By Alicia Ashby
Hey! Who here loves the apocalypse?!
Yeah, I know: exactly nobody. Creating a believable, functional world like ours in fiction is hard enough. Most attempts to write about worlds destroyed by varying forms of human stupidity are marred themselves by? well, human stupidity. Designing a world where nothing works but there?s still enough action to drive a plot along involves pulling off some serious authorial sleight-of-hand. It?s frankly amazing that any really great post-apocalyptic fiction exists at all.
Ah, but great fiction isn?t what we?re about here at Topless Robot. (That?s covered by our sister site, Robot in Petticoats.) No, we?re about the awful, the stupid, the insultingly bad, and in this case, what?s just plain annoying. Here?s a list of the most irritatingly wrong-headed post-apocalyptic settings we?re ever run across. Note that we aren?t necessarily dogging the stories here (although a lot of these stories are pretty shit). This is about their insultingly stupid status quos.
10) The Matrix
While the original Matrix flick is a viable post-apocalyptic setting in a lot of ways, it has one super-critical flaw that makes it kind of hard to watch once you notice it. Actually, this flaw makes it hard to watch any apocalyptic story that?s stumbled into the same trap. Basically, the titular Matrix is a post-apocalyptic world where people are treated to illusions of day-to-day 20th century life while their bodies are actually atrophied blobs of flesh trapped in mechanical pods that harvest their bio-electric impulses and body heat to run vast networks of artificially intelligent machines that are hostile to the human race. The machines use humans for power plants because human resistance movements blotted out the sun to cut off their solar power (in the process making all life on earth unsustainable, but whatever).
Now, here?s the problem: humans, even inactive humans, don?t actually produce excess body heat or electricity. We?re an energy-losing system, that?s why we eventually up and die. A whole bunch of humans in pods aren?t going to generate enough power to run, well, any goddamn thing you see the machines doing in the Matrix. It?s especially dodgy that weak, out-of-shape humans are somehow powering their own life support systems, the Matrix itself, AND whatever bullshit the evil machine empire is supposed to be up to. The machines would get way more benefit out of just using whatever power sources the human resistance was, killing off the flesh-bags in the Matrix to save energy, and then settling in to making Earth an environment where humans couldn?t synthesize enough oxygen out of the environment to survive. Granted, this approach would force a massive decrease in the number of sweet-awesome kung-fu fights and power suit battles, so it probably wouldn?t fit in with the Warshowskis?s vision.
Did you watch Ralph Bakshi?s 1977 cartoon flick Wizards in high school? Congratulations, you?re either a stoner or hung around with the stoners as their one hilarious non-stoned buddy. This is a film that was richly marinated in the patchouli oil of decrepit 70?s counter-culture, and boy does it show. From the insane live-action opening in which a bored female narrator reads to us from a goofy kid?s picture book about how the current world ended when it nuked itself to death, to her equally bored information about worldwide nuclear death leading to magic, elves, and fairies with rockin? tits returning to the world, this is really the cinematic equivalent of a van with a wizard riding a unicorn in front of a rainbow painted on it.
There are actually quite a lot of post-apocalyptic settings that build themselves around the idea of our world getting a?sploded and a new, more interesting world that just coincidentally resembles a Western or Buck Rogers or D&D rising up in its place. About the best this kind of story can aspire to is the goofy fun of a Thundarr the Barbarian, as it?s otherwise a completely stupid fictional conceit. Nuclear bombs can accomplish a lot of things, but exploding so hard that magic exists isn?t one of them.
Wizards makes especially poor use of this central idea, as the rise of magic is no real net gain or change for the world other than an increase in the overall percentage of fairies with rockin? tits in the population. The actual ?secret power? the main villain is using is a ridiculously antiquated notion, and the way his noble wizard brother kills him is so ironic that implodes into a ball of its own stupidity. I don?t actually want to reveal this big twist, because the way it appears in the film is so abrupt that it becomes stupidly hilarious.
8) Battlefield Earth
This is a crime committed to some degree by Wizards, but not to the same absolute brain-boggling fuck-up of a way that the Battlefield Earth movie commits it. Battlefield Earth is a sort of standard ?aliens invade, world ends? apocalypse of the sort that was classy when War of the Worlds did it and is usually stupid as hell elsewhere. Battlefield Earth is stupid in so many ways that are covered in excruciating detail elsewhere, but its crimes as an apocalyptic story are twofold.
