The 20 Best Post-Apocalyptic Films

This week Other Worlds Austin presents the Texas Premiere of post-apocalyptic thriller THE QUIET HOUR, Thursday, May 28th at 7:30 at the Southwest Theatres Lake Creek 7.  For those of you in Austin longer than 12 months, this is the old Alamo Lakeline.  Tickets are only $10 and available here.  We should have the director and producer live via Skype from the UK, where it will be 4 in the morning, and we will have a Post-Screening Happy Hour at COVER 2 around the corner.  THE QUIET HOUR is set in the aftermath of an alien invasion in which a feisty teenage girl sets out to protect her farm from human scavengers who will stop at nothing in order to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. 

I love post-apocalyptic stories because they bring out the best (and worst) aspects of the human character.  Our screening has gotten me to think about other great post-apocalyptic films, so I present my own (admittedly biased) list of the top twenty post-apocalyptic films and television series of all time.

20). SOYLENT GREEN – I’m not sure I fully qualify this one as post-apocalyptic so much as Dystopian with the collapse about to happen.  But they have certainly developed intriguing solutions to their issues, most notably food supply for over-population, and how to encourage people to self-select to address the over-population.  To me, this film defines the whiplash ending, a realization that makes you want to go back and rewatch the entire film (think The Sixth Sense or Fight Club).  This 1973 classic featured Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson in his final role.

19). WATERWORLD – It may have flopped at the box office, but no one can deny the depth of design and thought put into this world, the result of melting polar ice caps raising ocean levels hundreds of feet.  Kevin Costner stars as ‘The Mariner’ who battles Dennis Hopper in search of ‘Dryland.’  The changes this life has foisted on society make this a true post-apocalyptical tale, a future at least 500 years ahead of us, and with possibly the next evolution of man (gills!)

18). BATTLESTAR GALACTICA – Either version of the TV series featured a band of colonists searching for a new home after the destruction of their home planet, but the 2000s version focused on the political and religious implications of a catastrophic event on a population.  The season arcs of a television series allowed for elections, coups, and jihads to shape and reshape the world of extended character and world development, giving this post-apocalyptic arena a detail rarely possible in a film.

17). ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK – John Carpenter’s version of prison colony Manhattan island is not just a dream come true to a Chicagoan like myself, it’s a hell of solution to a crime problem.  With criminals left to their own devices, Kurt Russell stars as Snake Pilsen, a soldier sent in to find a stranded PUSA marooned by the crash of Air Force One.  He is one bad ass hero, and still maintains his anti-hero status by walking away at the end, refusing to be redeemed.  In the tradition of great post-apocalyptic villains, Isaac Hayes plays the ‘Duke of New York City’ and leads a gang of criminals after the president.

16). CHILDREN OF MEN – Alfonso Cuarón directs this frightening view of the future where we have lost the ability to procreate and society is on the verge of complete collapse.  Clive Owen plays a civil servant who must protect the only pregnant woman on the earth.  Despite the harrowing circumstances, the film is homage to hope and the human spirit and the rare post-apocalyptic film that makes you feel better by the end of it.

15). 28 DAYS LATER – There is an argument to be made that a zombie film is not a true post-apocalyptic film, but Danny Boyle’s film is more about the survivors of a population-ending virus than the zombies still wandering the world.  The most memorable scene, Cillian Murphy waking up in a hospital after a Coma to find the world empty, was basically stolen completely for The Walking Dead.

14). THE MATRIX – One of the most intricate (and far-fetched and confusing) post-apocalyptic worlds, the Wachowski’s techno-action film has made us question whether there is a spoon ever since.  Opening with a version of our world very similar to the one we know, the film gradually pulls back the layers of the dream we are living in, plus features some kick ass fight scenes, an awesome soundrack, and special effects that have become so engrained in our consciousness that it’s hard imagine a modern movie without them.

13). THE HUNGER GAMES – Say what you want about this modern blockbuster, this intricate dystopian future comes with as much history built in as a Tolkien novel, and a ton of political allegory, making it a post-apocalyptical treat.  The lazy hipster critique that it is just Battle Royale ignores more obvious (and earlier) predecessors like The Running Man and Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  No matter where you stand on the story, the production design and costuming make this one of the most beautiful and complete post-apocalyptic worlds on the list.

12). THE GUNSLINGER/THE DARK TOWER SERIES – Okay, this hasn’t been made yet, but someday someone will make Stephen King’s world that has moved on, and it will be one of the greatest post-apocalyptic stories set to screen.  Roland, the last of his kind, sets off from the last real city after the man in black, searching for an answer for what has gone off in his world, not knowing the connection that exists between his world and ours, and all worlds.  As recently as 2012, plans were afoot for a combo film/TV series with Javier Bardem as Roland but that seems to have gone away.

