What is post-apocalypse in science fiction movies about?
The simplest answer would be, it's about...
What Comes After The End Of The World As We Know It.
A cataclysmic disaster - which can come in many forms - has already taken place, the human civilization lies in ruins, so what do we do now?
Suffice to say, the end of the world brings out the worst (more likely) and the best (less likely) in people.
The survivors have to resort to ingenuity, courage and resourcefulness if they are to maintain a semblance of civilization in the harsh new conditions (the art collectors in The Book of Eli, the "Wings Over the World" organization in Things to Come).
Occasionally new social structures emerge:
Or, second option, the survivors forgo all the norms of a civilized society and eventually revert to barbarism and savagery (the tribesmen in Doomsday, the bikers in Mad Max 2 - Road Warrior, the cannibals in The Road).
Too often does a demagogic leadership raises its ugly head (The Deacon in Waterworld, The Boss from Things to Come, Carnegie in The Book of Eli).
Sometimes the survivors even wind up with a hodgepodge of the new and old - they dredge up the remains of the long-gone-by eras (the medieval world in Doomsday).
Whatever the case, one thing is certain. The underpinning quality of the post-apocalypse is depredations, despair and decadence.
Unlike the Biblical event of the same name there is no New Jerusalem to emerge out of the wreckage of the old world. There is only suffering, suffering, and more suffering, interrupted by the briefest flashes of heroism and the ever dwindling examples of human decency.
Oddly enough, there is also a sense of liberation in this position. We have witnessed, or lived through, the ending of the world and now we know there is no higher authority which encompasses all things, and no higher meaning to life than what we make it. (On the Beach)
These two terms are often confused and generally one tends to think of post-apocalypse as a subgenre of dystopia.
Although post-apocalypse and dystopia have a lot in common, as they both depict very scary and devastating visions of the future, there seems to be a fundamental difference between the two.
Dystopia is primarily concerned with a vision of a future society as a bureaucratic hell of control, featuring extensive means of surveillance and police state, whereas post-apocalypse generally envisions a future world steeped in lawlessness and anarchy.
Here's how it usually goes: sometime in the future there is a tipping point, a major disaster, which plunges a society into a state of confusion (worse case scenario), or brings an end to human civilization (worst case scenario).
After this the survivors either manage to impose some semblance of order and eventually turn things around pushing for the ever more controlled and restricted society - dystopian scenario (the left-hand side of the graph).
Or, after the catastrophic event, the world descends ever deeper into chaos and disorder up to the point where no force known to men can impose any order and control. This is the moment where anarchy becomes the only norm, and the survivors gradually discard all notions of civilization - post-apocalyptic scenario (right-hand side of the graph).
All these, of course, are basically guidelines and not hard and fast rules. There are many exceptions to this division. For example, highly disorganized dystopias, or dystopian societies with pockets of anarchy and lawlessness (Escape from New York, Strange Days), just as there are post-apocalyptic visions of the future which feature highly organized societies, albeit non-human (The Terminator Series, The Matrix Trilogy).
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