Secondary to protecting others is our desire to protect ourselves. Self-preservation, driven by fear and pain, is encoded in every human being. We flinch, run from danger, pull our hand away from fire. We extend our protective grasp over those close to us, worried that loved ones are now vulnerable because of how much we care about them.
But there are things that our survival instinct cannot protect us from. When faced with danger we immediately want to retreat to a safe, protected environment, but how will we cope if the structures that we depend on for safety threaten to collapse themselves? Where will we go, what will we look for? How useful is flinching when faced with a cataclysm that threatens to throw away everything our society has been built on — something that causes irreversible change? What’s next if we survive such a thing? How do we return to how things were before — a way of living that was familiar and safe? Or should we seek to make a new normal — one where we are more in control, so we’re prepared if another situation strikes again?
Three films chart the development of world-changing events, and ask similar questions underpinning the notion of survival; they each respectively occur before, during and after fictional apocalypses. In Take Shelter (2011, dir. Jeff Nichols), Curtis (Michael Shannon) a mentally unwell construction worker, suffers from distressing dreams that he interprets as visions of an oncoming storm of Biblical proportions. Contagion (2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh) shows the doctors, journalists, and patients who struggle to track the spread of a deadly virus across the planet. And The Road (2009, dir. John Hillcoat) follows a nameless father and son endlessly traipsing through an ashen, desolate wilderness, searching for refuge, or salvation, or hope. They form what I’ll call ‘The True Apocalypse Trilogy’.
These films do not tell the same story. There is discontinuity, jarring errors in the pseudo-timeline that this trilogy establishes. The apocalypse in Take Shelter is a storm, in Contagion it is the spread of a deadly virus, and The Road shows a dying ecosphere covered in ash. By viewing this trilogy in this order as a loose, thematic anthology, the pessimistic angle of each film appears to negate the resolution of hope of the one before — we know that Take Shelter can’t really end well because disaster is just around the corner in Contagion. And we know the pandemic in Contagion will never be fully contained because all we see in The Road is desolation and death.
Unlike disaster films such as Independence Day (1996) or 2012 (2009), each film does not portray the destruction of the planet with big expensive setpieces, but instead focuses on the strain global catastrophes have on human life, engrained with a bleak, grounded realism. As the films progress, societal structures and conventions are stripped away and the prosocial behavioural patterns that define humanity are replaced with an anxious prioritisation of the self and family unit. We watch as small, isolated groups struggle to bear the responsibility of protecting each other.
As the COVID-19 outbreak steadily worsens, writers and audiences have turned their gaze on films that showcase the emotional and systemic strain the apocalypse can have on people.
But the True Apocalypse Trilogy does not consist of instruction manuals for global catastrophes. Instead, these are films about connectivity, communication, and how our survival instinct can make us act in unhealthy ways. In each film, the end of the world merely reveals something about human nature that was previously obscured. If the apocalypse never happens, our characters would carry on, ignorant to their true nature. In this way, the apocalyptic context in which each film is set offers little macroscopic insight into our current situation — instead, it allows the discovery of something within humans, within ourselves.
Pre-Apocalypse: Take Shelter (2011)
In many pre-apocalypse films the threat of the world ending is not averted: it is an inevitability. Members of the general population are characterised by either ignorance, apathy, or uncertainty, such as those in Nicolas Cage’s Knowing (2009), Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours (2013), and even James Cameron’s classic The Terminator (1984).
Nichols’ Take Shelter, however, is just about one man, and his fearful vision of the end of the world. Curtis has been hiding his distress of his unsettling dreams from his family. Instead of sharing his fears with his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain), he furtively draws up plans for a doomsday shelter. He scribbles out on a notepad the necessary components – a shipping container, plumbing, dirt — and accumulates the cost of building protection for him and his family.
The end times will cost him $6,875.
In the opening of the film, we see one of Curtis’ dreams, where he is looking up to storm clouds and they appear to be looking back at him. As the scene flips from shot to reverse-shot, this interaction feels like a conversation: a silent exchange between an isolated man and higher powers. For a character plagued by an inability to express his internal condition, this appears to be one of his few moments of clear communication.
Curtis is a quiet, mild-mannered man plagued with financial worries and severe mental illness. He suffers from delusions and hallucinations, and is afraid that, like his mother, he will be diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is unable to articulate the pain his mental illness inflicts on him; when he first tries to explain his dreams to Samantha he can only muster, “I’m afraid something might be coming, something that’s not right.” Humiliated at having wet the bed after a nightmare, he snaps at his wife when she asks what’s wrong. He has a seizure and dismissively acts like he’s completely fine when the paramedics arrive. Instead of communicating and admitting he needs help, he tries to exercise total control over his situation, and commits to physically building protection for his family. His visions make him feel guilty, as if being mentally ill is his fault. He loses his job for unlawfully using work equipment for his shelter. “You did this to yourself,” his boss tells him, and Curtis further compounds self-hatred onto himself.
