It could be worse: 17 sci-fi movies about terrifying presidents/governments

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Nov 8, 2016, 11:43 AM EST

After a long and brutal campaign, it all comes down to today, Election Day, as the American people will choose a new president and make a momentous decision about the future of our country. No matter who you support (and please make sure you go out and vote no matter what), it's clear that a certain percentage of the population will be deeply disappointed -- to put it mildly -- by the results. But to those folks we say this: look on the bright side.

You may disagree with or outright despise Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but sci-fi cinema is replete with examples of dysfunctional chief executives and their dystopian governments that offer some pretty wretched alternatives. We've come up with a slew of them below; before you go to pull the lever or press the button today (and you are going, aren't you?), peruse these possible scenarios and just remember ... it could always get worse.

And who knows? It just might.


The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Talk about rigging an election! No one is quite as devious about it as the evil Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury), a secret Communist agent who uses her own brainwashed son (Laurence Harvey) in a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate and have her own equally nefarious husband installed in the job -- all to gain Communist control over the U.S. The Cold War politics may be dated now, but director John Frankenheimer's paranoid classic is still a highly effective thriller. And with all this speculation about the Russian government trying to hack our election, it might be more prescient that we thought.


Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

As played by the late comedic genius Peter Sellers (who inhabits two other roles in the film as well, including the title madman), President Merkin Muffley is a man way out of his depth: perfectly nice and utterly colorless, he is little more than a pawn in the ongoing game played between his scheming generals and their Russian counterparts. Muffley is not just ineffectual, but he's impotent: it's hardly a surprise that the Kissinger-like Strangelove is the real power and the hapless Muffley is just a seat-warmer in Stanley Kubrick's acidic and still classic satire. 


Seven Days in May (1964)

John Frankenheimer revisited the idea of a cabal trying to take down the U.S. government in this incredibly tense and rather frightening melodrama, only this time the plotters are not agents of Communist China but rogue members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They're led by the powerful General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster), who with the help of other military, political and media figures, plans a coup against President Lyman (Fredric March) to prevent a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Only Scott's own right-hand man (Kirk Douglas) can stop him. The movie, and the book on which it was based, drew upon real-life officials at the time for inspiration, making it even more plausible and unsettling.


Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

In the near future, a totalitarian American government has banned all reading and books, with the latter gathered up and burned by an elite force known as Firemen. One such Fireman, Guy Montag (Oskar Werner), is persuaded by his schoolteacher neighbor (Julie Christie) to begin reading himself, making him a criminal. Legendary French director Francois Truffaut's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's iconic novel focuses less on the politics of the story and more on Montag's journey, but the implications are clear: the government likes it better when its citizens are ill-informed, illiterate and under-educated. Of course, that would never be the case today.


THX 1138 (1971)

"Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy." That is the mantra said hypnotically, over and over again, by the automated confession booths that are the "churches" of the underground totalitarian society in George Lucas' surreal directorial debut. In Lucas' futuristic nightmare, the government is omnipresent and nearly omnipotent, all sexual activity is banned, and the populace is kept under control by mind-numbing narcotics and entertainment. But Lucas' vision isn't all bleak: when the title character (Robert Duvall) goes on the run after breaking the sex law, the robot police can only hunt him for so long until they exceed their budget and must go back. That's one way to cut spending.

Death Race 2000 trailer

Death Race 2000 (1975)

It's been years since the collapse of the U.S. and our democracy has been replaced by a totalitarian regime that sponsors the violent, deadly, televised title event as a means to keep the people distracted (we are so damn easily distracted in these films, so unlike real life...oh, wait). The whole thing is run by the smarmy "Mr. President," who is eventually killed by death race star Frankenstein (David Carradine) -- who then himself becomes president! Imagine that, the star of a reality TV show becoming president.


Escape from New York (1981)

When Air Force One crashes on Manhattan Island -- now a walled-off supermax prison -- it's up to ex-soldier Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to get inside and rescue the President (Donald Pleasance) within 24 hours. All well and good, but too bad the President is such a little s**t. Initially and understandably frightened for his life, he turns into an ungrateful wretch by the end of the movie, barely acknowledging the sacrifice of the people who gave their lives to save him. Snake gets him back in the end, but you almost wish he'd left the dude in Manhattan.


Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

This is of course the mother of all dystopian stories, and while Orwell's novel has been adapted many times this remains the best and most powerful version. So many images and phrases from this tale have become part of our culture -- Thought Police, Newspeak, Big Brother, even the symbolism of the title itself -- that they've taken on an eerie life of their own. We can take a more humorous view of many of the movies on this list, but not this one. This is the real deal, and we can only hope that it never comes to pass.

