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John Scalzi – Why We Love Our Post-Apocalyptic Flicks

Before I begin this week’s column, I’d like to mention something which I don’t think I’ve mentioned before, which is: Hey, kids, I take requests! If there’s something you’d like me to address here on AMC, involving science fiction and fantasy movies, why not shoot me an e-mail asking me about it? I’m always happy to take suggestions from the audience, since it means a) it’s a topic I know at least one of you is interested in, and b) it means I don’t have come up with a topic on my own. Everybody wins!

The reason I mention this today is that, in fact, I have a request, from Liz R., who writes:

My sweetie and I decided to have a Mad Max marathon over the weekend, and while we were watching got into a conversation about post-apocalyptic science fiction, and why it seems so popular in film. We both had different theories and wondered if you had any thoughts on the matter.

Why, yes, Liz, indeed, I do. Post-apocalyptic science fiction film has been popular for decades, going back at the very least to 1959’s On the Beach (a somewhat high-minded film about the last bit of humanity awaiting nuclear war fallout in Australia) through the Mad Max films and up until last Christmas’ I Am Legend remake and this year’s upcoming adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The end of the world never goes out of style, at least as far as film is concerned. And why is this?

1. Because it’s cheap and easy drama: Since I wrote
a military science fiction novel, I often sit on panels where I’m asked
what makes war so interesting to write about. It’s simple: War is a
convenient crucible for human character, and thus, for drama. Lots of
stuff is going on, almost all of it stressful and all of it dangerous,
so you have an extreme circumstance in which to show off your
character’s personality.

The post-apocalyptic setting is very much the same sort of thing.
People in these movies are almost always at loose ends one way or
another, and in a savage setting that closely resembles war — watch The Road Warrior or I Am Legend
for confirmation of that — and the main character is almost being
tested in some way. The extremity of situation makes it exciting and
gives you sympathy for the character — if you don’t sympathize with
Will Smith’s lonely predicament in I Am Legend, there’s something a little wrong with you.

Also — and here’s where the Mad Max angle comes in — it
makes it easy to get away with a lot of action you would have to
explain away in something approximating the real world. Mad Max isn’t
going to be Mad Max in a normal world, or even in one approximating it
— note how long it takes in the very first film, in which civilization
is still hanging on by its fingernails, for Max to really get mad. But
the automotive rage in The Road Warrior? Just another post-apocalyptic day at the office, folks.

2. Because they speak to our fears: Every
generation of filmgoer gets the post-apocalyptic world they fear the
most. In the ’70s and particularly the ’80s, the apocalypse that fueled
our fears was nuclear; we dropped the bomb and now everything’s gone to
hell. Waterworld (which
was more financially successful than people remember) addressed the
idea of an ecological apocalypse — badly, yes, but even so.

These days, our apocalypses seem to be more biologically-oriented than anything else: See 28 Days Later or Doomsday or I Am Legend,
in which viruses and plagues wipe us off the face of the earth. In both
cases, filmmakers are letting audiences engage in a little bit of
play-acting, which is to say, getting a little of the experience of
what it would be like to live in a world where the missiles flew, or
disease killed off everyone we knew. Whether these imagined futures are
at all accurate is of course beside the point (they almost certainly
aren’t, any more than action films are an accurate portrayal of
day-to-day life right now); they’re still visceral run-throughs for

3. Because happy futures are boring: Seriously, the
future in which humanity survives and lives happily ever after? Nice to
live in, but would you want to watch it for two hours? It’s not for
nothing that in the best example of a “happily ever after” science
fiction scenario we have — Star Trek and its largely peaceful
United Federation of Planets — we spend most of our time on the
fringes of the universe, in spaceships that are exploring “strange new
worlds” — that is, places that the “happily ever after” hasn’t got to
yet. You probably wouldn’t want to live in the future of Mad Max, or Waterworld, or I Am Legend, but watching them for a couple of hours, popcorn in hand and the apocalypse safely on the other side of the screen? That’s entertainment, my friends. Better them than us.

I hope that answers your question, Liz. Thoughts on post-apocalyptic
flicks? Put ’em in the comment thread. Requests for topics? Send me an e-mail.

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale, which was released this week. His column appears every Thursday.

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