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“Post-Apocalyptic” Is All the Rage, But Where Are the Good “Apocalyptic” Movies?

December 9, 2011

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.

Come, on, Hollywood. Give him the movie he deserves.

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.

  1. gabriel permalink
    December 10, 2011 3:29 pm

    You – and I – seem to share the same viewpoint as James Berger, who wrote, in “After The End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse”: “What does this mean, this oxymoron “after the end”? Before the beginning and after the end there can only be nothing… [There is] only significance in that intermission, between that beginning and that end. The story… transpires within those boundaries, and outside them, before and after, is chaos and insignificance.”

    I’ve never been interested in the redneck, “Guns and Ammo” depictions of post-apocalyptic cinema, I really want to see their vision of the apocalypse. I want to see society, order, civilization deconstructed piece by piece – how it happened, how people were responding – not what it all looked like after the fact. I want to see the moment that the shit hit the proverbial fan and watch the splatter pattern in slow motion, not just some dudes with shotguns cleaning up afterwards =)

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      December 11, 2011 10:54 pm

      Yeah, I think watching societies reach an “inflection” point, where the realization sets in that old customs and mores and laws simply can’t apply to the current situation, is far more interesting than simply watching a prison van with a cow-catcher welded on front run over a few dozen of the undead. Although that’s cool, too.

  2. December 11, 2011 5:15 am

    The only “movie” that I can think of off the top of my head that falls into this category is Steven King’s “The Stand.”

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      December 11, 2011 10:56 pm

      Funny, I was thinking the same thing about the book (I’ve never seen the movie/series), which for several chapters dealt with the actual crumbling of social order. I think it’s just a matter of time before someone does it well in 90 minutes. It seems like there’s an appetite for it.

      • December 13, 2011 8:02 pm

        The movie/series was actually pretty well done in portraying the book. There are four parts, if i remember correctly. Each section deals with a segment. The first part of it all has to do with the downfall of modern society. I watched the series before I read the book and the movie made me outright paranoid to breathe if someone sneezed near me. They have “commericals” for cold medicine for the superflu and all.

        Side note: One movie that I think would be fantastic for them to do would be an adaptation of “Earth Abides.” Deals more with the aftermath, but it also shows what happens in the world after mankind’s “defeat.” I have always been curious why they haven’t adapted it.

      • Matt Shorr permalink*
        December 14, 2011 8:23 pm

        Its wikipedia entry makes “Earth Abides” sound right up my alley. I’ll check it out. Thanks for the tip. I’ll also have to watch The Stand series. There goes my New Year’s Day…

      • gabriel permalink
        December 22, 2011 6:52 pm

        Agreed, The Stand – novel version – was quite good in this regard. It has been let down badly on the screen, though.

    • gabriel permalink
      December 22, 2011 6:54 pm

      Nice recommend on “Earth Abides”, Synfidie. I’ve sadly never got around to reading this, but its on my “must read” list now.

  3. Anonymous permalink
    December 16, 2011 9:22 pm

    “The Animatrix” goes into its version of what happened in the two parts of ‘The Second Renaissance.’ Although not a movie in its own right, it could have easily been. The path they take brings society down hard.

    “The Book of Eli” refers to that story’s apocalypse only as “The Flash.” Saying a lot with very little, it spurs the imagination to ponder what transpired.

  4. John permalink
    December 18, 2011 4:49 pm

    Survivors 1975 version explores many kinds of organisation after the event,

    • gabriel permalink
      December 22, 2011 6:51 pm

      I watched it when I was a kid; although it is more concerned with post-event, I’m going to give it a re-run, although I though the more recent BBC vision of it was possibly better. Good call, though, and thanks for reminding me that I really should hunt this one down.

  5. gabriel permalink
    January 14, 2012 6:20 am

    I revisited the Pastor brothers’ “Carriers” (2009) and was pleasantly surprised at how well it stands up. Regarding the ethical and moral dilemmas that would be faced by survivors in the early post-apocalyptic phase it was quite thought provoking.

    • Matt Shorr permalink*
      January 14, 2012 8:50 am

      I knew nothing about this movie until my dad caught it by accident one night. He said the same thing you did: thought-provoking, and surprisingly good given how little press it got. On my “to-do” list.


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