I've already talked about saving the world stories and during that video.
I came to the conclusion that the biggest problem with saving the world stories is that they almost all happen in an already well-established
universe that a writer is seriously unlikely to actually
let get destroyed. An audience can only suspend their disbelief so far and if the stakes are too high, the audience can
counter-intuitively check out of the situation. They're basically calling the writers bluff. No way
are you gonna wreck this sweet paradigm when there's so much more to gain from preserving and exploring it but some stories defy this issue
by starting with the premise that the world has already been destroyed in one way or another. This lets the author trash the world on
page one and then pull a story out of the ashes and it opens up a lot of unique
possibilities for plots. The core character appeal of a post apocalypse plot
is that by virtue of the setting the characters situations and futures are
uncertain and trending bleak. When the world falls apart, the pre-existing system stops working and everyone becomes a pioneer trying to figure out how to
survive in this new paradigm without the previous constant of civilization to keep everyone in check. Nothing is certain,
everyone's usually in some state of freaking out and hope is a rare commodity. The extent to which a post apocalypse is soul-crushing lay bleak
can vary and usually depends on the kind of apocalypse. Some apocalypses can be recovered from, some others not so much
so this hopeless uncertain future quality isn't
actually Universal as some stories take the timeline one step further and show Humanity in various stages of societal reconstruction.
Whether it's a functioning and self-sustaining
settlement or something as small as an interpersonal relationship between your
protagonists. Hopelessness is a genre staple for the starting point of a post apocalypse
but it's not a vital component. A more general element to post apocalyptic storytelling is the concept that the story is intended to send an
overt message to the audience and this obviously isn't unique to post apocalypses as lots of stories have themes but it's very common in post
apocalyptic stories for the author to have some kind of agenda or message
they're trying to explicitly communicate most writers aren't writing post. Apocalypse is just for the funsies
I'd argue that most post apocalypses aren't really fun to write unless you like seeing your characters
exclusively when they're pushed to the brink of desperation or being improbably stoic in the face of earth-shattering horror.
They're compelling sure but not super fun. Post apocalypses don't usually have much tonal range because everything sucks.
Sometimes it sucks in a sad way. Sometimes it sucks in a scary way, but it'll rarely not suck.
Lots of stories are built around core messages or themes in addition to characters at a plot and for a post apocalypse that message is
usually either "Hey guys, this situation would really suck,
so let's try to avoid it" or the rarer but more positive angle
"Even when everything's falling apart some vital component of humanity will keep shining on," usually familial love, human ingenuity, or the power of teamwork.
So let's take a hot minute to break down some common
post-apocalypse paradigms and the lessons they're built to teach. The big post-apocalyptic craze nowadays is the zombie apocalypse and the message these stories
send is almost always humans are the real monsters. Sure. The dead are wandering around chowing down on anything
they can get their teeth into but the real threat are the survivors driven to extremes to survive or just being a dick because they
can and nobody's around to stop them most zombie apocalypses don't have a specific force responsible for causing them,
they just kind of happen.
There are variant of the pandemic apocalypse, which on its own doesn't get as much airplay these days there nobody's fault
but they're pretty damn
devastating and they always have major lasting consequences. The extent to which
society can be rebuilt after a zombie apocalypse is highly variable and frequently depends on how exactly the zombie plague works. If zombies only make
more zombies by biting and/or zombies just kind of rot away on their own after a few years
then a sufficiently fortified society will probably be a-ok in the long run if it can avoid ripping itself apart in the interim. On the
other hand, if everyone is infected and however you die
you'll end up a zombie that society doesn't have a great chance of rebuilding since someone tipping over from a heart attack immediately becomes a
vector for high-speed zombification, no matter how fortified your bases since the survivors are usually handling a high-stress cocktail of "nowhere is safe,
Anyone could be infected and god, I hope the suspiciously well fed colony isn't eating people to survive."
It sets everyone on edge and usually pits everyone against each other.
Zombies trend towards the high nihilism end of the spectrum. Humans are monsters and society will never rebuild aren't exactly hopeful messages.
Usually the closest you get to a hopeful ending is a single fairly self sustainable colony of non dickish
survivors with a good fortification set up and dude in the basement
researching a vaccine or cure.
