How to Write a Great Post-Apocalyptic Movie
The post-apocalyptic movie feels eerily relevant. Deserted streets, daily political briefings, biotech-clad figures. These are no longer just science fiction fantasies.
But writers have always been keen to explore visions of a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a well-tread genre filled with its own rules, tropes and tricks.
This article will focus on six great films. They all loosely fall into the eclectic ‘post-apocalyptic’ genre.
In doing so, it will act as a guide for writers who are seeking to write their own post-apocalyptic movie.
The idea of a post-apocalyptic world is increasingly likely to be an extensively harvested premise. This guide will demonstrate how to make your post-apocalyptic movie fresh and exciting.
We’ll set up six pillars of a post-apocalyptic movie. But first…
What is a Post-Apocalyptic Movie?
A post-apocalyptic movie is a movie set after the widespread collapse or disintegration of human civilisation. Apocalypses might include:
- Nuclear war.
- Alien invasion.
- Global pandemic.
- Climate crisis.
In post-apocalyptic movies, Earth is usually a dilapidated and sterile planet.
Although the premise is fairly fixed, there is huge scope for creativity within the genre. The six selected films demonstrate this. The following are an incongruous bunch:
- A Boy and His Dog (1975), written by L.Q. Jones.
- Stalker (1979). Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet masterpiece.
- 28 Days Later (2002), written by Alex Garland.
- Children of Men (2006), written by five writers including director Alfonso Cuarón.
- WALL-E (2008). Pixar animation directed and co-written by Andrew Stanton.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the latest in George Miller’s franchise.
These movies were made on vastly different budgets. They were intended for different audiences. They are even in different languages.
- Stalker is in Russian; the others are in English.
- They range from cult movies (A Boy and his Dog) to mainstream kids films (WALL-E).
- From art cinema (Stalker) to indie horror (28 Days Later).
They all, however, depict a world in crisis after a kind of apocalypse.
The eclecticism of this sextet suggests that, beyond the premise, there are no definitive rules within this genre. This article, however, will point out commonly used tropes and ideas in post-apocalyptic movies.
In a world of nothing, we learn what is important. Often, it is only when we lack something that we realise its necessity.
Post-Apocalyptic Movie Pillar One: How Did We Get Here?
The opening of a post-apocalyptic movie is, of course, incredibly important. This is because screenwriters must rapidly introduce an alien environment.
A good screenplay will quickly set the scene. It must reveal a world reeling after an apocalypse.
First, decide if you will depict the apocalypse itself. In post-apocalyptic movies, the cause of the apocalypse can be revealed in different ways. These might include:
1. News Footage
Post-apocalyptic films will often set the scene with news footage. News coverage is a motif throughout Children of Men. BCC is a thinly veiled satire on BBC. Watch this clip from the start of the movie:
The news footage gives us two key nuggets of information:
- The world’s youngest person, Diego Ricardo, has died. He was aged 18. Consequently, we learn that there is a global fertility crisis.
- This teenager struggled with the celebrity status thrust upon him. As a result, we learn something about the world’s media.
News footage can usefully convey expository information quickly.
However, it is important to be cautious with this trope. It is often used as a cliched, easy option. A good post-apocalyptic movie will use news footage in a fresh and exciting way.
- In Children of Men, for example, the news footage provides expository information.
- We learn that the youngest living person is 18.
- But is also sensationalistic. The footage relays important information to the audience.
- Even more significantly, it comments on the role of the media in depicting crisis.
The news channel reports on Ricardo’s struggle with his celebrity status, while simultaneously ensuring it is exacerbated. Even in death, Cuarón suggests, Ricardo is badgered by the media.
- As viewers, we take notice not merely of the information, but also how the information is relayed.
News footage can be used to set up a post-apocalyptic world. However, ensure that news footage is engaging and multi-dimensional.
2. Title Cards
Most post-apocalyptic movies use at least one title card to set up the world. This is because title cards are, obviously, a really quick way of setting the scene.
This can be as simple as putting a date—as with Children of Men. When the protagonist leaves the café at the start of the film, a line of text declares this is 2027.
