Fulfilling Orwell’s Prophecy: 15 Futuristic Films You Should See
By John W. Whitehead
July 18, 2011
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.”—George Orwell
It has been over 60 years since George Orwell published his novel1984. Described as political satire, it is, in reality, a political prophecy—one that is being fulfilled in our own times.
1984 portrays a global society of total control in which people are not allowed to have thoughts that in any way disagree with the corporate state. There is no personal freedom, and advanced technology has become the driving force behind a surveillance-driven society. Snitches and cameras are everywhere. And people are subject to the Thought Police, who deal with anyone guilty of thought crimes. The government, or “Party,” is headed by Big Brother who appears on posters everywhere with the words: “Big Brother is watching you.”
Orwell’s story revolves around Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party. When Winston meets and falls in love with Julia, they begin seeing each other secretly, thus embarking on what is an “illegal” relationship. They are eventually arrested by the Thought Police and placed into reprogramming.
Much of what Orwell envisioned in his futuristic society has now come to pass. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Government agents listen in on our telephone calls and reads our emails. Political correctness—a philosophy that discourages diversity—has become a guiding principle of modern society. The courts have eviscerated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. In fact, SWAT teams battering down doors without search warrants and FBI agents acting as a secret police that investigates dissenting citizens are common occurrences in contemporary America. We are increasingly ruled by multi-corporations wedded to the police state. And much of the population is either hooked on illegal drugs or ones prescribed by doctors.
All of this has come about with little more than a whimper from a clueless American populace largely comprised of nonreaders and television and internet somnambulists. But we have been warned about such an ominous future in novels and movies for years. In fact, film may be the best representation of what we now face as a society that is fulfilling Orwell’s prophecy.
The following are 15 of the better films on the topic.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Adapted from Ray Bradbury’s novel and directed by Francois Truffaut, this film depicts a futuristic society in which books are banned, and firemen ironically are called on to burn contraband books—451 Fahrenheit being the temperature at which books burn. Montag (Oskar Werner) is a fireman who develops a conscience and begins to question his book burning. This film is an adept metaphor for our obsessively politically correct society where virtually everyone now pre-censors speech. Here, a brainwashed people addicted to television and drugs do little to resist governmental oppressors. Good supporting cast, including Julie Christie in a dual role.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The plot of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, as based on an Arthur C. Clarke short story, revolves around a space voyage to Jupiter. The astronauts soon learn, however, that the fully automated ship is orchestrated by a computer system—known as HAL 9000—which has become an autonomous thinking being that will even murder to retain control. The idea is that at some point in human evolution, technology in the form of artificial intelligence will become autonomous and that human beings will become mere appendages of technology. In fact, at present, we are seeing this development with the massive computer databases generated and controlled by the government—such as ACQUAINT—that are administered by such secretive agencies as the National Security Agency and sweep all websites and other information devices collecting information on average citizens. This film is a great visual tour de force that presents a frightening scenario.
Planet of the Apes (1968). Based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, astronauts crash on a planet where apes are the masters and humans are treated as brutes and slaves. While fleeing from gorillas on horseback, astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) is shot in the throat, captured and housed in a cage. From there, Taylor begins a journey wherein the truth revealed is that the planet was once controlled by technologically advanced humans who destroyed civilization. Taylor’s trek to the ominous Forbidden Zone reveals the startling fact that he was on planet earth all along. Descending into a fit of rage at what he sees in the final scene, Taylor screams: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you. God damn you all to hell!” The lesson is obvious here, but will we listen? The script, although rewritten, was initially drafted by Rod Serling and retains Serling’s Twilight Zone-ish ending. Great performance by Heston. Lackluster remake by Tim Burton in 2001.
THX 1138 (1970). George Lucas’ directorial debut, this is a somber view of a dehumanized society totally controlled by a police state. The people are force-fed drugs to keep them passive, and they no longer have names but only letter/number combinations such as THX 1138. Any citizen who steps out of line is quickly brought into compliance by robotic police equipped with “pain prods”—electro-shock batons. Sound like tasers?
A Clockwork Orange (1971). Director Stanley Kubrick presents a future ruled by sadistic punk gangs and a chaotic government that cracks down on its citizens sporadically. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a violent punk who finds himself in the grinding, crushing wheels of injustice. This film may accurately portray the future of western society that grinds to a halt as oil supplies diminish, environmental crises increase, chaos rules, and the only thing left is brute force. Fine performance by McDowell.
Soylent Green (1973). The year is 2022 in an overpopulated New York City whose inhabitants depend on synthetic foods manufactured by the Soylent Corporation. A policeman (Charlton Heston) investigating a murder discovers the grisly truth about what soylent green is really made of. The theme is chaos where the world is ruled by ruthless corporations whose only goal is greed and profit. This is Edward G. Robinson’s final screen appearance.
Blade Runner (1982). In a 21st century Los Angeles, a world-weary cop (Harrison Ford) tracks down a handful of renegade “replicants” (synthetically produced human slaves). Life is now dominated by mega-corporations, and people sleepwalk along rain-drenched streets. This is a world where human life is cheap, and where anyone can be exterminated at will by the police (or blade runners). Based upon a Philip K. Dick novel, this exquisite Ridley Scott film questions what it means to be human in an inhuman world. Outstanding performance by Rutger Hauer as the leader of a group of rebel replicants.
