Maybe it's time to wean ourselves from the post-apocalyptic fantasy
I cringed a little when I learned this week that a new Mad Max movie is under development by George Miller, the creator of the iconic post-apocalyptic film series. Apparently, the legendary Australian filmmaker is hard at work filming a prequel to his 2015 hit Mad Max: Fury Road, which was itself a revival of the popular Mad Max trilogy of the 1970s and 1980s, starring Mel Gibson. Like Star Wars, Star Trek, Batman, and Dr. Who, the Mad Max "franchise" has been with me for as long as I can remember, often fun and thrilling, but unlike the others, also secretly prompting a wave of existential dread with each viewing. Over time, I suppose, the dread has caught up with me.
I was baptized into the post-apocalyptic style in 1981 by the second and arguably the best Mad Max film, Road Warrior. I was seventeen, a voracious reader, sci-fi fan, and film buff who had only recently read Stephen King’s epic novel The Stand, which was my first foray into the end-of-civilization genre. You could say that I was primed for post-apocalyptic entertainment. Of course, this was before decades of overexposure to the genre, before its plot lines became hackneyed, before its characters devolved into entirely predictable cardboard cutouts, before 11 seasons of the Walking Dead, before I learned the myriad ways in which civilization could collapse—viral outbreaks, vampires, zombies (fast and slow), EMPs, solar flares, nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, rogue AIs, asteroid strike, socialism. Yes, at seventeen, I was still a post-apocalyptic virgin ready to be electrified by the dramatic possibilities presented by a sudden and cataclysmic end of history.
And what a thrill it was. I lost track of how many times I saw Road Warrior that year. I memorized every line. I knew every fact that could be learned about the making of that film at the time. I could recount every skirmish in the film's epic high-speed road battle finale. It hardly mattered to me that the world depicted in this fantasy film was one in which war had very nearly destroyed the human race. I was a child of the 1970s, raised on the banality of nuclear holocaust. I was brought up to be numb to it. There were no duck and cover drills at my school. No one was talking about how we could survive a nuclear war anymore. Instead of building fallout shelters in the backyard, most of us had created a secret, unspoken compartment within our minds for the fear of nuclear annihilation. I certainly had one, and when I hit puberty, I was not always able to keep the lid on it. So, the prospect of nihilistic bandits fighting with a community of survivors over the last oil well on earth was somehow plausible in a way that my grandparents would never have understood. Their generation had fought and won a world war, and their children, my parents, grew up in the 50s dreaming about a future in which there would be flying cars, talking computers, and a Pan Am rocket plane traveling to the moon and back every day. The end of civilization was inconceivable to them, but it wasn't for me.
Part of the thrill of Road Warrior is that it turned the atomic nightmare on its head, reinventing it, injecting a dramatic arc into what was otherwise the ultimate downer. Once the grim facts of the apocalypse were established, it faded into the background so that the revivified Western storyline could come alive in the foreground. Road Warrior is a classic Western in post-apocalyptic garb, complete with a town of vulnerable settlers, a band of badass bad guys, and a reluctant hero who arrives on the scene unexpectedly to save the day. No one in the film is struggling with the effects of Strontium 90 on the food chain or suffering from radiation poisoning or any of the myriad after-effects of a nuclear war. That wasn't the point.
A cultural counterpoint to Road Warrior came two years after it was released when a scary made-for-television movie called The Day After first aired on ABC. This film was laser focused on the effects of nuclear war. It depicted the immediate aftermath of a massive Soviet attack on the U.S. through the eyes of a rural community in Missouri. The villain in this film was not some crazed lunatic wearing a metal mask and leading a pack of post-collapse nihilists, it was radiation. Its realism got under my skin.
For the next seven years until the Soviet Union dissolved and the long two-power nuclear standoff quietly ended, I lived in the space that opened between these two depictions of the post-apocalypse. My college years were overshadowed by fear of nuclear war. I would sometimes drive around at night, drunk, looking for fallout shelter signs and wondering how we would all survive huddled in those church basements and train stations. I once wrote a long plaintive confessional letter to the students who ran the “Ground Zero” anti-nuclear club requesting to join their organization. They must have thought I was crazy because I never received a reply. I did not speak it aloud to my friends or family, but the fear of nuclear war bore itself into my psyche like a parasite and closed off the future in ways that I am only now beginning to understand decades later.
This personal experience with existential terror is the main reason I have always been suspicious of post-apocalyptic entertainment, even as I have greedily consumed it. The dozens of films and TV series that followed Mad Max's footprints in the atomic wasteland were all made at the expense of collective dreams of a brighter future. The popularity of this genre is only possible in a society that no longer orients itself towards progress. David Graeber makes this point in his 2019 book The Utopia of Rules, when he proposes that "there appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative future to investment technologies that further labor discipline and social control." The arc of our technological progress flattened in the 1970s and the window of technological possibility narrowed. In one humorous passage, Graeber imagines what would happen if a 1950s science fiction fan could time travel to the present and ask what is the most dramatic technological achievement of the last sixty years? We would answer, ‘the internet, of course’:
[…] it’s hard to imagine the reaction would have been anything but bitter disappointment. He would almost certainly have pointed out that all we are really talking about here is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail order catalog. ‘Fifty years and this is the best our scientist managed to come up with? We were expecting computers that could actually think!’
