In honor of Mad Max: Fury Road coming out this weekend, you might want to pre-game with some of the funniest, most exciting, weirdest, and occasionally most depressing post-apocalypse movies ever made.
First thing’s first. For the purposes of this list, I’m interested in post-apocalypse. Not pre-apocalypse. Not watching the apocalypse. These are films where the apocalypse has already apocalypsed. Hard. And we’re left to pick up the pieces.
Dr. Strangelove, for instance, is an apocalypse movie. It’s not a post-apocalypse movie. Dystopias like Children of Men are also out, since they’re essentially tweaks on modern society, not complete rewrites. Disagree with me? You might have a point, and it’s important to remember that everyone’s list is going to be different, no more right or wrong than the next person’s. This is a chance to introduce you to new films and share some new ways to think about old ones.
And I promise, no matter how much I want to put 1989 Mark Hamill guilty pleasure Slipstream in this list, I will not. Not when I can link you to its awesomely bad trailer in my intro, at least.
What Caused the Apocalypse? The Bomb dropped. Russians invaded.
Who’s Left? Only one city stood free: “Lost Vegas.” Elvis was declared King and he reigned for 40 years. Now that he’s passed on, “every guitar picking, sword swinging opportunist, including Death himself” is gunning for the throne. We follow a nerdy Buddy Holly stand-in who happens to be a master with a katana. Protecting a child who won’t leave his side, Buddy picks his way from one strange riff on ’50s culture to the next, Death and his minions hounding him every step of the way.
Why is it Essential? It’s a surf-rock retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, in the desert, made on zero budget. It’s the rare film that’s both really good, and so bad that it’s good. The fight scenes are decent and the satire’s weird, but it turns these limitations into strengths. Some of the best one-liners ever written keep you satisfied until you settle into the movie’s rhythm. Its odd charm and storytelling zeal grow on you until you’re perfectly primed for a battle that shows the guitar truly is mightier than the sword.
The Best Part: That ultimate guitar duel. It’s brief, but it defines the audacity of Six-String Samurai. I also have to mention the following immortal exchange:
Mesh-Head: If I were you, I’d run.
Buddy: If you were me, you’d be good lookin’.
What Caused the Apocalypse? The Soviet Union and the United States hurl nuclear missiles at each other. We witness the apocalypse here, but the bulk of the film is about the aftermath.
Who’s Left? A diverse collection of the citizens of Lawrence, Kansas. The Day After tells their story both before and after the missiles impact.
Why is it Essential? It’s tough to recommend any made-for-TV movie from the 80s, but it’s directed by Nicholas Meyer fresh off Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. More importantly, ABC crafted an entire media moment around the film. With more than 100 million viewers in its first broadcast, The Day After remains the highest-rated TV movie in history.
ABC maintained counseling hotlines during and after the film. Even children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood filmed a series of episodes to address the film and Cold War conflicts in an attempt to makes sense of it all for children. The Day After hasn’t aged well, and that’s why it’s on the list. No film event better depicts how nuclear proliferation trained our culture to value mindsets of terror.
The film was viewed by both President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. Policy-makers surrounding them would later claim it influenced them both politically. While not a bad film, it is the worst on this list. It’s also the most important.
The Best Part? Early on, the The Day After depicts an entire city running in panic, knowing they will die in half an hour. It still stands up to the best modern disaster scenes.
What Caused the Apocalypse? Nuclear war. Nothing else was really allowed to cause apocalypses in American fiction before the millenium.
Who’s Left? Kansas again! Also: Mutants, fascist vault-dwellers who live beneath the earth, Don Johnson, and a hyper-intelligent dog who Johnson’s telepathically linked to. Because, you know, radiation.
Why is it Essential? If you’ve ever played Fallout and you’re looking for the video game franchise’s inspiration, look no further. The amoral Vic (Johnson) finds food for his dog Blood and Blood finds Vic women to sleep with.
Vic is lured into an underground vault that’s survived the war. Kitschy Americana is used as a cultural way of keeping its population under control. He finds himself involved in a rebellion as Blood waits above. It’s wacky and hypersexualized (like all 70s pulp), but it’s also filled with strong science-fiction ideas.
The Best Part? You mean aside from its worrying tagline, “A rather kinky tale of survival?” The humor isn’t played strictly for laughs. Instead, it builds up like water against a dam, ready to break the viewer with an utterly vicious and poignant ending. This is the definition of flawed, but ultimately brave filmmaking.
What Caused the Apocalypse? James Franco tried to cure Alzheimer’s in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. He accidentally created hyper-intelligent apes while killing off humanity instead. Oh, James Franco, you’re so silly!
Who’s Left? The sequel to a reboot, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes pits a band of San Franciscans who have survived Simian Flu against the community of intelligent apes we cheered on in Rise. Believe me, it feels less ridiculous than it all sounds.
