For almost a century, Hollywood has regaled us with stories about possible or fantastical dystopian futures.
We’ve seen Neo escape the Matrix, witnessed Katniss Everdeen fight for freedom in Panem, watched Rick Deckard hunt down Replicants, and looked as V and Evy try to liberate a subjugated nation. The dystopian movie genre has not only survived but also thrived.
But, like any offering, the dystopian movie classification has no choice but to follow a cycle. Every product has a beginning, peak, and end. With this framework in mind, the question now is whether the classification’s attraction has reached its peak. Has it plateaued? Is it about to plummet and die? This article aims to answer those questions.
Before predicting the dystopian movie genre’s direction, it is instructive to review its history.
The class arguably owes its genesis to the 1922 movie entitled Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. And since that time, approximately 190 films have been made under that category. The genre has had quite a run.
The classification’s longevity continues to impress. But, the more startling fact is how that specific class has taken off in the last 10-18 years.
Fifty-percent of the 190 dystopian films ever created were released from 2000 to 2018. We are, from a production standpoint, witnessing a golden age of dystopian films.
But, does sheer volume make the genre successful? Other standards reveal mixed results.
In terms of profitability, dystopian films haven’t caught up with other genres like comic book movies, sci-fi, and grand fantasies. Box Office Mojo lists only four movies from the class that have cracked the Top 100: (a) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (#60), (b) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (#87), (c) The Matrix Reloaded (#94), and (d) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (#99). On the other hand, eleven offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are in the Top 100; all the Harry Potter motion pictures are there, too; the same goes with all Lord of the Rings films.
So, if revenue isn’t a reliable metric, then how about critical acclaim? Again, the dystopian film category doesn’t account for itself well.
Rotten Tomatoes lists only 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road (#5) and 1927’s Metropolis (#11) as those making it to its Top 100 movies of all time list. Empire, in its similar enumeration, only includes Mad Max: Fury Road (#38), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (#25), The Matrix (#24), and Blade Runner (#13).
But, given the subpar collective performance of dystopian films from profitability and critical acclaim standards, Hollywood still favors them. That’s quite the paradox; one that may continue for the next few years.
Part of the reason for the continued or misguided interest over dystopian movies lies in the success of one film: Jennifer Lawrence’s Hunger Games. That motion picture paved the way for an avalanche of similar offerings like the Maze Runner series and the Divergent franchise. The Terminator came back not once but thrice.
Success, however, isn’t easily copied. What worked for Lawrence’s Hunger Games did not trickle down to the other movies. The other franchises weren’t as triumphant both in the box office and with the critics.
But, that isn’t the only challenge facing the dystopian film category.
What dystopia faces down the road
A quick perusal of the dystopian movie offerings in the last three decades indicates a slow down of sorts.
From 1990 to 2000, Hollywood in general released 26 dystopian themed films. From 2000 to 2010, that figure doubled by more than a 100 percent with the production of 55 movies. From 2010 to 2018, only 41 films have been made. We can even include the five or 10 motion pictures that have been green lit for the next two years like Anon, Mute, Inversion, and the like. But, even with these additional offerings, the present decade may only muster a total of 45 to 50 dystopian titles.
The slow down in production of dystopian films isn’t entirely the genre’s fault. Inclinations, interests, and economics also play a role.
The comic book movie trend will continue for the next two to three years. More than 30 films are projected to reach the silver screen in that time frame. It seems the comic book movie genre has yet to reach its peak.
And with 30 films set for release, the share of wallet for other classifications will shrink. Those vying for a smaller remainder of the pie will have to slug it out.
Both Star Wars and Star Trek will gun for a share of the pie. James Cameron’s Avatar movies will figure into the mix. The dystopian film category won’t have it easy in the next few years.
So, what’s next for the genre?
The prognosis is tricky at best.
There’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018), which made a killing in the box office in spite of so-so reviews. It earned US $286 million dollars worldwide against a production cost of US$62 million.
Occupying the other end of the spectrum is 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. Despite garnering critical acclaim, the movie bombed at the box office. It only earned $240 million dollars and failed to go beyond its breakeven point of $400 million.
The two films above indicate that the dystopian movie genre will continue to persist as a paradox. Most of the classification’s motion pictures will do enough to recoup its investment in spite of subpar evaluations. The critics will love a few films, but these offerings won’t bring in the dough.
The dystopian movie genre won’t die; it will trudge on. It may slow down but won’t vanish into thin air.
For as long as it provides the ultimate source of escapism, the dystopian movie category will have its share of fans and followers. Because there is no other film that can make a person—one in dire straits—say, “Life could be a lot worse.”