Lynne Boss Mahr has written up a list of apocalyptic films, which include post-apocalyptic entries too, and I thought I’d serve up my own picks. I choose seven of each, plus one film that qualifies as both, for a total of 15.
By apocalyptic, I mean a film set during a catastrophe that spells the end of civilization, will do so if not averted, or is perceived to carry this threat in some way. The catastrophe could be anything, and represented on my list are divine punishment (Noah, The Rapture), resource depletion (Sunshine), nuclear devastation (Threads), nature (The Birds), existential (The Seventh Seal, Tree of Life), and disease (Contagion).
By post-apocalyptic, I mean a film set after the end of civilization or its dramatic upheaval due to catastrophe. Again, the catastrophe could be anything, and represented on my list are nuclear devastation (The Divide, Threads), resource depletion (The Road Warrior), environmental (Snowpiercer), technological takeover (The Matrix), dysgenics (Children of Men), the breakdown of law and order (Escape from New York), and unknown (The Road).
1. The Divide, Xavier Gens. 2012. Post-apocalyptic. This nasty film is set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment, where nine strangers gather to survive a nuclear holocaust. Despite uneasiness and distrust, they try working together at first, and do pretty well until cabin fever, radiation sickness, and their own base humanity take over. There’s torture, rape, sex slavery, and full-blown lunacy on display, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel — which in this case happens to be, literally, a tunnel of shit. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy and is the best Lord of the Flies-themed film I’ve ever seen. The performances are brilliant; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.
2. Sunshine, Danny Boyle. 2007. Apocalyptic. Set in a future where the sun is dying, and people can barely stay warm and alive, a space crew of eight embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. To get through one disaster after another, the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and at one point they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. On top of all this, there is the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The theme of the apocalypse is woven in on multiple levels. Sunshine is Danny Boyle’s best work — far better than his overrated post-apocalyptic zombie-fest 28 Days Later — and besides a top-notch apocalyptic film, it’s also my favorite outer-space drama.
3. The Road Warrior, George Miller. 1981. Post-apocalyptic. The best movie sequel ever made plays more like a ’70s film. Like Snake Plissken (see #13 below), Mad Max is an anti-hero out of pulp escapism, something Edgar Rice Burroughs could have created, and his solitary wanderings across a wasteland remain an incredibly inspiring archetype. There’s so much about this classic impossible to forget: the feral kid with the boomerang who narrates the story as an adult, the amazing road stunts for pre-CGI days, and the idea of gasoline being the most precious commodity — which resonates rather loudly in the 21st century. The Road Warrior has a high rewatch value, and I’ve probably seen it more than 20 times since my coming of age years in the ’80s.
4. The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman. 1957. Apocalyptic. As a knight plays chess with Death, he journeys through a land struck by plague and fanaticism, and attempts to penetrate God’s mysteries. The film opens with the citation of Revelation 8:1: “When he broke open the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Bergman was obsessed with the silence of God in the world, and in his masterpiece he ties the theme with mortality, existential dread, and apocalyptic fears. The film is set in the 14th century, as the crusades were becoming obsolete, and when modern anxieties queried even more basic aspects of the Christian faith. There are bar brawls, apocalyptic tirades, insult contests, self-mutilation — and a witch-burning to top it off — and in his futile quest for meaning, the knight’s best reach comes by enjoying a simple meal of wild strawberries and milk in the countryside with a peasant man and wife.
5. Threads, Mick Jackson. 1984. Apocalyptic and Post-apocalyptic. This British TV-film was born of the same intent as the American The Day After (1983), but it’s much better — and far, far more traumatizing. And keep in mind The Day After upset Americans so much that people were telephoning the government to ask if this is what a nuclear attack would really do. Threads takes place in the town of Sheffield, and when the bombs strike, things are as ugly as it gets; the aftermath sends humanity hurtling back into a primitive age of famine, lawlessness, and mental retardation. It’s a completely miserable film to watch. It’s well done, but you don’t enjoy any aspect of it at all; you simply suffer through it as an educational exercise that was very necessary back in the Reagan years.
6. Noah, Darren Aronofsky. 2014. Apocalyptic. Here’s the story of Noah’s Ark served up Lord of the Rings style, which works because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are myth; the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Don’t listen to complaints that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). And while Noah plays on gnostic myths, it isn’t quite that either. But it does portray the Creator as monstrously cruel as Noah hardens himself to slaughter his baby grandchildren.
7. Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho. 2013. Post-apocalyptic. The U.S. release coincided with that of Noah (the winter of 2014), and I saw them back to back as a weirdly surreal double-feature. Noah is of course apocalyptic, telling the biblical story of the flood: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out; Noah goes homicidal on the Ark and barely stops himself from butchering his newborn granddaughters. Snowpiercer is post-apocalyptic, set in 2031, long after a sudden ice age froze the planet. The only survivors boarded a train called (yes) the Rattling Ark, which after 17 years is still keeping people alive in a perverse state of affairs. As in Noah, the lead protagonist fights urges to kill babies, and the cause of righteousness is under a question mark. The film is many things: a social class war, a claustrophobic horror piece, and bat-shit insanity that would make David Lynch envious.
8. The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. Apocalyptic. Not many people think of this classic as an apocalyptic film, but it absolutely fits the bill. It portrays unstoppable biological forces that have suddenly decided to sweep down on a humanity minding its own business, for reasons we never learn. The coastal setting works wonders, and while at first blush it looks like a localized apocalypse, the implication is that birds are attacking elsewhere in the world. By ’60s standards the attack sequences remain terrifying. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren’t going to turn out okay, and I think he’s probably right. The Birds is nihilistic to the core and unapologetic about nature’s savagery. And like the great horror films rarely seen anymore, it has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before terrorizing and killing them.
9. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick. 2011. Apocalyptic. It seems that 2011 was the year of abstract apocalyptic films. There was Melancholia, an apocalypse that accompanied a woman’s psychological anguish; Take Shelter, a hallucinated apocalypse of a schizophrenic; and finally The Tree of Life, an existential apocalypse, and one of my favorite films of all time. Malick portrays an apocalypse experienced in the “now”, as both wish fulfillment and transcendent reality. A man reflects on his childhood within the grand context of the universe’s life cycle, from Big Bang to Absolute End; the latter intrudes on the present through visions of a dead and barren Earth, a white dwarf sun above it, desert shores with waves rolling in, and dead souls walking the shores. I don’t care what your religious convictions are: if this film doesn’t move you, you aren’t alive.
10. The Road, John Hillcoat. 2009. Post-apocalyptic. Dispiriting in the way only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are, and the only entry on this list where the cause of humanity’s devastation isn’t explained. In a dead wasteland of marauding cannibals I would probably do as the lead character’s wife and just kill myself. Nothing promises to get better, and it’s impossible to survive in any way that makes life meaningful. Even the goodness inside the best of people isn’t always so resilient: the father played by Viggo Mortenson sinks to some ugly depths to protect his son. Precisely because of this, The Road is so uplifting, especially when the two lone protagonists reach their destination at the eastern sea, and the father dies. I watched this film a second time after the death of my own father in 2010, and it was helpful in the grieving process. It’s a powerful and noble work.
11. The Matrix, Andy & Lana Wachowski. 1999. Post-apocalyptic. What hasn’t been said about The Matrix? I will say this: it got me hooked on going to the theater to see movies instead of relying almost exclusively on the VCR. (Chucking the VCR and embracing DVDs would soon follow.) The Wachowski brothers managed to work in everything: martial arts, realities inside the mind (Doctor Who’s Deadly Assassin from the ’70s was actually the first to use the matrix), with as much philosophy as action, even neo-gnosticism, and all in the context of a horrifying future where machines rule and people are nothing more than chemical batteries. And never mind that Keanu Reeves can’t act to save himself. Here he doesn’t need to. But skip the lousy sequels.
12. Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh. 2011. As in his brilliant drug-trade drama Traffic (2000), Soderbergh uses a geographical network narrative to connect people under crisis, but this time the crisis is apocalyptic. Millions of people die in weeks from a super-virus originating God-knows-how-or-where, and unlike many medical thrillers, this one is grounded in good science, which makes it very scary. It also makes it effectively a horror film, though it wasn’t marketed as such. The epilogue is one of the most brilliant unsettling explanatory flashbacks I’ve seen in a film — where we see the cause of the virus traced back to poorly prepared meat that one of the main characters ate on her business trip to Hong Kong.
13. Escape from New York, John Carpenter. 1981. Post-apocalyptic. Some deny this qualifies as post-apocalyptic, since it’s just New York City (set in 1997) turned into a prison. But the background in the untruncated script involves global chemical warfare, and gas released on a massive scale causing people to go crazy and criminal everywhere, so it fits the bill. I’m amazed how well it holds up, and what the production team accomplished on such a low budget. The criminal world of Manhattan is compelling, and the terrorist plane crash near the World Trade Center is downright chilling to watch after 9/11, not to mention Snake Plissken’s risky landing on top of WTC itself. It’s no accident this film debuted months after The Road Warrior (see #3 above); Plissken is a lot like Mad Max, a perfect amoral anti-hero.
14. Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón. 2006. Post-apocalyptic. This is an adaptation of the P.D. James’ novel, except that women are infertile instead of the men. It’s a future where people can’t reproduce, immigration is criminal, terrorism runs rampant, religious nut-cases flagellate themselves, and law officials treat people like beasts. A pregnant woman suddenly offers hope for humanity, but it’s not terribly clear why, anymore than how women lost their fertility to begin with. Cuaron’s dislike for back-story and clear exposition seems to have led him to use the concept of infertility as a vague metaphor for the fading of human hope; yet the film ends on a note that plays into one’s predispositions, so that optimists will sense at least some hope for humanity, others not so much. Whether this means Children of Men is unsure of its vision or profoundly polysemous, I’m not sure, but there’s no denying its mythic power.
15. The Rapture, Michael Tolkin. 1991. Apocalyptic. This one is too much for some people, but I found it compelling in a very awful way, and I was completely fooled by the end. Throughout the story I thought Sharon was a typical nut-job who found Christ and prayed for the apocalypse, but didn’t think the film would take her expectations seriously. Especially when she goes out into the desert to wait for the rapture, and ends up (yes) shooting her little daughter to force God’s hand. I mean, she blows her crying kid’s brains out. For which she’s rightfully thrown in jail; obviously the kingdom isn’t coming for perverse born-again Christians. Except that it does. The horsemen of Revelation make a stunning literal appearance out of nowhere, jail prisoners are liberated… God, it turns out, is real and ushering in the end times. Tolkin treats his subject matter with a respect it doesn’t seem to deserve — indeed he portrays the outrageous at complete face value — and in so doing, makes the rapture seem oddly plausible. In this sense, The Rapture is a lot like Frailty (2001), another film that had the balls to take the world-view of an unsympathetic Christian fanatic seriously… and come out surprisingly stronger for it. That’s good film making, no matter how much it may upset you.