The Quiet Earth blog has been covering the post-apocalyptic genre for years, and now one of its feature writers, Agent Orange, weighs in with his list of 30 visions of a 21st Century apocalypse.
A lot has transpired in the realms of post-apocalyptic cinema and television in the last ten or so years. The first thing you'll notice is that Kevin Costner no longer rules the wasteland and, of course, zombies do. Seriously, there is more zombie material released daily than births in the USA (Editor's note: this is not based on an actual stat, but it is funny). Another big change we've seen in the new millennium, is that the apocalypse genre has shifted away from the high adventure of the Road Warrior and Waterworld and more into the realms of horror. After going through this list, it is clear that the PA visions we've been getting are bleaker, meaner, more cynical about our culture and technological dependence. They also tend to feature a higher body count and often end on a "downer."
This of course, leads us right into our first feature...
The Signal is a surreal trip into a very dark apocalypse that is brought on by a mysterious signal that changes the majority of the population into ultra-violent, paranoid schizoids. It takes the form of three different stories directed by three different directors, but still includes a main story of two lovers trying to find each other. The film's ability to turn from terrifying to humorous to touching on a dime made it an indie favorite back in 2008 and it holds up to this day, making it a standout of this list.
Danny Boyle single handedly re-animated the lifeless corpse of the zombie apocalypse genre with his insanely frenetic 28 Days Later... Fast zombies, Godspeed you Black Emperor, and some insane hand-held photography made 28 Days Later the most exciting apocalypse flick anyone had seen in years. Of course, Boyle didn't re-invent the wheel here. Issues of militarism and the story of a small band of survivors isn't anything we haven't seen in any Romero movie, but Danny made it modern and we loved it. So much so that a sequel followed and we may even be getting a threequel before the 21st century is over.
Jericho - God, it seems like a lifetime ago that we followed the exploits of Skeet Ulrich and his fellow small towners as they attempted to keep their shit together after a series of terrorist attacks left America in post-apocalyptic turmoil. In classic NBC fashion, the show straddled the line between family drama and 24 and was canceled after just one season, but was quickly given a seven episode second chance when fans sent pallets of nuts to the network in protest. Watch it again on DVD and you'll be surprised to find it a fast paced and timely conspiracy thriller representative of these cynical times. Seriously, I think Jericho is a seminal PA series. Period. And, I hope it returns in one form or another.
Dawn of the Dead put Zack Snyder on the map and proved that remakes can actually work. Not all of us agree that this film holds a candle to George Romero's 70s classic, but there's no denying it captured the horror world when it was released in 2004. It took up the gauntlet that Boyle laid down with fast zombies and has one of the best apocalyptic openings ever. And Sarah Polley. Enough said.
Ah, The Dark Hour or "La Hora Fria" as it's called in its native Spain. This is such a classy film, so beautifully shot that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was an old Guillermo del Toro production. The story, told form the perspective of a young boy, is about a group of survivors who live underground to avoid the plagues and nasties of the world outside. Every night at a specific time they have to lock their doors to avoid a sinister cold brought on by an unknown supernatural force. A great foreign PA title worth checking out in my view - unfortunately, it was never released on R1 DVD. You can pick it up overseas though.
Connected is a newish short film that comes from Danish filmmakers Jens Raunkjær Christensen and Jonas Drotner Mouritsen who classify it as a "sci-fi western." Set in the distant future, Connected is a story about survival and greed in a post apocalyptic wasteland. Two survivors of an unknown disaster shuffle through a desolate landscape tied to each other's oxygen tank. It quickly becomes clear that not everybody has the strength to survive. This film is about ideas more than excitement, but it's a striking vision. You can watch the whole short here.
If you're wondering why Battlestar Galactica is on this list then you either a, haven't seen the show, or b, weren't paying very close attention. BSG might be a high-tech space opera, but it's also about the end of times. The first season in particular is a well written apocalypse parable that has its characters as concerned about where to find water and food as how to escape from evil robots. Regardless of how you felt about the series as a whole, when BSG was on it was REALLY on. Ron Moore and his team took apocalyptic scifi tv to a whole new level with it and the reverberations of its success will be felt for years to come I'm sure.
