When The Economy Booms, Dystopias Rule

Economists agree the U.S. is sliding into recession, and that can only mean one thing — fewer movies about oppressive systems that crush the souls of ordinary people. We charted the number of dystopian movies in the U.S. for each of the last 30 years, against economic downturns, and found that dystopian movies are counter-cyclical. That is, dystopian films do best when the economy is booming, and a fall in the number of dystopian movies may predict a recession. Click through more details, including a bigger version of the chart and a list of dystopian movies by year.

The data is most striking for the period of 1995-1998, when the U.S. economy was at its bounciest. But there's also a nice spate of dystopian films in the mid- to late-1980s, when "morning in America was at its sunniest. There was also a spike in 2002-2006, during a fairly expansionary period.

So what's going on here? A few explanations suggest themselves. Movie execs may greenlight dystopian films during economic downturns, and their immediate aftermath, but it may take a few years for those films to work their way through the development process and hit your screens. But it's also possible that when things are at their brightest economically, people feel the most insecure because they know the good times won't last forever. So boom times are when people most need stories about people surviving the bad times. Or maybe it's just that film-makers are a contrary bunch, who want to rub your face in the dirt just when you're feeling your brightest.

Here's our list of dystopian films for each year. Feel free to let us know what we left out, or shouldn't have included:


2008
Cloverfield (D)

2007
I Am Legend (D)
28 Weeks Later (D)
Resident Evil: Extinction (D)

2006
V for Vendetta (D)
Idiocracy (D)
Children of Men (D)
Ultraviolet (D)

2005
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (D)
Batman Begins (D)

2004
The Day After Tomorrow (D)
Stepford Wives (D)
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (D)

2003
The Matrix Reloaded (D)
The matrix Revelations (D)
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (D)

2002
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (D)
Minority Report (D)
28 Days Later (D)
Equilibrium (D)
Resident Evil (D)

2001
Planet of the Apes (D)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (D)

2000
Battlefield Earth (D)

1999
The Matrix (D)
Existenz (D)

1998
Pi (D)
The Truman Show (D)
The X-Files (D)

1997
Alien: Resurrection (D)
Fifth Element (D)
The Postman (D)
Starship Troopers (D)
Gattaca (D)

1996
Escape from L.A. (D)

1995
Waterworld (D)
Mortal Kombat (D)
Johnny Mnemonic (D)
Judge Dredd (D)
Strange Days (D)
Twelve Monkeys (D)
Tank Girl (D)

1994
none

1993
Jurassic Park (D)
Demolition Man (D)
Robocop III (D)

1992
Batman Returns (D)
Alien 3 (D)
Freejack (D)

1991
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (D)

1990
Total Recall (D)
Handmaid's Tale (D)

1989
Batman (D)

1988
The live (D)

1987
Robocop (D)
The Running Man (D)

1986
Aliens (D)
The Fly (D)

1985
Brazil (D)
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (D)

1984
The Terminator (D)

1983
none

1982
Blade Runner (D)
Videodrome (D)
Liquid Sky (D)

1981
Time Bandits (D)
Heartbeeps (D)

1980
The Empire Strikes Back (D)

1979
Alien (D)

1978
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (D)

Image by Stephanie Fox.