Around the 4th of July, American TV stations fill up with patriotic content. That takes a lot of different forms, which this year range from FX’s Captain America movie marathon to TCM classics like 1776 and Elia Kazan’s America, America. Filmmakers have celebrated the United States through fist-pumping escapist action (Independence Day), grim patriotic drama (Red Dawn), sentimental uplift (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), and confrontational personal stories (Born on the Fourth of July), among many other methods. Artists’ freedom to find and express their own version of the country is part of what makes it great.
But it can be just as patriotic to take a more subversive look at America, to examine the flaws in its institutions and attitudes, take stock of its problems, and consider where they might lead. That’s a common tack for science fiction — particularly satires and dystopia stories, which poke fun at America’s less-desirable elements, and challenge people to do better. Here are 10 films that consider possible dark futures for America, by way of considering who we are as a nation, and wondering what present attitudes and behaviors might lead to down the line. They’re all available for online rental right now.
A Boy and his Dog
L.Q. Jones’ 1975 adaptation of a post-apocalyptic story by the late Harlan Ellison has both a misogynist streak and a separate misanthropic streak, but it’s certainly a different kind of look at the apocalypse from most. After World War IV, a scavenger (Don Johnson) wanders the wasteland with his telepathic dog (voiced by Tim McIntire), dodging androids and mutants, until he’s suckered into a community built under the ruins of Topeka, Kansas. Ellison and Jones use that “Downunder” town to mock America’s worst nostalgic and self-mythologizing impulses: it’s a world of enforced 1950s niceness, where the residents wear ghastly whiteface, dress like vintage farmers or homesteaders, and try to play out a fantasy of Midwestern conviviality, with the inevitable hilariously ugly dark streak hiding underneath. The final line earned Ellison a lot of criticism over the years, but the film is a memorable look at the difference between actual freedom, and a rigidly artificial society that defines freedom as “fitting in and following orders.”
Where to stream it: It’s free on Amazon Prime, or rentable from iTunes.
Mike Judge’s bleak 2006 satire takes a pair of ordinary people from the present (Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph) 500 years into the future, where they learn that natural selection has resulted in an epic-level dumbing down of America. There’s a plot, of sorts, but mostly, it’s a chance for the man behind Beavis and Butt-head and Silicon Valley to crack cynical, despairing, and routinely hilarious gags about America’s increasingly aggressive commercialism, crassness, and self-absorption. The humor is raw, but it’s also the best kind of satire, the kind that’s both instantly recognizable (especially in the lengths that familiar companies will go to entice their easily led customers) and daring enough to be surprising.
Where to stream it: It’s available for online rental on the usual pay services: Amazon, iTunes, Fandango, YouTube, and so forth.
In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner delivered a shotgun blast of dark comedy, social satire, and mind-numbing violence with RoboCop. In the near future, the city of Detroit is approaching collapse, and a sinister megacorp named Omni Consumer Products privatizes the police force to clean up the streets. When a drug gang kills a police officer named Murphy (Peter Weller), OCP uses him as a guinea pig for its new weapons initiative: a human-machine hybrid they call RoboCop. Early cuts of Verhoeven’s film were so violent that it famously earned an “X” rating, but what really makes RoboCop memorable is the way it mercilessly sends up ’80s corporate culture, the decade’s obsessive materialism, and the way the larger population goes along with it all, happily watching TV shows with stupefying catchphrases (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) and playing family board games based around nuclear armageddon. The original RoboCop is a mocking indictment of the era that spawned it, but for all its ’80s excesses, it also feels disturbingly current.
Where to stream it: Verhoeven’s RoboCop is available for purchase and rental on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video — but be sure you select the 1987 film. The 2014 reboot is significantly less interesting.
The Purge: Anarchy and The Purge: Election Year
The original 2013 film The Purge is a clumsy social satire about a comfortable, well-off white family who fully embrace The Purge, America’s one mandated night where all crime is legal, as long as their money insulates them from facing any danger themselves. But when home invaders target them, and they experience the same risks as poor people of color, they panic and make a series of awful, telling choices. The sequels are equally unsubtle about America’s antipathy and hypocrisy toward even the humblest and hardest-working poor people, but they rightly shift the focus onto the people most targeted by racist, classist American policy decisions, and they shift the genre from home-invasion thriller to ensemble action. More importantly, they focus on sympathetic characters trying to survive, instead of unsympathetic ones the audience is meant to hate. Anarchy opens up the world and solidifies the political metaphor, as a handful of victims try to survive on the street, while learning that the American leaders behind The Purge have put a shiny liberty-and-patriotism PR gloss on a policy that’s actually specifically designed as a cover for genocide. But Election Year is a more coherent thriller that echoes classic neo-exploitation films like Escape from New York, as an anti-Purge politician tries to survive an assassination attempt. These aren’t necessarily smart, sophisticated films, but they’re satisfying, cathartic good-vs.-evil narratives with a lot of intense thrills, and their cynicism about government doublespeak feels disturbingly appropriate.
Where to stream it: Rentable via a variety of common streaming services.
Escape From New York
Speaking of the granddaddy of Purge movies… John Carpenter’s 1981 thriller about the far-distant future of 1997 hits some of the same notes as the Purge films, but it’s surprisingly soulful about its swaggering outlaw hero (Kurt Russell), who doesn’t actually want to save the day. In a crime-ridden future where Manhattan has been set aside as a lawless prison, and criminals are dumped inside to roam wild and die, Russell’s Special Forces vet character, Snake Plissken, is caught trying to rob the Federal Reserve. His government captors put bombs in his throat and give him 24 hours to enter New York and rescue America’s president, who crash-landed there after a terrorist attack on Air Force One. Like the Purge movies, Escape From New York is nakedly up-front about distrusting the motives of career politicians, and criticizing America’s willingness to demonize and discard at-risk segments of its population. Carpenter makes a point of finding the humanity in some of New York’s incarceratetd, but he also turns Escape From New York into a thrilling adventure movie, and a wryly funny one as well.
