The Top 10 Post-Apocalyptic Films
Ever since The Road Warrior I've been a fan of post-apocalyptic movies but wished for more and better. The 21st century has been granting my wish big time, and after being pulverized by The Divide last week I figure it's time for a pick list. By post-apocalyptic, I mean a film set after the end of civilization or its dramatic upheaval due to catastrophe. The catastrophe could be anything, and represented on this list are nuclear warfare (The Divide, The Book of Eli, A Boy and His Dog), pandemic (Stake Land), technological takeover (The Matrix), dysgenics (Children of Men), resource depletion (The Road Warrior), the breakdown of law and order (Escape from New York), climate change (The Snow Piercer), and unknown (The Road). Most are fresh tomatoes, I'm pleased to note.
75%. Dispiriting in the way only Cormac McCarthy novel adaptations are, this is the best post-apocalyptic film to date, and the only one 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. There are even eschatological overtones, as the boy could be an implied messianic figure who, unlike his father, is able to "carry the fire" of goodness to the end. 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.
25%. Ignore the critics, this film is fantastic if you have the right expectations. It's a hard-hitting horror show 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, but unlike The Road, 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.
100%. A #1 favorite on many post-apocalyptic lists, and the best movie sequel in any genre. Along with Conan the Barbarian, it was among the first R-rated films I saw as a young teen, and it left a brutal impression. The '80s were a horrible decade for film, but a few gems like this from '80-'82 felt like layovers from the '70s. Like Conan (and Snake Plissken, see #7 below), Mad Max is an amoral anti-hero straight 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 film 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 seen it well over a dozen times by now.
93%. As polished as The Road Warrior is pulp, 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.
75%. Not only is this a great post-apocalyptic drama, it's one of the best vampire films ever made, giving the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages who go for the jugular without fanfare -- as per From Dusk Till Dawn and 30 Days of Night. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he's taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards' hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic, and blows away the overrated 28 Days Later (which isn't even the undead film it pretends, since the "zombies" aren't reanimated from death, just living people infected by mindless rage).
87%. 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 just for me: martial arts (I'm embarrassed to say I loved those god-awful '80s ninja films), 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.
83%. Some deny this qualifies as post-apocalyptic, since it's just New York City turned into a prison. But as this reviewer points out, 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. Just last week I watched this classic for the first time in ages and am 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 Blissken's risky landing on top of WTC itself. It's no accident this film debuted months after The Road Warrior (see #3); Blissken is a lot like Mad Max, a perfect amoral anti-hero.
48%. Yes, there's a lot about Eli that panders to the lowest common idiot, but it's atmospheric as hell, and I love the idea of a last surviving copy of the bible which people are willing to kill for. Gary Oldman's villain wants it for all the bad reasons, to sway and control the masses, while Denzel Washington's hero just wants to deliver it into scholarly hands out on the west coast. And while Denzel, true to form, pretty much plays Denzel, Eli's spiritual guardianship and preservationist sensibilities make him appealing beyond a martial arts superman. Ultimately, this is what spaghetti-western action looks like in a post-apocalyptic setting, and if there are glaring logistical problems (why has it taken Eli thirty years to wander across America to reach the west coast? how did he become such an over-the-top karate killing machine like The Matrix's Neo? he's blind, is he?), it's at least unpredictable and well crafted.
77%. I adore this cult classic, not least for its outrageous political incorrectness. And who better to play such an ignorant misogynist than Don Johnson? In an age after nuclear holocaust, women have become a rare commodity, but Vic has a telepathic dog (Blood) who can hunt and sniff them out for him to rape. The rewatch value comes in the relentless bickering sessions between him and Blood, which are strangely reminiscent of those between Tom Baker and his robotic dog K9 from Doctor Who. Both dogs are smug know-it-alls who treat their masters with borderline contempt, the huge difference of course being that while the Doctor and K9 are pretty much evenly matched in intelligence and wit, Vic is a truly ignorant piece of trailer trash. Blood gets in a lot of nice shots, one of my favorites being, "The next time you play with yourself, I hope you go blind." The twist ending is real shocker, where Vic kills the girl he just rescued, and cooks her to feed Blood, who remarks on the closing credits, "Well, I'd certainly say she had marvelous judgment, if not particularly good taste."
Snow Piercer, slated for release next year, will be a knifing success and earn a place on this top-10 list. It's set in an ice-age future, where the only survivors are inhabitants of a train that travels perpetually around the globe. There's a brutally unfair class system on the train, and, naturally, revolution breaks out. I'm excited in particular by the cracking team behind this project: the director of Oldboy is involved, as is the writer of Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. The story is based on a French graphic novel (see left), and promises to be a thrilling roller coaster, yet with thoughful purpose. If my expectations are met, I'll edit and rank the film accordingly; otherwise I guess I'll have to choose something else.
Honorable mentions. Or not-so-honorable, but the following make enough pick lists on the web to warrant comment: Planet of the Apes (1968) was always too cheesy (even by '60s standards) for me to take seriously, Logan's Run (1976) too flawed in premise, and The Quiet Earth (1985) too stale and hopelessly '80s in style. Dawn of the Dead (1978) almost made my cut, but lumbering zombies are hopelessly cliche and frankly not scary. Then there are the sci-fic crowd pleasers Terminator and 12 Monkeys, which I don't think really count as post-apocalyptic because they don't feel like it; their dramas involve time travel and are grounded in the pre-apocalyptic "present".