Total Recall

Total Recall: Post-Apocalyptic Movies

With Oblivion hitting theaters, we take a look at some memorable movies set after the end of the world as we know it.

by | April 18, 2013 | Comments

Post-Apocalyptic Movies

In this weekend’s Oblivion, only one man stands between the last remnants of the human race and utter extinction! Fortunately, that man is Tom Cruise, so everything is probably going to work out just fine in the end, but Joseph Kosinski’s latest big-budget sci-fi outing got us thinking about other movies that imagine a dim future for humanity, and the next thing we knew, we had a list full of post-apocalyptic flicks. Given the size and scope of the genre, there was no way of covering them all, but after spinning a few dials on the Tomatometer, we feel like we came up with a pretty good cross-section of the cream of the crop, including entries tinged with horror, action, animation, and even some truly classic cinema. Climb down into your backyard bunker and dip into your emergency stores of food and water, because it’s time to Total Recall like there’s no tomorrow!

Children of Men


Grappling with some heavy issues — most notably, the idea that human hope is tied inexorably to our ability to reproduce — while moving with Bourne-like speed and intensity, bounding from one white-knuckle set piece to another (and packing some truly incredible cinematography as it goes, courtesy of Emmanuel Luzbecki), Children of Men let viewers peer into a world in which civilization has been upended because human women have simply up and quit having babies. Director Alfonso Cuarón wasn’t shy about loading his adaptation of the P.D. James novel with visual statements on man’s cruelty to man and the folly of governing through fear, but he didn’t linger on them; instead, he trusted his audience to absorb the story’s subtext, and rewarded them with one of the most rip-roaring dystopian sci-fi films you’re ever likely to see. It deserved the heaps of praise it received from critics like the St. George Spectrum’s Bruce Bennett, who called it “an apocalyptic thrill ride that is as gritty as it is gripping, with a dark terror outgunned only by its daring humanity.”

Dawn of the Dead


We’re only making room for one zombiepocalypse movie on this list, so we had to make it count: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the classic sequel to Night of the Living Dead that took his 1968 original’s undead-strewn landscape and expanded it to include not only bigger, nastier (and better-lit) zombie hordes, but also a bit of smart social commentary. Comparing zombies to American consumers is a gambit that has doomed a fair number of filmmakers to unsubtlety, but Romero pulled it off here with aplomb; as Rob Humanick put it for Projection Booth, “Romero’s framing of social ills via his rotting, walking metaphors is ingenious but it’s the more subtle, unspoken statements that register with the greatest force.”

Day of the Triffids


Most of the movies on our list deal with the aftermaths of man-made disasters, but 1963’s Day of the Triffids — adapted from the book by John Wyndham — imagines a harrowing apocalypse of alien origin, starting with a meteor shower whose punishingly bright light manages to blind the majority of the human race. And that’s when things start to get really bad, on account of the meteor-borne spores that start sprouting into carnivorous plant creatures, forcing the last few sighted folks to band together in a last-ditch effort to drive out our unwanted visitors. It’s decidedly B-movie stuff, but it’s also — as the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr put it — “a sci-fi thriller that sticks in the mind, thanks to deft pacing and a vividly paranoid premise.”



Darkly funny and visually distinctive, Delicatessen drops viewers into a post-apocalyptic France whose larger setting (including its timeframe and whatever caused society’s downfall) is deliberately shrouded from view; in fact, unlike a lot of the movies in this category, it’s really more of a character piece — albeit one whose characters are driven to messy cannibalism due to catastrophic food shortages. While certainly not for the squeamish, Delicatessen is admirable for its inventive premise and barbed wit; as Keith Breese wrote for Filmcritic, “Sure, it’s funny, it’s gross, it’s diabolically, unabashedly idiosyncratic, but it’s also an epic ode to that most fundamental expression of human endeavor — creativity.”

