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Patton Oswalt Is a "Wasteland" and So Am I: Post-Apocalyptic Pop Culture

August 29, 2012

Are you a zombie, a spaceship, or a wasteland? Those are actor/comedian/author Patton Oswalt’s three personality types based on a teenage nerd’s preferences in pop culture. In his book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt lays out the characteristics of the three personalities: Zombies simplify, spaceships leave, and wastelands destroy. Oswalt identifies himself as a wasteland, and I’m right there with him. I just can’t get enough of stories set after the end of the world as we know it.

Civilization is in ruins after the global thermonuclear war/asteroid impact/pandemic virus/robot uprising/dubstep craze. Life is reduced to its essentials: food, water, shelter, wicked weapons, and really cool clothes. Leather jackets, welding goggles, and hockey pads are the height of fashion. A lone antihero wanders through a desolate landscape populated by cannibals, mutants, and punk rock biker gangs. Is there hope for the future of humanity, or is this really the end?

Regardless of whether you’re a zombie, a spaceship or a wasteland, let me recommend a baker’s dozen of my favorite pieces of post-apocalyptic pop culture:

  • Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Archetypal post-apocalyptic antihero Max (Mel Gibson), a former police officer turned antisocial drifter, has a really cool car, a really cool dog, and a really cool leather jacket with awesome shoulder pads. Life in the post-nuclear war Australian Outback revolves around the pursuit of gasoline (sound familiar?) and a small settlement has the blessing/curse of possessing an oil well and a refinery. They come under siege by the Humungus, a nasty bunch of motorized barbarians with really cool hairstyles, really cool clothes, and really cool vehicles. The settlement’s only hope is an escape led by Max, who says he’s "only it for the gas." This film contains some of the greatest car chase sequences ever filmed, and made Gibson into a major star.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Catholic monks are not the usual post-apocalyptic heroes, but here they are tasked with preserving scientific knowledge in a new Dark Age brought on by the nuclear Flame Deluge. This is the thinking person’s apocalypse, and one of the greatest works of classic American SF.
  • The Stand by Stephen King. Society collapses after 99% of the population dies due to a super-flu pandemic. And then the real trouble starts. I read this epic tale of the apocalypse after the apocalypse in high school and almost 30 years later, it remains my favorite book by King. Make sure and watch the excellent TV mini-series adaptation too.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I read this book in one sitting. And then immediately reread it. I reread it every few years. It’s just that good. McCarthy uses stark, spare prose to tell the story of a man and his son journeying south toward the sea through the literal ashes of America after an unspecified apocalyptic event. No plants grow anymore, and it appears they never will again. Survival depends on scrounging up a few morsels of the ever-dwindling food supply, and many survivors have taken the obvious recourse to cannibalism. How do you retain your humanity when all hope for the future is lost? The answer is love. The film adaptation is one of those rare achievements where the lovers of the book won't be disappointed.
  • A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison. Two words: telepathic dog! This novella was adapted into a film starring a very young Don Johnson. I recommend that you read the novella before watching the film. The film has a cheesy B-movie appeal which has made it a cult favorite, however. The ending will leave you simultaneously uplifted and horrified, and maybe laughing as well.
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin. This is a spiritual successor to The Stand, even earning high praise from King himself. Here, the end of the world is caused by a virus that transforms its victims into vampires. These vampires are not the handsome sparkly kind, but rather superhuman predatory monsters. I eagerly await the sequel The Twelve and Ridley Scott’s planned film adaptation.
  • The Quiet Earth. This little New Zealand film is a true masterpiece and deserves to be better known. What if you woke up one day and found that everyone had apparently just disappeared? Yeah, you’d probably live it up for a while. Then you’d go barking mad. The final scene of the film is one of the greatest uses of SF VFX for emotional effect I’ve ever seen, which is very impressive considering it was done without megabudget CGI.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. This influential novel (credited by many with introducing the viral vampire/zombie apocalypse) is ironically best known as its film adaptations: The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend starring Will Smith. All three are worth your time. Few people are aware of its first film adaptation, The Last Man On Earth, starring Vincent Price. It’s worth hunting down as it is a B-movie cult classic.
  • The Planet of the Apes. Here I definitely recommend one version, and that’s the 1968 film starring Charlton Heston and Roddy MacDowell. There’s not much I can say about this film that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. The big reveal at the end of the film still gives me chills.
  • Fallout: New Vegas. I don’t play this video game, I just sit and watch my son play it. Why?  I’m fascinated by the depth of its world-building. The Fallout series of games is set in a post-apocalyptic alternate future where the early 1950s never really ended. To add to the retro-futuristic feel, the soundtrack features songs by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Marty Robbins. Even better, the DJ of Radio New Vegas is voiced by none other than Mr. Vegas himself, Wayne Newton. In addition, there are many subtle nods to other pieces of post-apocalyptic pop culture.
  • Twelve Monkeys. Terry Gilliam adapted the French experimental 1962 short film La Jetée to tell the story of a prisoner (Bruce Willis) sent back in time to find a cure for the virus that devastated the world. Brad Pitt gives one of his strongest early performances here as an unhinged animal-rights activist, earning him an Oscar nomination. Like A Boy and His Dog, The Quiet Earth, and The Planet of the Apes, this film has one of those final scenes where the twist ending is revealed. Make sure to watch La Jetée as well. Composed almost entirely of black and white still photos and clocking in at only 28 minutes, it’s a wonderful example of storytelling economy.
  • Escape From New York. Pure, delicious cheese. B-movie maestro John Carpenter hit one out of the park with this darkly comedic action movie set in a future America devastated by war and rampant crime. The situation is so dire that the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum-security prison, where the inmates really do run the asylum. Kurt Russell is beyond cool as Snake Plissken, the war hero turned criminal offered freedom for rescuing the President after Air Force One crash-lands in Manhattan. The catch: if he doesn’t succeed in 24 hours, explosive charges implanted in his neck will detonate, killing him instantly. The sequel Escape From L.A. has its moments, but is a lesser slice of cheese, a Velveeta to Escape From New York’s Cornish Blue.
  • WALL•E. Powerful social criticism wrapped in gorgeous cinematography and disguised as a children's film. This robot love story set after an apocalypse of consumerism has turned the Earth into a giant rubbish heap is Pixar’s finest hour. Yes, I’m willing to defend that statement. Please send all arguments to the contrary to the Wrong Answer Department unless you're talking about the Carl & Ellie love story at the beginning of UP or The Incredibles. In those cases, we will leg-wrestle to determine the victor.

I’m sure you’re asking “WHAT ABOUT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE?!!11!11ty! CAPS LOCK RAGE!!!1!!1!!!!111!” Well, Oswalt gives them their own categories and I agree with his reasoning for doing so. We’ll take a look at Zombies and Spaceships in future blog posts.

M-O-O-N spells goodbye,

Jeff D.
Grandview Branch

Image credit: "Last U.S. Underground Nuclear Test Conducted" courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

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