How do you create an evil government? You can either take a page out of the playbooks of past dictatorships like in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, or take the current American or British model and raise the nationalism to the maximum setting. An evil government often arises in a time of crisis, offering up a scapegoat or an extremist solution. The citizens desperate for a quick fix willingly vote their party into power and give them carte blanche authority. Once in office, it’s important for them to stay in office, and that means crushing any form of dissent in the population. This can be done through an aggressive propaganda campaign that keeps the people dumb and blissfully happy, or by limiting resources and maintaining a gap between the classes, where the rich live in luxury and the poor are too busy surviving day to day to fight back.
Each of the movies I will list below are set in distant dystopian futures, with a government headed by a single authoritarian strongman or by a shadow group of elites working in secret. However, their rule is thwarted by a scrappy band of rebels and/or by someone within the ranks who begins to question why things are the way they are. Some spoilers will be discussed to emphasize how truly evil these governments are. I initially wanted to include other movies like Soylent Green and Repo! The Genetic Opera, but those are more centred on evil unregulated corporations, and that’s a list for a different day.
V For Vendetta
Since it’s Guy Fawkes day, we’ll start with 2006’s V For Vendetta, based on the 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, written in reaction to the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher. In the year 2027, the UK is ruled by the neo-fascist Norsefire Party, headed by High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt), who came into power following a pandemic (sound familiar?) that devastated all of Europe (a virus that Norsefire manufactured and released in order to seize power, blaming it on terrorists). The secret police are ordered to imprison and execute immigrants, homosexuals, atheists, or anyone with a political opinion differing from Norsefire.
The country’s only hope rests on V (Hugo Weaving), an anarchist who wears a mask of Guy Fawkes, the man who plotted to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament in 1605, but was caught and sentenced to death for treason. With the help of Evey (Natalie Portman), an employee at a state-run TV network, V garners enough support from the public and kills off Norsefire’s top officials one by one.
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1984 / Brazil
Based on the 1949 book by George Orwell, who modeled the novel’s authoritarian government after Russia under Joseph Stalin, 1984 depicts an England, renamed Oceania, where the Party, lead by the mysterious Big Brother, monitors every aspect of the citizens’ lives with cameras on every street corner and in every home. Even thinking about disobeying Big Brother is deemed a crime. This time, John Hurt plays the story’s hero Winston Smith, a lowly worker at the Ministry of Truth, whose job is to rewrite history and destroy any evidence that contradicts the Party’s current narrative. He goes against the Party by keeping a secret diary and having a love affair with another party member Julia (Suzanna Hamilton). He’s eventually caught by the Thought Police and is tortured until he renounces his love for Julia and admits his love for only Big Brother.
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dark comedy Brazil is loosely based on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, though his version is a lot more colorful compared to Michael Radford’s bleak adaptation. In this imagining, the country is run by a bureaucratic technocracy, to the point where nothing works because everything is wrapped in red tape, and citizens are told to simply ignore the terrorist bombings happening a few feet away from them. The main character Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) is also a lowly government worker, who falls in love with his upstairs neighbor Jill (Kim Greist). When Jill is accidentally branded a terrorist accomplice due to a printing error, Sam tries to falsify her death records so she won’t be pursued by the police. But Sam is then caught, tortured, and lobotomised.
In John Carpenter’s 1988 masterpiece, adapted from a short story by Ray Nelson, a drifter (Rowdy Roddy Piper) comes across a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the world for what it really is: an alien race has disguised themselves as humans and has seized control of the government, the banks and the media. Using satellite signals and subliminal messaging, the aliens have hypnotized the human population to consume, reproduce, obey and to stay asleep. The few humans who are aware have been paid off by the aliens, allowing them to drain the Earth of all its resources while the humans go about their business as usual. Carpenter has said that he made the movie in reaction to Reaganomics, though a lot of the themes are just as relevant today. Unfortunately, the alt-right has hijacked the movie’s political message to fit their racist views, prompting Carpenter to reiterate that it’s about “yuppies and unrestrained capitalism.”
Battle Royale / The Hunger Games
How do you discipline unruly high school students? You can either put them in detention, or you can put them all on an island, give them each a weapon and make them fight to the death until only one remains. Battle Royale is a Japanese cult classic, directed by Kinji Fukasaku, based on a novel by Koushun Takami. The annual death sport is legitimized by the Japanese government, who passed the BR Act as a solution to the nation’s education crisis following a major recession. The prime minister orders the military to kidnap a grade nine class, and fit each student with an explosive collar, in case any of them think of escaping during the games.
It’s been suggested that Suzanne Collins took the concept of Battle Royale and watered it down for a young adult audience in her book series The Hunger Games, later adapted for the screen. However, it can be argued that President Coriolanus Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) is a much eviler head of state than the Japanese prime minister. By withdrawing resources, each starving district is forced to offer up a child for his glamorized televised death match. If that child successfully kills all the other children, then their district gets to eat.
Mad Max Fury Road
Speaking of hoarding resources, Immortan Joe is a class act. George Miller’s fourth instalment of the Mad Max series, set in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland, introduces Colonel Joe Moore (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord who rules over the Citadel, where he has access to the last remaining supplies of fresh water. A mishmash of different dictators and cult leaders, Immortan Joe is treated like a god for sparing small amounts of that water on the Citadel’s inhabitants. Joe also trades water with the nearby Gas Town and Bullet Farm in exchange for gasoline and ammunition, considered very precious in the wasteland. His personal army are the War Boys, based on the Kamikaze pilots of World War II. The radiated War Boys are indoctrinated from birth to die for Joe in battle for the promise of an afterlife in Valhalla. Yes, Joe has quite the stranglehold on the wasteland, but his empire comes crashing down when he’s betrayed by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who attempts to drive off with Joe’s five wives.
Blumhouse’s film series and subsequent television series created by James DeMonaco imagines a United States under the rule of the New Founding Fathers of America. To curb the rise in crime following a massive economic collapse, the NFFA propose setting aside one night every year, in which all crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. Americans are told they must purge during that night as a cathartic way of getting out all their pent-up aggression, so that they can work hard for the rest of the year.
As a result of the Purge, the economy is booming and unemployment is near zero, but mostly because the poor are killed off in mass amounts during the national holiday; the working class kill each other, thinking it’s their government-given right. Gun-toting trust fund kids hunt down the homeless. Meanwhile, the rich go untouched, huddled up in their mansions with high-tech security systems. To make sure enough poor people die during Purge, the government dispatches heavily-armed militias to poor neighborhoods to break into people’s homes and shoot entire families dead, staging the massacres to appear as random acts of violence committed by normal citizens. The true goal of the Purge is exposed thanks to a series of broadcasts by a resistance group led by Carmelo Johns (Michael K. Williams), who seek to end the Purge and hold the NFFA accountable.
The firemen in Fahrenheit 451 (the 1966 and the 2018 film adaptions) for burning books, therefore limiting the population’s knowledge. Governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall for screwing with people’s memories and cutting off the oxygen supply on Mars. Wilford (Ed Harris) in Snowpiercer for slowly killing the passengers in the train’s tail by feeding them cockroaches and freezing their limbs off, and for using children as slaves. Mayor Cole (Bill Murray) in City of Ember for secretly hoarding canned food while the rest of the city starves. Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone for using a kid as a human shield and for setting off a nuclear holocaust (at least in a vision).
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