Just over a week ago, I seeded an article called The Ten Greatest Doomsday Scenarios in Film History. This article, especially its glaring omissions, reminded me that -- in the wake of the release of I Am Legend last December -- I had promised myself that I would write an article about my favourite post-apocalypse movies.
Post-apocalyptic fiction has been a great theme for writers since at least the dawn of the Atomic Age. When you think of early books such as A Canticle for Liebowitz or Heinlein's
Farnham's Freehold, and you'll realize that most often the depiction is one of the apocalypse as being simply a particularly significant challenge that the hero must overcome in order to complete his role in a quest narrative. They were most often rather conventional stories, with typically upbeat endings.
That changed with the New Wave of science fiction in the 1970s, and was reflected by an equally major shift in the way apocalypses were depicted in cinema. The nascent environmental movement of the time informed film-makers, and led to a series of Malthusian environmental collapse themed films such as Silent Running and Soylent Green.
Today, it's arguable that post-apocalyptic films have less to do with warnings of disasters to come, and more to do with exploring the effects of disasters that have already happened (such as 9/11) or are considered inevitable (like sea level rise due to global warming). It's possible they are a way of discussing and understanding the severe impacts these events have on our fabric as a society, in order to help us to accept them.
This is the crux of the argument presented by academic Robert Oventile in his essay Post-Apocalyptic Representations as Symbols of Trauma, published in 2002. Itself a review of a book by James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse, the essay argues:
"Narrative art can help us to work through trauma so as to remember it rather than to repeat it. In helping us to come to terms with historical traumas, such narratives can release us from ideological enclosures that block us from recognizing and acting on the possibility of progressive social change"
Berger hopes that post-apocalyptic representations, "in helping us to remember parousia's others, history's victims long dead, still haunting us, may help us to act responsibly in future's name".
Dr Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, who has argued that the world has less than a 50-50 chance of surviving another century, largely due to "the malign or accidental release of destructive technology" (and thanks to Robert Blevins for suggesting this source). Rees suggests control over scientific research and open access to scientific data as one way of avoiding this fate. It would seem that the exploration of themes in apocalypse movies and literature might be a path for broaching these topics.
On a more mundane level, doomsday movies -- both about the effects of cataclysmic events and the narrow avoidance of them (see for example, Armageddon or Deep Impact) -- serve as a means of galvanizing an audience hungry for blockbuster special effects and dramatic consequences. Today, they are proven moneymakers for movie studios. This hasn't always been the case. Compare the performance of I am Legend (U.S. gross over $265 million) to that of the amazing (and arguably far more thoughtful) Planet of the Apes, 30 years earlier (U.S. gross over $33 million).
Is it because we have more to fear? Is our existence that much more precarious? Are we teetering on a knife edge, only one disease outbreak, gasoline crisis or terror attack short of the ultimate disaster?
Maybe. Or, maybe we just like to imagine a world where all our current concerns: the declining value of our real estate, staying current with our career qualifications, the negative impact of popular culture on our children's upbringing; a world where all of these annoyances are replaced with more primal priorities. A world where we are concerned with Maslow's hierarchy of needs rather than the trials of the latest American Idol contest.
Or maybe it's just a good excuse to munch some popcorn.
Still, the march of post-apocalyptic films continues, adding to the notable list of doomsday movies we've all come to know and love. What follows is an admittedly incomplete list of some of my favourites. I've resisted the temptation to include the horde of fun B-movies that crowd video shelves, just because this article has run too long already, but for aficionados, I would recommend the films of the Phillipine master Sirio H. Santiago, Philippine Maestro of the Post-Apocalypse.
Top Ten Post Apocalypse Movies
No. 10 -- A Boy and His Dog (1975) - Set in a wasteland in 2025, this cautionary tale is based on a short story by sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison, and features one of the blackest, yet most satisfying twist endings in anything outside of The Twilight Zone.