In Stalker, on the other hand, the title cards contain more information.
- They declare that ‘something’—maybe a ‘meteorite’, maybe a ‘visit from inhabitants of the cosmic abyss’ has left an area called the ‘Zone’.
- This ambiguity is typical of the movie as a whole. Tarkovsky’s film is never explicitly set up as post-apocalyptic movie.
- It does, however, depict a moribund world in the distant future.
- The ‘Zone’ contains a ‘Room’ which supposedly grants the wishes of anyone who steps inside.
Tarkovsky sets up a more complex, idiosyncratic premise using title cards.
Title cards are useful to quickly convey essential information. Where possible, however, avoid using too much text. A verbose title card might drain the audience’s engagement early on.
It is also possible to relay details about the world of a post-apocalyptic movie with dialogue. One character can explain to another how the world degenerated.
However, using dialogue to convey this information has a real danger of being ‘on the nose’. On the nose dialogue is less effective because it sounds contrived and artificial.
L.Q. Jones, in A Boy and His Dog, evaded this problem.
- In his film, the dog (Blood) explains the state of the world to Vic (the protagonist).
- Jones hopes that Blood amuses and bemuses audiences enough for them to ignore the stilted, awkward dialogue.
Dialogue can be used to set the scene in a post-apocalyptic movie but must be used with utmost caution and restraint. On the nose dialogue can quickly undermine the intelligence of the premise.
4. A Prologue
28 Days Later includes a prologue which depicts the events that lead to the world’s post-apocalyptic state:
- A group of animal liberation activists break into a university plant.
- They free a group of chimpanzees infected with a deadly virus.
- The virus subsequently infects the world.
So one possibility when writing a post-apocalyptic movie is to write a prologue where viewers see:
- The cause of the apocalypse.
- The apocalypse itself.
There are two advantages to this approach. First, it is a dramatic way to start a movie. Second, it ensures that there is no need to explain the cause of the apocalypse later in the film.
Post-Apocalyptic Movie Pillar Two: Setting Up the World
It is essential for screenwriters to immediately show the decrepit state of the world in a post-apocalyptic movie. With a good screenplay, audiences will register how different the world is from Earth today.
Usually, we are introduced to the post-apocalyptic world via a character. This character can either be:
- A newcomer. Like us, they will see this world for the first time.
- A veteran. They will be well-used to this alien environment.
Both of these methods are effective in setting up a world for the viewer.
An immediate and striking way to set up the world in a post-apocalyptic movie is to show a character discovering the shocking dilapidation and chaos.
Alex Garland uses this approach in 28 Days Later.
- The protagonist, Jim, wakes up in a hospital to find London deserted.
- We, as viewers, discover the carnage with Jim.
These scenes are arguably the most haunting and memorable in the film. They’re so powerful they have lasted long in the cultural memory. They serve as a reference point for this kind of eerie desertion.
How close we are to the protagonist‘s experience in these scenes are in part what makes them so powerful. We share his fear, anxiety and amazement in what surrounds him.
2. Daily Routine
Another method is to introduce a protagonist who is established in their post-apocalyptic world. We meet the character and see how s/he operates in a futuristic, dystopic version of planet Earth.
The absurdity and complete foreignness, of the protagonist’s daily routine can prove a really effective way of setting up the world in a post-apocalyptic movie.
This is achieved in two very different ways in two very different blockbusters.
Cleaning – WALL-E
First, take this clip from near the start of WALL-E:
We watch WALL-E go about his daily routine.
- We glimpse WALL-E’s eccentric existence.
- He cleans up mountains of waste scattered across planet Earth.
- As a result, we learn both about WALL-E and Earth.
- WALL-E lives a life of tedious, lonely routine.
- The Earth is a polluted, devastated planet.
The absurdity of WALL-E’s daily routine reveals the absurdity of the world.
Staying Alive – Mad Max: Fury Road
In Mad Max: Fury Road, we meet Max in a completely different routine.
