Martial law. It is a term that strikes more than a little bit of fear in the heart of every freedom-loving person, and pretty much every prepper. When martial law is instituted, civil rights get suspended. For how long, no one knows…
And more than once in history we have seen governments and militaries grow a little too fond of the imposition…
Mercifully, martial law is very rarely declared in America, but with the growing fear of authoritarianism, it’s on the minds of millions once again.
Below is a list of some excellent films that depict martial law either as a central plot point or as incidental to the events.
No matter what sort of genre you like, there’s something here for everyone.
1. Red Dawn
What kind of list would this be if we didn’t talk about the seminal 1984 cult classic?
Red Dawn is a tale of an alternate history in America, one where most of the United States’ allies are swept up with waves of communist revolution.
Other than that, things are just swell in America, specifically in one rural Colorado town on a random, beautiful fall morning.
That is, until students at a high school see Russian paratroopers landing nearby which promptly gun down their teacher.
The students flee into the hills, and using looted and scavenged equipment they start a resistance movement against the invading Soviets which, of course, institute draconian martial law in the town and elsewhere in America, and escalate their efforts to root out the kids-turned-partisans; the Wolverines.
A remarkable classic with an all-star cast, highly recommended.
Speaking of 1984, the film version of the legendary classic of literature is perhaps one of the most harrowing looks at a government that not only consolidates too much power, but consolidates pretty much all power.
With total control over every facet of society, from food to media and even the very thoughts of the populace, the government, known in the movie as The Party, has been engaged in a global war that has been going on so long, and will go on so long, no one can remember anything else.
One citizen, Winston Smith, has been secretly having thoughts of rebellion, and after meeting a particular woman, he decides he just might act on them.
But, as expected, can anything he sees be trusted?
Darkly humorous and chilling in equal measure, the title of the film and the book have become a byline for dystopia, typically one that is achieved by invasive government surveillance and utterly pervasive control. Absolutely a must-watch, go see it.
If you like grim, depressing cyberpunk dystopias, Elysium is hard to beat.
The story centers around the poor, unfortunate people scrabbling out a living on Earth, ruled over by the Rich, who have fled the decaying, dried-up planet for an artificial and super luxurious space station, Elysium, orbiting above.
If you’re stuck on Earth, your life will be a constant struggle with authority imparted by private military corporations, robotic drones, automated customer service representatives and a lot more.
Few movies make as big a point as Elysium does concerning the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots, and what the former will do to keep the ladder in line so that they can maintain their lifestyle.
It’s a pretty standard tale, but the sci-fi trappings, visuals, action and acting put this one over the top. One of my favorites.
4. Starship Troopers
I know that you serious Robert A. Heinlein buffs are going to throw a penalty flag on this one, because the movie isn’t anything like the book, but I think the film still stands on its own merits.
You probably know what this story is all about: humans fight a race of evil bug monsters after the bugs, somehow, start a war with humanity and, incredibly, managed to drop a huge asteroid on South America.
The film chronicles the journeys of young, beautiful high-schoolers that sign up to fight for their fascist government in the war against the bugs, for vague notions of patriotism, professionalism or revenge. And of course, citizenship!
Although it has some nice b-movie sci-fi action and that special blend of cheesy-charming acting, the film is actually an incredibly clever takedown of military culture run amok and fascist societies by director Paul Verhoeven.
He does an excellent job of illustrating what will happen when jingoism and the military-industrial complex is allowed to truly merge into all levels of government.
5. Deep Impact
1998 was definitely a big year when it came to Hollywood trying to destroy the Earth with rocks from space.
The mega-smash (sorry) blockbuster Armageddon often overshadows Deep Impact, but I think Deep Impact is the far superior film.
It’s much lighter on action, and heavier on drama especially the personal side of the drama that inevitably follows when people are truly doomed with no way to escape their fate.
Basically, when a mission to destroy a giant comet headed for Earth fails, and impact is still inevitably going to occur, society around the world starts to break down in various ways.
In the United States, the government quickly institutes martial law to prevent people and companies from taking advantage of the situation for profiteering and also to keep order.
Although the martial law elements are happening in the background, they do shape most of the events occurring in the film.
Another one of my favorite movies, this science fiction epic flew under the radar back in 2002 and has since become a cult classic.
The creators have admitted that the DNA of the film was inspired by a bunch of other dystopian works with strong martial law overtones, and it definitely shows!
In the near future, after a third world war completely ravages the earth, the government of the surviving totalitarian state essentially outlaws human emotion.
You read that right, and to that end it forcibly gives all of the citizenry emotion-suppressing drugs as mandatory.
The government also employs specially trained squads of purgation agents known as Clerics to round up and eliminate all emotionally stimulating material, including books, music, art and more.
“Sense offenders,” people who feel or who partake of these banned goods, are typically summarily executed.