No. 9 -- The Quiet Earth (1985) - A man awakens to find himself apparently the last man on earth. This international co-production made barely a ripple when it was released in North America, but it's an extremely worthwhile contemplation of the effects of the apocalyptic experience on the psyche of the protagonist.
No. 8 -- Def-Con 4 (1985) - A rather low-budget Canadian feature that really does veer into B-movie territory, I had to include it for patriotic reasons. Nevertheless, it offers a somewhat fresh persective on the holocaust, that of astronauts in a space station who return to a devastated world. A worthwhile couple of hours that most sci fi fans will not have stumbled across.
No. 7 -- Waterworld (1995) - Much reviled as a cinema destroying financial black hole, looked at in the cold light of more than a decade later, Waterworld doesn't seem as bad as the groupthink of the critical community suggested at the time. Enjoyable and even potentially prescient (the planet has been flooded in the aftermath of melting icecaps), it's a refreshing change of pace, if only for being set on an ocean rather than the desert backlots that serve as the future in most doomsday movies.
No. 6 -- Escape From New York (1981) - A purely entertaining romp, with few pretentions to depth, John Carpenter's film is most notable for its compelling locations in a ruined New York turned into a walled-off penal colony, it's dystopic view of a fascist United States, and the anti-hero protagonist, Snake Pliskin, unforgettably rendered by Kurt Russell.
No. 5 -- The Omega Man (1971) -- Charlton Heston's Robert Neville is seemingly the last survivor of the human race in the aftermath of a biowarfare-induced plague that has turned survivors into monstrous zombies. This fantasy of being left alone in the world to do whatever one wishes has a dark side, and The Omega Man spares no one, not even Neville, the implications. Somewhat dated and tainted by a too-literal 'Jesus' climax, this is nevertheless a worthy predecessor to I am Legend, the book on which it is also based, and is another of the early warnings offered by filmmakers of the emerging conciousness of the early 70s.
No. 4 -- Planet of the Apes (1968) -- one of the less likely apocalypse aftermaths (the apes take over?), this is still one of the most resonant sci-fi doomsday films, largely due to the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty, destroyed by man's folly and half-buried on a beach. On the negative side, the movie displays Charlton Heston's rather limited range in these roles. He seems to play the same character here, in The Omega Man and in Soylent Green, his trifecta of 70s sci fi classics. Never mind, though...the characters work.
No. 3 -- The Road Warrior (1981) -- This Australian film by George Miller changed the face of post-apocalyptic film, and introduced Mel Gibson to a North American audience. Both cliche and unpredictable at the same time, much of the film is a running car chase, but at its core is a highly realistic breakdown in society triggered by economic disaster and rampant fuel shortage -- a fate that seems to leap off the headlines of tomorrow's newspapers. As the centrepiece of a future trilogy, The Road Warrior is the linchpin of Miller's apocalyptic vision, and remains a key reference point for fans of the genre today.
No. 2 -- 12 Monkeys (1995) -- This is the masterpiece that propelled the genre into the next millenium. Starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, and directed by the iconoclastic Terry Gilliam, 12 Monkeys featured a hyper-realistic distillation of terrorism, fascist government, mental illness and bioweaponry. Almost, but not quite, the most important movie in the post-apocalyptic canon, 12 Monkeys draws a clearline between popcorn fodder and thoughtful cinema.
No. 1 -- Silent Running (1972) -- Perhaps the qunitessential environmental dystopia film of the 1970s, Silent Running takes place in a future where all plant life has gone extinct. Botanist Freeman Lowell (played with restraint by Bruce Dern) is a sort of deep space Johnny Appleseed, caring for the last remnants of the biosphere, incarcerated in domes on the spacecraft Valley Forge. Incredible visual effects the equal of those in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a stately pace and sountrack and a militant theme combine to make Silent Running both a great sci fi experience and a call to arms for future generations of environmental activists. This film should have been the Inconvenient Truth of the day, but the rank and file weren't ready for its message. It should be re-looked now. Perhaps today, we're ready.