From Avatar to District 9: The end is nigh...

It's all doom and gloom this autumn as films and books offer a dystopian vision of the future. Mark Jewsbury reports

The future of humanity is getting darker, not by the day, but one film premiere at a time. The latest offerings from Hollywood and the literary world are arriving on a wave of destruction, dehumanisation and post-apocalyptic wasteland drama.

Film studios have spent an estimated £422m to bring to the screen their dystopian visions of mankind's future with films such as 2012, The Road, 9, Legion, The Book of Eli, Gamer, Avatar and District 9, which topped the British box office last weekend. Literary heavyweights Margaret Atwood and Fay Weldon have both published new books set in near futures characterised by oppression and suffering.

Experts believe that writers and film-makers are using their latest stories to sound out warnings to society. Professor Steve Fuller, a sociologist at Warwick University, said: "The point of dystopian literature and film is to make a pre-emptive strike at a reasonably possible future that would be very bad were it to happen. If people can see the consequences in advance, they might do something now to prevent them from coming true."

The latest wave of fictional pessimism is the strongest for decades, harking back to a tradition of art filled with visions of not so bright futures including Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis.

A key difference this autumn will be the influence on writers and film-makers of life in a post-11 September world. The classic American action hero has been replaced by the lone, desperate traveller trying to survive in a world gone bad.

Tom Huddleston, a film writer at Time Out, believes it is too simple to blame the economy or pandemics. "It is more a reaction to George Bush's presidency and Iraq. All the movies are American. Their national psyche has become a sense that the rest of the world hates them, that it is coming to collapse and there is nothing we can do about it."

Last month, as Douglas Coupland released his dystopian tale of a future without bees, Generation A, he twittered, "I can't believe the whole world doesn't disintegrate from cluelessness," and "[I'm] preoccupied with the notion that we're on the cusp of collapse."

Atwood's The Year of the Flood takes it name from a metaphorical flood that puts the world back to "Year 25", as identified by a cult. Weldon's Chalcot Crescent holds out a similarly unappetising prospect: food has been reduced to the "national meatloaf".

Coming to a cinema near you...

Avatar

James Cameron's forthcoming epic sees the Earth overcrowded and its resources exhausted. Mankind has become akin to militarised space-locusts, pillaging unspoilt planets for valuable minerals. Attempts to raid Pandora, the home world of the 10ft, blue-skinned, elf-like, eco-friendly Na'vi, are bound to come to grief. (Released in December)

2012

Having destroyed the world's capitals in The Day After Tomorrow, director Roland Emmerich fireballs humanity to near extinction. The story centres on a doomsday event predicted by Mayans, in which survivors are left stranded in series of ships. (Released in November)

Legion

God loses faith in humanity. Paul Bettany's archangel Michael is the only one standing in the way as the Lord sends angels swooping down on Earth to exterminate man. Set in a remote American truck stop, a pregnant waitress carrying what might be the unborn messiah must be saved if humanity is to survive. (Released in March 2010)

District 9

In 2010, 20 years after an alien ship appears over Johannesburg, a munitions firm evicts the ETs forced to live in slums on Earth. When a military agent is exposed to alien chemicals he retreats to their zone, District 9. (Out now)

The Road

A father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son trudge through a destroyed America to reach the south. Along the way they are stalked by cannibals. Filmed in locations wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, this film version of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the bleakest of the current wave of films. (Released October)

The Book of Eli

A lone man (Denzel Washington) must fight his way across post-apocalyptic America to protect a book that could save humanity. Even in a dystopian future, the Brits – in this case, Gary Oldman – are still the bad guys. (Released January 2010)

9

In perhaps the ultimate dystopia, man has been wiped out altogether. In this post-apocalyptic world, the last vestige of humanity lives on in nine puppets. Fearsome machines roam the earth. As the puppets try to survive they see nothing but desolation and touch little but ruin. Fortunately, the horror is rendered in beautiful CG animation. (Released October)

Gamer

A future of bitterness and blood sprung from a games console. Gamer's dystopia is a world of pay-per-view audiences and multi-player online gaming gone to hell. This world is dominated by Slayers, a game which allows players to control human death row prisoners in mass battles. Gerard Butler plays the inmate close to surviving the 30 matches that will win his freedom. (Released 18 September)

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