Although the pacing is a little wobbly at times, the premise and visuals are really quite cool, and the action in the film is so over the top you can’t help but love it. A sleeper hit, check it out.
7. Gabriel Over the Whitehouse
This is a truly wild film that is unfortunately little known today. Coming from a pre-code 1933 Hollywood, it depicts a newly elected US president named Judson Hammond.
Frankly, the man is not very presidential, and greatly prefers to chase women rather than attend to his duties.
Duties like squashing America’s growing organized crime problem or tackling the Great Depression.
Then, one day, he is terribly injured and sent into a coma as a result of a car crash. Upon waking, Hammond is a completely different man and president.
Riding a wave of new and radical ideas, it strikes a chord with the populace and he becomes a willing dictator over America, but one that is doing what is needed to actually clean up the country and make things better. The cure includes martial law.
And… it works! President Hammond is celebrated and beloved, America gets over the Great Depression and begins to heal, virtually crime-free.
Today, we would probably have serious issues with his methods and even the outcomes, but the film was depicted, straight-faced, as a happy ending and, even more worryingly, audiences of the day absolutely loved it at face value.
Because of this strange hindsight, the film is more than a little bizarre but still totally engrossing.
8. The Siege
One of the best and most mature depictions of martial law in film, especially when you consider it was made prior to 9/11.
The film shows what happens when martial law is declared in a major American city, in this case New York City, as a direct result of external attack.
After a series of escalating terrorist attacks occur, martial law is eventually declared and the US Army’s 101st airborne division is deployed to completely blockade Brooklyn and round up all young Arab males.
You can probably imagine what’s happening next: citizens protest, torture begins in order to root out info and confessions, soldiers wind up wounded and murdered, and the whole situation starts going absolutely to hell.
During all of this, the other characters, each representing different branches of federal law enforcement in the form of the FBI and the CIA, must argue and eventually, hopefully, work together to keep America safe but everyone has a different opinion on how best to do that.
With an awesome cast and terrific pacing, this is one of the true must-see movies if you want to see a realistic depiction of martial law.
9. Children of Men
Another sci-fi dystopian epic that is loosely based on a novel of the same name, the events of the film depict a truly bleak future where no more children are being born, and by the time the film opens, no child has been born for going on 20 years.
Most governments and nations have already collapsed entirely into nihilism and self-destructive barbarism, but jolly old England is hanging on, although a lot less jolly these days.
But for one English man, his life gets turned upside down when he is asked to smuggle a woman, a pregnant woman, out of the country past self-destructive civilians, a totalitarian government that liberally applies martial law to solve problems and other threats.
The film basically takes the form of one big chase, with the protagonist, Theo, desperately trying to get the girl to safety through gun fights, government lockdowns and other harrowing events.
It just goes to show that even in the most desperate circumstances, a government will try and still fail to hold things together using military might.
10. District 9
The second Neil Blomkamp sci-fi yarn on our list, alongside Elysium, District 9 is unique in that it shows what happens when another species is subjected to our imposition of martial law.
Filmed in a sort of fake documentary style that makes you feel like you’re truly following along with the events of the film, it chronicles the struggles of a race of crustacean-like aliens that land in South Africa near Johannesburg and are subsequently locked into a ghetto by government and PMC forces.
The analogy being made to Apartheid is pretty obvious and ham-fisted, but the cast is great, the action is sharp, and the movie has some truly awesome moments of black humor.
The protagonist, just a drone working in a major corporation that is responsible for administering the alien colony, is subsequently subjected to the effects of martial law when he is slowly turned into one of the aliens after exposure to some mutagenic substance.
Probably the best parts of the film, in my opinion, are the little snatches and touches that show how society has been segregated and there is always the threat of force hovering over any interaction that does not go precisely how the government wants it to go.
After recent events in the past few years, this movie probably hits a little bit too close to home.
Everything you need to know is in the title: after a business woman returns home to Minneapolis after a trip to Hong Kong, she quickly falls severely ill, suffers from a seizure, collapses, and is rushed to the hospital by her husband. She subsequently dies with no warning.
It turns out the woman contracted a hideous type of flu virus while in Hong Kong, and after hopping from airport to airport on her way home, it is now a full-blown pandemic with no end, and no cure in sight.
Tens of millions die, and martial law is instituted in most countries around the world with varying levels of success.
In the United States, military checkpoints are set up that verify a person’s vaccination or immunity status before letting them pass. Ahem…
Full of intrigue and a truly interesting look at what goes on in the various government agencies that are supposed to keep us safe from diseases like the one depicted in the film, it’s also a cautionary tale about how society will invariably change in the aftermath of any pandemic that is bad enough.
Most worryingly, governments will not be quick to give up their newfound control over the movement of citizens.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.