behaviours. Lacking real connection and community, he finds a lifeline in a variety of support communities for the sick and dying.
The film is an indictment on modernity. A dark, innovative, thought provoking exploration of mental illness, purpose and masculinity. It dares ask the question that many evade – how do men find meaning?
And remember, if this is your first night at fight club, you HAVE to fight.
Directed by Jonathan Mostow and starring Bruce Willis, Surrogates is another sci-fi genre film exploring the implications of a world addicted to virtual reality.
While the movie is much less noteworthy than RoboCop or Demolition Man, it is prescient none the less, exploring the sociological consequences of our social interactions being primarily virtual and anonymous.
The movie portrays the increasing disconnections we will have to the real world, as we spend more time living vicariously through an artificial self in an artificial word. Sound familiar?
Yeah we are looking at you Mark Zuckerberg, we see you! over there in silicon valley, building the virtual reality hell scape at “Meta” or whatever you call that place these days. STOP IT!
Remember the good old days when due process, innocent until proven guilty, a trial by a jury of your peers were all considered the bedrock of our democracies? Ah, good times.
It’s a sad state of affairs but in the era of social media, mob justice and cancel culture, we seem to be heading down a dark road. The kind of road that has a gulag at the end of it were they send all types of prisoners, including the innocent kind.
Speaking of innocent criminals, next on the list is the 2002 sci-fi action hit Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick and Directed by Steven Spielberg.
This thought provoking film portrays a new breed of law enforcement. Police who have the ability to eliminate crime before it even happens.
Set in the near future of 2054, a new police unit called “Pre-crime” is set up to detect future crime by harnessing the power of psychics that can see violent crimes before they occur.
The rubber hits the road on this one when the main character (Tom Cruise), himself a law enforcer is accused of committing a “future crime”. Fun and games unfold as he attempts to clear his name.
The movie portrays a legal system that locks away people based on what we think they might do, not what they’ve actually done. A dangerous standard of justice that would not look out of place in the likes of Canada or Australia right now.
And there you have it, some of the most prescient films of the last 40 years. These films were not just fun action/sci-fi flicks, they were important conversations about the power of the state, the dangers of the mob and the perils of technology. All issues we struggle with in today’s world.
Hollywood productions now prioritise politics, representation and agendas over story and the industry has never been more polluted by corporate interests and plagued with unoriginality .
It is now time for independent filmmakers to bring their stories to the fore.
But while we wait, we can rewatch these classics and share them with future generations. Enjoy!
Drew Roller is a Filmmaker, Musician and stay at home dad. He enjoys films about sword swinging immortals, 90s games about British spies and long conversations online that push at the boundaries of polite conversation.