But on the flip side, these bleak narratives usually find their contrast against an unusually high density of subplots focusing on heartwarming adoptive father daughter
relationships which are usually really sweet. With these kinds of stories,
the message goes beyond "humans are dicks" to settle on the thesis "of even if everyone's being a dick and the future scene is really
hopeless we can still build each other up instead of tearing each other down".
This obviously isn't present in all zombie stories, but the ones that go that route tend to close on a bittersweet note
and it doesn't usually get better than that. Personally,
this is my least favorite apocalypse since I don't like nihilism and I really don't like zombies on principle-
Stay dead, please. Anyway an older favourite for the apocalypse is the nuclear apocalypse, which got big in the Cold War for very obvious reasons.
Unsurprisingly, the message of most nuclear apocalypses is "please for the love of God don't make this future happen".
It can be hard for those of us born after the Cold War cooled down to really
properly conceive of what it felt like but there was a period of several decades where pretty much everyone on the planet knew that a
single bus full of politically powerful nutjobs could, at any time, kick off the end of the goddamn world
and there wasn't a single thing anyone can do about it. Duck and Cover, memorize the location of the nearest fallout shelter,
none of it would matter. Even if you survived the initial bombings, nuclear winter would take a big chunk out of the survivors and the
residual radiation tainting the air and water would keep the damage going for decades
everyone would get cancer, reproductive rates would dramatically drop along with general life expectancy, and while it's quite possible life on the planet would
survive humanity, almost certainly wouldn't last more than generation. This is the really really not fun apocalypse.
Even the fun-ish stories like the Fallout franchise don't shy away from focusing on mutation and radiation poisoning as serious threats and one of the
cool bits of visual design from Mad Max fury road, is that literally
everybody is visibly screwed up in one way or another. Scarred, blistered, covered in tumors. You name it?
They got it, even in the sweet action-adventure movies a nuclear apocalypse basically means long-term survival isn't really on the table.
Probably the most overtly depressing nuclear
apocalypse story is 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a
ridiculously depressing Ray Bradbury short story about a smart house attempting to keep up its program duties despite the fact that a nuclear apocalypse has
happened and the family it's trying to care for is all like super-dead. Like post Thanos dead.
The story only has one living character and it's the starving, cancerous, former family dog that makes its way into the house before keeling over
because the message of this story is "this is horrible in every conceivable way, so please don't let it happen."
Like I said,
the Not Fun Apocalypse. Writers were writing these cautionary tales in the hopes that crippling depression and terror would keep these world leaders from killing
literally everybody. Another classic favorite is the robot apocalypse or more broadly the "has science gone too far"
apocalypse where humanity creates something that then wipes most of it out. The Matrix, Terminator, and even I Am Legend- though
obviously without the robots- follow this format where humanity is so busy focusing on what they can do that they never stop to think about
whether or not they should. The robot apocalypse is also frequently come with an additional message straight out of Shelley's 'Frankenstein',
"Hey guys, if you're gonna create sentience from nothing
you should probably be a responsible parent to it or it might murder everyone you love." Also
sometimes the robot comes to the logical conclusion that the biggest threat to humanity is itself and- protip- if anyone or anything is ever
motivated by "save you from yourself", you get the heck out of there as fast as you can because no good has ever come from
that sentence. The message there is the fairly generic
"Humanity does bad stuff to itself sometimes", which isn't exactly groundbreaking but isn't really wrong either
so whatever. Most robot apocalypses are a one-two punch of be careful with science and be careful with parenting
although most stories stick with the former. Much easier to be scared of the big scary murder robot than to ponder the role you played
in its development, you know? Then there's the supernatural and alien apocalypses,
which I'm lumping together because they fit the same general format and incursion of something unexpected
inhuman and very much out of place breaks into our world with catastrophic consequences. In alien cases these invaders usually come from space or
occasionally the Pacific Ocean, while supernatural apocalypses are rarer but sometimes just sort of happen because of mystical. what's it beyond (mortal ken/little Kent)?
There's a really good webcomic called 'Stand Still, Stay Silent' where some kind of horrible plagues swept the planet and killed all its victims then
trapped their tortured souls in the mutated skeletal bodies left behind and now the world is basically full of screaming ghosts and giant rotting monsters
that have forgotten how to die. The art is also stunning. I'd really recommend it.