Why is it Essential? What Dawn does brilliantly is find the peacemakers on each side of an imminent conflict. It shows how war hawks on each side undermine the peacemakers’ efforts at every step, convinced by their own inaccurate fears that if they don’t act, the other side will. Paranoia and fear master otherwise sensible societies. Obviously, the original Planet of the Apes holds a special place in post-apocalyptic fiction, but it’s Dawn that does the most legwork and shoulders the largest storytelling burden in the franchise.
The Best Part? Seeing the society the apes have created before war breaks out. It boasts the finest motion capture yet put to film and relies on the ape characters to carry the film’s emotion. It reminds us that the best action movies are the ones that take their time to connect us to their world. In so doing, it’s not just something in the movie that’s at stake, but also something in the viewer.
What Caused the Apocalypse? It’s left unexplained, but we know that food disappears – crops and animals die out.
Who’s Left? Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. They play Man and his son Boy. Also: cannibals. There are lots and lots of cannibals.
Why is it Essential? If you put this on a list of the 10 best films in the last decade, I wouldn’t argue with you. Nobody’s going to do that, though. Why? The Road is just too depressing. It’s a masterpiece that no one’s really willing to recommend a friend should watch.
It’s arguably the best film on this list, but it depicts a world in which any and all morality has been abandoned. It wants you to understand what that world is like, and that’s exactly what the viewing experience is like: brutal, hopeless, and irredeemable. The Road is dire and terrifying and ugly, and that’s the point – to see it and be haunted by its existence the rest of your life, like some Grimm’s fairy tale warning you to be good or else. If the world ever did come to look or feel anything like The Road, I’m not sure I would choose to live in it. All these other film worlds? Sure, I’d make a go of it. In The Road? No. That’s a frightening realization for a film to deliver.
The Best Part? Robert Duvall crosses paths with our heroes in the brief role of Old Man. In five minutes of beautiful acting, he gives the film its poetry.
What caused the Apocalypse? Nuclear war.
Who’s Left? An elderly British couple who live in the countryside, Jim and Hilda Bloggs.
Why is it Essential? It’s the first of two animated films on this list, combining hand-drawn animation with stop-motion sets. Jim and Hilda prepare for war by adhering to government pamphlets that give them such ridiculous advice as repainting their windows and hiding in sacks when the bomb drops.
Even as they succumb to radiation sickness, they never lose faith that Britain will win and that the government will come for them. There are few moments when the two aren’t talking and it never becomes boring or redundant. By focusing on just one couple in the country, When the Wind Blows illustrates that the tragedy of apocalypse isn’t its massive scale, but rather is repeated in each individual story that will never be known again.
The Best Part? It’s a downer, to be sure, but it’s a beautiful downer. Half an hour in, the bomb hits. Animated images of houses and bridges being blown down by the shock wave have an emotional impact that we steel ourselves against when we see real images. When the shock wave hits their home and reaches Jim and Hilda’s wedding portrait, we see a montage of their lives together before the portrait is destroyed forever.
What caused the Apocalypse? A virus spreads from test animals to activists attempting to free them. When it hits you, it turns you blind with rage. You attack anything in sight, spreading the virus through bodily fluids.
Who’s Left? Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up like too many British post-apocalypse victims do, in the hospital with no idea what’s happened or how he got there. As he pieces together the dangerous new world he lives in, he encounters other survivors, including Selena (Naomie Harris).
Why is it Essential? Directed by Danny Boyle, whose career ranges from Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire, it’s the most punk film here. It’s basically a zombie film, but isn’t technically since its zombies are still alive. The rag-tag group of survivors try to escape dangerous central London to a less populated rural area. As their journey progresses, they realize that each potential hiding spot comes with its own new threat. (Think of it as Watership Down crossed with Apocalypse Now, but with Londoners instead of bunny rabbits or Martin Sheen.)
The Best Part? The opening. Jim wanders the abandoned streets of London trying to make sense of a city that has no population left in it.
What caused the Apocalypse? A worldwide economic collapse.
Who’s Left? A good number of survivors in the Australian back-country, including Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.
Why is it Essential? This was one of my top 5 films last year, and The Rover proves Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson can act like you wouldn’t believe. A young man of limited intelligence, Pattinson’s Rey is left behind by his brother after a heist. Pearce’s Eric loses his car when the robbers need a new getaway vehicle. Rey is Eric’s only lead back to the car, so Eric drags Rey across post-apocalyptic Australia.
What’s most frightening about this is that Rey begins to idolize Eric, admiring the older man’s violence and emulating it. Eric is consciously amoral, but Rey is molded not to grasp the impact of his own actions. If that includes murder, it’s for the greater good: Eric’s approval. Eventually, Eric and Rey will close in on Rey’s brother. Will Rey still possess enough perspective to make his own decisions by then?
The Best Part? Rarely has a movie’s final scene so completely changed the texture and meaning of everything that’s come before it.
What caused the Apocalypse? Aliens.
Who’s Left? Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough remain on Earth to protect power generators that are the last, best hope for human refugees on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Why is it Essential? Oh boy. I’m really putting this on here above a dozen other deserving candidates? Yes. Yes, I am. Oblivion gets a bad rap for daring to star Tom Cruise, but it’s a smart, winding pastiche of Golden Era sci-fi that’s built around high-concept metaphors, layered in plot twists, and designed to the hilt. To describe anything beyond the basic premise is to ruin any of a number of big reveals.
