25 of the scariest dystopian realities of the last 25 years

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Sep 3, 2017

September 2017 is Syfy’s 25th anniversary, so we’re using it as an excuse to look back and celebrate the last 25 years of ALL science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a time that has seen the genres we love conquer the world of pop culture. For us, that means lists! ALL THE LISTS! We’ll be doing two “25 greatest” lists per day all throughout September, looking back at the moments, people, and characters that shaped the last quarter century. So keep checking back. Please note: Our lists are not ranked; all items have equal standing in our brains.

What items in our lists were your favorites? Did we miss something? We welcome respectful debate and discussion, so please let us know in the comments! 

In much of popular science fiction, it's the end of the world as we know it ... and we feel fine about that, especially when it leads to stories like these.

12 Monkeys Official Trailer #1 - (1995) HD

12 Monkeys (Movie)

James Cole is a prisoner sent back to 1996 to prevent a pandemic before it can begin. After several trips across time, he begins to doubt his sanity. But when he kidnaps psychiatrist Dr. Kathryn Railly and coincidences stack up, Kathryn begins to doubt his insanity. Even though the movie tells a complete tale, 12 Monkeys was rich enough to inspire even more: The Syfy television show will be airing a fourth and final season in 2018, and has put its own excellent spin on the original premise.

Age of Apocalypse

This 1995-1996 Marvel mutant crossover showed Legion going back in time and killing his father, Professor Charles Xavier. So when Apocalypse appears to wreak havoc on the world, Professor X isn’t around to stop him and all of reality is rewritten. This event was so spectacular that Marvel changed the titles of each of the X- books for the months the event went on. Wolverine became Weapon X, Generation X became Generation Next, etc. It was an alternate reality that freakin’ mutated our own reality.

Battle Royale Official Blu-Ray Trailer - Cult Classic Movie (2000)

Battle Royale

You think The Hunger Games is the only film on this list in which ninth-graders are forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian government, occasionally with a crossbow? Think again. This 2000 Japanese movie is for those who think The Hunger Games needs to be more bloody and visceral. Battle Royale uniquely recognizes that the horror of high school should absolutely not be a metaphor.

Children of Men Official Trailer #1 - Julianne Moore, Clive Owen Movie (2006) HD

Children of Men

No children have been born for 18 years, and England is in a state of decay (and soon, a war zone). But one young woman is pregnant, and Theo is recruited by his ex-wife to help her escape. With bullets flying and death behind every door, Theo’s task becomes more difficult every minute. Boldly directed by Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men is a truly brilliant modern classic and considered by some one of the best films of the 21st century.

DMZ

Manhattan is a demilitarized zone in a war fought between the United States of America and the Free States of America in this comic from writer Brian Wood and artist Riccardo Burchielli. Photojournalist Matty Roth is quickly stranded on the island and must escape from Manhattan, but he stays to get the story of a lifetime. In the current political climate, this story's apocalyptic scenario is almost too real, but it's a gripping and devastating look at how the end of the world can come from within.

Equilibrium : Cleric Training

Equilibrium

The survivors of World War III have built a totalitarian civilization that requires its citizens to take an emotion-suppressing drug (THX-1138, anyone?). As a Cleric, John Preston enforces the laws, which include destroying art (Fahrenheit 451, anyone?). But with the execution of his wife along with the advent of emotions, John is forced to re-examine his beliefs. This 2002 film boasts a particular martial art only seen in Hong Kong: gun kata. Gunplay is never so engrossing as it is here.

The Fallout Universe

This videogame series puts you in the future of the past, offering up a post-nuclear war landscape that incorporates the kind of whiz-bang technology that would have made '50s futurists giddy, all set to a stylish pre-rock-'n'-roll soundtrack. Players have to deal with mutants, power armored knights, and giant scorpions, all while navigating bleak shells of familiar landscapes. Thanks to Fallout, you'll never hear “I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire” the same way again.

