For as long as civilizations have existed, people have held a grim fascination with their own annihilation. Stories depicting the apocalypse have become a mainstay for artists, with a tradition that extends to the Biblical tales of Noah and Revelations. These works have tapped into a shared human interest in the ways that our collective foibles, excesses, and oversights might lead us to ruination.
In our contemporary context, one of the most popular sub-genres of film that has evolved from our fixation with the death drive is the post-apocalyptic model, which has enjoyed sustained popularity since the beginning of the twentieth century. Like their historical predecessors, these films serve a specific role. They identify flaws in the well-oiled machinery of society and project them out to their cataclysmic ends, thereby plainly illustrating the consequences of deep-rooted problems and providing opportunities for public change.
While post-apocalyptic fiction has a history of addressing social dilemmas, especially during the Cold War era when fears of nuclear holocaust were a pervasive fixture of modern life, the present state of the genre marks a departure from topicality. These films have largely remained suspended in an antiquated context, with most continuing to fall under the Atomic Era model popularized by 1979’s Mad Max, rather than adapting to changing crises. With such a rich history of social consciousness, one must ask why there is a lack of post-apocalyptic fiction addressing the most pertinent and threatening ecological catastrophe facing human existence—global warming.
Post-apocalyptic fiction’s modern genesis can be tracked to Mary Shelley’s influential novel, The Last Man (1828). Adopting Shelley’s framework, succeeding artists continued to shape the iconography and traditions that remain the standard for post-apocalyptic works today. These formulas often center on survivors of a catastrophic event that razed the landscape of the world and made modern social structures irrelevant. The wandering loners travel throughout the decimated ruins while resorting to unscrupulous and desperate means to endure the harrowing conditions of lawlessness. These existentially horrific stories succeed because they channel modern humanity’s fear of its own primal nature, placing it in a world without order or morality. By frightening its audience, these movies demand a reflection on the ways that our negative actions can lead to the formation of these horrifying, yet preventable, futures.
Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the post-World War II era, the heyday of post-apocalyptic fiction. The dawning of the Cold War with the Soviet Union brought with it deep fears of nuclear proliferation. With the potential for imminent global destruction permeating daily life, some civilians began feeling a newfound sense of insignificance. Their leaders, who were locked into a chess match with nuclear bombs as their pawns, solely controlled their fates. Channeling the anxieties of a future that seemed inevitably marked by destruction, artists started to explore the apocalypse awaiting them. Literary giants like Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison began imagining a future where the weapons of World War III rendered the world a deserted wasteland, populated by horrifically mutated beings.
While enjoying great success in the literary realm, post-apocalyptic fiction failed to achieve mainstream appeal until Hollywood adapted the genre for feature films, thereby giving the world a vivid depiction of future ruination. Movies such as A Boy and His Dog (1975) and the aforementioned Mad Max series created a visual definition of Atomic Era post-apocalyptic fiction that would permeate its way throughout popular culture. These films influenced a great deal of imitators spanning a variety of media including graphic novels and computer games. In addition to being extremely successful, they continued to illustrate to the general public the world that the Atomic Era would reap. While any insinuation that these films caused real global change would be overstated (Mad Max certainly didn’t end the Cold War), what can be said is that they addressed and highlighted the anxieties of their historical context, thereby playing an important social role.
While post-apocalyptic fiction has sustained itself largely due to its adeptness at reflecting socially current topics, the recent state of the genre has been marked by stagnation. Films have either continued to emphasize the antiquated anxieties of the Cold War or have begun concocting fictional threats instead of addressing the most pressing crisis humanity faces—global warming. In recent months, the World Meteorological Organization has registered greenhouse gases at historically high levels, which are accelerating at an alarming rate, while the International Energy Agency has announced that without drastic reduction of gases in the next five years, the world will reach a critical state that would make it impossible for global warming to return to a controllable level. In addition, many experts now believe that the Arctic ice caps could be devoid of ice within fifteen years.
Clearly, humanity is on the precipice of an ecological disaster that would cause widespread devastation. Yet, despite this incipient ecological disaster, post-apocalyptic films, whose sole mission is to depict potentially cataclysmic scenarios, are conspicuously silent. Movies such as Book of Eli and The Road remain suspended in a cultural milieu that presents far less danger than it once did. While nuclear proliferation remains a chief issue at the present, the decimation that is being wrought on our planet daily should be the primary priority.
By eschewing the stark reality of the present for the pastiche of Cold War concerns, the makers of post-apocalyptic fiction have done a great disservice. We should be witnessing a bevy of films transporting us to drowned metropolises, where people displaced by changing climates brutally compete for depleted food and resources. Instead, we are still inundated with every other possible disaster, most of which are deliberately ludicrous. In large volumes, films have depicted apocalypses caused by global wars, the walking undead, extraterrestrials, Mayan calendars, the Rapture, robots and viruses, yet climate change is grossly underrepresented.
The question then becomes, why? Looking at our culture’s response to global warming helps to provide some answers. Despite a growing consensus within the scientific community about the legitimacy of global warming and humans’ responsibility for it, both skeptics and high-powered officials have succeeded in suspending change by manufacturing a dubious debate about the subject. With such a “debate” in existence, some news outlets have refused to address the situation as a crisis, leaving the general population uncertain of the severity. Without being alerted of ecological updates by some in the media, we are left assuming that the problem is an overblown “disaster,” much like Y2K and the Ozone layer depletion. While the lack of interest in global warming is certainly caused partly by under exposure, it is also exacerbated by over exposure in some circles. Those that make the effort to stay informed are so bombarded with information that they have become desensitized to the constant warning signs and have become hopeless due to a lack of action by those in power. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and too many are feeling fine.
Yet, all of these concerns are meaningless when one realizes that the real culprit of the under-representation is Hollywood itself, which has never let a controversial issue get in the way of its ability to make a profit. In addition to the consistent popularity of post-apocalyptic movies over the last 40 years, films that address global warming have also done well at the box office. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) is currently the sixth highest grossing documentary of all time with two others in the top five (March of the Penguins
and Earth) also addressing the topic. As for features, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) (which may have done more to sensationalize and over-simplify the problem than draw attention to it) garnered an international gross of $544 Million. Obviously, there is a history of profitability for these films, as well as a cultural predisposition for them to flourish. As horror flicks and conservative news channels have proven, some audiences traditionally fear, not just to address it, but also to be informed of what they should be afraid of in the first place. For many, in the twenty-first century, fear has replaced sex as the most effective advertising tool. If you petrify them, they will come.