It’s easy to confuse the two. Both dystopian and post-apocalyptic films are dark and bleak. In both, the world we once knew is gone. Life has been altered for the worse. But they are two distinct genres. Here’s how to tell them apart.
Large-scale destruction lays waste to the majority of humanity. Sometimes the destruction is the product of our own doing… and sometimes an enigmatic calamity has befallen us. The landscape is usually desolate, harsh, and inhospitable. Lawlessness prevails. Characters can be ragtag bands adjusting to a new reality… a loner just trying to survive… or a ragtag band fighting to save what’s left of humanity.
Society has taken a dark turn. Sometimes there is a utopian veneer with a dark underside. More often, brutality and oppression are on the surface with harsh social or political structures controlling daily life. Some dystopias arise from human progress. Some arise as a response to a calamity. Almost always, the story is presented as an extrapolation of our current political or societal climates… offering warnings for how humans will contend with the future.
Large-scale destruction lays waste to the majority of humanity.
Apocalypse comes from a Greek word that means “uncovering or revelation” as in the Book of Revelations in which the world ends through war, famine, plagues, an Antichrist, beasts, blood, asteroids, and other unpleasantries.
Modern apocalyptic visions are revelations too. Strip away the trappings of daily life — jobs, governments, rent, most people — we reveal what we’d all do if only we didn’t have to pay rent and check Twitter: Survive. Save one another. Become heroes.
Sometimes the destruction is the product of our own doing…
A human-engineered virus released in 1996 kills off nearly everyone on the planet. Forty years later, humanity lives underground and a man is sent back in time to find an unmutated sample of the virus (and maybe figure out who released it). Watch “12 Monkeys”
…and sometimes an enigmatic calamity has befallen us.
I think zombies win when it comes to filmed visions of the apocalypse. “Train to Busan” from South Korea never says what caused the zombie infection, but a train becomes a dwindling refuge of safety as zombie hordes relentlessly attack everything that was once alive and human. Watch “Train to Busan”
The landscape is usually desolate, harsh, inhospitable. Lawlessness prevails.
Fun fact: the first “Mad Max,” inspired by the 1973 oil crisis is a dystopian film. Oil is more or less gone. Life is rough and harsh, but society still exists. The world of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is full-on post-apocalyptic — as harsh, bleak, and lawlessly violent as it gets. It is also insanely cool. Watch “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Characters can be ragtag bands adjusting to new realities…
We don’t know what happened in “Delicatessen” but the world has ended. While food is scarce, the tenants of an apartment building have found a creative way to keep themselves supplied with meat. Watch “Delicatessen”
…a loner just trying to survive…
Like the novella of the same name and “The Omega Man” before it, “I Am Legend” tells the story of the last human on earth as he fights to survive in a world swarmed with monsters. Watch “I Am Legend” or watch the alternate ending.
…or a ragtag band fighting to save what’s left of humanity.
After a war between humans and the intelligent machines they created, what remains of humanity is imprisoned and placated by a simulated reality called the Matrix while their bodies act as bio-electric batteries, supplying fuel for the machines. Neo and his black-clad band of “awakened” humans fight to free us all. Watch “The Matrix”
Society has taken a dark turn.
Utopia is perfection. Humanity has figured out how to live in peace, harmony, and abundance. Dystopia is the opposite of that. Oppression, control, and inequality are at an all time high. These visions are cerebral experiments that extrapolate what might happen if power is left unchecked, if our basest tendencies run rampant, if our ambitions out-pace our conscience.
Sometimes there is a utopian veneer with a dark underside.
The look of Gattaca is gorgeous and retro while being super slick and modern. Then you realize the non genetically-perfect people are living a forced second-class, subservient existence. But what if one of them wants to rise above? Watch “Gattaca”
More often, brutality and oppression are on the surface with harsh social or political structures controlling daily life.
Orwell presented the ultimate dystopian vision with an extreme totalitarian state fully in control of its citizens, extending to their very thoughts. Neighbor turns in neighbor for transgressions and Big Brother is always watching. Watch “1984”
Some dystopias arise from human progress.
When our progressive consumerism covers the planet in too much trash, humans abandon it, floating through space on giant starliners where they never leave their hovering chairs, suck meals through straws, and ceaselessly watch their screens. A tiny robot is the most congenial character around. Watch “WALL-E”
Some arise as a response to a calamity.
Fifteen years after humans stop being able to reproduce, most governments collapse into chaos. The UK still stands, but as a barely functioning police state subject to constant violence as it mercilessly rejects refugees. Detention, detainment, all that. Watch “Children of Men”
Almost always, the story is presented as an extrapolation of our current political or societal climates…
Survival game shows. The disparity between rich and poor. Exploitation as entertainment. Long after an unspecified apocalypse, the post-post-apocalyptic world of North America is now a dystopia. The wealthy capital requires the surrounding, poorer districts to send two children each year to participate in a televised death match. Watch “The Hunger Games”
… offering warnings for how humans will contend with the future.
AI has evolved to the point that it requires a (fallible) test to tell replicants from humans. Replicants who escape their lives of forced hard labor are hunted down and killed in a world that’s equally bleak for all forms of life. Watch “Blade Runner”
So then, the ultimate difference between the post-apocalypse and a dystopia?
In the post-apocalypse, we are released from the bonds of society and we usually become noble and heroic because of it. In a dystopia, we are over encumbered by an overbearing society, and we become noble and heroic in spite of it.