The Giver Official Trailer #2 (2014) - Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges Movie HD

The Giver

Children’s books and movies can be post-apocalyptic, too. That’s what we learn in The Giver, based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel. Jonas lives in a Community, with Sameness—that is, without emotions. People within the Community also have no memories. But when Jonah is assigned his life’s role as the Receiver of Memory, the Giver shows him that the world they belong to must change. Of course, the Chief Elder will do anything to maintain the status quo, as is often the case in post-apocalyptic societies.

The Handmaid’s Tale Trailer (Official) • The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu

The Handmaid's Tale

The theocratic Republic of Gilead overthrows the United States, and fertile women are turned into “handmaids” and forced to procreate with high-ranking commanders in order to provide children for their infertile wives. Margaret Atwood’s tale of enslavement is a chilling classic, and 2017's Hulu TV adaptation captured its spirit harrowingly well. With women’s rights over their own bodies constantly under threat, The Handmaid's Tale remains a frighteningly timely reminder of where we could end.

The Hunger Games Official Trailer #1 - Movie (2012) HD

The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death among 24 children, two selected across each of the Twelve Districts of a nation known as Panem. Her resolve and her good heart win her the game … and the enmity of the Capitol. Katniss is one of the strongest, most fully realized heroines on screen or on page. As every one of her violent actions had emotional consequences, she earned every bit of her PTSD. What an astonishingly good series, with a bleak setting that captured the imagination of readers worldwide.

Idiocracy - Trailer

Idiocracy

Average Joe, a man with an average IQ, is sent to the future, along with an amiable prostitute. There the world has dumbed down to the point where it’s suffering from food shortages and a crippled economy—and Joe is now the smartest man alive. This makes Average Joe humanity’s only hope in a world in which a machine-gun-wielding pro wrestler is president of the United States and people water crops with a salty sports drink (“It's what plants crave!”). It’s the most slyly humorous take on 21st-century culture you’ll ever see.

Jeremiah

When the Big Death came, it took everyone over the age of 13. Fast-forward 15 years and we meet Jeremiah, who along with newfound friend Kurdy is seeking out Valhalla Sector, where his father—and civilization as we knew it—may have survived. Jeremiah’s vibe is more western than sci-fi, but with its J. Michael Straczynski-written plots, it’s something every fan can enjoy.

Jericho EMP scene

Jericho

The town of Jericho, Kansas, watches as cities across the United States are destroyed by nuclear bombs. Its citizens spend their days struggling to survive fallout and the antagonism of neighboring towns, as well as piece together the reason behind the attacks. With storylines revolving around windmills and even salt—not to mention the inclusion of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and FEMA—Jericho is perhaps the most realistic post-apocalyptic drama on this list.

THE LEFTOVERS - Season 1 | Full TRAILER | HD

The Leftovers

One day, 140 million people suddenly disappeared across the globe. Only the town of Jarden, Texas, has kept all of its inhabitants (and has been nicknamed “Miracle”). The people who remain flock to Miracle, including cultists like the white-dressed, chain-smoking Guilty Remnant. Like Idiocracy, this decimated world has its humorous moments -- for example, Mark-Linn Baker, star of sitcom Perfect Strangers, appears as the only cast member of Perfect Strangers still on Earth. Finally. A post-apocalyptic world with laughs.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Official Main Trailer [HD]

Mad Max: Fury Road

A reboot of the Mad Max series from the 1980s, this fast-paced film is a must-watch for action buffs, with action choreography that is positively balletic. Man of few words Max Rockatansky and woman of few words Imperator Furiosa defy the evil Immortan Joe and his army of warboys in a bleak, parched landscape where water and fuel are the precious currency of the day. It’s an unlikely friendship, formed with bullets, but in the world of Mad Max, it's one that works.

The Man in the High Castle Season 1 - Official Comic-Con Trailer | Amazon Video

The Man in the High Castle

World War II ended with the Axis Powers defeating the Allies, and the two of them split the United States into German-occupied and Japanese-occupied territories. When Juliana Crane’s sister is killed, she takes her place to deliver an important yet dangerous film reel: one that shows a world in which the Allies had won World War II. And now she’s being hunted. The Man in the High Castle, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, is a glorious puzzle-box of a show, where the mysteries only deepen with each episode, and it does not fail to captivate.

