It seems to me that there were more cinematic dystopias in the Eighties than in any other decade. For those of you who do not know the meaning of the word dystopia, I suppose I should provide a definition. The word dystopia refers to a work of fiction portraying an imaginary place where people live in a dehumanised state, either because of oppression, a skewed moral and ethical system, deprivation of basic human needs, or yet other reasons. The word dystopia can also refer to such an imaginary place portrayed in a work of fiction. Most dystopias are set in the future, although a few have been set in the present day. The classic dystopias are 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Other examples of dystopias are A Clockwork Orange (both the novel by Anthony Burgess and the film by Stanley Kubrick), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and the classic TV series The Prisoner.
Anyhow, from 1981 to 1990, it seems to me that Hollywood produced more dystopic movies than at any other time, save perhaps the early Seventies (when such films as Rollerball, Soylent Green, and the various Planet of the Apes movies hit the screen). It was a film released in 1979 and made in Australia that may habe foreshadowed the dystopic movies of the Eighties. Mad Max featured Mel Gibson in his first major role as a law enforcement officer in a world overrun by criminals. The movie was a major hit in much of the world and became a cult favourite in America. It was followed by two sequels: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.
As far as Hollywood and the United States is concerned, however, I believe that the trend towards dystopias began in 1981 with the release of Escape from New York. Directed by John Carpenter, Escape from New York portrayed a United States so overwhelmed by crime that New York City was evacuated and transformed into one huge prison. Unfortunately, for the President of the United States, Air Force One crashes in the city and the President finds himself held captive. It is into this city filled with criminals that Snake Plisken is sent to rescue the President. Escape from New York portrays a government that is generally oppressive and a city that is not simply overwhelmed by crime, it is pretty much the habitat of criminals. Escape From New York was very successful and continues to be a cult film to this day.
More influential than Escape from New York was Blade Runner, released in 1982. Based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner portrays a corrupt world in which replicants (artifical beings who look human) are hunted down by bounty hunters or "blade runners." Dekkard (Harrison Ford) in one such blade runner, who must track down a particularly deadly group of replicants lead by Roy (Rutger Hauer). The neo-noir look of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep would prove very infuential, influencing films from Batman to The Crow. It also had a strong influence on the cyberpunk genre, not only in its appearance, but combining both science fiction and noir elements.
By the mid-Eighties, the dystopic cycle was well under way. In 1984 there was a new, British version of 1984, complete with theme song by Eurythmics. In 1985 there was Brazil, perhaps Terry Gilliam's best film. Brazil portrays the ultimate bureaucracy, in which failing to fill out the proper forms is a captial crime. The film centres on Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department of the Ministry of Information. When Sam attempts to correct a clerical error that resulted in the arrest of an innocent man, he soon finds himself accused of being an enemy of the state. Brazil is a visually stunning film. It is also a rich film with a complex plot and several levels of meaning. Unfortunately, because of this, it is not the most accessible film, which perhaps explains why it was not a hit. Regardless, it has remained a cult film ever since.
By the late Eighties, dystopic films moved away from the more philosophical bent of Blade Runner, 1984, and Brazil towards action. Loosely based on the novel by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bacman), The Running Man deals with an overly conservative and oppressive society where the top TV show is The Running Man, a game show in which convicted felons have a chance at freedom provided that they can outrun the "stalkers." The Running Man is essentially an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, although it definitely scores points for showing the dangers of media manipulation in the hands of a corrupt government.
John Carpenter returned to the dystopia genre the following year with They Live. They Live is one of the few dystopias set in the present day (American Beauty and Fight Club are two other examples). It presents a world in which an unemployed construction worker, Nada (Roddy Piper), discovers the awful truth--Earth was long ago invaded by aliens who have been running our world ever since. The aliens are responsible for capitalism, consumerism, pollution (to make our atmosphere more like their own), and just about everything that is wrong with our society. Although essentially an action film, They Live also operates as political satire, social commentary, and even as a thriller. It is a film that has often been underrated, although it has been a cult favourite since its release.
The close of the decade saw another dystopic action film featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger. And while there is plenty of action in Total Recall, it would be a mistake to consider it simply an action film. Total Recall was based on the story "We'll Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick. The film centres on a construction worker named Quaid, who is fascinated by Mars to the point that he dreams about it. He decides to go to Rekall, a company which provides people with virtual vacations by placing false memories in their brains. It is then that Quaid finds himself on one big adventure, in which he may or may not be a secret agent named Hauser, working in deep cover on Mars. Total Recall effectively blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Is Quaid really a secret agent? Is Quaid simply a construction worker experiencing one long delusion? Total Recall deals with the question of what is real, and the effects of an oppressive and captialistic government.
There were many other dystopias released in the Eighties than these movies, but I haven't the space to list them here. It is hard to say why there were so many released in that decade. Perhaps the generally poor economy of the Eighties (in both the United States and the United Kingdom) led to a generally pessimistic attitude on the part of filmmakers. It is perhaps significant that many of the films (The Running Man, They Live, Total Recall) deal with economic issues to some degree or another. Of course, the problem with this theory is that the economy was even worse during the Great Depression than it was in the Eighties, yet films were generally optimistic in the Thirties. I suppose that perhaps movie makers were just going through a pessimistic phase.
Of course, dystopias have made a bit of a comeback the past few years. American Beauty, Fight Club, AI, and The Minority Report have all been released in the past few years. I only have to wonder if there will be more dystopias coming out in the next few years.