The postapocalyptic trend in modern sci-fi

"Insurgent" movie poster
Theatrical release poster for Robert Schwentke’s “The Divergent Series: Insurgent” (2015), out today. “Divergent” is yet another sci-fi series that cashes in on pop culture’s obsession with postapocalyptic fiction. (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia).

After writing about The Hunger Games Trilogy on Wednesday and The Divergent Series yesterday, I got the idea to turn my opinions on postapocalyptic science fiction into a full-blown blog series – a trilogy, if you will. Or, if you count my “Top 11 sci-fi movies of all time” list from March 2 as the first in this cycle, then this post will be my fourth on the subject, since adding fourth installments onto trilogies seems to be all the rage these days, what with Allegiant by Veronica Roth (the Divergent finale) getting the Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn treatment.

And that brings us to my first point: what with Hollywood shoving as much of their shameless Hunger Games rip-off down our throats as possible, and needlessly splitting Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins into two movies, there’s obviously quite the market for postapocalyptic fiction. Wes Ball’s The Maze Runner (2014) is another example. When did kids go from reading about Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, to reading about teenagers killing each other in a televised fight to the death?

If The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, and Divergent weren’t bestsellers, they wouldn’t have gotten adapted into movies. They have legions of followers, ready, willing, and able to pay for movie tickets, even if it means buying two tickets to one movie (i.e. Mockingjay and Allegiant). It costs nothing to write a book, but it costs millions to make a movie, and so filmmakers need to feel confident that they’ll earn a profit before they shoot a frame of film.

Why is this generation paying to read books and watch movies about uprisings against evil governments? Where did the modern zombie craze come from, between AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-?) and Marc Forster’s World War Z (2013)? What is the future for sci-fi?

Step into my DeLorean and let’s find out when the genre went from “robots” and “spaceships” to “totalitarianism” and “plague.”

A Long Time Ago In A Republic Far, Far Away…

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), filmed and released in Weimar Germany, is the first feature-length science fiction film. The first ever science fiction film is Georges Méliès’s twelve-minute A Trip to the Moon (1902). As influential as Méliès was in the realm of special effects and narrative filmmaking (the Lumière Brothers were dominating the early cinematic arts at the time with their primitive documentary films), Lang’s Metropolis expanded upon the possibilities of the genre first introduced in A Trip to the Moon.

For starters, Metropolis is socially conscious and politically charged. The Weimar Republic was economically devastated by World War I, and Lang’s vision of a futuristic German city proved to be eerily accurate. Just like the cyborg, Maria (Brigitte Helm), seduces the workers of Metropolis into forsaking their own children, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party went on to seduce the workers of Germany into forsaking their own humanity.

That notion of sci-fi as allegorical social commentary caught on in Hollywood after Hitler’s World War II decimated the film industries throughout Germany, France, and the rest of Europe. The Cold War began between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the threat of nuclear annihilation ever present, and, so, sci-fi was given to “mutant” movies like Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954) and “moral panic” movies like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which can easily be read as an “alien invasion” metaphor for the paranoia surrounding the idea of Communism taking over the individualistic American ideology and turning the West into a hive of “pod people.” (Also, monster movies were popular because of drive-in theaters, where adolescents went to have sex in the backs of their cars and didn’t have to pay attention to the unintellectual storylines; the Europeans were interested in the artistry of sci-fi, but Hollywood is interested in the commodification).

The Cold War ended, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. left behind a number of power vacuums in the Middle East (such as the C.I.A. training and funding an intrepid band of freedom fighters known as “al-Qaeda” to resist the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, led by one Osama bin Laden), and Arab leaders were forced to appeal to the radicalism of influential fundamentalist clerics in order to safeguard their own power. The September 11 attacks happened in 2001, and not only were seemingly harmless airplane passenger rising up to kill everybody else onboard, but the American government responded by shipping our young people off to Iraq in 2003, a country that had literally nothing to do with September 11. Saddam Hussein was a secularist, people, he didn’t get along with al-Qaeda, and, if the American people had done a modicum of research, would we have reelected President Bush in 2004, after he laid the groundwork for what we see today with ISIS?

