the 21st-century post-apocalyptic future
April 24, 2013
A friend of mine recently dug up some old Dr. Pepper commercials from the 80’s, and they’re glorious. They take place in horrid post-apocalyptic futures where a cowboy Mad Max hero travels around dispensing the glory of Dr. Pepper. The “Cola Wars” are depicted as having actually destroyed the planet, and all the tropes of the 1980’s post apocalyptic roadtrip movie are there. Via YouTube, here’s “1984,” and here’s “After the Cola Wars.”
This got me thinking, and not just the curmudgeonly, “Wow, they don’t make ’em like that anymore.” (A commercial with references to Metropolis? Inconceivable!) Right now, the post-apocalyptic future seems to be experiencing another round of popularity, in fiction and in movies. But it’s quite different from that classic 1980’s blasted dystopian landscape. Look at Wall-E, the frame story in Cloud Atlas, and two of this summer’s films: Oblivion and After Earth. All these depict an abandoned Earth that can only be visited by shining, polished people in glowing white skinsuits, who use supersleek technology and now live off-world. A sterile, utopian future returning to an ugly past. (The backstory to these always seems to tell us that Earth has been destroyed, that a shattered climate required people to move offworld. But with the exception of Wall-E, the Earths depicted actually seem quite lush and overflowing with life. Just not civilization.)
What I can’t decide is if this is a more positive or more pessimistic view of humanity than the 1980’s post-apocalypse. Is it a gesture of optimism to believe that we will develop the capability to move off the planet someday? Or a gesture of pessimism that we are obviously destined to frak things up so badly that not even Mad Max will be able to survive here?
See, the 1980’s post-apocalyptic movies are about survival. No matter what, something will survive, and there will still be heroes. In the current batch of future-apocalypse movies — all we can do is run away.
I think this may be a function of the types of apocalypses serving as the backdrop for the story. The 1980’s apocalypse is almost always nuclear. It’s a one-and-done blasting of the Earth as we know it, with no time to prepare and no second chance. The current round of apocalypses are environmental — a slow decay, creeping climate change. Lots of time to prepare. And apparently, according to these stories, it’s easier to found a space-based human civilization than it is to fix the problems we’ve seen coming for years. I guess that’s what I find so depressing about it. I want to shout at these characters, “You live in space, and you can’t come up with the technology to fix things?” But Earth isn’t home anymore — it’s the antagonist.
It feels like an abrogation of responsibility. The environmental apocalypse may be decades slower than nuclear war, we may see it coming — but apparently, it’s just as inexorable and catastrophic. It’s also an example of the kind of conservative, narrow-minded thinking that people are always surprised to find in science fiction, which has a reputation of being so forward and future-minded, but which often serves to show us the worst of all possible outcomes, and the worst of all possible human behaviors.