This time traveler might be further disappointed to learn that in the world of popular science fiction entertainment, computers that can think are mostly hell-bent on destroying the human race rather than playing chess or philosophizing about the nature of reality.
Post-apocalyptic entertainment does not merely borrow its bleak premise from the culture, it also releases a cynical toxin into it. After decades of consuming stories of plucky survivors fighting it out in the ruins of a collapsed society, I now believe that the entire genre is popcorn fare for a civilization that has abandoned utopian dreaming of any kind. Its popularity suggests a massive foreclosure of the future. In the absence of hope for a viable future that is substantially better than the present, we retreat into an entertaining fantasy of what will come after the dysfunctional present finally dies.
The psychology underlying the appeal of this fantasy is brilliantly illustrated by David Fincher's 1999 cult classic Fight Club. The film's narrator, played by Edward Norton, is an overcivilized young man who has blithely accepted every norm of consumer capitalism presented to him, until the day he inadvertently creates an alter-ego named Tyler Durden. Played with sinister conviction by Brad Pitt, Tyler is a kind of shamanistic enemy of civilized life, Pan-like in his demand for unrestrained pleasure and anarchistic in his rejection of societal norms and expectations. Together, the Narrator and Tyler create a "fight club" for men to perform and vent their most barbaric instincts, and this club eventually evolves into Project Mayhem, an organized terrorist plot to bring down the financial institutions of Western Civilization. The 1996 novel that spawned the film ends with the narrator in a mental institution after Project Mayhem's plot to bring down the world's tallest building is foiled, but the film version ends with buildings collapsing throughout the financial district, a harbinger for the end of civilization as we know it.
The club in Fight Club was appealing to the male characters because the other dreams they are supposed to believe in are revealed to be unsatisfying and bankrupt—consumerism, careerism, and metrosexual masculinity. Tyler easily punctures each of these illusions to reveal a society that has no future, at least not one that is appealing to a growing army of mostly working-class young males who are desperate for meaning in their lives. If your civilization does not offer you a sense of meaning, or a viable future, why not tear it down and build one that does? Or at least, why not tear yourself down and build a new you?
Or, if you lack the fortitude or the follow-through for either of these options, why not fantasize about what the world would be like after civilization ends?
The film pries out a deeply submerged fantasy at the heart of every civilization—the secret desire to bring it all crashing down and live free in the ruins. Civilization is built on repression and layers of obligation. Freud captured this truth in 1930 in his last great work, Civilization and Its Discontents, wherein he depicts civilization as built upon repressed desires and basic instincts that are skillfully redirected into productive institutions and activities. But the id is still there, at the heart of it all, imprisoned but not dead. Tyler Durden personifies that id, freed from its societal restraints and ready to free others as well (Another popular film released in 1999 toyed with this theme by depicting civilization as an elaborate computer simulation that was created by an artificial intelligence that had previously nearly wiped out humanity. In Fight Club, liberation from societal illusions leads to nihilism. In The Matrix, it leads to revolution). Fight Club reminds us that over-civilized people are likely to fantasize about the end of civilization.
The post-apocalyptic fantasy is appealing entertainment as long as it focuses on the overly simplified comic book storyline in the foreground. Usually, the main attraction is a banal morality tale about human nature. Which side is right or dominant, tough-but-humane Rick or the ruthlessly realpolitik Shane. Will the strong survive by edging out the weak or will mutual aid and kindness to strangers win the day? Is it worthwhile to try to rebuild civilization, and if you try, should you do it in the image of the past or follow some new template? These are questions worth exploring, but over time, they have become as predictable as the character types that populate these films and television series. Those of us who grew to hate Negan’s character in the Walking Dead were tired of being repeatedly bludgeoned by this two-dimensional character who just could not (or would not) be killed off by the show’s writers and producers.
These days, I tire of the entire genre. My disaffection is partly due to overexposure: I’ve just seen too much of it to be surprised or entertained anymore. But there is a moral dimension to my disaffection as well. I am alarmed by how little hope our society has for a brighter future, and the widespread popularity of post-apocalyptic entertainment drives this feeling home for me. The ennui many people express over the supposed inevitability of climate catastrophe reminds me of the hopeless dread I felt about nuclear war in the 1980s. I recognize the expressions of paralysis because I experienced something quite similar. For example, many Americans are simply accepting the reality of climate change by downshifting to plans for mitigation: ‘How will we survive in a warmer world with a more violent climate?’ I hear this question posed more frequently now than ‘how will we prevent catastrophe AND build a better world in the process?’ Often, this mitigation-obsessed future world is envisioned as less free and more restrictive than this one, a world ruled by engineers who are hard at work redesigning our habitats so that we can survive in them. To suggest a more positive outcome—one in which we actually solve our monumental energy use, pollution, and carbon emission problems and reverse the damage caused by industrialization and consumer capitalism—is to be accused of being a techno-utopian, or worse, a Pollyanna.
In her great book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that the future is not easy to predict. “Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army,” she writes. “It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drop of soft water wearing away a stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.” Apocalypse is a possible future outcome, certainly, but history shows us that civilizations seldom collapse overnight, and humans usually contend with catastrophic change in creative and productive ways. We may have grown comfortable with the post-apocalyptic fantasy because it resonates with a deeply rooted cultural cynicism that requires very little from us, but overexposure to it may be harmful to us in the long run.