Dystopia

The first of the two subcategories of postapocalyptic sci-fi, dystopia, is preoccupied with totalitarian governmental systems and revolutionary ideals. Historically, it is a subgenre that has been more literary than anything – 1984 by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury come to mind. World-building on this scale is best achieved through the abstractions of the written word, whereas the spectacular imagery of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), for example, are better represented on film.

Interestingly enough, however, even with current technology becoming more and more ubiquitous, today’s cinematic sci-fi isn’t as sparkly and optimistic as, say, The Jetsons was, fifty years ago. In fact, the opposite is true – the costume and set designs in The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent have taken on a drab aesthetic, about as colorful as ink on a page, and the technology present in these films is regressive, even primitive, nothing “futuristic” about it at all, which, perhaps, makes it possible to film these stories, since there isn’t a world to build – the world is over. Yet this is the sci-fi the people are clamoring for nowadays, assuming Hollywood is the litmus test for public tastes.

The settings in these films are colorless because they’re postapocalyptic, of course, but why is there so much anxiety over Armageddon? I think James Cameron’s Terminator films are a valuable case study, with T2: Judgment Day (1991) taking on a biblical connotation in its apocalyptic title. The Terminator is about technology run amok, with characters traveling back in time to save humanity from its own technological progress.

Cameron is an environmentalist, and The Terminator came at a time when science was beginning to understand the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. We’re destroying our planet, and ourselves, with our technology, and The Hunger Games touches on that, its unnamed apocalyptic event having something to do with a massive flood taking place in America (the melting polar ice caps, anyone?). The Hunger Games was also directly inspired by the Iraq War, as author Suzanne Collins cited in an interview, and the way that Americans care more about reality TV than we do about the occupation.

By the time The Hunger Games was published in 2008, the military was in Iraq for longer than it was in World War II, and it was starting to look like another Vietnam War – unwinnable. How does a government, which advertises itself as the greatest on Earth, have the authority to send our friends and family off to get killed? Because we, the people, let it happen, almost as if we’re entertained by it, watching it as passively on CNN as we watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians on E!.

Are you not entertained?” sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a Russell Crowe line from Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), a film about ancient Rome, much like “Panem,” the fictional nation in The Hunger Games, is taken from the Latin expression “panem et circenses,” bread and circuses. The powers that be control us by entertaining us and exploiting our needs, and they do so no matter how far we progress, whether we’re in ancient Rome, modern America, or future America, whether we’re forcing gladiatorial slaves to fight to the death for our own pleasure or forcing teenaged soldiers to kill and be killed so that we can have some more of that planet-killin’ oil we love so much because it allows us to drive to and from McDonald’s all we want.

Even the more “flashy” films, like James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), are decidedly darker in tone, with earthlings looking for other planets to colonize because we’ve drained all the resources on our own. We’ve replaced “alien” invaders with human invaders. If human nature has been the way it is since the Romans, then why are we becoming so disillusioned with it now?

Is it because the nuclear arms race and accelerated climate change have confronted us with the undeniable fact that we might someday be responsible for our own extinction? Is it because we’ve become so technologically advanced, so out of touch with nature, that we’re the only things on Earth capable of destroying one another? Why is it that these artists can’t envision the future without picturing carnage and ruination, as if they’re something new, as if they haven’t been part of the human condition since time immemorial?

The apocalyptic event in The Hunger Games is secondary in the plot to what Suzanne Collins predicts to be the tomorrow of civilization, as though catastrophe is so certain that Collins need not address it any more than she needs to describe the sky as “blue.” In fact, The Hunger Games could achieve much the same storytelling effect without its unspoken apocalypse. Collins felt that, in order to make her future feel more real, to make Panem and the Capitol feel more relevant and possible, she had to place her tale in a postapocalyptic setting, because there’s no way the future will have any other outcome… or is there?

When did we get so pessimistic that we feel like disaster is all but guaranteed for us? When did we make the paradigm shift from the giddiness of NBC’s Star Trek (1966-1969), around the time we won the Space Race with the moon landing, to the bleakness of The Terminator (1984), when President Reagan effectively ended détente and enacted his aggressive militarization policies against the Soviet Union? The United States hasn’t officially declared war since 1942, because, in that time, the threats we’ve faced haven’t come from a state or from a military alliance – they’ve come from Communists; they’ve come from terrorists; they’ve come from ourselves, not from something as “foreign” as another country or another race.

