Category Archives: post-apocalyptic

Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic SF. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Yes, its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic SF is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed? 

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley.  In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished. 

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing.  Using techniques that made SF films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery.  Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous. 

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome.  And no SF action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way. 

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that? 

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic SF that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm.  Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects.  It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic SF is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking. 

Snowpiercer (2013)


Man, is this film overrated.

It’s an interesting premise and certainly offers a unique take on post-apocalyptic dystopia, but despite its visual invention and black humor, the ideas at its core feel trite.

The premise is pretty straightforward. Environmental devastation has driven mankind to seek a technological solution for climate change which backfires and instead turns the planet into a presumably uninhabitable tundra. Prior to the wintry techno Armageddon, a forward thinking industrialist constructs a global railway system and the titular train which carries the remnants of humanity in its various cars and endlessly circumnavigates the frozen waste.

Echoing the themes and visual metaphors of Metropolis and Animal Farm and numerous other dystopian fables, the downtrodden, impoverished proles are banished to the dim, grimy, squalid rear cars while the wealthy enjoy the comforts of the front cars. Order is of course enforced at gunpoint by a legion of goons who are lead by a caricature of a despot played by Tilda Swinton.  Coming across like a visual mashup of Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher in quasi military regalia, she makes pompous pronouncements about maintaining the social order of the train and how everyone must maintain “Their Proper Place”.

After one of the children is taken away by the authorities for some unknown and nefarious purpose, the proles decide to initiate a revolution. Lead by the twin stereotypes of the Indomitable Rebel Leader (Chris Evans) and Wizened Sage (John Hurt), the band of revolutionaries begin a violent takeover of the train leading to the inevitable showdown between the Indomitable Rebel and the Evil Puppet Master at the front of the train, Wilford.

This stuff is generally good grist for the drama mill when telling a dystopian SF story, but this is where the film goes off the rails (pun intended).

Here, the film commits three crimes of peddling hackneyed tropes.  The first is the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy, the second is the cult of deference to a Great Leader, and the third, while ultimately derived from the first two, is the idiotic notion of a fated social order which is either enforced by totalitarian rule or disrupted by a Liberating Leader.
The most egregious crime is of course the Inverse Road to Serfdom Fallacy. The notion that an industrialist who achieves success in the free market left to his own devices has totalitarian designs and will subject an unwitting public to his technocratic Darwinian power games and will not hesitate to use violence to both keep the plebes in line and maximize efficiency.  At the end of the film, Wilford offers Curtis the opportunity to be the new Great Leader because after all, the rubes need to be kept in line. One particularly cartoonish scene involves a school teacher indoctrinating the youth with cultish songs of praise toward Wilford which are undoubtedly meant to resemble those sung at gunpoint in North Korea.

The film essentially presents the acquisition of power, wealth and resources as a zero sum game and insists on perpetuating the dumb, reductive and counterproductive dichotomy of 99 percenters versus one percenters. There are haves and have nots and the haves will resort to violence and repression in order to preserve the social order and the only recourse for have nots is violent revolution.

And of course, all collective action is driven by the dictates of the Leaders from both sides.  The rebellious proles only act when commanded to do so as do the armed goons who work for Wilford.  There is no individual thought, action or initiative whatsoever. Everything hinges on The Leaders.

Despite its generally hamfisted approach to the themes, there are some surprising nuances.  The film seems to be suggesting that privatized marine ecosystems will result in a sustainable food supply.  And for those who believe in gun control, this film may disabuse the notion that gun ownership should be the sole province of agents of the state.  There is a pretty blatant suggestion of entomophagy as a viable food alternative as well. Not exactly something you’re likely to see in your average Hollywood film for sure.

The visuals are cool and the combat scenes are insanely brutal.

Proceed at your own risk.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)


“My name is Max. My world is fire. And blood.”

Oh, you better believe it.

Your world will be fire and blood after you see this film. Believe the hype. Believe every word. This film earned every bit of praise that has been written or spoken.

This film is every bit the fuel injected, turbo charged, flame throwing battering ram that you’ve heard. It is a jaw dropping feat of cinematic bravura. It is also a cornucopia of visual riches; cinematography, art direction, design and a level of choreographed mayhem that will be the standard against which all future films will be measured. Most importantly, it is a well written story with vividly rendered characters and a highly detailed world.

Though I enjoyed it, I also don’t think that it’s without flaws. There are mixed messages regarding the nature of freedom, some dumb clichés about commerce, property rights and capitalism, and a frustrating veneration of the myth of the Leader Who Brings Equality and Emancipation. In this case, the variation on the same theme, The Female Leader Who Brings Equality and Emancipation Because She’s a Woman, you FUGHYNG PYG. Clichés to which I probably should be accustomed, but feel compelled to draw attention to nonetheless.

