On Recent Post-Apocalyptic Films

Not long ago, someone in an email described called this past winter as having been cruel and cold and hard. It is, surely, only chance that this was a winter of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films. I count three, though I may have missed one or two during my travels: The Road in 2009, and The Book of Eli and Crazies in 2010. Having seen all three of these films in the space of a week, some thoughts occur to me. This rambles, but I am going to post it anyway, as I have other things to do right now…

The first is that none of these post-apocalyptic futures chill me as much as what I think may have been the best short story in Bruce Sterling’s Visionary in Residence collection — “Message Found in a Bottle,” I think the story is called — wherein a climate scientist gives a brief look at what life is like after the Earth’s climate tanks, by way of a note accompanying issues of Nature that he’s sealed in a watertight tank and sunk into a Scottish Loch for future generations to find… because he and his friends, living in the ruins of a library, are burning books for heat and he wants science to survive just so that maybe, possibly, someday someone can use it better than we have.

Nature commissioned the piece, but didn’t publish the story, mind. It’s very dark. And chilling in a way. And it really beats most of the post-apocalyptic fare of recent months, which are about zombies (how 1950s) and nuclear war (how 1960s/70s) and about the Bible (er, need I comment on that one?).

First, I think Crazies should be set aside as something more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic. It has the usual zombie movie tropes, with the one variation: the cause of the psychotic zombification is known, and is linked to a government conspiracy (to contain a bioweapon that turns people into unthinking killers), and the zombies are not undead. (They’re just uninteresting.) Crazies, flatly put, was just a waste of electricity. I found nothing particularly interesting or rewarding about it. Frankly, it makes me wish I’d seen Zombieland instead. (Not that that’s playing in cinemas here… for some reason, it seems not to have been released here in Korea, but one has one’s ways of circumnavigating the philistinism of the culture police and distribution companies here in Korea.)

Having said that, I am not going to proceed simply to praise The Book of Eli or The Road. Both films have their flaws, in my opinion, though they are both a little more more profound with The Book of Eli. But it’s worth noting how both films depict the end of the world — or, in any case, the end of our world — in very similar ways.

  • There are the ruined cities. And they are crammed with ruined cars, and ruined people, but especially ruined cars. For a long time, ruined cars sufficed as a symbol of death and destruction. Cars, of course, have for a very long time functioned — not only in media, but in the lives of some people too — as a kind of metonym for the self, for human life and liberty and power.(And this is why the booting or destruction of all cars in The Crazies is about the most striking thing about the film.) Hence the vehicular fetishism in Ballard’s Crash, hence the montages of destroyed cars in films like Independence Day. It is no mistake that protagonist in David Brin’s The Postman (and the Kevin Costner adaptation) is born from the ruins of a mail truck — a freedom of power and identity taken not just from a uniform, but also from a ruined vehicle. But now, it seems, we need ruined cityscapes of great depth and detail. CGI being available is probably only part of it — the other part being the scar that 9/11 seems to have left on the American imagination. (It’s a major feature in the recent film adaptation of I Am Legend, for example, whereas the old Mad Max films were more heavily concentrated on wilderness as far as I can recall.)
  • Cannibalism features in both films, and well, there’s genre history on its side. Not always pleasant genre history, mind: comfortable catastrophes did not tend to feature humans turned cannibal, but Robert A. Heinlein did very controversially include a black majority in postapocalyptic America with a taste for human flesh (and for white women) in his novel Farnham’s Freehold, but there are hints at cannibalism elsewhere in posapocalytic SF as well, long before Cormac McCarthy threw it into his novel. That said, the brutality of his post-apocalypse is quite tellingly more extreme that any novel I’ve read. Of course, if things have gotten so bad that the biosphere in general has collapsed — if there are no grains, no small mammals, no insects beyond the one cockroach we see in one or another of the movies — then one imagines some cannibalism would emerge. But cannibalism here is like the wild dogs in Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker — another amazing piece of literary SF that is more powerful than both these films combined — in that the cannibalism is mostly a signifier of something else… of humanity gone wild, or rather gone “feral.” In other words, it is a sign that what was killed in the war was, as much as anything, civilization, but not in a way that is critical of the notion that civilization truly reins in our selfishness and violence, not in a way that goes beyond the tired and oft-gestured at monstrosity of capacity for evil that lurks in human beings. And of course, it’s not as if we are without nuclear weapons today. These aren’t fates that are completely off the table. But these films seem to exult and to celebrate the vicious brutality of human beings, as if it were a proof of something of which we’re not generally aware. Hardly surprising, since McCarthy’s not coming from within the SF tradition (where hope, optimism, and the solving of problems seem major aesthetic expectations) and The Book of Eli is centered on a book full of rapine, murder, sexist laws, and genocide, a book the most ardent promoters of which interpret as saying that our own corruption and evil is an inherent, inevitable part of our nature.
  • Fire features in both — in Eli, it’s visually absent by expressed in the presumably radioactive ash we see snowing down in the first scene, and in The Road fire seems to be the constant outer landscape of the world seen through the window of the family home where our protagonists spend the first winter after the war. At least, my impression is that the fire was outside the window; it’d make more sense if it were in the cabin, but then, burning exposed wood is a great way to give yourself even more radiation poisoning. (So is staying inside an exposed house, mind you.) I don’t remember the flashback scenes in the book enough to compare, but anyway, it was disturbing to see those scenes almost always by orange firelight and the everpresent noise of burning.
  • Motorcycles/armored vehicles are associated with bad people. Of course, the question of where people manage to get fossil fuels is never really addressed, even more laughable in The Book of Eli where the events take place a long time after the end of civilization, and where obtaining drinkable water seems to be a herculean task. But the use of “transgressive” vehicles somehow still works as an indicator evil. This feels, to me, very much a Mad Max throwback, but also a weird sort of anachronistic presence in the film. Bad-boys often ride motorbikes in all kinds of media; somehow, the bad-boys-ride-motorbikes trope survives unaltered into post-apocalyptic films.

