With buzz already building for The Road, a post-apocalyptic movie starring Viggo Mortensen set to come out sometime in 2009, Science Not Fiction decided to take at look at some of our favorite after-the-end-of-the-world scenarios. I excluded the various incarnations of War of Worlds because the book is basically an extended flashback from the safety of a rebuilt future, and the movies are apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic. Similarly Independence Day and Deep Impact are about averting armageddon. Twelve Monkeys and Oryx and Crake have post-apocalyptic scenes, but the back bone of their narrative is firmly in the pre-apocalyptic world--the selections below are all about life in the no-holds-barred aftermath. So in chronological order:
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1950) Echoes of Walter Miller Jr.'s novel have popped up in science fiction for decades, notably in Babylon 5 and Anathem. Canticle features a monastic sect devoted to preserving technology in the centuries following the fall of civilization.
Lord of The Flies (1954). Set in the aftermath of a nuclear war* a group of boys are stranded on a tropical island. An allegory for the collapse of civilization as a whole, things soon turn ugly and shades of Lord of the Flies are found in many later post-apocalyptic works.
Mad Max (1979) Although the argument could be made that the sequels were better than the somewhat disjointed original (in particular Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), Mad Max's iconic look and feel has been copied by countless other movies, in many ways defining the visual vocabulary of the post-apocalyptic.
The Day of The Triffids (BBC TV adaptation, 1981) Based on John Wyndham's 1951 novel of the same name, The Day of The Triffids featured a double whammy--a nation struck by blindness and the escape of the deadly Triffid plants. The scenes of a deserted London inspired 28 Days Later, and the clacking noise made by approaching Triffids in the BBC adaptation became one of the scariest sounds ever.
Threads (1984) Continuing the BBC's 1980's love affair with the end of the world, Threads is an uncompromising and utterly bleak tale of life in a British city (Sheffield) before and after nuclear armageddon. Incorporating documentary style elements, the script pulled no punches and was noted for its technical accuracy, including the effects of a nuclear winter.
The Quiet Earth (1985) I mentioned this film before in Science Not Fiction's list of the 10 Most Underrated Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies, but it deserves to appear again -- a scientist awakes to find a world in which (almost) every human being has been mysteriously killed instantly.
The Postman (Original 1985 novel, not the Kevin Costner film adaptation) The movie version was weak, but the novel remains one of my favorite books. Without sugarcoating life in a destroyed United States, the book nonetheless is unusual among post-apocalyptic fiction for its moving and believable optimism.
Cherry 2000 (1986) Yes, it's a classic B-movie. But this hero-quest romp had some standout touches, including the idea of a world that can't afford anything new and the memorable and mentally unbalanced Lester (a sort of psychopathic self-help guru.)
28 Days Later (2002) Confirming the fall of nuclear war and the rise of biological disaster as the standard route to a post-apocalypse, 28 Days Later also breathed new life into the zombie genre. A gripping and intelligent plot packed a huge emotional wallop.
I am Legend (2007 movie adaptation). Based on the 1954 novel, the amazing visual storytelling and convincing performance of Will Smith in an empty New York City knocked this tale of humanity's twilight out of the park.
ETA *(Or not, there's an alternative explanation for the precipitating events that force the boys' original evacuation, see the comments below. But it still stands as a microcosm of life after global civilizational collapse)