- He declares: ‘in this world, it is hard to know who is more crazy, me or everyone else.’
- Afterwards, he munches a two-headed lizard.
In that line, we are introduced to:
- Max, who is clearly unhinged.
- The world, which is similarly disordered and insane.
Subsequently, a group of bandits ambush Max. This initiates the film’s first chase.
We are only three minutes into this movie. But already we know that is a world where it is incredibly difficult to stay alive, and even harder to stay sane.
The opening scene perfectly sets up the film. This is a post-apocalyptic movie, primarily about survival, where characters are constantly on the run.
Post-Apocalyptic Movie Pillar Three: Narrative Goals
As with Mad Max: Fury Road, a good opening will set-up the narrative drive of a great post-apocalyptic movie.
A strong narrative—dictated by a character’s need—is essential to any screenplay.
- To create a narrative, consider what the character desperately wants or needs.
- Then, track a journey towards this need.
- On the way, the character should overcome obstacles.
Goals often manifest in post-apocalyptic movies in the following ways:
Often, within this genre, films are narratively quite simplistic. This is because the absurdity of setting and circumstance dictates the film. Staying alive is enough of a struggle in a post-apocalyptic movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a great example of this.
- Max’s main objective is incredibly simple.
- He wants to survive. At whatever cost.
- The structure of the film is basic. Max continually attempts to outrun his opponents in an effort to stay alive.
The stakes are high and so the film is exciting. This is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Frequently, post-apocalyptic films will involve a narrative of survival. One man or woman and their quest to stay alive, however possible. This is because we can all relate to a desire to stay alive.
Because WALL-E is a robot, he is less concerned with mortality. Instead, WALL-E wants company. The world of a post-apocalyptic movie is usually dangerous but is also often incredibly lonely.
The narrative in WALL-E is driven by the protagonist’s desire to not be alone. This an effective narrative because it appeals to our most empathetic side.
There is almost a romance element to this narrative. A desire to for connection in a world where connection is near impossible to find. WALL-E is a romance of sorts, set in extraordinary circumstances with extraordinary characters.
In A Boy and his Dog, Vic and Blood have to stay alert to stay alive. Their main desires, however, are sex and food respectively.
Vic wanders the world’s wasteland looking for a woman to sleep with. It is this desire, his libidinous feelings, that drives the film’s narrative.
In each of these cases, note that the protagonists’ desires are primal. The world may be entirely different, but we can relate to these characters because they want something that we all want.
This can be:
- Friendship/ companionship.
- Any other basic human desire.
4. If Only They Knew!
Stalker, however, is a deeply philosophical film that questions the very nature of desire.
- On an immediate level, the characters in the movie want to enter the Room in the Zone.
- This Room is where supposedly all wishes come true.
- Their desire to enter this Room drives the plot forward.
As the film progresses, however, the characters begin to realise that they have very little clue as to what they truly desire. Tarkovsky suggests that we cannot know what we really want.
A screenwriter must know what the characters desire in the immediate sense.
- But it is worth noting that, often, a character will have more than one driving desire.
- Often, with more complex narratives, characters’ different desires come into conflict with one another.
On a simple level, however, making your characters desire something is essential. This is what will drive the narrative.
Post-Apocalyptic Movie Pillar Four: Bodies and Souls
Generally, in a post-apocalyptic movie only a tiny percentage of mankind survive the apocalypse.
New scavenger societies form phoenix-like in the wasteland. The societies often lack not only human bodies, but also human souls. Screenwriters suggest there is more to humanity than flesh.
The most fundamental thing to keeping humanity alive, in a purely biological sense, is reproduction.
A Boy and his Dog, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, and Mad Max: Fury Road all present sterile worlds.
As a result, man’s fertility is in crisis. A lack of fertility, of course, means a lack of humanity.
So, a sterile world means that the characters in these films fight not just for their own personal survival. In addition, they fight for the survival of mankind as a whole.
In A Boy and his Dog, 28 Days Later, and Mad Max: Fury Road, a powerful elite have taken control of the means of fertility.