In the end, both of the films fell flat for me, I think for the same reasons: they felt like they were only pretending to be post-apocalyptic films. The Road is about something else, something I’m not quite sure I can say without reading the Cormac McCarthy book again, and probably reading some of his other work too. It seems to me that basically it’s about asking the same question that cowboy stories ask: what happens when human nature is unbridled by civilization? “Humans go feral” is the predominant answer, while “Some humans carry a small crucible of civilization within themselves” is another answer.

Assuming the ending of The Road really is happy — assuming the boy doesn’t get eaten a few hours after the moment where what narrative we receive ends — it’s apparently some kind of triumph of human nature in the face of horror, of a collapsed civilization, in the wilderness. But then, I wonder how this “Wild West” vision compares to reality. When civilizations do collapse, do people really go feral? It seems to me even in the old West, most people seemed much more likely to carry that crucible, however damaged or veiled. I don’t know much about the old West, but it’s my impression it’s much harder to make humanity truly go feral than we seem to think.

The Book of Eli, on the other hand, is more transparently some kind of Christian narrative, about the virtue of going by faith, about the importance of the Bible (and, yes, thanks to the Gary Oldman character, its misuses, though it’s far too binary in distinguishing “good” uses of the Bible from “bad” ones).

There’s some discussion of the film by its directors at i09 that’s worth noting, precisely because I think they give us the rope we need to hang the film. They say very little that is coherent in terms of defending the idea that it is the Bible, and not, say, a basic book of survival techniques or science, that would be crucial to rebuilding civilization. They wave their hands in the air and suggest that we have souls that need feeding, and that this may be more important than keeping those ostensible souls tied to our bodies with, say, water we can drink without risk of dying.

The great tragedy, really, is that both sides seem to agree. You’d think a sensible Christian like Eli would agree that what’s really needed is to rebuild civilization so that other blind people don’t need to be slaves or die unable to defend themselves from rampaging marauders. But he’s a religious fanatic (if, mind, a relatively amoral one at moments — but aren’t they all?). Meanwhile, Oldman’s character is just plain deluded in thinking that he needs the Bible. He apparently has never heard of Joseph Smith. If he just wanted a Bible as a kind textually devised machinery of social control, he could write one himself, like they did back in the good old days.

And, well, the twist. It’s so silly. Seriously dumb. Show me one blind person who can go bowhunting, unassisted, and hit at cat at twenty or thirty meters, and I might buy it. I don’t mean blind archery, which of course exists, as does archery for the visually impaired, but unassisted blind bowhunting of wild animals. Show me a blind martial artist who can take out — not kill, just defend himself or herself — against a group of three or five people without being pulled to the ground. The “twist” is unearned, because Eli does things I simply don’t believe blind people can do. And I’m not being ignorant. I’ve worked and socialized with blind and visually impaired people, and even dated one for a while. I know what I’m talking about here.

Oh, and: if there’s a nuclear war — which it seems to me is what’s implied by all that ash in the first scene of The Book of Eli — then iPods ain’t gonna be working. To be frank, even without a nuclear war, iPods simply aren’t gonna survive long enough for people who weren’t alive before the Catastrophe to ever experience them, probably not even as kids let alone as young adults. Product placement may be lucrative, but it’s plain bad when it makes your film stupid.

