1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This year, we were treated to one of the most engaging post-apocalyptic films in movie history. George Miller’s tone-poem creation envisions a steam-punk future of sparse, arid landscapes, impoverished colonies ruled by dictators, and, most importantly, fire-guitar-wielding road warriors. Every day is a struggle for survival, every human encounter a test of sheer resilience. Water and gasoline are the scant currency of life. With little to no dialogue, Miller builds out a rousing spectacle full of gorgeous action sequences rendered with extreme attention to detail. In most scenes, it doesn’t matter much what’s actually happening — the frenetic choreography and stark beauty of the images will leave you rapt. But make no mistake: There’s substance to be found here, not the least of it in the virtues of feminism and revolution.
2. Snowpiercer (2013)
3. Stalker (1979)
Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” marries sci-fi and post-apocalyptic ruin for a dizzying journey into the metaphysics of the afterworld. Three men — a writer seeking inspiration, a scientist seeking discovery, and their guide, known as the Stalker — traverse the dangerous and forbidden Zone, an area of the ruined planet that is said to fulfill every person’s innermost desires. In the Zone, objects switch places, the landscape is constantly shifting, and an eerie omniscient intelligence seems to know exactly what you want — and how to stop you from getting it. “Stalker” is a journey into the heart of darkness that takes on parabolic dimensions, debating philosophy through intense imagery. For Tarkovsky, the end of the world isn’t simply a vision of nihilism; bear with him to the ending, and you’re met with intimations of love and beauty.
4. The Road (2009)
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s harrowing novel of the same name, “The Road” is the story of a father and son at the end of the world. The unnamed duo, barely relics of human beings, have survived a mass cataclysm that decimated humankind. The only thing resembling civilization is The Road, which the father and son must travel, armed with only a pistol and two rounds of ammunition. Their journey is something of a Manifest Destiny: They take on cannibals, marauders and other desperate survivors in pursuit of the sea, all the while unsure of what illusory redemption the coast might actually bring. Director John Hillcoat conjures the sparseness of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Stalker,” but faithfully adheres to the source material by suffusing the film with a deeply emotional undercurrent. (Unfortunately left out of the adaptation are McCarthy’s disturbing depictions of cannibalism.) The question of “What would you do?” hangs heavily in the air, especially as suicide emerges as an appealing and rational alternative to the fight for survival. “The Road” is ultimately devastating because The Man and The Boy are emblems of us all.
5. Delicatessen (1991)
The post-apocalyptic comedy would be grievously uncharted territory were it not for the existence of “Delicatessen.” French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s exquisitely twisted black comedy is the story of a landlord who strives to maintain a habitable living environment for his tenants, despite the fact that the outside world has been ravaged by the apocalypse. On the ground floor is a butcher’s shop, and every once in a while the landlord will treat his tenants to a rare delicacy. But when a new tenant moves in to replace a mysteriously disappeared one, he realizes he hasn’t quite found the utopia he’d bargained for — and he may, in fact, be the butcher’s next course. “Delicatessen” is a surreal, wild ride full of deadpan humor and gross-out visuals. It’s Terry Gilliam meets cannibalistic circus, and it must be seen to be believed.
6. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s take on the apocalypse is part cautionary tale, part heart-pounding political thriller. It’s 2027 and humanity is engaged in a brutal World War. No baby has been born since 2009; in fact, the youngest living person on the planet, aged eighteen, has just died. It’s widely accepted that humankind has become infertile. But then our protagonist, a gruff man who works for the remaining semblance of government, discovers a young woman who is eight months pregnant. He’s aware of the horrific chaos that will ensue if anyone discovers her. Thus, he goes to great lengths to protect her secret. Cuarón traverses complex moral ground with depictions of immigration struggle, refugee displacement and torture that are not too far removed from some events of today. By grounding us in this familiarity, Cuarón exposes the chilling plausibility of this dystopia. Superb editing and stunning documentary-style cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki enhance the realism of the narrative. Said Cuarón of the film: “If you’re a hopeful person, you’ll see a lot of hope, and if you’re a bleak person, you’ll see a complete hopelessness.”
7. Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Christopher Plummer star in Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys,” about a man named James (Willis) who is sent via time machine to the pre-apocalypse past in order to uncover a cure for the disease that ravaged mankind. When he arrives in the past, James must convince everyone — including himself — that he is not, in fact, crazy as he attempts to pull of an elaborate scheme that he hopes will alter human fate. The plot is both baffling and impressive, but it’s the inventive visuals of ruined cities that make “Twelve Monkeys” stand out in the genre. The screenwriter, David Peoples, also wrote “Blade Runner,” which explains the more restrained, somber feel not so frequently associated with Gilliam movies.
8. A Boy and His Dog (1975)
Second to “Delicatessen,” “A Boy and His Dog” is the weirdest post-apocalyptic comedy you’d ever hope to see. A horny teenage boy, Vic (aptly Don Johnson), and his telepathic dog, Blood, wander the wasteland of post-nuclear war America. They have a solid arrangement: The boy, who is uneducated, relies on the well-read dog to locate women for him, while the dog relies on the boy to secure food. When Blood sniffs out a conquest for Vic who turns out to be a spy for a secret underground society, the two think they’ve stumbled upon the answer to their prayers. But, as in all great absurdist comedies, things are not as they seem. The underground society has big plans for Vic, and he may not emerge intact. “A Boy and His Dog” is worth seeing if only just for the bizarre turns of phrase tossed around between the rag-tag pair.