The other big supernatural apocalypse is featured in the manga 'Berserk' and interestingly enough takes place several volumes into the story making it also a
subversion of my "No actually ending an established world" rule. 'Berzerk''s
supernatural apocalypse is kicked off by a supernatural
eclipse that turns former protagonist Griffith into a demon god-bat-monster thing and unleashes demons onto the world in large numbers and while it's
not a fast apocalypse,
it's pretty clear that the world is taking a serious turn for the worse as a result of the demon incursion.
Anyway, not many people write supernatural apocalypses, which I think is a shame cuz there's a lot of potential there.
Sometimes you get vampire apocalypses, but those are usually just zombie apocalypses in sexy waistcoats
so I don't count them here. 'Devilman, Crybaby' features a supernatural apocalypse, but it actually destroys the entire world and kills everybody
so it's not really got a post apocalypse plot... Supernatural and alien apocalypses share the Lovecraftian message of fearing the unknown.
It's out there, it's incomprehensible, and it could land in your backyard at any moment and start eating the neighborhood cats. Alien
apocalypses however, share the zombie apocalypses habit of throwing a ray of hope into an otherwise bad
situation and even dares to kick it up a notch from "humans aren't all terrible" to "humanity is actually really awesome when they want to
be" as humanity frequently manages to fight off the alien invaders with planes, guns, gumption, and giant robots with stripper names.
alien apocalypses are generally hopeful in tone, as they showcase
Humanity's finest when they finally get their act together and work as a unit to accomplish something. Stories with this message often
post-apocalyptic since humanity full-on wins with the implication that rebuilding will be a snap now that all the aliens are taken care of. How
realistic that outcome is really doesn't matter in a story medium where the premise is alien invasion. So let's roll with it.
The last apocalypse I want to talk about is the Ghibli apocalypse, a staple of several Studio Ghibli films,
Most notably 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind' and 'Castle in the Sky', both
these stories are post-post-
apocalypses, where society has had at least a couple
generations to rebuild after the world was seriously wrecked by a war fought by now lost super weapons. Now humanity has recovered and is living
in close harmony with nature because Ghibli but in both movies the
antagonists have found a way to get access to the remnants of that world ending super weapon and they decide to try and gain control
over it and use it to rule the world. The message here is very overt
"Super weapons won't let you take over the world like you want they'll just tear big holes in it,
everybody will lose and then everything will get reclaimed by Nature anyway."
the fact that a post-world War two Japanese director has this attitude towards world wrecking super weapons makes perfect sense.
In Nausicaä, the world wrecking weapons were God-warriors; giant, organic robot-monsters with nuke-lazers coming out of their faces.
And they did so much damage to the earth
that a giant forest of ridiculously poisonous fungus and giant insects has sprung up to siphon all the nuke-lazer poison out of the earth
so the planet can gradually heal. The bad guys have found an incomplete God-warrior and decide to wake it up and point it at the
big nature-y forest to get rid of all the giant bugs
but obviously this doesn't work out and the day is saved by a brave young woman with magical powers and a close relationship with nature
because Ghibli movie. 'Castle in the Sky' is more of a post-post-post
apocalypse where, in the very distant past, a flying castle with a nuke-laser on the bottom ruled the world
indiscriminately nuke-lasering its enemies but it's long since been abandoned and the only evidence of its existence are a bunch of overgrown craters visible
from the air and the fact that some pilots report seeing a castle in the clouds.
The bad guy in the movie is a very distant descendant of the family that owned the nuke-laser castle and he makes his way
onto it to try and use it to rule the world by nuke-lasering anyone
he doesn't like and hucking killer robots at everyone else.
unsurprisingly stopped by a brave young woman with magical powers and a close relationship with nature helped along by a spunky young man with a
rough attitude and a good heart because it's a Ghibli movie.
This is my favorite kind of apocalypse because I like Ghibli movies and it's probably the most thoroughly hopeful post-apocalypse story.