If I had to choose between The Book of Eli and The Road, I’m afraid I would have to choose the latter, simply because it doesn’t quite treat the audience as stupid the way The Book of Eli does; it doesn’t pander to handwavey religionism (even if you’re not a believer, as the directors love to note, ignoring the fact that the narrative is, for the nonreligious, wholly incoherent and blithering). There are certainly places where The Road doesn’t live up to the (imperfect, but well-written) novel upon which it is based, but at least it is faithful to the existential desert of meaninglessness that is the fallen world, and to the way people either find meaning, or fall apart, mostly based on their own strength and qualities, on the decisions they make, on what they choose to love and what they choose to let go — and not on the basis of “faith” in some way that can be boiled down and externalized in the form of a religion or a book.

But really, personally, neither of these is the post-apocalyptic film we deserve and need right now: it seems somewhat baffling to me that we haven’t seen a major global-warming-based apocalypse movie from the West in so very long. Ecocatastrophe, sure: 2012 did that, albeit badly, just as a few other films (the Korean flick Haeundae, for example, or the Japanese film I’d guess was released in English Japan Sinks, based on an older Japanese SF novel — I never saw the latter, mind, but it was ecocatastrophe). But climate change catastrophe? It’s been ages.

So how about it? When will we get a really horrifying vision of global warming as a great devastator? Not some random Mayan calendar crap. Not some Mad Max roleplaying junk. Not some paean to the Bible.

A film that hammers home that this climate change stuff really could be the end of us. Not just a reason to emigrate to Mexico or Thailand or India — as in The Day After Tomorrow — but the end of humanity. A film that uses that conceit to motivate its characters, and get audiences thinking about whether, maybe, just maybe, even the off-chance might be worth us paying a little attention to what the scientific community’s saying about climate change?

All those Hollywood execs and directors driving those Priuses (well, who were driving them until the scandal) would, you’d think, have realized that people would be way more worried about global warming if we gave them a movie about just how badly it could screw things up.

The Day After Tomorrow, as problematic as it was, at least was a climate change apocalypse — at least it was very vaguely pointing in a direction like where we ought to be, er, worrying most energetically, though I think it could have been done much better. But I’m more concerned that it’s been six long years since we’ve seen anything like a serious try at another global warming apocalypse on the big screen, while in the space of only a few months we have two Cold War-styled, strongly-implied nuke-out visions in one winter? It looks like a regression to me, I have to confess: I don’t think someone can claim to have seriously imagined the near (say, century-range) future without taking climate into account. Jetse de Vries argued that the lack of optimism in SF is due to laziness, but it seems to me even the dystopias in our cinematic SF are fundamentally lazy.

And, hey, I thought Hollywood loved making feature films out of novels after their authors were dead. So why hasn’t someone made a film of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up?

(Or is it, as many people have suggested, so much like our real world now to be all that SFnal anymore? I haven’t yet read it, I’ll confess… but it’s on my list of books I hope to get to this year.)

4 thoughts on “On Recent Post-Apocalyptic Films

  1. I’ve spent too much time on the rant in the previous blog entry, so I’ll keep this comment short.

    Stephen King “The Stand.” It has both scientific and Biblical apocalypse in one! (It’s still my favorite Stephen King book, and while the TV version did not do justice to the book, it was still one of the better King adapations – though frankly, King himself would admit that that’s not pretty hard.) While King does not miss all the flaws that you talk about above, he did avoid the most blatant ones.

    For an example of an post-apocalypse book done right, you may want to check out “Lucifer’s Hammer” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. You would probably not agree with its politics, but it does avoid almost all of the obvious errors.

  2. Huh, that’s an interesting one. Ha, King’s Cell is on my shelf here somewhere, but I haven’t read anything by King beyond a few short stories.

    I do remember liking an earlier King apocalypse, when I was younger, but mostly just because of a semii-trailer-truck with a giant green goblin head on the front. Ah, yes, Maximum Overdrive, which I’m sure I’d hate now. :)

    Niven and Pournelle, huh? Yes, I’m sure the politics would be enough to make me shout and rail, but I’ll look into it once I have room on the shelf.

    Weirdly, the most interesting end-of-the-world story I’ve read in ages was Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. Sure, it’s time travel, black plague, but it feels like a kind of end of the world for the characters in it. Quite comparable to The Road in feeling and mood, though it convinced me much more than McCarthy did.

    By the way, just saw Zombieland, and while it definitely isn’t what I called for in an apocalyptic film, I loved it for other reasons.

  3. Zombieland.
    Yeah, nice fuzzy film for the whole family … about the meaning of what it means to be family… :)

  4. It really is. Also, I suspect, it’s somehow the utter embodiment of the American dream: you can have any car you want, go anywhere you like, and do almost anything you can imagine. But — and this is usually left out — you have to fight like hell against dehumanized masses of “others” in order to do it. :)

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