There has also been a lot of hullabaloo over the film’s alleged feminism. While I can accept that there are aspects of the story that could be construed as feminist in the manner that was asserted in the original conception of the movement, these claims are, by and large, wildly overblown. Aside from a little blatant pandering to redfem sensibilities, the film mostly emphasizes the contribution that each gender is able to make to one another; a position which stands in stark contrast to the position of antipathy, bigotry and antagonism towards men which is actively fostered in feminist circles and media.

Don’t get me wrong. What’s good about the film far outweighs the dubious. While these flaws do not derail the film, they warrant mention.

So let’s take a look at them.

Just as the three predecessor films, Fury Road presents a world in a state of collapse. Or perhaps a cynical extrapolation of the current state of affairs. Presumably, all governments have fallen and the gun is the only law. It provides a perfect backdrop for an exploration of morality.

The best part of this film and the series is that it asks you to consider what morality is when the structures of society which allegedly provide the foundations of moral behavior have disappeared.

Enter Max Rockatansky; a former cop who lost his family and is haunted by his past failures. He’s searching for a “righteous cause” and some redemption. Once again, we’re presented with a protagonist who was once an agent of the state and by extension, a symbol of the state. In Max, we are expected to see one of the last guardians of law, virtue, and morality in a world in which the law has failed.  It’s ironic that we are expected to view a former cop as the embodiment of morality in light of so many current instances of police brutality, but it’s a believable leap of imagination because he’s no longer beholden to the state. Instead of a trigger happy killer like the psychopaths we see later in the film (and in the real world), Max is a model of restraint. He does not arbitrarily initiate violence against others.

“My world is reduced to a single instinct: Survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me… Or everyone else,” he says in the opening narration. Tom Hardy was cast over Mel Gibson this time out and brings a new level of gravitas, physicality and appeal to the role of Max.

On the flipside, we have Immortan Joe; a psychopathic despot who wields power through fear, violence and manipulation through religious belief. Immortan Joe is the dictator of The Citadel; a dystopian hellhole in which Joe and his minions live in relative splendor and plenitude, and the population live in a state of debased poverty and abject misery. He controls the water supply and, in the tradition of all totalitarian assholes, preaches an inversion of reality to keep the plebes in line.

“Do not become addicted to water, it will take hold of you and you will resent its absence,” he bellows in one of his speeches to the masses. Self-abasement and sacrifice, you worms! You’re taking up space and resources and you’d be dead if not for my benevolence!

Just as the previous films addressed the possibility of a global shortage of gasoline, this film wants to draw attention the availability (or lack thereof) of clean, potable water as the issue of mounting concern.

Additionally, Joe has an army of War Boys who answer to his every command. They are a whole legion of mutated men who’ve been bred for combat, are hopped up on some aerosol amphetamine and swear a religious fealty to Joe out of a belief in an afterlife of glory.  This is also a possible bit of feminist pandering. Though it’s true that heads of state who’ve been responsible for so much misery and death throughout history have been male, contrary to contemporary feminist propaganda, there’s nothing inherent in manhood that automatically makes you a rapist/murderer/sex trafficker/child molester/genocidal maniac.

Here, George Miller reveals both a cynical view of commerce (there isn’t any) and a despairing view of humanity. It seems that he’s portraying life as a choice between being a mindless minion, a servile and helpless serf or a cruel despot. He seems to be saying that life is confined to solitary acts of virtue, morality and violent resistance (which are the province of “Heroes”) in a world that is poisoned and beyond hope of reclamation. All other options lead to enslavement or rule over others by force.

In reference to Joe’s iron fisted dominion, a character says, “He owns the water, and he owns us too.”

What a dumb, narrow, cynical, and fallacious view of property rights and the world.  Instead of viewing markets as an emancipating force, Miller has chosen to take the view that those who have commodities that people need will use them to enslave others.

This same view carries over to the characters which set the events of the film in motion, The Five Wives. The Five Wives were Joe’s “breeders”; women held in captivity to give birth to Joe’s children.  Imperator Furiosa, brilliantly portrayed by Charlize Theron, steals the Five Wives when sent on a mission to obtain gas for Immortan Joe.