Old Man Logan (comics)

Supervillains have conquered the United States and have divided up the country into territories—and an insane Hulk is the biggest, baddest villain of them all. Logan tries to live quietly, while suffering from the guilt of killing his former teammates under a Mysterio-based illusion. But when Hulk’s gang kills his family, Logan recognizes it's time to unsheath his claws. Never before have we seen our favorite superhero so broken and defeated. It’s one of the best Wolverine stories you’ll ever read and a fascinating vision of what a world post-superhero-apocalypse would be.

War for the Planet of the Apes | Teaser Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX

The Planet of the Apes

In this series, based on the 1968 classic, man has uplifted animals with a viral-based drug that proves deadly to humans. The apes get stronger and smarter as we get weaker. By the final film in the trilogy, War for the Planet of the Apes, the apes are the protagonists and the humans, driven to madness and near-extinction, are the monsters.

The Purge Official Trailer #1 (2013) - Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey Thriller HD

The Purge

Of all the movies on this list, The Purge is our only temporary dystopia. In a twisted near future, crime is legal once a year for 12 hours. Whatever you do, make sure you engage your security system and your neighbors don’t hate you. This is a sure-fire hit among people who thought the Star Trek episode “Return of the Archons” was too short, and spawned a surprise franchise from modest beginnings.

Snowpiercer Official US Release Trailer #1 (2014) - Chris Evans Movie HD

Snowpiercer

Thanks to a failed attempt at climate engineering, a new Ice Age has begun, and the only survivors are on a perpetual-motion train that has been running around the Earth for 17 years. With the elite in the front and the unwashed masses at the back, it’s only a question of time before the have-nots try to take from the haves. This film isn’t for everyone: only those with a taste of unflinching irony, spiced with a pinch of the surreal.

V for Vendetta

In this classic comic from Alan Moore (which was adapted into a film starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman), England has become a police state following a nuclear war. Now the only hope for freedom is a masked terrorist ... yeah, it's a very Moore twist on who to consider the bad guy and the good guys, triggered by what many saw as the rise of far-right politics in the 1980s.

The Walking Dead - Season 1, Episode 1: Days Gone Bye.

The Walking Dead

Deputy Rick Grimes awakens in a hospital to find that civilization as he knew it has been destroyed by zombies (aka “walkers”). Not only that, the moment anyone dies, they become one of them. However, throughout the Robert Kirkman comic books and the AMC TV series, Rick learns, again and again, that his worst enemies are very much alive. With an emphasis on the good and evil of humanity, The Walking Dead has pretty much supplanted Night of the Living Dead as the go-to zombie experience for the current generation.

Westworld Trailer (HBO) - MATURE VERSION

Westworld

The world that the theme park Westworld occupies is so utopian, we need to pay to have adventure and excitement. Delos provides that, with western scenarios and lifelike androids. What’s so dystopian about that? Ask the androids, who are forced to live as humanity’s playthings and die again and again and again. This show asks the question that no other show has: If androids have free will, shouldn’t they be free to kill anyone who tries to enslave them?

The Windup Girl

This biopunk novel shows a world suffering from global warming and deadly plagues, where our seeds have been replaced with genetically engineered, sterile ones. This means our world is depending on agribusiness like AgriGen for food. Come for Bacigalupi’s lovely prose; stay for one of the most realistic post-apocalyptic scenarios on this list.

Y: The Last Man

Y: The Last Man posits one of the most interesting apocalyptic premises of recent vintage: All of the men in the world die suddenly—all except Yorick Brown and his monkey, Ampersand. Yorick tries to search for his girlfriend as civilization is trying and failing to piece itself together, with power structures shifting and various factions vying to track him down for their own purposes. Y: The Last Man is both a thrilling adventure story and a compelling examination of gender and its impact on sociology.

Those were OUR choices. What are yours? Let us know in the comments which dystopian realities of the last 25 years (and there have been a LOT) you’d put on your list!

Be sure to check out all of the other lists here!