Even though this low-budget British endeavor gives us wilderness survival meets the zombie apocalypse, The Vanguard will mostly likely be remembered for introducing us to its dual axe wielding, Elvis shades wearing, bike riding main character, Max. One of the last people alive in England, Max lives off the land, hunting "biosyns" along the way. When he becomes involved with some AWOL military guys he learns more about the conspiracy that brought on the end. It may be low budget, but The Vanguard was one of our favorites a couple years back and deserves a look if you haven't already seen it.
Oh Eden Log, you could have been so good, but you were too French for your own good. As much as the slow pace and obtuse narrative of this movie frustrates me, I can't help but marvel at how beautiful it looks. Not enough to recommend it whole heartedly, but it the film at least took a different kind of narrative approach by telling the story of a civilizations downfall in reverse. The film is from the perspective of a single survivor who wakes up underground with on memories. As he climbs up to the surface through the remains of a once technologically powerful world he learns the story of what happened and fights mutants. French director Franck Vestiel paints a powerful vision, but tells his story in a most boring possible way. It's too bad, because this movie could have been as good as Pandorum if executed differently.
Easily one of the most anticipated post-apocalyptic movies of the last ten years, The Happening was also the most universally disappointing. Are those two facts related? I don't think so. The fact is, The Happening deserves its famous re-titling of "The Crapening," because its crappy. Forget the fact that the cast is weak and has no chemistry, it's premise it so outrageously ridiculous and illogical that it's hard to even give it points for originality. I mean, the characters run from wind. You can't outrun wind. You just can't. It's all around you if it's there. As much as we all dislike this film, there's no denying it was an important 21st century entry into the genre so it makes the list.
Why is Land of the Dead included and not Diary of the Dead or Survival of the Dead? Simple. Because LOTD marked the "triumphant" return of zombie maestro George Romero - arguably the father of modern zombie anything. Personally I don't much care for Land. In the eighties Romero became obsessed with this notion that maybe zombies were people too, capable of learning and feeling emotions. As soon as that zombie gas attendant picked up a machine I thought "uh oh" and it was pretty much downhill from there. This is daft stuff, but it was fun to have Romero take us back into his world and I know this film has its fans. Definitely an important one in the long run.
Carriers is another film that has its detractors, but I loved it enough to have seen it a few times now and I think it will rise in popularity once the dust settles around its slow and somewhat lackluster release. What on the surface looks like another plague movie featuring the walking dead turned out to be anything but. In Carriers, directed by brothers Alex and David Pastor, the plague doesn't do much but kill you - and that's really scary. The film is essentially a post-apocalyptic road movie where a group of characters encounter strange folk and have adventures as they make their way across the America wasteland towards the west coast. It's bleak and heartbreaking and full of some tension and has a likable young cast.
Jeremiah was a TV show produced by Showtime back before they hit it big with shows like Weeds and Californication. It only ran for two seasons. The story is loosely based on Belgian writer Hermann Huppen's comic book series, "Jeremiah," but series showrunner J. Michael Straczynski took a lot of liberties. In the show, the year is 2021 and it has been 15 years since a plague killed everyone over the age of puberty (so no adults). The children who survived are now grown, and must choose between either scavenge off the diminishing remains of the old world, or begin trying to rebuild. It stars Luke Perry and is actually pretty decent and full of some interesting twits and turns. Season 2 was recently released on demand from Amazon so the whole series is out there, ready to be rediscovered.
City of Ember is a totally underrated post apocalyptic kids adventure about a city underground whose lights are slowly burning out. At its core, City of Ember is a parable about keeping the faith in a secular world and moving up towards the light - but I don't care about that stuff. For me, the film was a wonderfully staged and often funny story about growing up in a world run by dimwitted adults who can't see beyond their own noses and are destined to destroy their world. Plus it features some truly stellar production design.
