Shining, Shimmering, Splendid, A Whole New World: American post-apocalyptic films

The collapse of civilisation and loss of the majority of humanity is the starting point for the thought experiment in The Knowledge. The Introduction explores what sort of world the survivors of the cataclysm might find themselves in, and the challenges they’d face thriving in the immediate aftermath and striving to rebuild civilisation from the ground up. The book touches upon many tropes of post-apocalyptic literature and cinema, which are expanded upon elsewhere in this website (e.g. best post-apocalyptic movies, best post-apocalpytic bookspost-apocalyptic art, ruin photography). In this guest blog post, Emma Anne James (Twitter) takes a closer, analytical look at the body of American post-apocalyptic films – their common themes, key differences, and problems with their underlying ideals. Emma is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of History of Art and Film, University of Leicester, writing her PhD thesis on this very topic. Also see Emma’s comprehensive list of 78 post-apocalyptic films from the last 80 years of cinema history.


Fiction has provided a vast range of speculation on what happens after the end. These visions range from the sublime, such as James Tiptree Jr’s short story The Man Who Walked Home, to the ridiculous, like the 1988 film Hell Comes to Frogtown. Only a small minority of narratives focus on the practicalities of rebuilding, the topic of The Knowledge, and prefer instead to emphasise the adventure of survival. But there is also a stranger trend at work – in American post-apocalyptic films rebuilding is not only ignored it is actively rejected.

To understand this idea it is important to recognise the differences between different sub-genres. There are three main ‘bleak future’ narratives: dystopian, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. Dystopias are set in a fully functioning but malevolent society. Though the conditions are awful there are institutions such as medicine and finance that we would recognise. Apocalyptic films are set during a major disaster such as an earthquake or alien invasion. The disaster is almost always averted in these films and society continues. Post-apocalyptic films are set after an apocalyptic event. There is no structure and no society. Humanity has returned to a more primitive and brutal mode of existence.

There are differences in the themes too. Apocalyptic films are about humanity uniting to use our best resources and innovation to overcome an external threat. Examples would be Independence Day (1996) or Armageddon (1998). These films are very pro-technology, since that is often humanity’s best chance of survival.

In contrast, post-apocalyptic films, particularly in American cinema, are almost always driven by anti-technology, anti-urban, and anti-modernity themes. The premise of the film is that the modern world became so corrupted that it destroyed itself. This leads to a second chance at a pastoral utopia. In American post-apocalyptic films this feeds into the utopian imagination that is so influential in American national identity. In addition, the religious influences on post-apocalyptic narratives mean that visions of utopia are largely based on the Garden of Eden, since that is the only workable concept we have of perfected existence.

The trend towards rejecting a re-building of civilisation stems from these differences and themes. American post-apocalyptic films return the world to a state of primitivism, but the endings of these films suggest the ideal scenario is to stay there. In the 64 films I have surveyed, all but 5 had a utopian ending (see a full list here). These utopias can be sorted into three main categories: a natural paradise, a pastoral farming community, and a Middle American small town.

All three of these environments have several qualities in common: they are based on a rural way of life, they are small in area and limited in population numbers, they are only sustainable if re-building is vastly curtailed. These environments are framed in the films as perfect; a refuge from the threats and fears posed by both the post-apocalyptic wasteland and the failures on modern life. There are two scenarios for these utopias: one is to develop normally but that would mean a return to technology and cities which these films so clearly reject, or to remain as they are

The problems with the second option can be demonstrated in an example from the high art classic (!) Waterworld (1995). Waterworld is set in a future where sea levels have risen to the extent that all human life survives on boats or floating townships called atolls. The ending of Waterworld sees Helen, her adopted daughter Enola, a man called The Enforcer, an old man called Gregor, and the film’s hero the Mariner finding the only dry land left – a beautiful tropical island. There is fresh water, horses, fish, some fruit, and a hut. The Mariner leaves because he prefers the sea. The audience is left to assume this is a happy ending when in fact it’s a very disturbing scenario for the following reasons:

  • Either the group remains the same size in which case even if Helen and the Enforcer have children (or she is already pregnant by the Mariner) and those children later have babies with Enola when they are adults, there is no future for humanity without incest.
  • The other alternative is to somehow find the atollers (town’s people) and bring them to the island, creating a population of about thirty people (still not enough to repopulate). But there is then the opposite problem – if all these people have children the island (the only viable environment left) cannot sustain them.
  • In addition, the islanders will live in a permanently pastoral state. Though even this might be difficult since there is hardly an abundance of tools with which to build shelter, hunt, or cultivate the land.
  • Thus, humanity will live as we did in prehistoric times, there will be no return to modern civilisation.

There are related issues in I Am Legend (2007), which ends with a walled-off small town, apparently run by the military. Compared to some utopian scenarios this seems a relatively well-equipped and well-thought out environment – provided there are only a tiny number of children. For the small town to survive and function it must remain just that, small. Either other settlements must be built, or reclaimed, or the population must be very tightly controlled. Even if there are a number of other small towns eventually the population will grow to the extent that cities are once again necessary. So the cycle begins again.

Similar problems arise in other utopias. The basic difficulty of controlling population growth suggests a lack of sustainability, before more complex issues such as laws, religion, food distribution and sanitation arise. But that is not the point of nostalgia and wish fulfilment – the utopias provide a vision of escape not a realistic solution.

For a brilliant satire of these very problems see the film A Boy and His Dog (1975). While it is still quite a shocking film in places, particularly in the main character’s treatment of women, it lampoons the incestuous, traditionalist, dystopian implications of these utopian scenarios by creating a vision that the critic Jerome Shapiro called “Orwell’s vision of a Big Brother society in 1984, but dressed in Walt Disney’s vision of Main Street, USA”.

A far more nuanced representation of the conflict between technology and primitivism can be found in sections of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and to a lesser extent the film adaptation of the same title.

Emma Anne James

Further Reading:

The Knowledge Want to read more about the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our modern world works, and how you could reboot civilisation if you ever needed to...? Check out The Knowledge - available now in paperback, Kindle and audiobook.

Comments are closed.