The wind howls through a desolate ghost town, kicking up dust, ash and ground-down bone. Abandoned cars are rusted out, tires blown and disintegrated. Hollow buildings stand idle and alone, crumbling remembrances of a world left behind – our world. Something happened. Something wiped us out and left enough of the world we know behind to create eerie shadows of the past through which new heroes walk. Survivors eek out an existence that combines pioneer hardship with rat-like scavenging. Some are so hungry they’ve turned to cannibalism; others march into the wasteland hoping to find a hidden paradise, an untouched preserve of plant and animal life, well stocked with food and drink, enough for the human race to possibly might carry on – if not simply just enough to save our heroes.
This idea is not a new one. The idea of humans being the last of the dinosaurs, what scientists now refer to as "Dead Clades Walking" – a species that has experienced an extinction-level event that hasn’t been completely wiped out, but depleted enough that it will very soon find itself extinct – has been a staple of storytelling for decades. But it is an idea being once again treated with respect in Hollywood. In the past, however, it has been the focus of mainly B-films, first made in response to the fears of a nuclear-armed world. However, as the post-apocalyptic subgenre gained popularity, it slowly found its way into our genre disaster-film cycle.
For some reason, genre films tend to travel in cycles. Audiences will develop a taste for, then overindulge in, a certain brand and style of genre. Then, once they have had their fill, they will move on, looking for the next phase of the cycle. In the world of disaster films, there are three major themes: The world is going to end, the world is ending, and the world has ended.
It begins with The World Is Going to End: the good old-fashioned disaster film. Whether by fire, asteroid, volcano or flood, everything you know and love is about to be wiped away forever, unless someone can save us all. In this type of film, the world is usually saved from destruction, but just barely, and often wrapped in a lesson about our own mortality and something we are doing wrong in our own age. Movies like: Armageddon, 2012, Deep Impact
Then comes The World Is Ending: This is a much bleaker version of the disaster film and generally comes in two distinct flavors: zombie and pissed-off-nature. Zombie films are something you should be intimately familiar with by now. A virus spreads; an alien race loses a jar of space slugs; hell opens up; whatever the cause, the dead walk, dragging the living into their endless hunger with them. Pissed off nature, on the other hand, hasn’t really been around in a while. It is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as a zombie film: Something odd happens to trigger animals of a certain type to attack and maul human beings, driving everyone indoors to have to deal with the same type of siege you see in a zombie film. The overall style of the film is the same, only the means of destruction seems to be different. Arguably, pissed-off-nature films tend to be the bridge between the disaster film and the zombie film, not quite offering the total destruction of Armageddon, but almost always hinting that the event is far from over. Movies like: Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, The Birds
Then naturally comes the Post-Apocalyptic Film. In this, the next logical progression in the artistic cycle, we begin to wonder how humanity will eek out its existence after all the fireworks and cataclysms have died down. And that’s where we are now. We’ve seen the movement grow from its first relatively failed attempts like the crossover Land of the Dead and the tongue-in-cheek, grindhouse-style homage Doomsday, to the current slate, including the critically acclaimed The Road and this week’s The Book of Eli. And with talk of a fourth Mad Max film and a possible 2013 television series (the aftermath of 2012), as well as the relatively small expense of shooting such films (at least in Avatarian terms), I expect that this is a trend that will stick around for a few more years before the cycle takes a short break and begins anew.