The 8 Ball 12.11.12: The Top 8 Post-Apocalyptic Films
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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It’s December of 2012, so if you’re Mayan then you are probably getting your affairs in order. This month, according to the Mayan calendar, will mark the end of the world on the twenty-first of the month. That’s way said calendar, which charts all days in existence, comes to an end. Of course, there is a lot of debate on whether the Mayans actually predicted this, much less whether it will come true but that doesn’t change the fact that the worst has already happened, as it spawned the movie 2012. In all seriousness, this week I thought it would be fun to take a look at the best movies that take place after the world ended (I tried to do movies about the end of the world but those are relatively few and far between).
Caveat: The main caveat that will come into play was this: no zombie apocalypse films. Zombie films are their own genre and I wanted to leave those for their own time. This is more specifically about non-undead post-apocalyptic films. One can argue that one of my Honorable Mentions, Omega Man, violates that as it is an adaptation of I Am Legend but the film changed the vampires to mutants which is clearly not the same thing as even vampires, much less the walking dead.
Logan’s Run (1976)
The Omega Man (1971)
I never truly expected to like The Book of Eli as much as I did. I blame two things for that: the fact that it was released in the bad movie dumping zone part of the calendar that is January and the tailing off on Denzel Washington’s career by the time January of 2010 had come about. At that point the shine was well worn-off of Washington’s Oscar for Training Day in 2001 and he only had two great films in the decade that had passed: 2004’s Man on Fire and 2007’s American Gangster. Everything else was along the lines of John Q, Deja Vu and The Great Debaters, films in which Denzel is essentially playing Denzel Washington in different situations. And that’s not to say that there isn’t some of that in Book of Eli, but Washington keeps the Denzel factor down a little bit and the Hughes get their opportunity to really shine with what they do best: mood and style. This was the filmmaking duo’s first film since 2001’s remarkably underrated From Hell and they showed that when visuals were concerned they were at the top of their game. The plot here is incredibly loopy like many post-apocalyptic film plots are, with (SPOILER ALERT) Washington’s titular character revealing himself toward the end of the film to be a blind marksman and the Bible offering some pseudo-supernatural religious stuff about him being guided by a voice in his head. But the setting itself is incredibly stark and well-formulated while Washington, Gary Oldman, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals and even Mila Kunis give great performances. The film has a bit of an underrated reputation itself, but for my money its one of the most fun post-apocalyptic films of the last fifteen years or so.
To be fair, the post-apocalyptic setting in The Matrix isn’t visited nearly as often as the cool, trenchcoat-wearing and kung fu-wielding digital setting. That being said, the real world of the film where humanity has fallen to sentient machines and are harvested for energy hangs over every moment of this film from the moment that we know it exists. It is the reason that drives the plot of this film and motivates the characters to do what they do. And in truth, that post-war setting is exceedingly grim, possibly more so than most of the other films on this list. What few awake humans are left were either “lucky” enough to be born into a world of hiding and fear, or were yanked out of their secure virtual prison in order to spend the rest of their lives with plugs all over their body and still subjected to that hiding and fear. The Matrix is an incredibly influential film in many ways, but at its heart it takes a well-known concept–fighting back against the machines–and sets it on a new level. And it doesn’t hurt that it has all that cool martial arts and the big-ass guns, either. The franchise fell off as it went on a bit, but the first is still top-notch.
This is almost surely the least-known film on this list, but as I always argue popularity does not equal quality; then again, neither does obscurity but you get the point. This 1985 New Zealand film was directed by Geoff Murphy, perhaps best known for directing Young Guns II, Freejack or second-unit work for the Lord of the Rings films. This is a loose adaptation of the 1981 sci-fi novel of the same name and stars Bruno Lawrence as Zac, a scientist who wakes up one morning to find himself the last man on Earth after his experimental work as part of an international consortium seems to have made everyone disappear. The loneliness and guilt sends Zac into a tailspin, giving him a moderately quick descent into madness. He declares himself “President of this Quiet Earth” in front of an army of cardboard cutouts and then goes on a rampage, declares himself God and more. He very nearly kills himself and then later finds out he is not completely alone, which doesn’t make things particularly better. The ending is ambiguous, which of course like all ambiguous endings inspired divisive reactions but for my money is one of the best for a film of this subgenre. If you haven’t seen this one, you really should do yourself a favor and check it out.
Alfonso Cuarón is a rare sort of filmmaker. After he became a well-known director from his work on 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he decided to take a risk and instead of capitalizing on his success with a safe mainstream film he wrote and directed Children of Men, which is one of my favorite science fiction films of the twenty-first century. This film doesn’t really have any high technology or any of the usual hallmarks of science fiction; instead it focuses on the demise of the human race after mankind has lost the ability to have children. This is an incredibly dense and intelligent film that offered Clive Owen and Julianne Moore the chance to give their best performances to date. More so than the acting or the plot though, Cuarón excels by painting an intensely vivid picture of the society on the brink of collapse. The action scenes are fabulous and the film is both bleak as hell and absolutely gorgeous in terms of the starkness of the visual palette. This film was nominated for three Academy Awards and honestly I was disappointed when it didn’t at least go home with Best Cinematography.