The first is the Psychlos, who have managed to rule Earth for 1,000 years, using human slaves all the while, without grasping even the most basic of facts about human society. Even slave traders in the 1600s managed to rather quickly get a grasp of the basics of how Africans lived, or at least as good a grasp as was required to buy slaves off of warring tribes. In Battlefield Earth, John Travolta is sincerely confused by the idea of humans having pets, leading to the infamous and fucking idiotic scene where he proclaims dogs the true master race of Earth. (Which begs the question of whether or not dogs still exist after this apocalypse?come on, they have to, Fallout wouldn?t lie to me!)
The second is a particular event of the ending, where the human slaves (lead by Jonnie Goodboy ?Git ?R Done? Tyler) break into Fort Knox, give the Psychlos gold bars they ?mined?, and then teach themselves to successfully pilot thousand-year-old F-14s in glorious victory against the Psychlo invaders. Even accepting that men from pre-literate societies could, you know, train themselves to pilot jet fighters from reading manuals written in a dead fucking language, there?s the issue of how operable thousand-year-old fighter jets, possibly with fuel rotting away at the tanks, are going to be. A scene where someone powered one up and it promptly exploded would?ve been fantastic, if admittedly a downbeat ending to the film.
7) Crisis on Infinite Earths
Not many people consider DC Comics? Crisis on Infinite Earths an apocalyptic story, but you really should. The story basically entailed the anti-matter devil coming and making every setting used by the comics at the time fucking explode. The made them explode so hard that all the debris and shit fused together into a wildly inconsistent new world, much of it drawn by John Byrne and George Perez, much of it obsessed with trying to be interesting despite not being able to use a lot of the fans? favorite characters and situations.
This type of apocalypse?the ?apocalypse of housecleaning??has become an alarmingly frequent story device used by writers of ongoing serial fictions, like comics, tabletop roleplaying games, MMOs, pretty much anything where starting over may mean arbitrarily making what came before explode into an edgy new art style. The main problem with this sort of device is that once you introduce it into a setting, there?s no backsies. If all creation exploded into a different all creation once, then why not do it again? Some editors may get it into their head that, really, nothing else you can do is going to seem threatening after a multiversal death storm. Maybe they?re right. God knows the past four years of DC?s comics output has had ?omg the world a?splode ?gain? as its driving multi-title plot thread.
I?m in the camp that thinks Crisis isn?t a bad story ? a silly one, sure ? but even then, when it first destroyed the DC Universe, it set a horrible long-running apocalyptic juggernaut in place. It made mediocrities like Zero Hour an inevitability, and allowed bugnuts stupid shit like Superboy creating and fixing continuity errors by punching the walls of the universe to even be considered publishable. Maybe there are some places where serial fiction shouldn?t go, and maybe the retcon apocalypse is one of them. Once you start, can you ever really stop?
6) Age of Apocalypse
Initially I was going to call out Days of Future Past for this, but a friend (rightfully) pointed out that Age of Apocalypse used pretty much the same type of apocalyptic story with essentially the same characters while telling it infinitely more poorly. After all, while someone from the future begs the X-Men of the past (or now) to avert a horrible post-apocalyptic future by preventing a given event from happening, Age of Apocalypse doesn?t even that tenuous tie to something a reader might actually give a shit about. Age of Apocalypse is quite literally an apocalypse that never happened, starring people who don?t exist and, aside from fucking up ’90s X-Men continuity even more, don?t fucking matter at all.
In the case of Age of Apocalypse, time travel is used to incite the apocalypse instead of being reserved as a method for resolving it (which forces them to do bullshit with the M?Kraan crystal to get us back into the usual status quo when it?s time for this story to end). Legion goes back in time to kill Magneto but actually kills his father, Professor X. He ceases to exist and this somehow makes the entire world turn into a festering hellpit in the course of about forty years. The actual setting itself makes no fucking sense, with lots of psychodrama about mutant slave camps and eugenics and oh god the people delivering soliloquies as they punch each other. It?s all tremendously stupid and forgettable, and even more forgettable since any long-term way of affecting the core stories with this mess is going to be painfully contrived at best.
This general type of story has a certain obvious appeal, and shows up a lot in fanfic since creators rarely have the audacity to try and make someone spend money on it. What would your favorite characters do if everything around them went to shit? Who would they become, what would the new conflict be? The problem with this kind of story is that the ?new? apocalyptic conflict is usually pretty unsolvable, so most authors weasel out by making the world not exist anymore rather than write themselves out of the corner they?re in. Maybe this involves time-travel or a magic foo-foo crystal or, if you?re the ending of the anime RahXephon, you get really ambitious and have the protagonist change the status quo by thinking really hard about what he?d rather have instead.
