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Unraveling Modern Day Apocalyptic Movies

I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.

A painting of an apocalyptic city.

Introduction

When it comes to the future, Hollywood usually paints a bleak picture. From monsters to zombies to natural or human-caused global destruction, the future is looking pretty bad for people. This isn’t anything new, but the apocalyptic films of today are much different from those in the past. They’re also more prevalent, requiring each one to come up with its own “villain,” say something unique about what it means to be human, and comments on what we have done to contribute to or deserve our fate. Let’s break it down below.

Poster for "A Quiet Place" listing the rules for survival in this world.

It Needs a Gimmick

Every modern day apocalyptic movie needs something that sets it apart from the others. The force of nature that is destroying the earth or specifically targeting humans needs to be unique and needs to make a point. It also needs to have its own set of rules, and the characters need to work within the limits of those rules to survive.

In Children of Men, the issue is infertility. In Innerstellar, famine is at fault. In Cloverfield, it’s monsters. In Signs, it’s aliens. In World War Z, it’s one of the many incarnations of zombies. In Stranger Things, it’s interdimensional creatures. The villain takes many forms, and it leads to countless situations which threaten humanity.

Many of these movies piggy back off of each other yet still try to do their own thing. For instance, in A Quiet Place, sound attracts the creatures. In Bird Box, it’s sight. Both deal with family relationships, include a scene of a woman giving birth, and depict placing precedence on raising children who can survive over those who feel that they are loved. However, the two films are also very different. One is battling monsters, and the other is fighting a spiritual entity. One deals with a traditional family. The other is a family born out of the survivors of the chaos. However, they both follow the formula of finding a limitation to put on the heroes and watching them find ways to survive within the parameters of this limitation.

More recently, little focus is put on the event itself. The filmmakers feed hints through flashbacks and background images, such as newspapers or photographs of missing family members, but they don’t spell out the situation, even if it has been going on for some time before the movie even starts. The focus is on the present, and whatever has happened before needs to be understood in the choices that the characters make and the visual clues that are provided to the audience.

The bikers from "Dawn of the Dead" really mess things up for our heroes.

Humans Are Just as Dangerous, If Not More, Than the Event Itself

While the obvious terrors in these films are usually non-human, perhaps just as dangerous is the behavior of the remaining humans who survive the initial reaping. In times of crisis, a mob mentality takes over in an “every man for himself” eruption of chaos. It’s not good to be part of a crowd during the initial attack. People will step on you, steal from you, or worse.

Chaos brings out the worst human behavior. We see that every day in the news when natural disasters lead to looting, protests lead to riots, and shootings lead to stampeeds. When we’re panicked, we grow selfish in trying to protect ourselves or our family, pushing them ahead in line to the rescue boats or wrestling a loaf of bread from a hungry kid.

Even scarier, though, is being trapped in an area with a person who is not to be trusted – a mysterious stranger who opens their home to you but refuses to let you go into a certain room, a kindly old woman with a devious smile, or the gun-wielding convict who won’t hesitate to blow you away. At the same time, this gives filmmakers the opportunity to play against type. The racist hillbilly will save the African American man. The homophobic woman will befriend the transgender girl. All prejudices and stereotypes go out the window so that the characters who repulse you eventually redeem themselves, and the characters with compassion turn out to be the worse than the creatures circling the boarded-up house.

Michelle in "10 Cloverfield Lane" uses her gut to make numerous survival decisions.

Female Heroes

This genre of films is one where female characters really stand out. The protagonist is usually female, usually headstrong, damaged, levelheaded, and tough. She’s not usually the most colorful character in the bunch, but she is the one you are rooting for to survive. There is usually a strong, compassionate man at her six, letting her lead the way but also backing her up and sometimes sacrificing himself for her survival.

This trope can be traced to young Barbara from Night of the Living Dead. While not the hero, she is the girl that audiences follow from the beginning of the movie. After fleeing from the first zombie attack of the film, she goes comatose from the shock of the experience and relies on do-gooder Ben to keep her safe. Things don’t end well for her, nor does she do much to help during the attack, but her status has gradually transformed the young, vulnerable women in these films into the final girl hero.

Best of all, there are still strides that can be made with these final girl characters, from punching up their personalities to giving them skill sets usually inhabited by other characters. Now that the groundwork has been laid, filmmakers can build more well-rounded characters who are more relatable but still admirable to all audience members.

Stokely uses her knowledge of alien movies to battle the aliens who are taking over her school.

It Acknowledges a Catalog of Movie History to Aid in the Fight

Filmmakers know that the idea of setting a story around a catastrophic, possibly world-ending, event is old news to audiences. So, it only makes sense to incorporate that knowledge into these modern stories. Not only does it challenge the writers to combat this knowledge with additional conflict, but it keeps them from talking down to the audience. So, they create at least one voice within the story to act as the audience and to tell less-assuming characters what’s up.

There’s always that one character who knows what to do because they are a connoisseur of zombie movies or are well-read on ancient mythologies that mirror the situation they are in. This knowledge usually comes in handy, or at least helps to test the rules of that particular story. Will a head shot kill the creature? Will a particular trap work? Let’s try it and find out.

Sometimes this character is not taken seriously, usually because they are low on the social totem pole or are so passionate about the subject that they come off as unreliable. They may even suffer from mental illness or behavior quirky enough to keep them from being heard until it is too late. They may be a kid in a room full of adults or full of child-like panic that keeps them from freezing up. However, they are the audience’s hero because they are the audience’s voice, the one that is shouting at the screen for the other characters to listen to them if they want to live.

Sometimes the end of the world means it's time for one last road trip.

Sometimes They Keep It Light

There is nothing like combating horror with humor. Sometimes we have to laugh at the fact that we’re all about to die. So, some films have built true comedies out of apocalyptic situations. It would be nice to know that humans wouldn’t lose their sense of humor upon our impending death. Maybe the situation doesn’t have to be completely hopeless. Maybe it’s a chance to take advantage of quality time over the quantity of remaining time.

Humor clears the path for moral messages to come through. We need to live our lives more fully while we can. We can’t be dead to ourselves and the world. We need to acknowledge the good in our lives. We’d all like to go down fighting, but if humans are up against something we can’t fight, maybe we should enjoy life while it lasts.

"Take Shelter" follows one man who struggles with visions of the end of the world.

It Needs To Be Personal

In the 90’s, apocalyptic movies were ensemble pieces that jumped from one storyline to the next in order to get the scale of the event. Today, the stories are stripped down into more personal accounts. Supporting characters come and go, dishing out information from their points of view, but the story itself is concentrated to one person, one family, one group.

Filmmakers opt for more of a character study that follows someone with a haunted past, someone who questions why they have lived when so many others have died, sometimes with the intention of saving the main character.

Movies are not afraid to explore some of the mental anguish that these high-stress events create. These movies explore the mental toughness of humankind, our motivations for staying alive when the odds are against us, how to find the energy when we are worn out from past trauma, and the hard decisions that we have to make for ourselves and/or others. These are ideas that make us all think about what we would do and what we have done in the past in order to survive our darkest days and how to take that experience and allow us to push ahead rather than remain in the past.

Poll

What are your favorite apocalyptic movies? Leave your answers in the comments below!

Comments

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on February 14, 2019:

Laura

Have to admit, my favourite in this genre would be the dystopian, not quite the 'end of the world' stuff, but a bleak picture.

Probably the 'all time' favourite would be Hunger Games for movies, but in book, it would be 1984.