I can’t really say why so many of us are drawn to movies about what happens after the end of the world. Maybe we just want to believe that there will be something after the end of the world.
On a sociological level, it’s the opportunity for a blank slate. It’s the idea of what happens after the final scene of Fight Club, when the financial records of all the world have been erased.
The apocalypse is a chance for every one of us to become something different, a chance to backtrack on the many mistakes that we’ve racked up over the years.
The surface-level ugliness of the after-times is unimportant compared to the opportunity to be someone of importance, a folk hero who says what they mean, who does the right thing because doing anything else is getting old.
So while we may pray that these dark times don’t, in fact, lead to financial ruin and a worldwide oil crisis and roving packs of zombies, movies that let us play around with the idea of any (or all) of these are just plain fun.
Ok, that’s enough of a buildup. Let’s just get into it.
Here are some of the best post-apocalyptic survival movies of the last few decades.
I Am Legend – 2007
It’s a zombie movie, yes. And I hesitated to include a zombie movie on the list because they tend to belong to their very own genre.
But as it turns out, I Am Legend is not a movie that cares all that much about the zombies. They just serve as a threat.
They’re the reason we get worried about Will Smith’s wellbeing.
I Am Legend is a movie about survival in the face of a hopeless future. And nowadays that scenario is pretty darn relatable.
It’s based on a book of the same name, a book I haven’t read. More important is how well the story was adapted for the screen.
Our protagonist happens to be a scientist man, one who’s working hard towards a cure-all that will help bring humanity back to its normal state.
The last thing he expected to see was other survivors.
I rewatched this movie about a week ago, just to keep it fresh in my mind. And while you can apply any number of metaphors to this one, this time around I felt like it was an allegory for social isolation.
To part the curtain just a bit, I happen to work from home. And the general lack of social activity in my day-to-day life has only contributed to my ever-present social anxiety, which I’ve been cultivating for years.
This time around, I saw myself as Will Smith, a guy used to being alone, working and working and working with no expectations to see tangible results any time soon.
And by the time I see a real human person, I’m mildly shocked. I don’t have the tools to interact with them.
So I guess in a way I’m already doing the post-apocalyptic survival thing, albeit a very lame version of it. [Insert Twilight Zone theme music here.]
Anyway, that’s just a way of saying that the movie holds up, and that it can mean very different things to different people, just like any truly great movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road – 2015
It’s hard to keep this movie off any list of the best post-apocalyptic films.
It’s the best Mad Max movie ever made, as well as the best George Miller film (Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City are tied for second place, in case you were wondering).
It’s about a guy who just wants to live, and to do that he’s purposefully forgotten all the things he used to care about. (If you’ve ever worked a corporate office job, then you’re likely already familiar with this methodology.)
I’m delighted to say that I went into this movie completely blind. One or two people recommended it, so I went.
By the time the explosive title came onto the screen, I was always awkwardly cuddling/smooching one of my Top 5 Worst Ex-Girlfriends.
But that title…
It pulled me away immediately. It was loud. It was too much. It looked awful, and at the same time, it was perfect. It told me exactly what I was in for.
It was nearly impossible to pull my eyes away from the screen for the rest of the runtime, and that’s saying something.
My attention span is close to that of a fruit fly these days, but every time I put on Mad Max: Fury Road, I am no longer myself. I am a temporary citizen of the afterworld, where guzzoline is running dry and the world itself is long dead.
Forget about the incredible practical effects. Forget about the almost wordless acting done here to perfection. Forget about one of the most invasive and thrilling movie scores of recent history.
This is a movie that takes you someplace else. It’s as close as we’ll get in our lifetimes to teleportation.
Snowpiercer – 2013
Snowpiercer is a lesson in Korean cinema. For those who were previously unfamiliar with the style, this movie served as an introduction for what a revenge movie looks like when done right.
At its heart, this is a movie about class struggle, and it will likely appear on a few other lists in the future that have anything to do with anti-Capitalist media.
But for now, we’ll just focus on how Snowpiercer accomplishes worldbuilding effectively and still delivers on action and a tasty portrayal of sci-fi future times.
The poor folks at the back of an infinite train fight their way to the front of the train to demand better conditions and ultimately control of the train itself.
No one aboard can leave the train for fear of freezing to death in an instant.
I know I know, the social commentary is hard to avoid, but let’s push through.
This movie is filthy, and it makes you feel filthy in the process. It takes a long hard look at how human beings treat each other, especially when face-to-face with death.
The world of the movie is communicated visually, with very few breaks for outright exposition.
Best of all, we know nothing about what happened to the rest of the world, to the rest of humanity. It’s a movie that stays small, all while having very big things to say.
Threads – 1984
Threads straddles the line between apocalypse and post-apocalypse. And it does it in the most realistic, sickening, nightmare-inducing way possible.
This was a TV movie released in 1984, co-produced by the BBC. That’s right. The same company behind Doctor Who and countless Shakespeare adaptations helped make a movie about nuclear warfare in Great Britain.
Threads is the only movie here on the list of the best post-apocalyptic survival movies that you should not watch. Don’t watch this movie.
Yes, it’s wonderful. But don’t watch it.
While perusing the Wikipedia page for this particular film, I found an excellent review from Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian that sums up the kind of visceral effect this movie elicits in viewers:
“It wasn’t until I saw Threads that I found that something on screen could make me break out in a cold, shivering sweat and keep me in that condition for 20 minutes, followed by weeks of depression and anxiety.”
Is that enough to convince you?
It’s meant to be a painstakingly accurate portrayal of what life would be like immediately before, during, and after worldwide nuclear warfare.
Back in the mid-80s, the Cold War was still pretty hot, and Britain, along with just about every other country on Earth, was caught somewhere in the middle of this petty ideological feud.
We follow a few very normal characters through their daily lives and their plans for their future, all of which are interrupted by the firing of nuclear arsenals.
We have to watch a small town in the countryside deal with mass death, deformation, starvation, and, eventually, the loss of human language.
Don’t watch this movie. And if you do, feel free to comment below, warning other folks not to make the same mistake you did.