Most of what makes us think of a movie as dystopian are elements from the script: setting, character, dialogue, etc. Discussion of those elements belongs in the larger context of dystopia in literature. Occasionally, though—and mostly, for not terribly surprising reasons, in good movies—cinematic elements themselves are employed to illustrate theme.
One such example is Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 picture Children of Men. The particulars of the doomed near-future society—that no known babies have been born for over 18 years—are revealed in some slightly on-the-nose dialogue between Michael Caine and Clive Owen, but the fact that it is a dystopia is revealed subtly and elegantly through camerawork in the very first scene. The movie opens with Clive Owen going into a cafe to get a mornng cup of coffee, to find a crowd of people traumatized by the news that the world’s youngest person, an 18 year old in Argentina, has died. Clive Owen impatiently gets his coffee and leaves, all in one uninterrupted take; we continue out onto the street with Clive Owen (and see a subtle indicator that all is not well: not only are the people all aging, but so are all the cars), and, still without cutting away, the camera pans around as Clive Owen adds sugar to his coffee, just in time to see a bomb destroy the cafe.
Even if we were to remove the text from the scene—the newscast about the death of “Baby” Diego—the visual clues alone would signify a world gone very wrong. And the rest of the movie continues in the same vein. Even in city dweller Clive Owen’s comparatively well-to-do existence, things are old and in disrepair (and, of course, the guy can’t even get a cup of coffee without bombs going off). As the movie progresses and Clive Owen journeys to Michael Caine’s place in the country, protected as much by the environment as technology, and then to a farm where Clive Owen makes his escape in a barely functional car, to the climactic bombed-out nightmarescape of Bexhill, Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki present a world where technology has failed. Almost all the relevant exposition, save a couple borderline overly literal bits of dialogue like the above-mentioned example between Caine and Owen, is visual. Even the ending, where the viewer is forced to draw one’s own conclusion about the fate of the surviving protagonist(s), is a shot of a foggy English Channel.
For another example of visual evocation of dystopia, the Mad Max trilogy: in the first movie, 12 year old Mel Gibson stars as a traffic cop in a near-future where things are bad but still recognizable. The antagonists are very bad people with a very interesting sense of fashion. In form and narrative arc it’s like a 1950s outlaw biker movie that sat locked in a room for 25 years getting exponentially crazier, and over the course of the movie Mel Gibson gradually goes sufficiently insane to defeat them.
Then, in the second movie, the societal collapse toward which the first movie pointed nervously reached the point where everyone was walking around dressed like the bad guys in the first movie. This, combined with the fact that everyone also drives cars psychotically means that Mad Max 2 (more commonly known in the U.S. as The Road Warrior) is one of the most deliriously entertaining (and kinky) action pictures ever made. Aside from the costumes, in Mad Max 2 and its successor Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome contain a plethora of design elements that point to a post-apocalyptic future in which the survivors of the collapse of the ancient regime (and the subsequent extinction of cleaning products) were left to utilize old items for new uses and rebuild existing devices in whatever way that would make them functional. (The lone design element for which this theory fails to account are Tina Turner’s mindboggling earrings in Beyond Thunderdome, but one could posit that Bartertown, under the prosperous if despotic Tina Turner administration, had developed sufficient industry to be able to craft such earrings.)
The visuals in dystopian SF movies aren’t always as evocative of meaning. In Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, each a different sort of dystopia, the sets are lived in, the technology realistically cranky. However, in these pictures—and in imitative variations on the type of visual approach Scott pioneered, like Peter Hyams’ Outland—the worlds are run down less for semiotic value in pointing to themes than because they simply are. In this way they’re strangely more naturalistic (an odd state for pictures about spaceships, replicants, and aliens), and it’s their scripts that make these movies dystopian.
Most cinematic dystopias, like the last three mentioned, are such for literary reasons. Occasionally, there’ll be a picture like Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca or Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report where the gleaming, shiny apparent perfection of the manmade environments serves as a counterpoint to the flawed philosophies behind it (though Spielberg does a couple sneaky little subtle things like desaturating the colors and processing the film in a grainy way to hint that Something Might Be Wrong). Or like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (and Total Recall, while we’re at it), the visuals are a balance between “gee whiz, lookit all this cool stuff!” and “eww, sleazy underbelly.” Most movies fall into this general visual category, where the camerawork and design aren’t as tied to specific revelation of the dystopian society as they are in pictures like Children of Men and the Mad Max cycle.
At the very least though, most good dystopian SF movies employ their visual elements to highlight or support their dystopian themes. Sometimes it’ll be through specific signifiers, sometimes in a broader, more general sense. Either way, it’s something fun to watch for when you’re settling in with the popcorn and candy to watch your favorite cinematic dystopia.