These reactions stem from a conditioning exacerbated by his community’s discouragement of being open and vulnerable. Mental illness is strange in rural Ohio. By humouring Curtis’s apocalyptic anxieties, Samatha becomes ostracised from her social circles too. “I’m so sorry,” one of her friends says to her. “It’s not like you don’t have enough on your plate.” Curtis’ work friend Dewart only offers him the most cursory of check-ins, asking “You alright, man?”, while also regarding him with a slight suspicion.
In Curtis’s mind, of course, there is an easy explanation: that the vision is real, and the world is ending. That would indeed solve all of his problems. He wouldn’t have to make nice with his wife’s irritating friends from church. He wouldn’t have to worry about jeopardising his health insurance coverage. He wouldn’t have to suffer the condescensions of his mental health counselors. He would be prepared. He would be right.
But Nichols is not looking to answer the central tension of whether Curtis’ dreams are premonitions or delusions. Both his mental illness and his preemptive survival instinct have the same effect — isolation. He becomes distrusting of others in his personal sphere, scared that they intend harm. After Dewart helps him build the shelter, Curtis asks him to be moved to a different crew: so bad is the anxiety of seeing his friend so frequently. Nichols instead investigates how mental illness takes advantage of a man’s resistance to open and honest communication, of his fear of being vulnerable.
He is ashamed that he is not in complete emotional control over himself, and unfairly shoulders the responsibility of something wildly outside what he’s capable of dealing with — the end of the world. This is exacerbated by his lack of freedom: his economic security is as paperthin as his mental wellbeing. When he gets medication to deal with his troubled sleep, he is caught out by the exorbanate cost — forced to choose between his own mental health and financial security. Despite the overwhelming nature of his visions, he is still inexorably bound to the material, and trapped in a society where any big changes would completely unsettle his ability to provide for his family.
What is Nichols saying about survival? When Curtis’ family spends the night in his shelter, Curtis presses himself to the door, in utter terror that his predicted apocalyptic storm has now arrived. He won’t open the door, asking Samantha to do it instead. This is, supposedly, what he was preparing for, and yet he is still unable to confront his fears. “Baby, there’s no storm outside,” Samantha tells him. The storm is in his head. The possible arrival of the world ending has not fixed or proven anything. He is still left damaged and petrified.
This is the central crux of pre-apocalyptic film — the overwhelming struggle to come to terms with life-changing events. Before opening the door, Curtis is faced with a difficult situation: his fear of the world ending, and his fear that if the world doesn’t end, he will be trapped in the same mindset forever.
The film ends with the thunderclouds from his vision gathering above their heads. Curtis and Samantha share a nod of acknowledgment: it appears that our hero has been vindicated. What may appear here as an ambiguous ending is actually a perfect resolution. It doesn’t matter if the world is really ending or if Samantha is just finally visualising the internal torment her husband is suffering: the underlying idea is the same. The film’s denouement isn’t the storm, but rather the communion between husband and wife. Nichols’ imagery shows that he has started to communicate clearly, and the effects are illuminating.
Apocalypse: Contagion (2011)
The act of apocalypse is often predicted as instantaneous: a sudden flash that immediately changes the world from ‘before’ into ‘after’. Films that analyse the change itself, and the ways human behaviour adapts and malforms when a crisis is underway, constitute much of the genre of apocalypse cinema. Frank Darabont’s The Mist (2007) unpicks this terrifically, but with Contagion, Steven Soderbergh displays a regression of humanity that is gradual enough to see all the details, but rapid enough to be entirely unsettling.
A deadly flu originating in Hong Kong, MEV-1, makes its way across the globe, overwhelming hospitals, governments, and cities. Patient zero is Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) who contracts the disease after coming into physical contact with a chef, who handled an infected pig, who ate the dung of an infected bat. But by the time this information is revealed to the audience, this information is revealed to the audience, the movie is ending, and millions of people are dead.