Directing team Michael Bartlett and Kevin Gates' first time out of the gate was a bonafide international hit that put them on the post apocalyptic film map and set them up for a ton of good stuff to come. On the downside, the quick financial success of the film got it scooped up by Weinstein's Dimension Extreme label who mis-marketed the found-footage film Stateside making it look like Dawn of the Dead 2 and turning casual viewers against the film. If you haven't seen it, The Zombie Diaries is a very realistic feeling film about a media crew who are doing a story during a pandemic only to find themselves in the thick of a full on viral apocalypse.
Is the monster apocalypse that happens in The Mist happening worldwide, or just in Maine where the film takes place? Well if the film had ended like Stephen King's novella there would be a good case that it was worldwide and humans were hooped. Darabont sees it differently, but despite the changed (and shocking) ending, The Mist remains a seminal apocalyptic vision of the 21st century. Not universally liked upon release, the film is very quickly picking up fans who are finding it, or revisiting it on DVD and blu-ray. One of the things that makes The Mist so great, is its ensemble cast. It feels like a King story and the film proves that Darabont is the only guy who should be touching the prolific writers work for the screen (Maybe "The Stand" next, Frank?)
One of the more controversial television productions among PA fans was the recent BBC remake of the classic Terry Nation show, Survivors. A hit and miss hodge-podge of 12 episodes, the series had a hard time maintaining a consistant tone and, a little like Jericho, flip-flopped between wanting to be both a family-friendly show and a hard-edged PA thriller. The fact that it was on BBC 1 probably had a hand in that, but ultimately I think Survivors will be remembered because of its relationship to the original series more than what it offered the genre. Still, it's a production that got us talking so it makes the list.
You really can't downplay the importance of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead. It spawned years worth of copycat zomedies (certainly the movie below would never have existed without it). It also proved the Brits were still in the game and had their uncanny self deprecating sense of humor intact. I'm sure you've all seen it all so that's enough out of me - suffice it to say Shaun of the Dead has proved and important import.
Zombieland is a textbook case of right place, right time. Premiering right when worldwide zombie mania was at it's apex, (you could argue that apex is still rockin' on) Zombieland cleaned up at the box office and introduced fanboys to cute-as-a-button indie darling, Emma Stone (move over Zooey). As stated above, it would never have existed without Shaun of the Dead, but at the same time it's not a copycat. Its humor is decidedly American and its obvious also owes a lot to Apatow productions. Too early to tell is it's a seminal PA flick, but its certainly important here and now.
F***K I love this movie and I don't care who knows it. With Doomsday, British genre guru, Neil Marshall, introduced his true intentions as a filmmaker. Screw The Descent. Claustrophobic horror was a means to an end for Marshall who so clearly wants to make brawling action horror for adults. Some would argue that Doomsday isn't PA because the wasteland isn't worldwide but trapped behind a wall. I say the outside world is dead and it just doesn't know it yet. The only thing that rots about this film is the Road Warrior style car chase at the end. Marshall had the chance to beat out Miller and sort of failed, relying on fast cuts. Having said that, there's no question that Doomsday is on b-a-d-a-s-s PA actioner.
And now for something completely different. To quote myself from 2008; "Right at your Door does what every great indie film working on a minimal budget needs to do. It exploits a suspenseful high concept plot device only to morph it into an intimate and ultimately human story... It tells the story of Brad and Lexi, a young couple whose new life together is turned upside-down when a slew of "dirty bombs" are detonated in L.A., releasing toxic gas into the atmosphere. Told by the media to seal the house, Brad grudgingly quarantines Lexi outside where she must wait for help."
Informed by a post 9/11 America, the film provokes questions about our new-found paranoia while it divulges just how severely we've come to distrust authorities who are as likely to hurt us as help us. The editing is sharp, the acting is superb, and the story is as riveting as it is devastating. A must see.