La Jetee


It clocks in at just under half an hour — and consists mainly of still frames — but 1962’s La Jetée is still one of the greatest, and most influential films of its generation; in fact, this hard-to-shake meditation on time travel, nuclear war, and our attachment to memory formed the basis for Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys — a modern post-apocalyptic classic in its own right. Starring Davos Hanich as a prisoner hurled across time “to call past and future to the rescue of the present,” La Jetée uses its rich setup as a springboard to explore a number of thought-provoking topics during its abbreviated running time, concluding on a haunting final note that helped move Film Threat’s Phil Hall to pronounce it “One of the greatest films ever made.”

Mad Max


These days, peak oil and energy independence are hot topics — but they were also part of the zeitgeist in 1979, when George Miller brought audiences a nightmarish vision of our fuel shortage-plagued future with Mad Max. Part post-apocalyptic sci-fi, part good old-fashioned shoot-’em-up, Max told the tortured tale of a cop (Mel Gibson) who descends into a hellish spiral of violence after his family is murdered by a gang of lunatics. Breaking a record for cost-to-profit success that stood until Paranormal Activity came along 30 years later, it’s the movie that, in the words of eFilmCritic’s Brian McKay, “launched not only [Mel Gibson’s] career, but the whole post-apocalyptic genre of the ’80s and beyond.”

The Matrix


At the unlikely intersection of sci-fi, noir, and “whoa,” The Matrix postulated a future world in which sentient machines harvest energy from people housed in vast pod farms, with only a remarkably adept kung fu student named Neo (Keanu Reeves) standing between the human race and indefinite servitude. Taken as a whole, the trilogy might be uneven, but the Matrix movies blended sleek futurism, messy cyberpunk, and good old-fashioned action thrills with an original audacity that hasn’t been seen since. “If there has to be a quintessential film for the end of the millennium,” wrote Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal, “this is it.”

Planet of the Apes


We like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution — or the divinely appointed head of the food chain, whichever you prefer — but what if our inability to transcend our biggest flaws (like, say, our thirst for war) resulted in humans losing their top-dog status? These were the questions asked by Pierre Boulle’s novel, La planète des singes, adapted for the big screen by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling for this 1968 classic. Planet of the Apes took some liberties with Boulle’s book, but that’s par for the course with adaptations — and the changes worked, most notably Serling’s addition of the film’s classic twist ending, which Boulle said he wished he’d come up with himself. Blending thought-provoking commentary and popcorn action at a level few science fiction films had achieved, Planet struck such a chord that it spun off multiple sequels, a television show, Tim Burton’s 2001 remake, and the rebooted franchise that’s currently in the works). As Variety noted on the film’s release, “Planet of the Apes is an amazing film.”

28 Days Later


While it’s commonly referred to as a zombie movie — and should therefore be ineligible for this list, given that we’ve already featured Dawn of the Dead — we’re calling shenanigans, given that the bloodthirsty hordes in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later aren’t actually, you know, dead. It makes more sense to view Days as a horrifying glimpse at the potential aftermath of a relentlessly contagious virus — as well as a thought-provoking (and oddly hopeful) look at human compassion and our innate will to survive. Also, and more importantly, it’s wickedly entertaining; as Edward Douglas wrote for ComingSoon, “Paying homage to the horror movies of the past while creating a modern-day drama steeped in realism, Boyle has created something truly unique.”



We depend on a lot of disposable products in modern society, but they all have to go somewhere after we’re done with them, and if we’re not conscientious, “somewhere” could end up being “the whole dang planet” — or at least that’s the gist behind WALL-E, Pixar’s hit feature about an adorable little trash compactor who, as the last of a once-robust fleet, bears sole responsibility for scooping up and compacting the vast mounds of garbage left behind by the convenience-addled human race before they hopped in a spaceship and zoomed away for cleaner horizons. WALL-E came with a surprising bit of controversy, drawing fire from conservative pundits who were annoyed with what they interpreted as a left-wing, anti-business message, but its 96 percent Tomatometer and massive $534 million gross drowned out the chatter. As with just about everything Pixar has done, it works whether you’re looking to be edified or simply entertained; as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott noted, “it is, undoubtedly, an earnest (though far from simplistic) ecological parable, but it is also a disarmingly sweet and simple love story, Chaplinesque in its emotional purity.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Oblivion.