The Most Underrated Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi Movies
We’re getting a little tired of writing about this by now, but you quarantined homebodies out there have little choice for entertainment besides seeking out movies you can comfortably stream, preferably on the cheapsies. And small wonder, post-apocalyptic movies are very popular right now for some reason.
Over at one of my other gigs, the 366Weird Movies team have taken to live-streaming parties where they all vote on a movie to team-watch and review. Recently, the gripping dystopian thriller The Platform (2019) was given this treatment, and boy did it ever resonate with our current situation. Which got me to thinking, if people are going to seek out this kind of grim, gray hell because they now feel like they’re living in a dystopia and want to take notes, I might as well dig up a few movies they might have overlooked.
Now I’ve griped recently about how post-apocalyptic sci-fi gets it wrong more often than right. The below movies will be mostly no exception. But still, they’re all dang fun, unique wrinkles on the theme, and obscure or overlooked enough that you likely haven’t seen them yet. So strap on your scavenged warlord gear and explore some more doomsday scenarios!
This is the perfect example of an underrated movie. Ignore the haters, this movie rocks! Yes, it has a couple minor flaws, but it’s a fun romp made just for people who like fun movies. The cast is a mind-blower: Emilio Estevez as an unlikely future action hero, Rene Russo as the same puckered pouty sourpuss she plays in every movie, Mick Jagger – yes, Mick! Jagger! – as a bounty hunter, Anthony Hopkins as a rented-by-the-second cameo, and Amanda Plummer as a shotgun nun. Forget Academy Award performances here, OK? Everybody had hammy fun.
The goofy premise has it that the future is a radioactive post-apocalyptic hellscape, so people from the future use time travel to kidnap fresh bodies from our present at the exact instant they would have died, transporting them into the future so people can get a body transplant. But this technology is available only to the rich and powerful. It makes no sense but trust me on this: The movie is mostly funny and makes a great entry in the early 90s dystopian sci-fi action wave. Run it on a double-bill with Demolition Man (1993), because it’s almost exactly the same movie.
Our most recent entry, this quietly dignified post-apocalyptic epic was well-received and did OK at the box office, but hasn’t gotten the praise I think it deserves. People have a hard time getting over the fact that the great MacGuffin of the story is a Bible. So what, it’s a Bible. The film doesn’t preach religion at all, and even makes a point to place it at equal significance to the Quran and the Tanakh. The point is that the people of this post-apocalyptic time are out to rebuild society, which includes preserving important works of literature, of which holy tomes are just one more kind.
Notwithstanding the MacGuffin plot, Denzel Washington is a perfectly cast action hero living by his wits in a fallen American rust belt, Gary Oldman does the usual job of being a great villain, and the whole movie is very well put-together. The twist ending will merit a re-watch, while scenes like the confrontation with a too-friendly cannibal family will be memorable enough to stick around. It’s a movie with good old-fashioned values; it is made to be about something, and be a wholly satisfying story along the way. Run it on a double-bill with I Am Legend (2007), because this movie will make you want to see that one again.
Here’s one you’ve probably never heard of! I think it was lost to the Internet until my 2017 review. It’s a prime example of 1970s sci-fi, where they were going for deep thinking as opposed to pew-pew laser effects. It’s about a group of teenagers working at a secret government project, who accidentally discover time travel. The trouble is, the future they can travel to is only after the apocalypse, in an apparently uninhabited scorched Earth. When the government tries to shut the project down, the kids have to scramble off to the future to rebuild humanity – or try to.
With Peter Fonda in a rare directing turn, this low-budget, slow-burn sci-fi just has an essence of realism that is rarely captured. It has a balance between casual attitude and quiet desperation. Our time travelers (teens because the time machine kills you if you’re too old) know little about their situation, stumbling upon everything by chance, and attempt to make the best of it as you know real people in that situation would. The location is at least half the reason to watch, because if you want a God-forsaken landscape of desolation, look no further than the filming location of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve! This completely forgotten flick is best viewed on a double-bill with Primer (2004), which has many similarities.
Made in the prime mall-happy year of 1984, this cheerfully cheesy sci-fi flick is about nothing more or less than an Earth-frying comet passing by. It leaves only the few plucky survivors who aren’t reduced to dust or rendered as shambling radiation zombies. This is neither deep thinky sci-fi nor anything resembling a serious plot, but it is a unique and one-of-a-kind story.
Best of all, the Valley Girl buddies give us that most beloved of cozy apocalypse scenarios: Looting the empty mall! The used the Sherman Oaks Galleria for this scene, a popular filming location in the ’80s and now the popular subject of dead mall exploration. Low budget and campy, this dark humor ride is as ’80s as a movie gets. Run it on a double-bill with Repo Man (1984), for no other reason than it came out the same year and makes a perfect boyfriend to this movie’s girlfriend.
Who could go for a big bug movie right now? When you think of big bugs, you’d best be thinking of the king of mid-century supersized creepy crawlers himself, director Bert I. Gordon. Especially when he’s directing from the novel by sci-fi old master H.G. Wells. And most especially when it has Joan Collins, as in the mid-’80s TV series Dynasty. People don’t recognize her for it now, but Collins was actually quite the scream queen in her day and starred in a whole string of cheesy horror flicks.
You’ll never guess, but this flick is the originator of one of our most popular modern memes. You see, in an original twist, the ants aren’t just mindless hungry monsters, but set up an intelligently-led society in which humans are brainwashed by the ants’ pheromones to become their willing slaves. You end up with humans defending the ants as our ultimate leaders, getting all political about it. This scene is referenced in a Simpsons parody years later as “I for one welcome our new insect overlords.” And now you know the rest of the story! Double-bill it with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), another existential invasion movie with political subtexts.
I’m a little hesitant to recommend this one, but it’s worth checking out mainly because of how flippin’ weird it is. I mean it made the Weirdest Movie List at #92, that’s how weird. On the same site, I would later eulogize the late Harlan Ellison, as this is one of the only major films based on his work. Nevertheless, I’ll be the first to admit that Ellison is an acquired taste, somewhat rancid, because he was one of the angriest people to have ever lived and not especially fond of happy stories.
Anyway, you have Don Johnson before he got famous, making his way across the post-apocalyptic hellscape with his dog, with whom he has a telepathic link. Stay with me here. His dog finds women for him; he hunts food for the dog. Meanwhile they run across the strangest pockets of civilization – it’s better to watch it than have me describe this. You might think that Harlan Ellison is misogynist for his handling of women in this story. I would correct you in that he was a complete misanthropist overall, as a read of his stories such as I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream will convince you in dreadful totality. Watch it on a double bill with nothing less than Mad Max (1979), which director George Miller says was inspired by this movie.
Til next time, geeky fans! May all your D20s be naturals!