When I read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" I had a feeling it would be adapted for the screen, but I didn't think it would translate that well. Not because what happens in the book complex, in fact quite the opposite. The book is reflective and quiet and subtly terrifying - all things that drive people away from the cinema. Luckily John Hillcoat, Viggo Mortensen and Aussie composer Nick Cave banded together to do the best they could. Held back for a year and marketed like a cannibal film, the good vision managed to prevail and we have, what I consider to be, a faithful and seminal PA movie here.
Blindness is based on José Saramago's novel about a plague of blindness that effects 90% of the world. It's a very cerebral and powerful film about human nature and to quote Marina, who loved the film: "visually, Meirelles does not disappoint. His vision of a city in collapse is eerily reminiscent of 28 Days Later, it's follow up 28 Weeks Later and even children of Men. Meirelles uses the decaying surroundings as a metaphor for the corruption of society and the result is an ugly marvel; a cityscape crowded by garbage, bodies and animals." This is a dark one folks.
This one, however, is not a dark one. As you would expect from a Roland Emmerich disaster flick, 2012 is bloated, silly and has CGI destruction up the wazoo. A more epic vision of world-wide destruction there has never been though so, if you're in the right frame of mind, 2012 can be a fun ride. Having said that, one gets the feeling that the real story begins when the movie ends - on those giant arks that look like floating Battlestars. There's a good tv show in there somewhere. Too bad Emmerich ditched it.
Transmission ("Adás") is a Hungarian film that hasn't been released wide yet, but based on some good early reviews (here and here), I'm including it on this list anyway. Directed by Roland Vranik, the film is about a technological apocalypse where computers, TVs, cells, and other telecom devices no longer work and the people are suffering severe withdrawal pains. Three brothers try to overcome their own major personal problems as the society slowly begins to find alternative ways of living. In true European fashion, the film less concerned with chaos and destruction and more with people. Personally I can't wait to check it out.
Cargo's story may take place on a rickety old space freighter, but the tone of the entire film is certainly informed by post-apocalyptic overtones and a healthy of dose of mistrust of authority. In the film, the earth is uninhabitable and humans float in space, looking for a new planet to settle on. A stunning dystopian vision made on a dime, the film looks far more expensive than it is, but has been criticized for its resemblance of other space station scifi movies. An unfair quibble in my mind, considering the genre is built on that kind of thing. Oh well, people are picky I guess.
I'm not a big fan of this series, but I think the third film, Resident Evil: Extinction, is probably my favorite just because it takes us into a classic apocalypse with a convoy of survivors, zombie crows - the whole nine yards. Mutant Alice is sort of badass, the fast zombies are sort of scary, but there are also too many one liners and tongue-in-cheek moments for my liking.
Day 26 (or "Tag 26" in its native Germany) is a stellar post-apocalyptic short from 2003 by Andreas Samland. Inspired by Tarkovskij´s Stalker the film is shows how two survivors of a biological disaster are able to subsist when their bodies aren't able to come in contact with the world. It's a very realistic and haunting vision. The entire shot appeared online a few months back and you can watch it here.
9 is directed by Shane Acker, but the Average Joe thinks its from Tim Burton. Burton actually co-produced this animation anomaly with Russian wunderkind Timur Bekmambetov and the results are, well, middling at best. The film looks gorgeous and the story is original, but it feels like a first course. The film is all action and little else so by the end you feel less entertained than stimulated. I think the film is already starting to be forgotten, but it was a film that garnered a lot of buzz upon release and it is certainly important in the 21st century PA pantheon, so I decided to include it here.
I feel bad leaving this list on a sour note, but I just couldn't in good conscience leave the bomb that is Terminator: Salvation off this list. As the only of the Terminator series that takes us fully into "Judgment Day" everyone was expecting great things - particularly when some stellar trailers started to make their way online. And yes the film looks great, but the script is just abominable. Abysmal. Atrocious. A$$. A great cast couldn't even save the haphazardness of it all. It all just feels rushed and it's too bad because the premise is exactly what were we waiting for after three films that just riffed on the same time-travel premise. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
This post originally appeared on Quiet Earth.