You cannot discuss post-apocalyptic films without putting Planet of the Apes on the table. It is simply not possible. The 1968 Franklin Schaffner-directed adaptation of the French novel La Planète des singes was, like many of the greatest films of all time, shot down my nearly every studio in existence before someone finally took a chance on it and forever changed the face of science fiction. Let’s just ignore the fact that it spawned one of the most successful early sci-fi franchises and helped legitimize the genre to some degree in the 1960s and ’70s. Let’s even ignore the fact that so many elements of it became indelible parts of pop culture iconography, from the Statue of Liberty and “You damn dirty apes!” to the absolutely groundbreaking prosthetic makeup work of John Chambers. Let’s even put aside the fact that it was selected for preservation into the Library of Congress. This film is both incredibly entertaining and exceptional social commentary on racism and war, presenting said commentary in a way that doesn’t shove it down your throat. Finally, add in the fact that the ending is one of the true greats in terms of twist endings and you have a film that I may even, in retrospect, have underrated just a bit on this list.
For many, many years The Road Warrior was pretty much the classic post-apocalyptic film. Mel Gibson’s second touting as Mad Max is heads and tails above the decent first one thanks to an increased budget that allowed him to truly set the standard mold for a post-nuclear war film. This is the film that more post-apocalypse films than I can count owe a debt to in one fashion or another. Gibson is great as the former cop who has lost pretty much everything, yet still helps defend a community of settlers against marauding psychos. The barren wasteland, the leather, the welded-together vehicles; everything about this film really set a template for other films of the subgenre to follow. Make all the jokes you want about Mel Gibson these days, but Mad Max was not someone you ever wanted to cross, and not because you might get a diatribe shouted your way. The film is also incredibly rewatchable, with classic bad-ass action scenes that help make it simply a host of fun from start to finish.
I’ve written about 12 Monkeys a few times in the 8 Ball and it’s not a coincidence that it keeps popping up on my lists; it’s just that good of a movie. Well, that and it fits a lot of potential genres that I’ve covered. Much like The Matrix, most of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film is certainly not set within a post-apocalyptic world; however, also like The Matrix this one has the spectre of said world looming heavy over it. There is a pervading sense of doom in the air in this film, even in the much friendlier world of the past, and it gives a sense of complete urgency to James Cole’s mission to get a pure sample of the virus that decimated the world so that scientists in the future/present can find a cure. Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe are all exceptional and Gilliam keeps things grounded when other directors would very possibly have problems doing so because of the loft sci-fi concepts that are bandied about here with an almost casual nature. As I mentioned before, this is one of those science fiction films you can watch over and over again and not only find something new each time, but never find an a narrative flaw in. That is quite an accomplishment. And, much like The Quiet Earth, this film leaves things ambiguous. Does the plague get stopped at the end, or does it go on? It leans in one direction, but I’ve heard convincing arguments for the other.
I have friends who were unbelievably excited when they heard that Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road was being adapted into a film. They told me giddily, “this is one of the bleakest, harshest stories we’ve ever seen.” Yes, we get giddy about things like that. We may have issues. Anyway, the film eventually made its release some time later and expectations were incredibly high; it is a hell of an accomplishment to say that, at least to me and my friends, this didn’t fall short of those expectations. John Hillcoat made what was more or less his mainstream debut with this film as a director and frankly knocked it out of the park; he captures the intense emotional desolation of the story and while he doesn’t explicitly show some of the most horrifying moments, I think that most of them are pretty well implied. Viggo Mortenson continued to prove how adept he is as an actor with this film and Kodi Smit-McPhee delivered a knockout performance as the Boy. I don’t honestly believe that there has been a film that has captured what a post-apocalyptic world must be like as evocatively and with as much detail as this one has. Even the ending, which is I suppose a bit more optimistic than the rest of the film, is far from happy and could have gone exceedingly poorly right after if the film had continued. Let’s face it; at the end of the day if the world is ending, there is no such thing as a happy ending, and this captures that more effectively than any film ever has.
Note: Now that I am caught up to current, I have gone back to watch the episodes that have become available in the US since I started watching and thus were previously unavailable to me (thus why I have episodes remaining despite being caught up).
Current Series/Season: Season Eight (1971)
Episodes Watched: 587
Last Serial Completed: Colony in Space – When the Time Lords discover that the Master has stolen their secret file on the Doomsday Weapon, they realize that they have only one recourse and send the Doctor and Jo–without their knowledge or consent–to the planet Uxarieus. There, they become enmeshed in a struggle between an agrarian colony and a powerful mining corporation, with the Master himself pulling strings from the shadows.
Surviving Episodes Remaining: 42
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.