10 great films set in the 2020s

What can these films tell us about our new decade?

2 January 2020

By Sam Wigley

Her (2013)

2019 used to be a big year for the future. This was the year chosen by two of the most influential of all dystopian films – Blade Runner (1982) and Akira (1988) – as the setting for their hypermodern visions of cities yet to come. Projecting 30 or more years into the future, these films predicted metropolises crowded with neon and towering upwards, where the interests of corporations, corrupt governments and over-evolved technologies prevail.

Well, that was 2019. We’ve just lived it, and are here to tell the tale. Like 1984 and 2001 before it, a portentous sci-fi year that was once safely in the future is beginning to disappear in the rear-view mirror. What now?

It’s not good news. If world events in the 2010s have left you feeling hopeless and despondent, the movies are there to tell us that, in the 2020s, things are about to get much, much worse. In A Quiet Place (2018), set – yikes! – in 2020, sight-impaired extraterrestrial predators have all but annihilated human life on Earth. In Highlander II: The Quickening (1991), set in 2024, an Earth-covering shield installed to make up for the disappearing ozone layer has plunged the world into miserable gloom. Totalitarian governments control both the UK, in V for Vendetta (2005), and the US, in The Purge (2013), while in A Boy and His Dog (1975) the US of 2024 is simply a post-nuclear wasteland.

Even in those filmic predictions that are more outwardly benign, such as Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) or certain episodes of Black Mirror, the comparatively sleek, Instagrammable futures reveal slyly insidious encroachments on our private lives and autonomy.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy decade…

Metropolis – Giorgio Moroder version (1927/1984)

Director: Fritz Lang

Metropolis (1927)

Despite what some reputable internet sources would have you believe, Fritz Lang’s original 1920s sci-fi classic Metropolis is set at an undefined point in the future (although one US release version dated it as the year 3000). It’s only disco producer Giorgio Moroder’s controversial 1984 edit, newly set to a soundtrack of Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant and Freddie Mercury, that puts it in the 2020s. That’s 2026, to be precise, which an opening title card says is “a Dickensian ‘best of times, worst of times’, where total oppression and manipulation of the masses is wielded by the unquestionable power of the few”. Sound familiar?

At a mere 83 minutes long, Moroder’s cut is a travesty of Lang’s original vision (which runs more like 150), but it’s become a fascinating relic in its own right, drawing an explicit line of influence from Lang’s geometric world of pistons, cogs, robots and skyscrapers to the futurist aesthetics of the synth pop era. Moroder had outbid David Bowie’s own attempt to buy the film’s rights, while clips of Metropolis were also featured in Queen’s video for ‘Radio Ga Ga’ the same year. It may have been 1984, but it was Lang not Orwell who was shaping the era’s electric dreams of the future.

Soylent Green (1973)

Director: Richard Fleischer

“The year: 2022. The place: New York City. The population: 40,000,000.” We’re now just two years away from the wretched world foreseen by this essential artefact of early 1970s pessimism. New York’s population growth has, in fact, cooled off somewhat, with current estimates more like 8.6 million, but in other respects Soylent Green looks sadly prescient.

Richard Fleischer’s film was part of a wave of grim, post-Planet of the Apes sci-fi that posited human beings as their own worst enemy, and the 2020s do not look bright: pollution, overpopulation and climate change have brought with them worldwide shortages of food and housing together with a sharp divide between the haves and have nots. And if the prospect of chlorinated chicken has you spooked, spare a thought for the hungry masses dependent on Soylent Industries for their groceries. In 2022, this corporation’s colour-coded wafers saturate the market, with their latest product – the eponymous Soylent Green – proving that some recipes are best kept secret.

The Terminator (1984)

Director: James Cameron

The Terminator (1984)

The LA depicted at the beginning of The Terminator is dated exactly 10 years after that of Blade Runner, but things already seem far worse for humanity. In this junkyard hell of a 2029, the ground is a carpet of crushed human skulls patrolled by heavy, caterpillar-tracked vehicles, while the night sky is lit up with permanent laser fire. “You stay down by day,” explains Michael Biehn’s resistance fighter Kyle Reese to an incredulous 1980s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), “but at night you can move around.” Nuclear holocaust has been kicked off by an AI network known as Skynet, and pockets of human rebellion are all that remains of a race that’s been owned by its own technological advances.

Most of the action in James Cameron’s world-beating sci-fi thriller is, of course, set in 1984 – in happier times than Orwell imagined, unless you happen to be Connor herself. She’s the unsuspecting waitress who’s been marked for termination, as Skynet sends Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 back from the future to kill the mother of a yet-to-be-born resistance hero. 

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Director: Mamoru Oshii

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

2029 is a popular year for visions of the future. To The Terminator, we can add the dystopias of Logan (2017), Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake (2001) and even the final stretch of Robert Zemeckis’s Death Becomes Her (1992). It’s also the year envisaged in Mamoru Oshii’s original anime classic Ghost in the Shell. Here 2029 is a future where cybernetics have blurred the line between human beings and technology, with humans able to augment their bodies and senses with technological add-ons, from brain implants that enable everyone to log-on to a centralised network to robotic limbs.

These advances also bring with them the threat of hacking, and Oshii’s manga-derived techno-dystopia circles around members of a security force tasked with tracking down a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master believed to be responsible for a malicious computer virus targeting government officials. Where other fictional dystopias often appear dated as the year in question approaches, the transhumanism both depicted and philosophically investigated in Ghost in the Shell (and the various comic books, video games and TV series that make up its universe) still looks all too credibly – and not a little terrifyingly – where progress might be heading.

