Still from Melancholia.

9 dystopian apocalyptic films that capture our current mood

From 'Battle Royale' to 'Melancholia', these movies are a sign of the times.

by Grant Rindner
24 March 2020, 6:00pm

Still from Melancholia.

With a global pandemic underway, the ongoing struggle of empathetic, left-leaning political movements to gain a foothold in places like the UK and US, and climate change still raging, it’s understandable that many people are turning to film for pure escapism and relief. But -- for better or worse -- the last few decades have proven something of a golden age for apocalyptic and dystopian filmmaking, as brilliant directors like Michael Haneke, Lizzie Borden and Kinji Fukasaku explore life either fundamentally remade or in the midst of being reshaped for the worse.

Not all of these movies feature a world-ending cataclysmic event, but many of them grapple with the effects of nihilism and apathy that can emerge when we think about the existential threats to both our planet and our society at large. Even the more action-packed flicks like Battle Royale and 10 Cloverfield Lane can easily be linked to contemporary problems like intergenerational conflict and gaslighting.

Below are nine films that offer lessons, warnings or parables that can be applied to many of the hardships we’re enduring on a global scale, and potentially help us figure out a way forward -- or at least to be more mindful. Who needs escapism after all?

First Reformed
While we’re constantly bombarded with the perils of climate change, the horror of an irreversibly damaged, eventually uninhabitable planet is so vast and terrifying as to be basically incomprehensible. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed filters that existential dread into a character study of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller, the pastor at a sparsely attended church in upstate New York. When a parishioner confides in him that her husband wants her to abort her pregnancy due to climate change, Toller enters into a full-on crisis of faith. First Reformed deals carefully with how we reimagine foundational concepts like religion and childbirth in the face of an existential threat. The film’s ending, though hardly uplifting, does offer a brief moment of relief from a grim present and an even bleaker future.

Battle Royale
A masterpiece of youth-in-revolt cinema, Battle Royale focuses on the bitter divide between Japan’s young people and a totalitarian government that rose to power in the wake of a major recession. Kinji Fukasaku’s final film is something of a lightning rod for its pervasive violence, but it is most affecting as both a depiction of typical teenage melodrama with trumped up, life-or-death consequences, and as a portrait of the kind of intergenerational conflict we see in societies around the globe. All over, we see young people rallying together for things like climate change, LGBT+ rights, and a widespread social safety net, but struggling against the inertia of Boomers and Gen Xers and the cruelty inherent in global capitalism. The youth of Battle Royale ultimately earn a pyrrhic victory at the film’s conclusion, which also feels dispiritingly like what so many young activists are facing today.

10 Cloverfield Lane
As an alien invasion movie, 10 Cloverfield Lane is so-so, with an extremely modest budget and pretty boilerplate action. But as a story of gaslighting, extremism, and the distorted relationship between gender and power, the film is efficient and disturbing. We spend much of Dan Trachtenberg’s movie wondering if there’s even an invasion going on at all, or if John Goodman’s Howard -- played with an Alex Jones-ian verve for the apocalyptic and a chilling manipulative streak -- has simply captured Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Michelle using the idea of an alien attack as a false flag. The movie also speaks to the franchisification of modern cinema, as 10 Cloverfield Lane was originally written as a lean indie horror flick called The Cellar that had nothing to do with Matt Reeves’ 2008 monster movie. The strongest and most frightening parts of the movie have little to do with CGI aliens, and everything to do with humanity’s capacity for cruelty in the name of their warped beliefs.

Bertrand Bonello’s film offers a decidedly bleak portrait of modern youth, following the actions and subsequent fallout from a group of young Parisians carrying out a series of coordinated terrorist attacks around the city. The lack of a given motivation for the protagonists’ actions makes it difficult to find Nocturama’s moral center, though as the AV Club notes, Bonello “draws the line at violence, which is always abrupt and sobering.” As the extremists hole up in an empty department store following the attacks, the film also highlights the hollowness of consumerist comforts in the face of true horror. The characters play with and discard expensive makeup, stereo equipment, and clothing. With memorable and eclectic needle drops of Shirley Bassey, Chief Keef and Willow Smith, Nocturama also highlights the power of music as a salve for trauma, though in this case the listeners are the perpetrators, not the victims.

I Think We’re Alone Now
Though slow and plagued by shoddy chemistry between its leads, Reed Morano’s I Think We’re Alone Now is a thoughtful flick that deals with ideas often eschewed in splashy, big budget apocalyptic cinema. Through Peter Dinklage’s Del, Morano highlights both the importance of work and routine, as well as the tedium that persists, even in an empty world. As the film goes on, Elle Fanning’s Grace appears and I Think We’re Alone Now reckons with the best way to move forward after trauma, a question that will affect countless people in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic.

Time of the Wolf
Michael Haneke’s 2003 apocalypse flick picks up well after the world has ended, and offers a snapshot of a family trying to hold together and maintain their dignity and decency in increasingly dire straits. As the world grapples with pandemic conditions and people struggle with the fearful impulse to hoard vs. the altruistic impulse to help, Time of the Wolf is a somber reminder of what happens when our basic social fabric erodes. Even beyond our present frightening circumstances, Time of the Wolf offers a message worth heeding. As The New York Times noted back in 2004, the constant hardships endured by Isabelle Huppert and her family are not dissimilar from the daily reality faced by so many.

Born in Flames
More dystopian than apocalyptic, Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames is a powerful collage that shows how even a theoretical socialist America can still be rife with problems. Told largely through faux documentary footage and radio broadcasts, Born in Flames features a pair of feminist revolutionary groups, combatting rampant sexism on the New York City streets through a mix of direct action and community organizing -- in the wake of a purported socialist revolution. And in a bit of eerie prescience, the 1983 movie shows a shoddy police conspiracy related to the death of a black woman in custody, conjuring up memories of recent situations like the deaths of Diamond Ross and Sandra Bland. As far-left youth movements continue to grow in the U.S. and U.K., Born in Flames is a crucial reminder that a revolution that leaves some people behind will ultimately perpetuate many of the problems that made one so essential in the first place.

There is an outside world in Alejandro Lanes’ Monos. It’s where the movie’s teenage militia soldiers get their orders and where their prisoner -- an American engineer -- came from. But for 100 incendiary minutes, we watch a makeshift society cooperate, bicker and eventually crumble as its careful military structure is turned on its head. The superb cast of mostly unknowns functions like a group of apocalyptic survivors, as tempers flare, power struggles ensue, and school-age crushes come and go. Like Nocturama and Battle Royale, the stakes are made all the greater by the group’s isolation and its survivalist tone, but the human drama is what makes this very alien story so emotionally resonant.

In addition to being one Bernie Sanders’ favorite films, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is a hypnotic exploration of how depression corresponds to the world around us. Featuring an all-time performance from Kirsten Dunst as Justine, and an effectively cast-against-type Charlotte Gainsbourg as her sister Claire, Melancholia explores the differences between depression and despair, as well as the ripple effects of mental health. Though there isn’t a colossal planet on course to collide with the Earth, it does feel like the world is ending several times per month, and if Melancholia isn’t exactly a blueprint for how to behave, it does offer an intimate character study of one such situation.

Battle Royale
10 Cloverfield Lane
born in flames
apocalyptic films
dystopian films
first reformed
i think we're alone now
time of the wolf