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Watching the World Burn: The Appeal of Post Apocalyptic Films

Evan Crean Evan Crean
January 15th, 2010 9:35am EST
Book of Eli

On December 31, 1999, the world sat poised to enter a new millennium unsure exactly of what lay ahead. After people got over the initial shock that Y2K did not plunge us into the total chaos predicted by computer experts, somewhat disappointed, they went back to their usual business.

Now that it's the year 2010, a decade into the new era, the next big year people suspect the world could end is 2012, in accordance with the termination of the Mayan calendar. In 2009, people flocked to see "2012" a Roland Emmerich film fictionally portraying the same prophesied destruction the year is supposed to bring.

This week Denzel Washington's Book of Eli opens in theaters. In a post-apocalyptic America, one man (Washington) fights to protect that sacred tome that could hold the key to the survival of the human race.

As a people, why are we so obsessed with the means of our destruction and the landscape after the dust settles?

A hypothesis is that we're just morbidly curious. Acutely aware of our own mortality, we know that there's enough suffering and evil in the world that if normal life were to cease, society is headed more towards a grim future than a utopian one.

Since we are also an incredibly vain as a race, we wonder what the world would be like without our species to look after its grand monuments. As the simulations of life without humans show us, our structures would crumble from years of abusive weather and disrepair if we disappeared.

What if we didn't disappear however, but instead catastrophic events led to the end of civilized existence? Many films come to mind that show us exactly what that bleak life would look like. Some of these films leave us with more plausible causes for society's problems, while others prefer to run with wilder ideas.

From a list of popular post apocalyptic films made over the past couple of decades, there are two overarching apocalyptic scenarios: disease and human arrogance. This is not to say that there aren't variations on these two themes or subsets of them, but the ultimate root issues leading to the end fall into these categories.

Major disease that wipes out 99 percent of the world's population is the source of the world's problems in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time travel thriller "12 Monkeys" starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. While Animals walk the Earth's surface, humans live below ground away from the contamination. Civilization's leaders send criminals back in time to find the source of the virus so that it can be stopped.

There is no indication the future can actually be salvaged, however this movie at least presents the hope that time travel could allow humanity to avoid its disastrous fate, not something many pictures of the genre offer.

Disease is ultimately responsible for the downfall of man in the zombie films "28 Days Later," "28 Weeks Later," and "Zombieland." Spread rapidly by transmission from one infected human to another, people are transformed into mindless drones, intent on feeding on one another. "I Am Legend", starring Will Smith, represents a similar path where the infected people act more like vampires than the zombies of other stories.

28 Weeks Later

Image © Fox Atomic



These types of post apocalyptic stories tend to be popular with audiences because they offer a more definite end to the human race. Even though some people live, their survival in most instances just postpones their inevitable fall to the stronger hoard of zombies.

Human arrogance, the other large source of humanity's end of days in movies comes from overconfidence in our own inventions and overuse of our natural resources.

In the "Mad Max" series, Mel Gibson plays a man in a society ruled by its need for fuel. The people of Max's world have used gasoline to such scarcity, that the few who possess it are the ones with power. They will kill and fight one another just to claim what's left of the precious resource.

Society's dependence on gasoline as such a vital natural resource in daily life, is a logical development as something to cause disorder and chaos in the future, where without alternate fuel sources, the world cease to function normally. Admittedly, this concept was more powerful to moviegoers in the 1980s when the world experienced a gas shortage, and alternative energy was not widespread or practical.

Overconfidence in its own inventions is the cause of society's collapse in the "Terminator" series. The human invention of intelligent artificial life backfires when the machines become self-aware and decide they no longer need their human creators.

2009's "Terminator: Salvation" shows the brunt of the blows machines have dealt to humans. People are no longer the masters; they struggle every day for survival, searching for an equalizer against the superior technology the robots hold.

An inherent fear of technology overtaking the human race as we develop smarter machines is something natural to our progression as a species. As much as we'd like to think of machines designed with benevolent intent, just as humans are flawed, machines designed with the human hand have just as great of a potential for evil. Fortunately for us, that technology seems far away from reality.

Even though the end of the world isn't in sight for humanity, people will continue to be fascinated by watching the world burn in post apocalyptic movies. It reminds them of their own mortality and the need to appreciate each day of our life as a gift, because we might not always have such a lucky existence.

Terminator Salvation

Image © Warner Bros.



Evan Crean
Story by Starpulse contributing writer Evan Crean, a movie trivia guru and trailer addict with a practically photographic memory of actors and directors. Get a first look at the movies premiering each week, which which ones will be worth your $10, which ones you should wait to rent and which ones aren't worth your time.