Post-apocalyptic films: From Escape from New York to Twelve Monkeys and beyond

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Post-apocalyptic films: From Escape from New York to Twelve Monkeys and beyond,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

As I have mentioned in connection with the likes of Nosferatu (1922), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), elements of apocalypticism (often, though not always, without an explicit role for “God”) are widespread within modern popular culture in the West (see the other posts in my Religion and Popular Culture category). In some cases, a filmmaker’s focus is on elaborating one specific apocalyptic idea, such as the Antichrist, whose story is told in a new way in films like the Omen series. In other cases, there is a convergence of a number of apocalyptic ideas and assumptions. Numerous films have been created with a focus on the apocalypse as the end or potential end of all human civilization, including Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998), which both viewed meteorites (rather than the previously “popular” nuclear bomb) as the final destructive weapon. A subgenre within these is the post-apocalyptic film.

Post-apocalyptic films are set after the end, or near-end. The apocalypse–the final intervention of some destructive power–has already taken place, and we, as viewers, witness the survivors in a horrible wasteland. Escape from New York (1981) is a good example. Twelve Monkeys is another.

The premise of the plot of Twelve Monkeys (1995) is an apocalyptic viral attack which wipes out the majority of humanity. Bruce Willis’s character, a convict, exists in the post-apocalyptic world (in 2035), where the precious (or not-so-precious) few survivors (1%) live a surreal existence underground. Oddball scientists are hard at work in this underworld seeking to reverse the apocalyptic clock. So Bruce Willis’s character, among others, is chosen to go back in time to find a way to stop the viral attack that decimated the population. The scientists have (mistaken) hints that a group known as the Army of Twelve Monkeys (which is led by Brad Pitt’s character) caused the massive slaughter. After showing up in several other time periods, Bruce Willis’s character finally arrives in the right time (1997) and place. But we the viewers, along with Willis and others, learn too late that it was not the Army of Twelve Monkeys but a disturbed red-headed man that released the virus and needed to be stopped. Perhaps the next time back crisis could be averted.

There is an online, academic article that deals with Twelve Monkeys alongside Waterworld: Conrad Ostwalt, “Visions of the End. Secular Apocalypse in Recent Hollywood Film,” Journal of Religion and Film 2 (1998).

What better time is there to post this than after watching Live Free or Die Hard (2007), in which Bruce Willis averts an attempt to bring on the apocalypse (“fire sale”: “everything must go”), at least in United States of America (which is the world from the perspective of this and other Hollywood films).

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