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Post-Apocalyptic Movies: Not Quite the End of the World

War of the Words Film Set: Disaster Strikes - Mr Bullitt
Are people attracted to doom-filled, survivor tales because they offer hope, or because they make real everybody’s deepest fears of an unknown future?

Movie observers assume people’s fascination with post-apocalyptic horror stories began after World War 2, when the nuclear arms race heated up and global war, or MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) seemed inevitable. More recently, man’s environmental destruction unleashes apocalypse.

Others point to Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie classic Metropolis showing social crisis between workers and owners. However, it began a century earlier in 1826 when Mary Shelley (who also wrote Frankenstein) published The Last Man, set in a future world devastated by plague.

Dystopian Movies

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia. Life is rendered harsh for many for the benefit of the few. Regimes enforce ruthless control over thoughts, actions, movements and relationships.

An example of this is 1984, sometimes Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1956; 1984), based on the 1948 George Orwell story when Thoughtcrime, Big Brother and Room 101 are realities. Logan’s Run (1976) is set in an idyllic future where life must end at 30.

Blade Runner (1982) has the central character track down and destroy four replicants who hijacked a spaceship to return to earth to find their maker. In The Running Man (1987) a wrongly convicted man must survive a public execution staged as a game show. Demolition Man (1993) shows an imprisoned cop brought out of suspended animation to track an old enemy loose in a non-violent future.

The Matrix series (1999-2003) imagines a future in which reality is The Matrix, a simulated reality created to subdue people to harness energy from body heat and brain activity. It’s philosophy as much as dystopian horror. Minority Report (2002) is set in 2056 in a world controlled by Precrime, police who predict behaviour, so ‘criminals’ are caught before they commit crime.

Other films include Distrct 9 (2009); Fahrenheit 451 (1966); The Handmaid’s Tale (1990); Soylent Green (1973); The Trial (1962) and Screamers (1995). There are, furthermore, alien controlled dystopias (Battlefield Earth, 2000), and corporate dystopias where big business replaces government as the controlling force. I, Robot; Robocop; Total Recall and Rollerball (1975; 2002) fall into this category.

There is debate about whether A Clockwork Orange (1971) is a dystopian movie. However, what most of these films have in common is an adaptation of old stories, many by one man, Philip K Dick, and it’s this branch of science fiction that feeds public appetite.

Apocalypses Great And Mega-Great

Following a disaster, nuclear, plague, war or natural, survivors attempt to form a new order against an encroaching dystopia. It may be immediately after the calamity, highlighting psychological flaws of survivors struggling in a changed habitat with only a remnant of former lives and technologies.

Or it may be years later, when dystopia is firmly in control and a return to old values may be desirable but difficult. New generations have only old world tales told to them, but no direct memory themselves.

The Road (2009) is a harrowing tale of a father and son walking to the coast in hope, fearing cannibalism in an anarchic landscape after an unspecified post-apocalyptic disaster. Waterworld (1995) sees a mariner surviving hostility from humans clinging to structures in a flooded world. Here too, characters are pre-occupied with a journey to a possibly mythical “Dryland” where they could live in safety and plenty.

Still with journeys, The Book of Eli (2010) features a lone man fighting across America to protect a book containing the secret to saving humanity. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) portrays a world beginning a new ice age as a result of global warming.

On the Beach (1959; 2000) follows survivors of a nuclear war which wiped out most of the northern hemisphere. Testament (1983) also follows a nuclear devastation. War of the Worlds (1953; 2005) is about Martian invasion of earth and human fightback. In I Am Legend (2007), after plague has killed most of humanity and monsterised the rest, a sole survivor struggles.

Cloverfield (2008) follows survivors of a New York monster attack. Watchmen (2009) sees an alternate 1985 where superheroes really exist. Planet Earth (1974) has a hero enslaved in a female-run society, while Zardoz (1974) is set in an unexplained post-apocalyptic world governed by Brutals and Exterminators.

WALL-E (2008) is a computerised animated sci-fi movie about a waste robot. Robot Holocaust (1986) is an epic battle of machine against mankind; a similar premise to Terminator: Salvation (2009).

After a mysterious, incurable virus wipes Britain, survivors find sanctuary in 28 Days Later (2002); in 28 Weeks Later (2007), the fantasy continues in London. Children of Men (2006) envisions a childless, futureless world and one pregnant woman who must be protected. In Day of the Triffids (1962; 1981) a meteor shower blinds people, so they cannot fight deadly triffid plants.

Like many movie plots, post-apocalyptic stories are remade and revisioned. The future is up for grabs in the imaginations of anybody and everybody. And why not? It’s not the end of the world.

First published on Suite 101, 1st June 2010.

Photo: War of the Words Film Set: Disaster Strikes – Mr Bullitt

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