5) Kingdom Come
Kingdom Come is not, strictly speaking, a post-apocalyptic story. Instead it?s an apocalyptic story where the apocalypse occurs at the climax, and the denouement shows us the post-apocalyptic status quo. I still feel comfortable calling it out, because Kingdom Come has the audacity to use the apocalypse as a way of wresting a happy ending out of the story?s depressing and difficult main conflicts.
Kingdom Come is one of those ?what if the superheroes GOT OLD?!!? stories that Dark Knight Returns made entirely fashionable. It also adds in devious villains, amoral n00b heroes who just like the fightin?, and a bunch of weird Earth-2 references to characters nobody but Mark Waid cares about. Superman comes back after a long retirement, tries to put all the crappy heroes in a super-prison, there?s some damn subplot involving a bunch of super-villains and Batman making like a third faction of characters who just kind of hang around in splash panels, and it all builds up to this big ridiculous mass-melee involving all of the superheroes at the end. The U.N. gets annoyed with this and sends the Blackhawks out to drop a nuclear bomb on the battling heroes.
Anyway, the beauty part of all this: conveniently, the nuke wipes out all of the characters who were inclined to do problematic things. There?s a handful of survivors getting rehabilitated or whatever on Paradise Island, but basically the magic nuclear fairy just took away most of the setting?s problem?an excess of functionless superheroes. There is briefly some half-assed tension with Superman turning against the government, but there?s another deus ex machina (no, really) to avert even that much consequence. Instead, you get a happy ending where everything?s gonna be okay and we?re gonna read about Superman forever, and that?s a pretty tasteless Point B to reach by launching a nuclear bomb from Point A.
Waterworld is another movie emblematic of a ?typical? apocalypse trigger. Humans did something stupid, or wouldn?t stop doing something stupid, and now Earth is all fucked up. In a good movie, like say Wall-E, the damage feels reasonable and you see evidence of humans trying to correct the damage at the last minute. It probably doesn?t work, something terrible happens to humanity (in Wall-E?s case, they abandon Earth), and that?s roughly where your movie begins.
The problem with Waterworld is that the environmental apocalypse, despite having the fairly realistic trigger of global warming, has Earth covered by more water than actually exists on it now. In the flick (spoiler alert!) the only dry land on Earth is what was once the tip of Mount Everest, which is basically impossible. If it was possible, what would actually happen in this situation is that the entire human race would die, either of water-borne ailments or because the water level had gotten so high we couldn?t fucking breathe without assistance. Instead, the human race is surviving okay on boats and artificial islands (where the fuck do they build them?), and Kevin Costner has mutated gills and webbing for underwater travel (but not scales, that would be icky).
A post-apocalyptic story demands that the world-setting feel like a reasonable consequence of whatever triggering event took place. If your world is going to be destroyed by something very real, like global warming, then the results must at least feel realistic. If you?ve created a situation in which human society is basically impossible, then your setting needs to be rethought or you have a fucking hopelessly stupid story on your hands. I?m inclined to think Waterworld is the latter, since the entire situation was so impossible as to be completely irrelevant to the audience?s imagination.
3) Resident Evil: Extinction
One of the most interesting apocalypse triggers spawned by modern horror fiction is the ?zombie apocalypse?, typified by John Romero?s worth with Night of the Living Dead. Some event, often something left intentionally unexplained, begins turning people into zombies, who then begin biting and eating other people who also become zombies. There?s only really two possible resolutions to this situation: effective armed intervention of the sort seen in Shaun of the Dead, or the zombies multiplying more rapidly than survivors can possibly kill them off, as seen in Dawn of the Dead.
Resident Evil: Extinction begins with a pretty basic Dawn of the Dead scenario. Most of the living things on Earth are zombies, because it?s not really Resident Evil until you?re fighting a fucking zombie giraffe, and the survivors are living in underground paramilitary facilities where? well, honestly, I have no idea what the hell they?re eating, but if they?ve made it this long I?ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Where Resident Evil: Extinction critically fails the zombie apocalypse scenario is by assuming that a) the surviving researchers would be totally willing to make new types of super-zombies!, and b) that ?by the way there?s this chick with superpowers who can set crap on fire? is an acceptable way to avoid the logical end of a zombie apocalypse scenario, which is despair and extinction of the human race.
