Post-Apocalypto: The Last Man on Earth… on Screen

We are living in ominous times. Or so Hollywood tells us. It’s true though – […]

David Zahl / 4.18.08

We are living in ominous times. Or so Hollywood tells us. It’s true though – impending doom has become a fixture in our political and cultural discourse as of late. The natural disasters of the past few years probably have something to do with it, as does the economic downturn, or you could just chalk it up to Bush-related malaise/nihilism. Whatever the case, if there’s any upside, it is the many works of post-apocalyptic fiction that are currently being produced: novels (The Road), movies (I Am Legend), comics (Y: The Last Man, Old Man Logan, Sweet Tooth), television (Battlestar Gallactica, The Walking Dead, and now Falling Skies) – almost all of which are terrific. And the deluge shows no sign of stopping any time soon. Fury Road here we come!

I for one could not be more excited about this trend. As irresistible as dystopian sci-fi can be (1984, Brazil, A Clockwork Orange), the last-man-on-earth subgenre has always had a special place in my heart, and at least until recently, examples were far harder to come by. This is because post-apocalyptic movies are notoriously difficult propositions: elaborate productions that rarely make much money. In fact, the genre has frequently served as an outlet for idiosyncratic directors to realize their most ambitious and eccentric (or political) visions. The end product tends to be either amazing or awful, and nowhere in between. Of course, even when they’re awful (The Postman), they’re fascinating.

The appeal can be boiled down to three or four main factors. First, there’s the aesthetic. The end of the world clearly produces a lot of elegantly “distressed” clothing, funky contraptions and unorthodox hairstyles, not to mention inventive weaponry. I’m thinking especially of the old-meets-new, raggedly makeshift look popularized in the Mad Max trilogy.

Post-apocalyptic movies also tap into the appeal of the “simple life.” What a relief it would be if one’s only concern was for survival… It might clarify one’s priorities and keep things in perspective, no? Certainly we’ve all yearned for the Bobby McGee-style freedom that an atomic wasteland would offer. Having all our various buffers stripped away might be an enormous relief. The ensuing desperation makes for some pretty captivating interpersonal drama, allowing for more than a little insight into the competing baseness and nobility of the human condition.

Mainly though, it’s hard not to sympathize with where these movies are coming from on an ideological level. The notion that the human race will destroy itself – that the human race is destroying itself – may sound cynical, but it is not foreign to Christian thinking. Given the biblical estimation of humanity, self-annihilation might almost be considered a forgone conclusion, pending the Second Coming of course. Nothing illustrates that we are our own worst enemies better than, well, nuclear Armageddon.

On the other hand, you’ll notice that these films are rarely nihilistic in tone; there is almost always a redemptive story being told. Which should not surprise us, at least not if we have Calvary in mind. In its distinctive light, we see that the death of all things does not necessarily spell the end of all things. It might even spell the beginning. The sweet gadgets are merely icing on the cake…

The Thirteen Best Post-Apocalyptic Movies

  1. The Road Warrior. The gold standard, and very much still the reigning champ.
  2. 12 Monkeys. Bruce Willis’ best role, hands down. And probably Brad Pitt’s, too. Even Terry Gilliam’s pre-apocalyptic films have that post- vibe/look.
  3. 28 Days Later. Which ending would you choose?
  4. Planet Of The Apes. The original, ‘natch.
  5. Delicatessen. Mmmmm… good.
  6. Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Watch it again, it’s great!
  7. Escape From New York. Harry Dean Stanton is the man.
  8. Children Of Men. As great as the final scene is, it’s the car crash one that always gets me.
  9. A Boy And His Dog. Hokey and hornball-ish, but still biting, pun intended.
  10. The Stand [TV mini-series]. Based on arguably the greatest work of post-apocalyptic storytelling (and one of David Foster Wallace’s all-time favorite books!), Stephen King’s masterpiece is also the most profoundly religious.
  11. Logan’s Run. There is no renewal, folks.
  12. Dawn of the Dead. It counts!
  13. The Omega Man. Hippie Afro-Zombies and empty movie theaters – need I say more?

Five (Nuclear) Bombs

  1. The Postman. It really is as bad as people say.
  2. The Matrix. Can we all finally agree how overrated this series is?
  3. Doomsday. Silly as can be, but points for all its absurd spot-the-ripoff left turns.
  4. Zardoz. If only the rest of the film were as good as the opening monologue.
  5. The Day After [TV mini-series]. Steve Gutenberg, we hardly knew thee…

Three That Are Better Than You’d Think (or They’re Given Credit For)

  1. The Mutant Chronicles. As far as post-apocalyptic game adaptations go, this one beats the tar out of Resident Evil.
  2. Book of Eli. Haters gonna hate. At least they tried the biblical angle.
  3. Zombieland. Who said the Eschaton couldn’t be funny?

Five That Would Have Been Significantly Better Had Their Studios Not Heavily Edited Them

  1. Southland Tales. The Rock’s finest moment, bar none. I pray that one day we’ll see the whole thing – but it’s not looking good. The comic book companions are absolutely essential.
  2. Waterworld. Seriously!
  3. Terminator: Salvation. Apparently they cut a full hour out of this one.
  4. Aeon Flux. Still waiting for the director’s cut…
  5. Babylon A.D. The “extended version” only restored 10 of the missing 70 minutes. The religious overtones are particularly cool.

Four For The Whole Family

  1. WALL*E. Doesn’t totally count, but is too important not to mention.
  2. City of Ember. Surprisingly good.
  3. 9. Thin story, but oh so gorgeous…
  4. Titan A.E. Again, only sort of counts, since only the premise is post-apocalyptic (the action takes place in space), but Joss is Joss, and even the scraps from his table are worth your time.