Yes, it shares a conceit with underseen 2009 sci-fi great Moon, but it’s not as if either film originated their central concept. Oblivion executes, moves fast, and is narratively brave, often relying on one-man scenes. You can say a lot about Cruise, but he throws himself into physical roles like these and the film gives him a little more space to act than audiences are used to.
The Best Part? About four or five different reveals I can’t tell you about. Really, though, the design on this film is sumptuous. Director Joseph Kosinski, who also directed Tron: Legacy, has an incredible knack for simple, elegant design. His two films (although I’ll make no claims that Tron: Legacy is great) are the only movies I’ve had synesthetic responses to.
What caused the Apocalypse? A supervirus.
Who’s Left? A team of scientists using prisoners as lab rats. This includes Cole (Bruce Willis), who jumps back through time to study the virus at its inception. If he can relay enough information to the future, they might design a cure.
Why is it Essential? Look, the plot is a mess. It’s intentionally jumbled, but when you take it apart, everybody important is already interconnected in a completely nonsensical way. It hardly matters – what’s important is the atmosphere it creates around these details. Few films exemplify so well the goth noir filmmaking of the 1990s, movies that prioritized overbearing tones and industrial sensibilities while letting little details like plot and character run wild.
Its influence, La Jetee, is a 28-minute short from 1962 that’s better in every way but isn’t as accessible.
The Best Part? Brad Pitt’s brilliant overacting as institutionalized animal rights activist Jeffrey Goines, one of the lead suspects in Cole’s largely ineffective investigation of the past.
What caused the Apocalypse? A global energy crisis. I’d like to point out that while we’re worried about bombing each other, the Australian directors on this list center the most vicious apocalypses we’ve seen around food shortages (The Road), economic collapse (The Rover), and energy shortages as in Mad Max 2.
Who’s Left? Leather-clad biker gangs roving the wasteland, the innocents caught in between, and Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson).
Why is it Essential? The Mad Max franchise made the post-apocalypse viable as an entire genre. The first Mad Max is a great, but sadistic, experience. The third Mad Max is shot beautifully but focuses on a ridiculous plot. But the middle Mad Max? This one is just right.
Max agrees to protect a settlement holding a tanker full of the world’s most precious substance: gasoline. The settlement’s under attack by a vicious wasteland gang. The movie came along at a time when Mel Gibson was only just getting started. Watch him today and it’s hard to tell how much of the edge in his performances was acting and how much was just being nuts. Insofar as the movie’s reality is concerned, it doesn’t matter. Gibson delivers a great performance and finds some of his best moments opposite an Australian Cattle Dog, and a Gyrocopter Captain played by the ultra-lanky Bruce Spence.
The Best Part? The ending, a very extended car chase sequence across the desert that defines the concept of vehicular mayhem and has yet to be topped.
What caused the Apocalypse? The Seven Days of Fire, a war one thousand years in the past that decimated humanity.
Who’s Left? Nausicaa and the people of a peaceful valley. She’s a princess, and the people and animals under her protection come under threat when two warring empires threaten a brand new apocalypse.
Why is it Essential? Animation director Hayao Miyazaki is better known in the West for films like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Ponyo. Most don’t think of him as having directed a post-apocalypse film, but Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the masterpiece of his early career.
With all due respect to Frozen, Nausicaa is the best princess ever put to film. She’s a biologist and skilled warrior who nonetheless bets everything she has on peace. She transforms an imminent war by forcing each side to understand that the fear making them march into battle is based on nothing but inaccurate beliefs and bad science. Sound like it could be useful today?
The Best Part? Early on, Nausicaa is gifted a foxsquirrel by her valley’s sword master, Lord Yupa. He warns her to be careful and, sure enough, the animal bites her and draws blood. She restrains herself from showing any reaction, allowing the animal to continue hurting her. In so doing, she gives it the time to overcome its initial fear and recognize she is no enemy. There are far more beautiful and epic moments, but this single scene foreshadows and encapsulates the entire film – it is mastery over fear that she passes on to the warring human factions.
I discounted some incredibly stodgy apocalypse movies from the 1950s, most notably On the Beach. They just don’t hold up well and they aren’t what I think of as essential viewing anymore. Most of the 1970s sexpocalypse allegories like Logan’s Run don’t make it either. They might be kind of fun, but I’m not about to tell anyone they’re required viewing. Michael Haneke’s brutal brand of arthouse Time of the Wolf just missed the list. Last year’s Snowpiercer is an incredible mash of genres and impeccable design, but it has as many problems as it does moments of genius. Lastly, The Matrix is technically a post-apocalypse movie. It just doesn’t read that way. I try to think of what a film’s primary genre is, and post-apocalypse isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for The Matrix. Ultimately, it’s the film I’m most torn about not including.
What did we miss? Show us your list!