Let’s Talk About… Apocalypse in Film

Had the house to myself this past Thursday evening, so I hit the local video store after work and rented a handful of movies for the weekend. I had been in the mood for some 80s sci-fi cheese all week (preferably of the post apocalyptic variety), and no one was around to judge or object, so I quickly settled on Hell Comes to Frogtown, ordered up some Chinese delivery, and poured myself a whiskey.

For those unfamiliar with this charming, little cult film, here’s a brief synopsis from IMDb:

After a nuclear war, the survivors are divided between horribly mutated beings who live on desolate reservations and fertile women who are searching for scarce virile men in order to multiply and start a new human society.

What I might or might not think about Hell Comes to Frogtown is fodder for another post – this ain’t a review of the film (for the record, though, it was a hell of a lot of fun). What I’d like to discuss here is apocalypse in film.

Wikipedia defines this loose category as a subgenre of science fiction in which “civilization is collapsing or has collapsed.”

I guess this definition will have to do for now, though I think we’ll end up returning to flesh this out further in the comments.

Hell Comes to Frogtown is indisputably silly, but it treats probably one of the most serious existential questions mankind could possibly confront in film, literature, or any number of other mediums through which we communicate our collective and individual hopes and fears in life: Will mankind survive or will it be responsible for its own end?

And I couldn’t help, as I sat and watched Rowdy Roddy Piper (who plays Sam Hell, the film’s titular character) and Sandahl Bergman (Piper’s foil and budding love interest in the film) navigate this fictional waste land, but be struck by the fact that these kinds of films are suddenly relevant again.

But I’m not here to wax political about potential nuclear war with North Korea. What I’m interested in is why we find this particular brand of fiction so utterly compelling that even the end of the Cold War did little to deter our fascination with it. What is it about mutually assured destruction that not only captivates our imaginations, but seems to many of us to be a potential future we might prefer to the (relatively) comfortable one we’ve been dealt? You may think that is a pretty irresponsible thing to think let alone say out loud. I have a family. Many of you do as well. What could possibly compel a happy, seemingly well-adjusted person, with plenty to live for, to think such things?

Well, that’s what I want to know.

Post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction are prolific.  It’s a theme that should have faded into obscurity after the abrupt dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. Yet, the theme persists. It’s everywhere. In film,  in literature, comics, and even video games.

So the question I pose to you is: Why? Why does our own potential demise so capture our imaginations? What is it about apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian settings that, regardless of how many technological advancements we manage, or how much wealth, happiness, or equity we achieve in our societies, we find ourselves returning to dip our quills in the well of nuclear fire again and again?

Don’t forget to include some of your favorite examples of post-apocalyptic and dystopic film with your comments.

I look forward to your responses.

-WD