Do post-apocalyptic movies still speak to us?

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

The landscape is vast, endless, and bare, often parched, sometimes green but always empty, with maybe a lone ribbon of highway snaking through it, a real road to nowhere. Come to think of it, the landscape isn’t completely empty. It’s dotted with outsize junk, with the stray wreckage of civilization, a rusty-metal-carcass reminder of everything that once was and can never be again. As for the people, they’re lone wanderers, the dregs of the human race, travelling by themselves or maybe in a pack of two or three (one of them is often a dog), until they run into the inevitable Tribe Of Rebel Scavengers Clothed in Rags. And the metaphors? They are abundant, larger-than-life, and in your face. This is what it looks like when man murders his environment! This is what it looks like after nuclear Armageddon! This is what it looks like when society collapses in on itself! When science fiction runs out of gleamy white and turns to decaying dark! This is what it looks like when the future begins to rust.

Once upon a time (back in, say, the early ’80s), the post-apocalyptic dystopian movie wasn’t just in vogue. It was popular because it spoke to us, because it called forth a vision of what was coming that, in its world’s-collapse, dead-end-of-progress way, was every bit as startling and hypnotic, and just as cool, as the chilly/awesome technological vision of the future that the cinema had been selling to audiences for the previous half century, in movies from Metropolis (1927) to Star Wars (1977). When you glance at the headlines today, the dystopian view of the future would seem like it should be as relevant as ever. The global economy sunk into a ditch that’s starting to look like a canyon…The polar ice caps visibly melting…North Korea rattling the nuclear saber, led by a clueless boyish dictator who may be ever scarier than his father. Did I mention genetically engineered food, the rise of the Kardashians, and the sinister corporate control of just about everything?

The world is now in a state of anxious, fragmentary flux, and God knows where it’s all heading, yet in a funny way, post-apocalyptic dramas haven’t really changed. They’ve become an almost cozy part of the movie landscape. We know the tropes, and we go back, over and over again, to see new variations on them, yet what I would argue is missing from most of these movies today, be it hollow videogame rides like The Book of Eli or a gloomy literary ramble like The Road, is the shock and awe that first defined and propelled the genre. The future as wasteland isn’t a revelation anymore, it’s a rerun, one that’s starting to look more and more like bleak-chic action-thriller wallpaper.

When you think about it, you can trace the entire genre back to one movie — in fact, back to one moment in a movie: the final scene of Planet of the Apes, where Charlton Heston discovers the buried ruins of the Statue of Liberty on an otherwise empty beach and realizes (with a raging cry of “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”) that the ape planet he has been trapped on is, in fact, his own. Welcome to de-evolution! Welcome to the Thunderdome! Sure, Stanley Kramer’s 1959 post-nuclear message movie On the Beach got there first, but it didn’t have the nihilism, that kick of apocalypse pow.

I saw Planet of the Apes at a drive-in with my parents in 1968, the year of its release, and was that final scene ever shock and awe! (especially to a 9-year-old). Hollywood tried to keep the feeling going when it featured Heston in Soylent Green (1973), one of the first big sci-fi movies about the future going rotten, a mood that extended into pictures like Rollerball (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976). But those films still looked like (cheesy) new-fangled versions of old-fashioned sci-fi. The movie that truly picked up on the bombed-out “Whoa!” desolation of that Planet of the Apes big twist and expanded it into an entire film was the movie that, I would argue, launched the post-apocalyptic genre as we know it: A Boy and His Dog (1975). Based on a novella by Harlan Ellison, it starred the 25-year-old Don Johnson as a kid who wanders the post-nuclear desert of the Southwest, accompanied by his snarky telephathic dog (who talks to him like an early version of the car on Knight Rider). A Boy and His Dog was a doomsday fable told with an absurdist shrug of midnight-movie hipsterism. (The original poster art for it was the smiley-face mushroom cloud at the top of this column.) It wasn’t seen by many people, but this pop version of Samuel Beckett as survivalist cartoon had a major ripple effect. It showed us what the (non) future would look like.

