What is it about apocalyptic movies that make them so appealing? Why does the end of the world seem to be the most prominent aspect of speculative fiction? It’s an aspect that we may not question as much when we get lost in the allure of dread and style.
The initial appeal draws from current concerns. Much dystopian fiction is not written as some wild idea but based on events that are currently happening in our own timeline. “1984” was not just some predictive dream that George Orwell had; it was based on current politics of the era regarding formations after World War II. This aspect seems to become lost over time, the more people observe the authoritarian state of 1984 as more of an astute prediction than a reflection of the time.
But what do apocalyptic movies say about our world? The more concrete answer is that they are cautionary tales about rising social and cultural aspects. Some stories focus on technology and how a reliance on such advancements can ultimately doom humanity if we are labeled obsolete.
Some take aim at the media, as with how Max Headroom depicted a world where commercials can literally kill you. And some stories focus on the more immediate concerns of civil rights, as with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its focus on female reproductive rights being squashed in the name of religious ideals.
On a broader level, there’s the questioning of how a collapse in society will affect humans. When the resources run out and civilization loses all order, what will become of us? Will there be cults like in “Mad Max” or just a desolate wasteland of nothing and nobody?
It’s an intriguing question considering it may very well happen in the future and we may not know when. Whether it’s climate change, nuclear war, or just a giant asteroid hitting the planet, there’s so many possibilities to how this little blue rock will either be demolished or become devoid of life.
Apocalyptic movies also have a distinct look about them that conveys a certain mood. Take a look at “Blade Runner 2049”, the modern sequel to Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk classic. Ryan Gosling character of K seeks out the lost detective Deckard in a dead city of casinos and statues.
Shot in Hungary, this scene depicts Las Vegas as a vast desert, bathed in an orange haze of pollution. The environment feels moody but curious. Other locations, as with the towering skyscrapers of Los Angeles, feel cold and dirty. Society continues after much has fallen but in a lesser state.
Compare that film with something like “The Road”, which showcases what happens when resources become scarce and it’s everybody for themselves. A father and son travel across the world in a shopping cart. The skies are gray, their clothes are drab, and everything around them has this decayed look. This society is not coming back. The hopelessness can be felt all around in this depressing picture.
So which films offer the best examples of taking these dark thoughts of the world ending and transform them into compelling pictures? Well, here’s ten of them to consider if you’re feeling like digging into this subgenre.
1. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
As the most vibrant of the Mad Max movies, “Fury Road” features the clan of Immortan Joe, a grotesque overlord who runs his colony with an iron fist. Women are little more than useful wombs to him, leading to Furiosa rescuing them and Max being roped into the chase. The world is portrayed with great color but also a lot of desolation and dogma, where belief erodes morality.
2. “These Final Hours”
There is a happy ending for “These Final Hours”. The Earth is doomed and it’s only a matter of time before the world ends. With mere hours left before an asteroid’s impact covers the planet, James seeks out his girlfriend in Australia as the last person he wants to be with when it all ends. He’ll have to make that journey with a lost child, however, and witness the horrors humanity is capable of when all hope is lost.
When climate change turns the Earth into an inhospitable tundra, the remains of humanity survive on a train. That train, however, is bound by a strict class system that forces the poor into a state totalitarian rule. When the poor have lost all hope, however, they rebel in an effort to take back the train, not realizing that there may be something much worse at play in this most vivid depiction of class struggle amid the end of the world.
4. “Blade Runner 2049”
Los Angeles 2049 is a cold and lonely place, where memories are tampered with. The aims of a corporation are what leads to this corrupted state of not just a polluted world but a world without trust or humanity. True to Phillip K. Dick source material, the film presents a world where identity is something that is horrifyingly not within our control when higher powers dictate all for a world dependent on technology.
“Greenland” is a disaster picture which finds the Earth mere days away from an asteroid impact that will wipe out nearly all life on the planet. The only hope for humanity relies on underground shelters but with so few of these that can’t possibly harbor all of Earth, desperate times lead to concerns about what will kill you first: the asteroid or the people.
Set in the futuristic city of Neo-Tokyo, “AKIRA” has been considered a cyberpunk classic for how a police state and a failed government is not the least bit ready to handle the coming of those with psychic powers. Tetsuo, one of the latest subjects of such powers, uses this ability to control the world to bring about rebellion in his rage for power.
What will happen when there are no more humans? The stop-motion adventure film “9” tries to answer this question where a collective of stitched puppets come to life in a world where humans are extinct. It’s a compelling and creepy tale of survival in a world that somehow seems even more cruel when the human factor is removed.
Based on the George Orwell novel, “1984” takes place in Oceania where all media is controlled and all thought is monitored. The world is portrayed as cold, uniform, and ripe with propaganda that has turned humanity into a cold collective where unity is more of a chilling component in how inappropriate thoughts are monitored and squashed.
Based on the comic book series, “Dredd” takes place in a filthy future where police are literally the judge, jury, and executioner, labeling themselves as Judges. The top officer of Megacity One is Judge Dredd and his latest assignment finds him handling a high-rise apartment complex run by a gang leader. Arresting that leader proves to be a tough ordeal when the entire complex, desperate for money and rent, is offered a reward for the death of encroaching law-enforcement.
10. “Doctor Strangelove”
In this satire of cold war feud, the end of the world comes about thanks to bickering and immature political leaders. Taking place mostly in the underground war room, leaders argue amongst themselves about what to do when a rogue military officer orders nukes to be dropped in Russia. It’s a darkly comedic and memorable take on the end of the world, capped with scenes of atomic explosions next to the song “We’ll Meet Again.”