Not that Resident Evil: Extinction has any sort of satisfactory resolution, since hey they can always make more sequels, but even the resolutions hinted at are beyond ridiculous. The entire point of a zombie apocalypse is to point at humans being fragile and kind of hopeless creatures. It?s not a good setting for the sexy blood-on-tits action scenes that Extinction was really interested in.
2) After War Gundam X
I?m not even going to try to explain the long-running Gundam franchise to all you general media fans out there. Its inbred, incomprehensible glory is second only to how thoroughly DC?s managed to fuck up Legion of Super-Heroes. Suffice to say it?s a bit in the vein of Final Fantasy, where you have lots of extremely similar characters, designs, and situations recurring in sequential stories that usually don?t have anything to do with what came before but also kind of do. It?s also part of Japan?s family of TV franchises that serve the same stupid action delivery function that superheroes do in the US, and tend to sell poorly over here in the US since we?ve got plenty of our own home-grown stupid shit.
After War Gundam X, as the name implies, is the series that takes place after a massive war in space has destroyed Earth. You see, all the colonists in the space colonies orbiting the planet? When it looked like they wouldn?t win, they had a fit of congenital stupid and decided to fling their artificial homes down at the Earth. At one point the story tells us that this kills 90% of the Earth?s population, and devastates the environment with a mild nuclear winter. In the show itself, you see precious little that isn?t sand-blasted desert, empty generic fields, or bombed-out towns. ]
Now, you?d think this sort of thing would set human civilization back a thousand years or so, right? Plenty of horrible starvation, total loss of infrastructure, and a definite loss of knowledge. Yet, when we pick up with what passes for the story itself fifteen years after the fact? well, everything?s mostly fine. People look pretty well-fed,, you?ve got a functioning barter system up, some decent-sized cities in the rubble, and some-fucking-how there?s enough skilled labor, energy, and resources to keep the goddamn hundreds of twenty-meter giant robots we see over the course of the series up and running. Hell, we even see unemployed pilots scraping for jobs, instead of just quietly starving to death the way intellectual specialists should in these sorts of situations. At the very least we should?ve seen people cannibalizing the damn robots? power sources.
This is a drastically stupid thing a lot of Western post-apocalyptic stories do, too, wanting to have bombed out horrible non-industrial wastelands, but also wanting xyber-awesome dudes in power-armor and nuclear tanks and god knows what else fighting in it. It?s a terrible way to lie to the audience, by asking them to believe that the world?s been destroyed, but? hey, only the parts we weren?t going to need. It also betrays authors who?ve put not the slightest bit of thought into how their setting is going to work, too.
The basic type of apocalyptic story the 1974 film Zardoz is telling is a familiar one, and frankly one that?s been handled much better in other stories. You have a world where there?s a class of Haves, who live exalted lives of magic and wonder (and, perhaps, boredom and misery), and then some Have-Nots who live in whatever conditions happen to be the most wretched thing the creators can imagine.
Zardoz is special because it has two classes of Have-Nots: the Brutals, who? um, fuck a lot and are cavemen or something, and Exterminators, who run around in nuclear orange diapers trying to shoot Brutals down at a rate which exceeds the rate of Brutal pregnancies. Given that Brutals appear to do nothing but fuck, this would seem like a losing proposition to me. Then again, Exterminators worship guns and abhor the penis because a flying disembodied stone head (the titular Zardoz) tells them to, so what do I know?
The Haves in Zardoz are the Eternals, who live in Vortexes which largely resemble 60?s hippie love-in communes. Everyone sits around stoned and well-fed all day, indulging in catty psychic gossip and bullshit philosophy. Think of it as a perpetual college you can never graduate from. The Vortexes are supposedly supplied with food grown by the Exterminators, an activity we never see them engage in, and the whole status quo?s origin is vague at best. It has something to do with the Tabernacle, a magic bullshit computer, and eugenics experiments that make Sean Connery?s character the mightiest diaper-man of all.
A good apocalyptic story needs to clearly come from and go to somewhere, and even fans of Zardoz still engage in a certain amount of debate as to what the hell is going on it to this day. There?s no really good idea of where the Eternals came from, how they got there, or what any of this is supposed to mean to anyone. The ending is a triumph of? what, nature or something? Sean Connery and this no-longer-immortal Eternal chick spend the rest of their lives in a cave, having a kid and then sitting in exactly one position until their skeletons fall apart. Having just watched Zardoz, I sympathized with their plight.