Where to stream it: It’s currently on Filmstruck, or available for rent on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Video, etc.
A dystopian action flick starring Sylvester Stallone and a futuristic Taco Bell may not sound like the most subversive movie on the planet, but Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man (1993) is smarter than it looks. In 2032, society has reached a state of pacifist utopia. Crime is utterly unheard of, so when a violent criminal named Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) escapes after being brought out of cryogenic stasis, the authorities have no idea what to do. The solution: thaw out the man who originally captured Phoenix more than 30 years ago: Sergeant John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone). Brambilla’s film has a lot of fun playing with fish-out-of-water tropes — Spartan can’t understand the future’s version of toilet paper, or deal with the ubiquitous machines that fine him for profanity. And Demolition Man repeatedly plays with the idea that an idyllic society would be relentlessly boring. (The future’s only restaurant is Taco Bell.) It’s hard to not see a bit of a sneer in the movie’s belief that it takes aggressive, rule-breaking musclemen like Stallone to really take care of the world’s problems, but that attitude is tempered by the performances of Denis Leary (as a mile-a-minute-talking, chain-smoking resistance leader) and Sandra Bullock, who eases into the comedic chops that would later make her a full-fledged movie star.
Where to stream it: The usual digital platforms.
The Running Man
This 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film is based on a much darker Stephen King novel, initially published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. The movie version seemed outsized and comedic in its day, but now, it feels a little too close to reality for comfort: it’s 2019, and the United States has become a totalitarian police state, complete with doctored news broadcasts and labor camps. The masses are kept docile by an endless stream of game shows, but none is more famous than The Running Man, which pits convicted criminals against seasoned assassins, with a pardon waiting if the victims survive. Schwarzenegger plays Ben Richards, an innocent man roped into the game, and his inevitable stiff performance and ridiculous one-liners ensure that the film is complete and utter ’80s cheese. It looks cheap, the laughs are groan-worthy, and Schwarzenegger practically seems to be playing a parody version of himself. But that’s all part of the fun, and if you embrace the movie’s dark outlook on reality TV — and the scene-chewing performance from Family Feud host Richard Dawson — then The Running Man becomes the cynical take on American life that 2018 has earned.
Where to stream it: Hulu for subscribers, or rental from various digital services.
In 2002, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise went neo-noir with this science fiction action film adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story. It’s 2054, and crime has been virtually eliminated thanks to a system that is able to detect crimes before they happen. PreCrime chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) arrests individuals who will theoretically commit crimes in the future, and everyone lives happily ever after. That is, until the system predicts Anderton himself will kill someone in the next 36 hours — and then he’s off in a race to prove his future innocence. Thematically, Minority Report is interested in questions of free will and determinism, but it’s perhaps remembered best for its eerily prescient takes on technology and advertising. The film’s transparent displays and gesture-based controls became shorthand for what everyone assumed the future of interface design would be like (even if turned out they weren’t sound ideas). The movie’s take on American advertising, in which customers would have their retinas scanned while walking through the real world so customized ads could be offered up to them wherever and whenever they went, is a satirical paranoid vision that seems all too likely to become part of the real world. But the film’s version of policing seems even more relevant to modern America. The psychics are fictional, but the “you don’t need privacy unless you’re hiding something criminal” attitude the police display during searches certainly isn’t. Neither are the heavily militarized police force, or the technological idea of predictive policing based on flawed technology.
Where to stream it: Available for rental on digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play, where they’re probably amassing giant data profiles on you that will allow them to better serve future dystopian films to you just when you least expect it.
Dawn of the Dead
By now, horror fans are fairly used to the idea that zombies are an all-purpose political metaphor, but back when George A. Romero was first pioneering the American zombie genre, it was new and daring ground. The racial undertones in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead become overt by the depressing ending, and the bleak satire of American values in the sequel, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, are even more obvious. In this entry in Romero’s zombie series, a group of survivors holes up in a suburban mega-mall, barricading the entrances and creating a consumer paradise where they’re free to try on hats and compare TVs to their hearts’ content. They have everything they need, except basic freedom — especially from other consumers, who come to loot the mall and set off a firefight. “This isn’t the Republicans versus the Democrats,” a scientist tries to explain in a speech. “This is more crucial than that. This is down to the line, folks, this is down to the line. There can be no more divisions among the living!” But Romero’s point here is that the living can’t stop fighting among themselves, even among endless resources and opportunities. Naturally, disaster results.
Romero’s humor is as broad as his political commentary. The zombies wandering the mall, riding the escalators and stumbling through the shops, are an early version of Shaun of the Dead’s gag about how hard it is to tell normal, routine-hypnotized people from zombies. (One protagonist suggests that the zombies are drawn to the mall out of instinct: “This was an important place in their lives.”) And when a looter gets so excited about the mall’s blood-pressure test machine that he stops to check his health in the middle of a fight, Romero seems to be laughing at how easily Americans get fixated on new gadgets, and lose sight of everything else. Dawn of the Dead is a startlingly gory movie, and it openly laughs at American news media as out-of-touch and inaccurate, and at capitalist culture as vapid and mindless. But at least Romero is openly enjoying his end-of-the-world scenario.
Where to stream it: It’s surprisingly hard to find the 1978 original in any legitimate format, though Zack Snyder’s 2004 “re-imagining” is widely available. Fortunately, as with so many abandoned and out-of-print films, a handful of people have uploaded the entire thing to YouTube.