Upon discovering their absence, Joe finds the words “WE ARE NOT OBJECTS” painted on the walls. Naturally, Joe is enraged and mobilizes his entire fleet of battle cars to hunt down Furiosa. Not only is Joe’s ownership of these women a cartoonish view of the life of freedom enjoyed by women who live in Western market-oriented societies, it is predictably one of the themes around which feminists have rallied.  It reveals the sad contempt for private property held by filmmakers and feminists alike. It also reveals a frustrating refusal to recognize the fact that the earliest American feminists of the 19th century agitated to overturn common law statutes which made women actual slaves to their husbands.  The Married Women’s Property Acts (laws which preceded suffrage by 56 years) allowed women to enter into contracts, own property and earn a salary!  Yet for some reason, feminists seem intent on denigrating and dismissing these early gains and regarding the opportunity that the free market presents as a monolithic force of oppression. While I can accept that this plot element could also be construed as a metaphor for sex trafficking and countries with epidemic levels of rape like the Congo and Sudan, these are countries with an absence of markets or a lack of appreciation for property rights, an excess of religious belief, rule by force or all three. Either you respect property rights and voluntary exchange or you submit to rule by force.  You can’t have both, feminists.
Furthermore, isn’t this Five Wives plot element just a variation on the “damsel in distress” trope famously decried by Anita Sarkeesian as a disempowering cliché?  Is it true that all you need to do to appease feminists is make the savior a female?

Feminists have also lavished praise over the toughness, bravery, resourcefulness and ferocity of Furiosa.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the character and Theron’s performance and I get the appeal she holds as a representation of female badassery, I still find it strange that feminists are swooning over this character. Furiosa knows how to drive and repair the War Rig, how to use firearms, and can hold her own in hand to hand combat.  It’s as though feminists equate fictional representations of toughness with real world “equality”.  Feminists are generally deeply opposed to gun rights and never agitate for equal representation in automotive repair or auto sports. I cannot recall even so much as a single kind feminist word spoken about someone like Danica Patrick nor can I recall a single line of coverage given to women who work in pro auto sports in feminist media.
What’s even stranger to me about the praise of the Furiosa character is that, in contrast to women who live in the Western world, she had no real choice in her life.  She was kidnapped as a child and her only real option was to climb the ranks of Immortan Joe’s military. It’s possible that she developed her skills purely out of necessity. And why aren’t feminists praising Joe for his female-friendly hiring policy? There weren’t any other women amongst the ranks of the War Boys as far as I could tell.

One of the other themes which has been downplayed and sneered at by feminists is the subplot involving Nux, one of Joe’s War Boys who ends up siding with Furiosa, Max and the Wives. A mutual affection develops between Nux and Capable.  Since Joe kept the men separated from the female population, they developed stunted views of their relationship towards women.  Having lived most of his life deprived of any real affection from a woman, Nux reclaims his humanity through the power of the love of a woman freely given.  Feminists often seem way more invested in denouncing “toxic masculinity” and “misogyny” rather than seeing men as humans who need and crave love.  Sometimes, the only validation a man seeks in this life is the love of a woman.

Furiosa’s intention was to return to the Green Place; a fabled land of unspoiled beauty that was the homeland from which she was kidnapped as a child. Instead, they meet the Vuvalini, a gang of motorcycle riding, gun toting matriarchs who are the last remaining survivors of the Green Place. Here, Miller does a little blatant pandering to feminist tendencies towards misandry. They’re initially distrustful of Max and Nux and are only assuaged by Furiosa vouching for them as “reliable”.  The Vuvalini are a manifestation of a feminist power fantasy and give a voice to contemporary notions of “white, male capitalist patriarchy” promulgated in feminist circles today. They speak lovingly of women as caretakers, mothers, and givers of life and tell stories filled with atavistic yearning of the bygone days when fruit, flowers, and trees grew in abundance before everything was destroyed by all the nasty, evil men. When the climactic chase goes into overdrive, he even pays tribute to the Valerie Solanas-loving/SCUM Manifesto-reading crowd when one of the matriarchs declares, “One man. One bullet.”
After a breathtaking final chase sequence, Furiosa ultimately vanquishes Joe while she venomously spits “Remember me!”

The heroes ride victoriously into The Citadel with Joe’s corpse on the hood of the War Rig. Furiosa and the Wives are admitted to the upper levels once reserved for Joe and his minions to assume control of The Citadel. The final scene shows one of the former Wives allowing the water to gush forth from the giant water pipes on the mountainside and waste it even more profusely than Joe ever did. From this act, the presumption with which you’re left is that Furiosa is going to be a Better Leader.  Because….FEMALE!  And Joe’s fundamental flaw was that he was a MAN!  Never mind that they had scarce resources to manage in the first place and had no apparent system of prices, wages or exchange. We’re left to believe that Furiosa would be a more benevolent leader simply because she had a uterus.  Hillary 2016!
Again, these are not fatal flaws.

The film never fails to entertain. It succeeds at being a nail biter not only as a result of the physicality and virtuosity of the stunt work, but because the human drama is the backbone of the film. The look of the film is absolutely first rate and you are completely immersed in the world.

Highly recommended.