Brazil trailer

Brazil (1985)

This is the flipside of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in a way -- a more comedic yet still dark vision of the kind of world Orwell first imagined. The bureaucracy in Brazil, personified by the sputtering Ian Holm on one end and the casually malevolent Michael Palin on the other, may look a little familiar to everyone in its implacable ability to not give someone the answer, information or help they so desperately need. The interesting thing about this (and Nineteen Eighty-Four) is how faceless the monolithic government actually is -- there are no lame presidential figures to kick around in these stories.


They Live (1988)

In John Carpenter's bitter sci-fi satire, the ruling class are not just corrupt, greedy or authoritarian; they're not even human. Carpenter takes the old "lizard people" idea one step further, making the leaders of government, business and media into aliens hiding behind human masks who are plundering the Earth's resources and leaving nothing behind. A slam on Reaganomics at the time of its release, They Live today still paints an unflattering picture of an elite class that encourages the rest of us to consume, breed and look the other way...and guess what? It's not that far off the mark.


The Handmaid's Tale (1990)

It's the future and the United States is now the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy in which women are mostly sterile and subservient, while the few fertile females are made into "handmaids" who become the property and sexual vessels of well-placed and powerful men. We never see the government in this adaptation of Margaret Atwood's superb novel, but we see enough of its representatives and rules to know that any society based on one single set of "morals," with all others deemed criminal, is just not going to work.


Escape from L.A. (1996)

Another Snake Plissken adventure, another d**khead for a President. This time around the Commander-in-Chief is Jack Cahill (Cliff Robertson), who makes the first movie's President look like FDR. Cahill is a theocrat who wins a lifetime appointment to the job, declares the earthquake that cuts off L.A. from the rest of the country an act of God, and imposes his own vision of "Moral America" that either sends people to "Los Angeles Island" or the electric chair for crimes like drinking, smoking or having extra-marital sex. He even sends his own daughter to get fried when she colludes with a revolutionary group against him. At least Snake doesn't have to rescue this guy.

Mars Attacks! trailer

Mars Attacks! (1996)

It's hard to imagine a worse president that James Dale, portrayed in Tim Burton's alien invasion satire by Jack Nicholson. Unable to decide what to do when the Martians arrive, he elects to save his own sorry skin and even leaves his own family behind. When he is eventually killed by the Martians despite making an impassioned speech, and with the entire line of presidential succession wiped out, it falls to his daughter Taffy (Natalie Portman) to take up the mantle. Just as well: after his poor show of leadership and character, we doubt Dale would get a second term.


Equilibrium (2002)

In writer/director Kurt Wimmer's mix of dystopian nighmare and martial arts slamfest, the future nation of Libria has stamped out all emotion, culture and free thought and is ruled by "Father," who is only ever seen on giant video screens around the nation. When a Cleric -- sort of a Thought Policeman -- named Preston (Christian Bale) goes rogue and eventually gets to meet with "Father," he discovers that the leader died years earlier and has been secretly replaced by one of his underlings. The idea of a strongman who can "fix" everything for us is a forceful one; but it's often just a symbol for little men seeking petty powergrabs to hide behind. 

Idiocracy - Trailer

Idiocracy (2006)

Surely the time will be at hand soon for the administration of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), an ex-professional wrestler who presides over the stupidest nation in the world. Mike Judge's satire was a flop when it came out but has since become a cult classic, mainly because it shows us exactly where we're headed if we don't get our act together. A world where everything -- even the Secretary of State -- has a corporate sponsor, where energy drinks have replaced water, and a former celebrity with no coherent political vision can become president? Give it a few more years and we'll get there.


V for Vendetta (2006)

The future England in this gripping adaptation of Alan Moore's classic graphic novel is a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by the merciless Adam Sutler (John Hurt, on the other side of the desk from his performance as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four). A former member of the Conservative party in Parliament, Sutler forms his own Norsefire party and names himself Chancellor. The movie used him as a more extreme version of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, but he's meaner than either of them.


The Hunger Games (2012 - 2015)

Jennifer Lawrence is the star of the four Hunger Games movies but Donald Sutherland may steal the series as President Snow, the urbane yet utterly despotic ruler of Panem. Seemingly reasonable and even grandfatherly, Snow is sadistic and possibly psychopathic, capable of manipulating everyone around him and doing everything possible to hold onto his power. Hell, this is a guy who sends children to die in violent games -- you think he's going to have the country's best interests at heart?