This archetype buffs the lessons from the zombie and alien
apocalypses from "humans can be badass" to "humans can survive, rebuild and get to the point where they forget about that time the world nearly
ended" which is about as hopeful as an apocalypse can get. Humanity was ravaged by war, sure.
But they survived and they moved on. The protagonists are living simple functional lives in sync with the beauty of nature.
The antagonists are the ones who never let go of the war and are so hung up on winning that they'll wreck the world all over
again, just to make it right. All he's saying is give peace a chance, guys.
So most post apocalypse stories fall into one of these categories and follow the corresponding message,
which is cool and all, but post apocalypses also have a number of problems that are almost unique to the genre
I'd say the biggest problem in post apocalypses is just everyone being horrible to each other.
See if you throw a bunch of characters into a really horrible situation without a way out or a real hope of survival,
they'd be realistically expected to freak out and then they'd be realistically expected to lash out at anybody nearby.
But if all your characters are just constantly lashing out at each other all the time
then there's no reason to get invested in them. They're all just being jerks to each other.
This is most common in zombie stories and is a big reason why I don't like them.
It's also why a lot of post apocalypses will build the emotional center of the story around a tense yet
loving relationship between a parent and child figure because they have reason to look out for each other and keep the yelling to a minimum
and that means we have a reason to actually be invested in this relationship in how it progresses. For a story that manages to completely
Avoid this problem 'A Quiet Place' is a standout example the story puts the focus on a small family were intimately invested in seeing survive
and the premise of the movie itself makes yelling wildly impractical. Boom,
no yelling and no reason for the audience to lose investment in the protagonists well-being.
But there's any number of zombie apocalypse stories where the protagonists are functionally
disposable and are just there to yell at each other and gruesomely die,
and honestly, I don't think that's interesting.
If we don't care when the characters die,
why kill them at all? On the flipside from the character disengagement, post apocalypse is also risk
disengaging the audience from being invested in the plot.
If a situation is thoroughly hopeless, your audience is more likely to emotionally check out from the story than they are to hope
extra-hard that things work out. If your heroes don't have a fighting chance,
then why are we even watching? This problem can be avoided by selling your audience on a smaller goal than an impossible total victory. Maybe
your heroes can't undo the robot apocalypse, but the main character's Chosen One Powers give them the ability to fight back.
We can't get rid of the zombies for good,
but we can secure and fortify our base and get a stable food supply going. Some stories kick hopelessness to the curb entirely and give
the heroes a chance for total victory.
These are usually alien
invasion stories where blow up the mother ship or board drop a nuke in the space hole is a full-on win condition rather than just a
stop-gap to keep the apocalypse from getting worse.
But in stories where the apocalypse is formatted in a way that makes fixing everything just totally impossible,
it's smart to sell your audience on a smaller,
Attainable goal that still feels like a victory. 'Mad Max: Fury Road' did a really good job with this. The world is a giant, radioactive
desert wasteland so that's not getting fixed anytime soon. Instead the plot is that Furiosa is trying to rescue a small group of women from
a life of sex slavery in an extra dystopic and really nasty cult. Initially,
she wants to bring them to an oasis of fertile land she grew up on but she discovers in the emotional Darkest Hour of the
movie that this oasis grew toxic and died out years ago.
So then the goal shifts. The new plan is to take over the cult base and their stable source of water and build a not-
horrible settlement out of whatever's left when they're done. It's believable,
it's very small-scale, and it still feels like a rewarding victory when they pull it off in the end.
Even though it's a two-hour road trip where they go in a circle.
So if your plot or characters are too emotionally draining, that can disengage the audience through sheer hopelessness fatigue
but honestly not always. 'There Will Come Soft Rains' is the most
exhaustingly horrifying story I've ever read and it's only a few pages long.
It stripped all the joy out of my brain for a solid week after I'd read it and it's incredibly visceral and tragic vibe wormed
its way into my head and sat there. It has no characters to get invested in,
no hope for a solution, barely any plot...
It was just a cautionary tale stressing only the crushing misery of this possible future earth, and no lie
it worked. Staring at a wall for a week, grappling with your own mortality, was the desired outcome.
So props to Bradbury for successfully haunting my dreams.
'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream', a short story by Harlan Ellison, is in a very similar position where it has a tiny
cast, a completely hopeless premise, and very little actual plot beyond raw misery.