Humans are essentially farmed in order to keep the human race alive. In each, the narrative develops when certain characters refuse this role.
Take this scene in George Miller’s movie:
- These women, clad in white, are on the run.
- Immortan Joe, the tyrannical leader of the film’s world, uses these women as breeding machines.
- The women are forced to keep producing children for Immortan Joe.
- When the film starts, they escape. They do so because they are intent on avoiding their awful destiny.
In A Boy and his Dog and 28 Days Later, the lead characters also refuse to reproduce. They do this despite the world’s desperate need for new children.
These screenwriters suggest that keeping humanity alive is about more than just keeping mankind breeding. Because if reproduction isn’t voluntary, humans may continue to be born, but humanity will die out.
Loss of Fertility
Children of Men takes a loss of fertility as its central theme.
- At the start of the film, no baby has been born in eighteen years.
- So the world is desperate for new children to keep the human race alive.
- Theo, the film’s protagonist, is reclusive.
- But then he learns that Kee, a young woman and travelling companion, is pregnant.
The detail is revealed in this arresting scene:
Note the Biblical references that Cuarón writes into this scene:
- Kee stands among cows. This is a nod to farmed fertility. But is also a cloaked reference to Christ’s birth in the stable.
- ‘Jesus Christ,’ comments Theo. This is as an offhand blasphemous remark. But is also as a suggestion that this child, if born, could be a saviour.
Theo’s own personal desires fall away because he has a new goal. Now, he must protect the baby, and with it the future of the human race.
The scene has a Biblical quality because it is redemptive. This is a new start. It is an opportunity for mankind to begin anew.
Quasi-religious writing is not unique to the aforementioned scene in Children of Men. The spiritual pervades the post-apocalyptic movie genre.
The reasons for this are presumably two-fold:
- The first is immediate and obvious. There is something biblical and infernal about the mass destruction of the world. These films are full of doomsayers proven right.
- Secondly, and more interestingly, these movies often depict an absence of spirituality. They do this to suggest that after an apocalypse, humanity must fight to preserve the soul as well as the body.
Alex Garland writes an abundance of religious references into 28 Days Later.
- At the start of the film, Jim, the protagonist, wanders into a chapel when searching for other humans.
- He finds the pews stacked with corpses.
- It’s a grotesque but effective way of depicting a world where spirituality is dead.
Later in the movie, Jim rests with some companions in a ruined Church.
- They bond together in the shelled out structure.
- These human beings, breaking bread together, are starting not to just survive, but to live.
A Transcendental Experience
There are ruined religious buildings throughout Tarkovsky’s films. Stalker is no exception.
The Russian director evokes spirituality in an entirely different way to Alex Garland.
- In Tarkovsky films, watching the movies themselves is a kind of spiritual activity.
- Because, in the complex, dreamy set-pieces, we, as viewers, catch glimpses of the infinite.
Apocalypses lead to a loss of humanity. Good screenwriters will acknowledge this lack of humanity both as a loss of human bodies and as a loss of human souls.
Post-Apocalyptic Movie Pillar Five: Satire
The post-apocalyptic movie has proved an excellent vehicle for satire.
Frequently, screenwriters use futuristic versions of planet Earth as stages to comment on mankind today. Post-apocalyptic worlds, like their dystopian cousins, offer a great platform to satirise human nature.
Subjects of satire can be wide ranging:
The most amusing, and perhaps most penetrative, satirical approach is in WALL-E.
- In Andrew Stanton’s movie, human beings have filled Earth with waste.
- As a result, the human race instead lives on spaceships in a never-ending cruise.
- The humans spend their lives seated, with screens in front of their faces. They float from one meal to the next.
Look at this scene:
Stanton is clearly commenting on the world’s consumer culture. We live in single-use societies where never-ending consumption produces more and more stuff.
In this world, humans have become nothing but consumers, barely noticing what is going around them.
A robot teaching babies the alphabet:
- ‘B is for Buy-N-Large’, the robot declares, referencing the name of the megacorporation that runs the ship.
- The children are educated in commercialism. They grow up in a culture of constant consumption.
