In a silly mood last night, I spun a DVD of a giant bug movie titled Infestation (2009). Giant bug movies have a long lineage with their strongest showing in the 1950s: Them (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), etc. Infestation follows the tradition though with a bit less earnestness; the flick is clever and funny with characters as well drawn as one reasonably can expect in such a movie. Infestation also is a post-apocalyptic cross-over: unlike most 50s flicks in which the heroes narrowly defeat the bugs, in this one the bugs already have won. The human survivors simply try to stay alive. Post-apocalyptic books and films are a genre even more well-established than giant bug movies. I’ve written one myself (see Slog).
There are relatively few books and films that end with a total apocalypse (e.g. On the Beach , Last Night , Kaboom ); those few typically do so for surprise value or to make some political/philosophical point. Overwhelmingly, though, books and films about the end of civilization are post-apocalyptic and focus on how survivors deal with situation. HG Wells, as so often in SF, set the standard: in print with The Time Machine (1895) and in film with Things to Come (1936) for which he wrote the screenplay. Both of those are ultimately optimistic – heavy-handedly in the case of Things to Come. This too set a pattern. In World without End (1956) 20th century astronauts, flung into the future in a time dilation accident, teach the effete civilized folks living underground to stand up to the murderous mutants on the surface; in Logan’s Run (1976) fugitives from the domed city learn there can be life after age 30; in 2012 (2009) a nucleus of humanity saves itself; in World War Z (2013) a way is discovered to trick the zombies; in Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse (novel, 2008) civilization is down but not out.
Attempts to explain the persistence of this genre have wrinkled more than few brows over the years, but I think the key is the way the protagonists generally prevail. The end of the world is a metaphor for our own mortality, and the suggestion that it is in some sense survivable remains a popular one. Then there is a less admirable reason. Our fellow humans and their social structures can be pretty annoying, and it is fun to imagine their destruction – imagine, mind you, not effect it. On the other hand, it would be lonely all by oneself, so a smattering of other survivors is good for spice and drama. Besides, among a small number of people, one can’t help but be important. At least as a fantasy, the prospect seems to please audiences.
Today for me has been a troublesome one requiring tedious and expensive navigation of some of those aforementioned social structures, so perhaps tonight is a good to sit back and watch Radioactive Dreams (1985). Here’s hoping, though, that those dreams don’t come true.
“If your heart is in your dream/No request is too extreme”
Glenn Miller - When You Wish Upon a Star