Then, in 1979, came the movie that blasted the corroded metal door to the future off its hinges: Mad Max. The beauty of George Miller’s original demolition-derby drive-in spectacle is that it wasn’t set too many years ahead, but just enough so that we knew that things were careening downhill. The thing is, what had died in Mad Max wasn’t just “civilization,” it was God. The velocity of those cars, with the cameras mounted right in front of their wheels and grills, said: This is the only reality that exists. It’s kill or be killed, drive like a maniac or be overcome. There is no higher force that will save you. In its fusion of speed, dirt, sadism, and motor oil, Mad Max singlehandedly paved the way for a movie future of savagery, a future that looked mean. In other words, it paved the way for…

1982. The mind-altering and still greatest year of retro-future cinema. There had been some gritty signposts along the way, like Escape From New York, with its B-movie urban detritus, and Outland, which extended Alien‘s notion of outer space as a bad dream of today. But 1982 was the year that gave us The Road Warrior, the extraordinary Mad Max sequel that planted Mel Gibson’s Max in a mesmerizing Aussie wasteland overrun by marauding bikers who might have escaped from a psycho ward, and Blade Runner, in which Ridley Scott’s beautiful decaying metropolis can stand as the cinema’s visionary image of what our cities will look like after they’re gutted, robotized, toxified, and lit with floodlights of advertising. Watching these two movies, who cared if it looked like we had no future? The films made that prospect more dramatic and alive than the old, reassuring future that we were starting, as a society, not to believe in.

To me, though, post-apocalyptic fatigue began to set in pretty early, right around the time of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the 1985 sequel to The Road Warrior, where nihilism got blanded out by a kind of save-the-children piety. Along the way, there was the dead-future-played-for-kicks excitement of the first two Terminator films, but by the mid-’90s, when Kevin Costner finally finished Waterworld, you could feel the genre starting to repeat itself like a loop of disaster. That’s the real reason, in fact, that Waterworld got such a bad rap: Despite its insane budget, it wasn’t a badly made movie — it was no Water’s Gate — and it was even halfway successful (though the press didn’t portray it that way), but it was the concept that was waterlogged. The Road Warrior on jet skis, plus a big environmental message. Ugh! — who needed it?

In the ’70s and ’80s, when the post-apocalyptic genre was born and thrived, the prospect of nuclear annihilation was preeminent, and it infused pop culture. It is said that Ronald Reagan’s fervent belief that a nuclear war should never be fought was influenced by his viewing of The Day After, the non-science fiction version of nuclear apocalypse that was broadcast, in 1983, into an astonishing number of American homes. But in the ensuing decades, the sheer overcast-dystopia repetition of it all, in movies and graphic novels, has robbed post-apocalyptic cinema of its original friction and resonance, its mind-blowing charge. (I know that a lot of people love Children of Men, and I thought it was a worthy and sophisticated movie, but to be honest, it also wore me out. Too many fans of it kept babbling about that tracking shot, as if a mind-boggling technical stunt made for visionary cinema.)

That said, as Oblivion, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise as a lone wasteland astronaut, looms on the horizon (it opens next Friday), there is one way it occurs to me that the meaning of these films may have gradually shifted. They used to be deeply literal-minded science-fiction metaphors for the world that’s coming — metaphors that are now mostly played out. But maybe the image of a dystopia no longer just means “post-nuclear,” or “post-global warming,” or “post-Mayan calendar,” or what have you. Maybe the bleakness speaks not so much to our fears of the future as to our anxieties about the world we’re in right now, with its fusion of technology and entropy and alienation. What may matter most today in post-apocalyptic cinema is its nostalgia for what’s gone — the world of the 20th century, which invented all this doomsday apparatus in the first place but can still seem, in hindsight, a time more centered, less barren, more optimistic, less disconnected. A time when even dreaming of the bad-news future felt good.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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