11). THE TERMINATOR/TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY – The post-apocalyptic world in these films is in the future, so we only see glimpses of it, but the robot-run world at war is frightening enough to spawn several films, reboots, TV series etc.  Any film that manages to combine robots, time travel, and a post-apocalyptic world is always going to have a leg up in my mind, add a kick-ass female heroine and a great villain (Arnold of course, who returns as a hero in the 2nd one), and you have a recipe for greatness.

10). THE POSTMAN – much maligned epic Kevin Costner film that I will defend until my death.  The central premise of this film, that it is our ability to communicate across distances that holds society together, is one of the most intelligent and developed ideas on this list.  Sure it’s a little long, but a true SciFi fan doesn’t mind a film that really takes its time to develop a world.  Plus there is a character who has named himself after a sign in his hometown, Ford Lincoln Mercury, a cameo from Tom Petty (‘I remember you, you were famous’ says Costner), and a white house rebuilt in the Hubert H. Humphrey dome in Minneapolis.

9). FIREFLY – Joss Whedon’s space western finds Nathan Fillion leading a rag-tag band of outsiders on adventures like some sort of group version of ‘The Incredible Hulk.’  Although the series’ early cancellation by Fox means we never really got to know the depth of the world, the show is filled with history and folk tales and the hint of much larger stories.  The film SERENITY paid some of this off but still leaves lots of room for us to fill in the blanks, which is part of this genre’s fun.

8). THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – the original, first the novel, then the Orson wells radio event, then the 1953 film (and the terrible Spielberg remake), captures society on the verge of collapse after a Martian invasion.  The rather anti-climatic end of the villains does not undercut the horror of the rest of the film.  Especially frightening is the sequence in which the heroes hide in the farmhouse trying to avoid one lone Martian scout.

7). MAD MAX/THE ROAD WARRIOR – I’m tired of hearing about the new film—the real earth-building occurred in the first two Mad Max films, ground-breaking post-apocalyptic takes on a society just a few years on from civilization.  In a world in which gasoline is king, the vehicles become the sources and outward signs of power.  There is a simplicity and pinpoint thrust in these first films that got lost in Thunderdome and Fury Road.  They resemble a child being given the entirety of Toys R Us for their birthday.

6). DEMOLITION MAN – I’m on record that this is my favorite SciFi film of all time. Part of it is the hilarious depth the dystopian future has about its existence (after the fast food wars, all restaurants are Taco Bell).  The cast on this is just ridiculous (Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Leary, Rob Schneider) with Wesley Snipes as a great scene-chewing villain. How have you not seen this yet?

5). LOGAN’S RUN – Please proceed to carousel—this Michael York starring 1976 film allows everyone a hedonistic life… until they turn 30.  York plays a ‘Sandman’ who tracks down those who run, including those who head outside of the underground city, and find out just what lies outside, sanctuary.  This is the classic late seventies answer to the hippie lifestyle, as well as the disco era, and anyone who lived for pleasure, by institutionalizing that.

4). SNOWPIERCER – the newest entry on this, and also one of the strongest, Bong Joon-ho’s indie action film centers on a train that never stops, and carries the last living humans across a frozen world.  Despite being a created environment, societal classes and religion dominate the train, with beliefs changing as you move closer to the engine.  Production design steals the show, as well as some really terrific villains, but this is a forever classic in the post-apocalyptic canon.

3). THE WALKING DEAD – Yes, zombies, but the zombies affect the storyline of this graphic novel turned TV series much like the weather—they are the backdrop for whatever the storyline presents the troop of survivors who band together under Rick Grimes, former cop.  The TV series is more concerned with issues of leadership and trust and what it takes to build a society than the zombies, and thank god, because the zombies themselves are often the dullest thing about the show.  The series highlight so far is the battle between the Rick’s prison-dwelling collective and the Governor’s seemingly idyllic Woodbury, using zombies basically as ammunition.

2). PLANET OF THE APES – the greatest whiplash in history (sorry Psycho, Memento, et. al) when we learn the planet where apes descended as the dominant species instead of man was actually Earth all along.  It basically demanded a sequel (or four) to explain the backstory.  Each film tried to recreate the ending of the film twist aspect, but none turned the whole world upside down like the first installment.  In addition, the complicated society, with its laws and councils and history make this an intriguing post-apocalyptic world, and Charlton Heston’s not bad either.

1). THE STAND – Stephen King’s mini-series directed by Mick Garris and starring Gary Sinise, Miguel Ferrer, Rob Lowe, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Laura San Giacomo, and Molly Ringwald, takes us all the way from the start of the cataclysmic event to the rebirth of society halfway across the county.  Ultimately the story of good versus evil, The Stand takes the time to delve into those issues of who you need to rebuild a modern world, and why some of the inequalities of society may be unavoidable.