We are all susceptible to indoctrination, to the “War of the Ideologies.” You can defeat an enemy, but you can’t defeat the thoughts in your own head, so we’ve arrived upon the hopeless conclusion that all people are inherently bad, and we will continue to be bad, even if our “wakeup call” comes in the form of an apocalypse. In Judeo-Christian society, we interpret Armageddon as a divine punishment, as God’s way of cleansing the sins in the world, and “sins” like “lust” and “envy” are normal, healthy things to feel; ergo, it must be wrong to be “normal” and “healthy,” and, if the human race hopes to survive, we must deny our own humanity.

Which brings us to…

Zombies

Zombies are so prevalent in pop culture right now that Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies (2013) is an attempt to tell a love story between a zombie and a human in the same way that Twilight is a romance between a vampire and a human, and that attempt paid off big time (eww). Zombie flicks are nothing new – George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) first paved the way for them – but they’ve enjoyed a fascinating resurgence in recent years. Now, they’re less about a girl being trapped in a barn by a horde of flesh-eating monsters and more about the last survivors of humanity fighting for survival in a postapocalyptic wasteland, ravaged with pestilence, à la The Stand by Stephen King.

Indeed, the modern zombie has abandoned its supernatural horror elements in favor of a “sci-fi” approach, such as disease being the cause of its “zombification” rather than something more paranormal. Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007) is an action and adventure movie, not a horror movie, but George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) is a horror movie, not an action and adventure movie. One thing both incarnations of the zombie have in common, though, is that the zombie can be used satirically – Romero’s zombies lampoon the mindless materialism of American culture, but today’s zombies aren’t so tongue-in-cheek.

I’d argue that yesterday’s Communist is today’s terrorist, and the brainwashing aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers have given way to the ruthless killing machines in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). We’re paranoid about terrorists walking among us, terrorists who’ll kill themselves if it means killing everybody else around them, terrorists who look the same as the people you know (like the family members who’re forced to kill other family members on The Walking Dead), but aren’t the same. In The Walking Dead, you don’t even have to get “infected” to become a monster – all you have to do is die, which is the most natural, inevitable phase of life.

I think there’s some “orientalism” going on here, Western media portraying itself as “civilized” and the racial other as “uncivilized,” and that’s very much in keeping with the sci-fi of the past – if they’re not like us (the Communists), then they must be unhuman (the “pod people”). The difference between “civilized” people and “uncivilized” people is that civilized people have “transcended” their more “animalistic” urges, but the “exotic Orient” (the East) has the power to take advantage of those urges – sexually or otherwise – and strip the West of its civilization. Sex and death are the alpha and omega of life, the beginning and the end, one as natural as the other, and so the deaths in The Walking Dead that convert people into zombies are parallel to the “seductions” by the “Orientals” which convert people into “terrorists.”

That being said, I submit that zombies are the “conservative” take on the global problems we face, and dystopia is the “liberal” perspective. Zombies are conservative because the solution to that problem is to restore traditional values of civilization. Dystopia is liberal since its casts of characters react against that civilization.

I might be overanalyzing this whole thing, but sci-fi is definitely known for its societal import, and the postapocalyptic phenomenon isn’t going away anytime soon.

The Future

The postapocalypse is everywhere. It’s in comedies, like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is the End (2013), or horror movies, like James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013). It’s in comic book movies, like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013).

The end of the world weighs heavily on people’s minds at the moment, for various reasons, be they climatological or be they cultural. As for myself, I think the world has always been a terrible place, and it always will be. The world will find a new way to be bad in the future, but I don’t think it’ll be worse.

We’re not meant to know the future – Back to the Future said we’d be riding on hoverboards in 2015, but, instead, we have people who believe vaccines cause autism. Quoth Julia Roberts in August: Osage County, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”

Sci-fi gets one thing right that we can all agree on.

We may have found the cure to cancer in I Am Legend, but human beings will never cure stupidity.

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Hunter Goddard

I am a journalism graduate from Colorado State University as well as a film studies minor. Lady Gaga inspires me in everything I do.

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