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). The best adaptation of Orwell’s dark tale, this film visualizes the total loss of freedom in a world dominated by technology and its misuse, and the crushing inhumanity of an omniscient state. The government controls the masses by controlling their thoughts, altering history and changing the meaning of words. John Hurt is Winston Smith, the doubter who turns to self-expression through his diary and then begins questioning the ways and methods of Big Brother before being re-educated by O’Brien (brilliantly played by Richard Burton in his last screen performance).
Brazil (1985). Sharing a similar vision of the near future as 1984 and Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, this is arguably director Terry Gilliam’s best work, one replete with a merging of the fantastic and stark reality. Here, a mother-dominated, hapless clerk (Jonathan Pryce) takes refuge in flights of fantasy to escape the ordinary drabness of life. Caught within the chaotic tentacles of a police state, the longing for more innocent, free times lies behind the vicious surface of this film. Good supporting cast, including Robert DeNiro.
They Live (1988). John Carpenter’s bizarre sci-fi social satire action film assumes the future has already arrived. John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a homeless person who stumbles across a resistance movement and finds a pair of sunglasses that enables him to see the real world around him. What he discovers is a monochrome reality in a world controlled by ominous beings who bombard the citizens with subliminal messages such as “obey” and “conform.” Carpenter manages to make an effective political point about the underclass—that is, everyone except those in power. The point: we, the prisoners of our devices, are too busy sucking up the entertainment trivia beamed into our brains and beating each other up to start an effective resistance movement.
The Matrix (1999). Written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, the story centers on a computer programmer Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), secretly a hacker known by the alias “Neo,” who begins a relentless quest to learn the meaning of “The Matrix”—cryptic references that appear on his computer. Neo’s search leads him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) who reveals the truth that the present reality is not what it seems and that Anderson is actually living in the future—2199. Humanity is at war against technology which has taken the form of intelligent beings, and Neo is actually living in The Matrix, an illusionary world that appears to be set in the present in order to keep the humans docile and under control. Neo soon joins Morpheus and his cohorts in a rebellion against the machines that use SWAT team tactics to keep things under control.
Minority Report (2002). Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick and directed by Steven Spielberg, the setting is 2054 where PreCrime, a specialized police unit, apprehends criminals before they can commit the crime. Captain Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the chief of the Washington, DC, PreCrime force which uses future visions generated by “pre-cogs” (mutated humans with precognitive abilities) to stop murders. Soon Anderton becomes the focus of an investigation when the precogs predict he will commit a murder. But the system can be manipulated. This film raises the issue of the danger of technology operating autonomously—which will happen eventually if it has not already occurred. To a hammer, all the world looks like a nail. In the same way, to a police state computer, we all look like suspects. In fact, before long, we all may be mere extensions or appendages of the police state—all suspects in a world commandeered by machines.
V for Vendetta (2006). With a screenplay written by the Wachowski brothers, this film depicts a society ruled by a corrupt and totalitarian government where everything is run by an abusive secret police. A vigilante named V (Hugo Weaving) dons a mask and leads a rebellion against the state. The subtext here is that authoritarian regimes through repression create their own enemies—that is, terrorists—forcing government agents and terrorists into a recurring cycle of violence. And who is caught in the middle? The citizens, of course. Hugo Weaving shows what a fine actor he is, even if it’s all done behind a mask. This film has a cult following among various underground political groups such as Anonymous, whose members wear the same Guy Fawkes mask as that worn by Weaving.
Children of Men (2006). It is 2027, and the world is without hope since humankind has lost its ability to procreate. Civilization has descended into chaos and is held together by a military state and a government that attempts to keep its totalitarian stronghold on the population. Most governments have collapsed, leaving Great Britain as one of the few remaining intact societies. As a result, millions of refugees seek asylum only to be rounded up and detained by the police. Suicide is a viable option as a suicide kit called Quietus is promoted on billboards and on television and newspapers. But hope for a new day comes when a woman becomes inexplicably pregnant.
Land of the Blind (2006). This dark political satire is based on several historical incidents in which tyrannical rulers were overthrown by new leaders who proved just as evil as their predecessors. Maximilian II (Tom Hollander) is a demented fascist ruler of a troubled land named Everycountry who has two main interests: tormenting his underlings and running his country’s movie industry. Citizens who are perceived as questioning the state are sent to “re-education camps” where the state’s concept of reality is drummed into their heads. Joe (Ralph Fiennes), a prison guard, is emotionally moved by the prisoner and renowned author Thorne (Donald Sutherland) and eventually joins a coup to remove the sadistic Maximilian, replacing him with Thorne. But soon Joe finds himself the target of the new government. Great cast.
It is definitely time to realize that what we call “the government” is not what it seems. Unfortunately, most Americans, like animals in a cage, have come to believe that the zookeeper is friendly. And, as freedom continues to diminish, we had better wake up or we will become the Winstons of our time.
In fact, as Orwell’s novel concludes, Winston and Julia are taken to the Ministry of Love as part of the reprogramming process. Since Winston fears rats, he is tortured with rats until his feelings for Julia are destroyed. As confirmation that he sees the new reality of the state, Winston writes that 2+2=5. The reprogramming is successful. He is cured. As the final sentence of Orwell’s book concludes, “He loved Big Brother.”
Let us hope this is not an epitaph for our times.