“Post-Apocalyptic” Is All the Rage, But Where Are the Good “Apocalyptic” Movies?
A good, and even not-so-good, post-apocalyptic movie keeps asses in seats. It can be exciting, depressing, scary, even jingoistic. Zombies, viruses, alien invasions, nuclear holocausts—whatever. Such a set-up allows the writer(s) and director to play with settings, characters, and plot; to create a mythology, slang, adaptive behaviors and customs—essentially, it gives the creative forces behind such movies a lot of room to be, well, creative. How does a society restructure itself in the face of near obliteration, or does it really restructure itself at all? What sort of characters survive in such physical and psychological landscapes, and which ones thrive? And often lost in the shuffle, how does the audience discover what actually happened? The movies that try hard leave some things unsaid and/or drop clues or reveal details in an innovative manner. Lazier films give the viewer sit-down exposition scenes and highly informative newspapers blowing by on deserted streets. In large part because of such leeway, hundreds of movies, if not thousands, have gone down the post-apocalyptic road (thanks, Cormac). There are probably a thousand movies alone with “Zombie” in the movie title.
Kudos to the best of them, and hat-tips even to the worst, which are usually pretty entertaining. Mad Max is hard to top, and the new “[TIME OF DAY OR LANDMASS] Of the Dead”s are usually watchable at worst (I loved 2004’s Dawn of the Dead). Here’s what I want, though: a good movie that earnestly explores society’s collapse during the apocalypse. Not half-hearted five-minute scenes or flashbacks of highways crammed with screaming people attempting to flee whatever plague is about to befall them (War of the Worlds, I Am Legend), not a scene where a coma patient wakes up and wanders around until he finds someone to explain to him what has transpired (The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later), but a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of society’s dissolution as it happens. How does the city or nation or world get to the “post-apocalyptic” phase, with safe zones and no-man’s lands and rules about only going out during the day and with your eyes covered? How does a gang or paramilitary group or religious enclave come to exert power over the rest of the cowed populace? Perhaps what I’m looking for is John Carpenter’s The Thing, but writ large.
Don’t get me wrong. I love post-apocalyptic movies. Hell, I even played a mentally-challenged character, to put it charitably, in two post-apocalyptic zombie flicks. I just wish some folks would throw themselves behind the story of the actual apocalypse, the story of order failing and society’s mannered veneer being stripped—or eaten or lasered—away. Contagion, I feel, just missed the mark, but gave it the newest and sincerest college try. World War Z could be the best zombie movie ever if it maintains the feel of the book—sadly, io9 shares my concern that it will not. Or am I wrong, dear reader? Is there a movie out there that you’ve seen that fits the bill? I welcome your suggestions.