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Post-apocalyptic films have a unique essence that can’t be found in other genres. Maybe it’s the future-pessimistic society we live in that gives us comfort, and even pleasure, in looking forward to a muddy era and seeing how things could turn out, whether good or bad.
Whatever the case, I love post-apocalyptic films and I love imagining what I would do—as a nerd with no extraordinary physical capabilities whatsoever—in such scenarios. Here are my favorite picks that I believe are all worth watching.
Note: Many films are categorized as “post-apocalyptic” when they should be classified as “disaster” or “dystopian.” For this article, I’m focusing on films that take place after—not during—an apocalypse has devastated the world, and I’m not counting a dystopia as an apocalypse.
1. The Road
Be warned: The Road is a downer. Not in terms of the ending or anything like that, but just the overall atmosphere and themes and character moments that happen—the kind of film that you’ll think about long after the credits have finished rolling. What else could we expect from a story about a man and his son who navigate the world turned wasteland, based on a book by Cormac McCarthy?
After a man-made catastrophe covers the entire planet in snow, the last surviving remnants of humanity are stuck aboard the Snowpiercer, a train that endlessly circles the globe. Snowpiercer is stylish, packed with action, but more than that, philosophical. Using its unique setting, the film explores class warfare and inequality in a way that’s both subtle and a gut-punch.
3. The Matrix
If you call yourself a nerd or geek, you’ve probably seen The Matrix already—and if you haven’t, that’s fine too, but I recommend that you do. It won’t be as impressive as when it first came out because a lot of movies have since taken inspiration from it, but The Matrix is a shining example of a dystopian cyberpunk future founded on the aftermath of an apocalypse, and there’s a lot of symbolism and thematic depth to dig through if you’re into that sort of thing.
In the near future, the world is overtaken by bloodthirsty alien creatures who are blind but have ultra-sensitive hearing—to the point where they can hear the slightest noise from miles away. A Quiet Place is a horror film with zero dialogue and maximum tension, forcing its characters to live in silence and sign language as they try to survive a new world.
If you’re a fan of suspense films that take place in one setting, 10 Cloverfield Lane should be high up on your watchlist. A woman, after crashing in a car accident, wakes up in an underground bunker with two men who won’t allow her to leave, claiming that the Earth is now uninhabitable. It’s an edge-of-your-seat kind of film through and through, with a tremendous performance from the terrifying John Goodman.
Imagine a future where women can no longer get pregnant. A bleak future that’d be, wouldn’t it? Children of Men poses that premise with a twist: after 18 years of global strife, a refugee woman secretly gives birth to a son, and one man must protect her as he escorts her to a scientific facility. With impeccable direction from Alfonso Cuaron and a strong performance by Clive Owen, Children of Men is a must-watch.
A man wakes up 28 days after a contagious virus has devastated his country, turning people into raging monsters. While 28 Days Later is horror, what sets it apart from other zombie-type films is its insistence on exploring the different facets of humanity in the face of catastrophe and despair. There are some real human moments here, which heighten the thrills that much more.
After the world is taken over by a zombie outbreak, four strangers band together to take a road trip across America in search of refuge. It sounds serious, but Zombieland is a comedy—and an excellent one at that. It’s got laughs, it’s got heart, and it’s got a cameo by Bill Murray. What more could you ask for? Highly rewatchable!
Decades after a nuclear apocalypse, a mysterious man is tasked with delivering a book to a location he receives in a vision. Say what you will about the subject matter, The Book of Eli holds a special place in my heart for its themes of perseverence and holding fast to one’s convictions in the face of opposition. Is it a subtle film? No. But it’s exciting! And Denzel Washington puts on a heck of a performance as Eli.
In the far future, after Earth has turned into a barren wasteland, humanity has been completely digitized—their minds have been uploaded into a shared virtual reality—and one agent is expelled and sent down to Earth in search of a rogue hacker. Expelled From Paradise is a beautiful anime film with a gripping premise and lots of touching moments. Recommended if you’re looking for a serious but lighter take on post-apocalypses.