- A megacoperation dictates their very language.
WALL-E is set hundreds of years into the future, but the screenwriter comments on today’s capitalist, consumer culture. It ponders on where the worst excesses of it might lead.
2. Nationalism and Division
Children of Men presents a chaotic world of division.
- It is 2027. British borders have been closed for the previous eight years.
- The world beyond, at least according to television propaganda, is entirely out of control and moribund. Supposedly, Britain is the last country soldiering onwards.
- The British government is on a relentless and brutal search for illegal immigrants.
- Announcements on trains and buses demand citizens report immigrants immediately.
- The refugee camps in Children of Men are filthy, dangerous places with human beings packed together like sardines.
Cuarón’s film feels prescient. The filmmaker depicts the increase in factionalism that occurs during hardship. In Children of Men, every character seems to be involved with some kind of political or social faction.
Cuarón suggests mankind, in times of crises, finds it easier to break apart than fall together.
28 Days Later is similarly satirical.
- The virus in Garland’s screenplay induces all-consuming rage in the infected.
- This virus is produced in a laboratory.
- So, the film can be seen as a comment on the purposeful manufacture of anger, prejudice, and division that politicians exploit.
About halfway through A Boy and His Dog, Vic leaves the wasteland-like surface of the earth.
- He descends to the world ‘Downunder’.
- Deep under the earth, an artificial biosphere has been created.
- Here, American life seems to continue as before the apocalypse.
This underground world inspired the video game Fallout.
Downunder, although a release from the cutthroat, barbaric world above, proves to be a horrific, repressive society. It is a bleak satire of small-town American culture.T
The Downunder residents all wear matching clothes. They all have faces painted in identical fashion.
- L.Q. Jones parodies, and draws attention to, the stifling homogeneity demanded in bourgeois American society.
Sex is non-existent Downunder, with reproduction orchestrated using artificial insemination.
- Jones comments on repressive bourgeois attitudes in his own society.
- Above all, the director critiques middle-class conformity.
Post-apocalyptic movies have proved a perfect platform from which to launch satirical hand grenades at our societies.
They are not just horror stories about the future. Often, above all, they are comments on the world today.
Post-Apocalyptic Movie Pillar Six: Surreal Worlds
Surreal visions of an alternate world plague post-apocalyptic movies. This is the world but not as we know it. Things feel slightly off and unreal.
Andrei Tarkovsky makes no effort to reproduce reality in a literal sense. His films are hazy, poetic dream-visons.
Tarkovsky depicts unusual images. He encourages viewers to draw their own meaning.
When writing a post-apocalyptic movie, free yourself like Tarkovsky. In this genre, more so than in many others, writers have the ability to embrace the surreal because Earth, as we know it, no longer exists.
It is the job of a screenwriter to construct a new world out the ashes.
Guitarists and Camels
This new world can draw from our own societies. Great post-apocalyptic movies are often a patchwork of whacky references and original elements.
But, above all, they are creative. The genre is liberating because screenwriters can build from the very bottom upwards. Make use of that freedom.
George Miller was well aware of the opportunity for surreality when writing Mad Max: Fury Road. The madness is absorbing because it is so bizarre.
This guide has demonstrated that, while there are several shared tropes, there are no set rules in the post-apocalyptic genre.
The one thing, however, that all these movies have in common, is an embrace of the absurd. Above all, the screenwriters of this sextet were boldly creative.
Make the most of the genre.
- Write a demonic guitarist strapped to the front of a desert truck.
- Write, as in Children of Men, a world where camels and zebras walk on leashes in a London park.
- Or write a teenage girl who drives through zombies in a London taxi, as featured in 28 Days Later.
- Write, like L.Q. Jones, an erotic, popcorn-serving cinema in the middle of a desolate wasteland.
- Write about a robot who is obsessed with a 1960’s musical, as in WALL-E.
- Or, like Tarkovsky, write a dream.
Let your imagination run wild. And draw from the real world to make this vision of a post-apocalyptic world chilling and relatable. After all, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.