Mission to Mars (2000)

Director: Brian De Palma

Mission to Mars (2000)

In Hollywood, 20 years from the present is obviously considered a safe bet for humans landing on Mars. Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian looks ahead to the year 2035, while this unfairly maligned Brian De Palma feature felt comfortable predicting Mars landings for the year 2020 from the now distant past of 2000.

Well we haven’t got there yet (although Elon Musk’s SpaceX project has big plans for 2024), but when we do here’s hoping the route out is half as much fun as De Palma makes it look. Where other movies emphasise the solemnity of space travel, Mission to Mars begins with a colourfully jockish pre-departure BBQ (“I’ll see you when I get to Mars!”) and breaks up the monotony of the expedition with a goofy, zero-gravity dance to Van Halen’s ‘Dance the Night Away’. Long before Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki tried the same trick with Gravity (2013), Mission to Mars capitalises on weightlessness to revel in an exhilaratingly untethered, constantly orbiting camera, capturing some superbly tense sequences of space-walk peril en route to a transcendent close-encounter finale.

Children of Men (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men (2006)

“As the sound of the playgrounds faded, despair set in.” Based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel, this bleak vision of Britain in the year 2027 is set in a world where there are no more children. A cataclysm has rendered the human race infertile, and global unrest has led to mass migration. In the UK, these refugees are rounded up and imprisoned in internment camps, like the one in Bexhill-on-Sea where the final reaches of Alfonso Cuarón’s film unravel. Clive Owen’s civil servant is our guide through this hellscape, after he’s called upon to chaperone illegal immigrant Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years, to safety.

Acclaimed on release, when critics marvelled at Cuarón’s mastery of travelling-shot set-pieces, Children of Men has only grown in reputation since, with commentators pointing out that the passing years only seem to have brought us closer to this grim reality. Britain has a long and illustrious tradition of dystopian cinema, but – with seven years to go until 2027 – this one cuts very close to the bone.

Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Pacific Rim (2013)

Dedicated to both stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla (1954), Pacific Rim is Mexican fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro’s affectionate monster-mash tribute to the Japanese kaiju cycle. The bulk of its action takes place in the year 2025, when the world has suffered more than a decade of attacks from giant monsters unleashed in 2013 after a portal known as ‘the breach’ opens up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. That’s long enough for humanity to have come up with a suitably titanic means of counter-attack: the Jaegers, gigantic humanoid mechas that are controlled by co-pilots whose minds are joined via mental link.

Of all the futures suggested in this list, del Toro’s robot-on-monster royal rumble is surely the one we’re safest from – unless the ocean floor holds secrets we’re not yet party to. Indeed, one hesitates to even call Pacific Rim dystopian, given the infectiously boyish glee with which he sets his lovingly realised gargantuans off against each other.

Her (2013)

Director: Spike Jonze

Her (2013)

In a Los Angeles of 2025 untroubled by giant sea monsters, Theodore Twombly (a moustachioed Joaquin Phoenix) is a sad-sack creative getting a little too attached to the voice of his new operating system, a pliant AI assistant – Siri but not Siri – called Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Spike Jonze’s film takes place in a pastel-coloured, immaculately upholstered future that ranks among the least threatening on film; a cardiganned twee-topia that’s only subtly removed from the more manicured corners of our present. Nonetheless, like a hipster updating of the 80s silliness of man-loves-computer romp Electric Dreams (1984), Her taps into the pervasive loneliness and alienation that characterises life in the postmodern city, and how technology is reconfiguring our relationships and chances for connection. 

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Director: Jia Zhangke

Mountains May Depart (2015)

Jia Zhangke’s decade-spanning Mountains May Depart follows a chain of characters from the eve of the new millennium via a middle section set in 2014 to a climactic third envisaging life in the year 2025. We begin in the Shanxi province town of Fenyang, where shopkeeper Tao (Zhao Tao) is torn between two suitors. Her fateful choice, between poor and rich, seems to get at the heart of a China where old industrial communities are being left behind in favour of the new business elite.

In 2014, Tao, now a divorcée, is trying to reconnect with her estranged son, Daole, and by 2025 Daole (nicknamed ‘Dollar’) is studying in Australia, so removed from his mother that he no longer speaks her language. Globalisation and advancing technology (Jia shows some futuristic phones that look like a fairly safe bet for the next five years) have come at a cost, where emotional connections are collateral damage. It’s the quietest dystopia on film, a placid nightmare where heritage, tradition and proletarianism have been erased in favour of the antiseptic lines of capitalist progress.

Years and Years (2019)

Creator: Russell T. Davies

Years and Years (2019)

“When I was a kid, 2028 sounded like the future,” says Rosie (Ruth Madeley), the youngest of the various Lyons siblings as that new year rolls around in the final episode of this much acclaimed BBC/HBO miniseries. Charting the wavering fortunes of this Manchester family between 2019 and 2034, creator Russell T. Davies ingeniously steals a march on most forward-glancing movies by showing how the future is something that happens incrementally, in small changes that accumulate in ways we barely notice. It’s the future as evolving social history, like a soap version of Black Mirror, but no less terrifying than Charlie Brooker’s creations in showing Britain’s gradual slide towards authoritarianism under Emma Thompson’s chilling populist Vivienne Rook.

Davies’ 2020s amplify some of the most alarming tendencies and developments of our present, from the relatively benign (paying £12 for a coffee) to the truly nightmarish (the rise of digitally manipulated ‘deepfake’ videos in electioneering propaganda). But it’s Years and Years’ grounding in human drama, and characters we learn to care about, that makes this all feel so credible. The first episode opens on the same date that it was first broadcast, so this is one future we’re already living.

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