It's also in that position where the casts are all so
beaten down and hopeless that they're completely awful to one another and there's no joy in their character dynamics and yet the premise of a
malevolent nigh omnipotent supercomputer relentlessly torturing the last remnants of humanity is payback for its own tortured existence is somehow compelling!
I don't know. It doesn't have as overt a message as 'There Will Come Soft Rains', but it's highly effective nightmare fuel
so I'd say that's a literary achievement. Post apocalypses are in that rare position where they can sometimes
circumvent plot and character in order to invest an audience on underlying thematic message alone.
However, this requires that the underlying message be worth sending.
"Hey gang, let's not destroy the world" is a solid message with some obvious benefits.
"Hey humanity's capable of incredible things if we buckle down and work together" is an uplifting message with a lot of historical precedent.
"Humans are monsters and everyone is awful" has been done to death and is demonstrably untrue.
We have enough angry sixth grade poetry guys,
we can stop writing "people are all terrible" stories now. And some stories have their messages
overshadowed by their storytelling. 'The Matrix' features an AI
uprising caused by their blatantly horrible mistreatment from humanity
culminating in a war where humanity ruins their own upper atmosphere to try and starve all the machines of their solar energy,
but the message people usually take away from the franchise isn't "maybe we shouldn't be horribly bigoted"
or "maybe we shouldn't burn our planet just to win a war", it's almost always "oh man,
can't wait to dodge bullets and do kung fu with Hugo Weaving". Which, you know, fair...
but definitely demonstrates how the point of a story can be obscured by the special effects.
Awesome kung fu fighting and leather trench coats don't exactly scream "humans are the real monsters".
'I am Legend' also has a conflict between message and plot,
specifically in the movie, which completely changes the ending to miss the point entirely. The hero of the story
gradually realizes that the infected human monsters he's been killing in search of a cure aren't mindless beasts out for blood, instead
capable love, and basically what amounts to the new human race and his desperate attempts to destroy them have been making him into the monster
they fear. This is "humans are the real monsters: at almost its most literal. While this message is very
tragic and powerful, the cinematic release ending of the movie decided this was too unpleasant and changed it to "Will Smith dramatically
sacrifices himself to save two human survivors from the completely evil infected monsters" which swaps out the entire point of the story for a generic
zombie apocalypse finale and completely strips the plot of any depth or overarching message. As a contrasting example
The Ghibli apocalypse has usually designed the plot and visual aesthetic to specifically highlight the underlying message
which is usually "war bad, nature good, flying machines great".
So even the visual special effects highlight at least one of those messages. The bad guy's super weapons will have overtly nuclear looking effects or be
dingy and polluted, the heroes will be at home in cozy simple environments with plants all over the place and you better believe the good
guys will interact with a flying machine at least once;
Even 'Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind', which features nature in an antagonistic role for much of the plot,
what with the ridiculously deadly mushroom forest and the giant angry bugs, makes sure to
explicitly show the audience that nature isn't the enemy in the story,
it's just trying to heal itself and the toxic forest is only toxic because the water it consumes is ridiculously poisonous
thanks to fallout from the
backstory war. The plot,
characters and even visual designs serve to highlight the message without running the risk of obscuring it. Have I fangirled about these movies enough for
Probably. Let's wrap this up.
Most stories have to balance plot and characters, making sure one doesn't overshadow the other and a lot of stories use plot and characters to
convey broader themes or promote an agenda. Post apocalypses frequently face the additional challenge of keeping the message from completely
overshadowing the plot and characters involved, since in contrast with other storytelling formats,
it's probably the genre that on average puts the most focus on an overt message and it's easy for characters to be pulled out of
character or for plots to spiral out of control if the story is predominantly being shaped by a message.
But it also runs the risk of the intended message being muddied by the plot or characters if too much focus is put on seemingly
contradictory elements. Hard to ponder the inherent cruelty of humanity when your human
protagonist's shooting up an apartment building lobby full of innocent security guards is being painted as a super cool thing to do. Jesus...
It's not an easy balance to strike,
but when it works, it results in an engaging story with a thought-provoking underlying message
and that's a really cool thing to be able to do. So, yeah.