The film has received a lot of attention as of late due to the similarities to the pandemic we are now living through. But it mirrors our world in a less literal sense as well: it is predicated with the erosion of societal norms and the general feeling of helplessness when confronted by something that affects the entirety of the planet. After the death of his wife Beth, Mitch (Matt Damon) becomes isolated in a glass-walled ward, unable to comfort his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) on the other side. He tries to console her, but there is a thick division between them, and Mitch becomes trapped in a state of futility. Feeling dejected and isolated, he starts acting in his own self-interest. The Wisconsin border bridge is closed, prohibiting Mitch from crossing over. He tries to inform them he is immune, and can’t hurt anyone. They, deservedly, do not listen. Why would they make an exception for him?
Contagion is less of a narrative and more like a computer algorithm playing out a hypothetical society falling apart. It is shot surgically and the colour-grading is sickly. The only emotion conjured by Cliff Martinez’s score is a low bubbling anxiety, and when played with the flat angles of crowds wearing masks, queuing for supplies, it feels like the stock footage of a pandemic. The splintering strands of narrative feel disparate, dividing the ensemble characters focusing increasingly on each of their problems. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a doctor at the Center for Disease Control, secretly tells his wife to leave the city, taking personal advantage of covert information the rest of the country has not been told. He is overheard by a custodian Roger (John Hawkes), who was last seen at the beginning of the film asking Cheever’s advice on his son’s ADHD. Then, Cheever had promised to provide help. Now Roger sees him only helping himself. Being prepared is a privilege, and when everyone is told to reprioritise, those in more secure positions are favoured.
There are no protagonists: merely those who hold influence and those who are powerless. Freelance conspiracy blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) is the first to suggest the virus could explode on a global scale, and his claims are dismissed by San Francisco Chronicle editor Lorraine (Monique Gabriela Curnen). Once the pandemic is underway, Alan finds Lorraine visibly unwell sitting on his doorstep, begging for the homeopathic remedy he has been touting as a miracle cure. The dynamics have completely shifted: the film’s strength lies in its ability to depict the overwhelming strain a pandemic can have on regular people desperate for answers, their lives are undervalued by those in power.
Contagion is dated in an unusual way. Watching it now generates an uncanny discomfort as we absorb a narrative eerily close to ours, but one that diverges on key details. Every time the camera lingers on hands touching faces or infected surfaces, there’s an element of cringe worthiness. The beat that feels the least satisfying is ironically when Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) successfully creates a vaccine. We’re not at that stage in our narrative yet, so what used to feel like a victory now falls flat. This hope is useless to us. We’re living in a reality that won’t end in 100 minutes.
Mob violence and looting breaks out in lines for food and medicine, and there is a growing sense of anger that the general public is not being attended to by authorities and officials. Alan takes advantage of the dissent to the tune of millions in his supposed cure forsythia, and despite being confronted with the deaths of people dependent on his apocryphal solutions, he seems, by the end of the film, glib about the effect he’s had on the population. Cheever, on the other hand, takes the vaccine intended for him and his wife and gives it to Roger and his son, who he had promised to help. These two examples explicate the difference between staying alive and surviving: to do the former, we simply need to not succumb to disease, but to survive we need to keep our integrity.
Post-Apocalypse: The Road (2009)
Where Mitch and Roger represent a population increasingly mishandled by officials trying to contain the virus, The Road features no authority to abuse them. The general surviving populous are left to fend for themselves. They got what they wanted from a disharmonious situation — complete autonomy over their survival.
Set in a world of ecological devastation, The Road is a story of survival in its barest form. The central pairing, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), shamble through the post-apocalypse landscape, avoiding falling trees and cannibals. Unlike other post-apocalyptic films that have an emphasis on action or adventure, like Mad Max (1979), The Road stands out as a meditative exploration of humankind pushed to the absolute brink, where all laws, all societal constructs, and all codes of behaviour have dissipated. Priorities and values are defined by the individual, each circling around the notion of self-preservation.
How do you generate narrative tension in a movie where there is nothing to live for? How do you build a story with no end goal in sight, no victory or triumph possible for our characters? The Road doesn’t ask if the Man and Boy will survive, but whether they will find a reason to.
The survival instinct is never more questioned than it is in this film. It drags the Man along the road lethargically, as if he is an animated corpse. Staying alive and protecting the Boy is the Man’s priority, but more than that is the necessity to avoid suffering. They have a gun with two bullets to be used for a murder-suicide when things get particularly nasty, giving them the option of a painless death. They have a pact: if one dies, the other dies too. They are to talk to no-one and help no-one. For them, the only certainty they have is the road: a faded remnant of a former world with a rigid order. It may not offer protection, but it represents clarity — an open wound that won’t heal, scarring the middle of the world. They live a distrustful life with no community.
The Man has something to live for: his son. “All I know is the child is my warrant,” he tells us at the start, almost a threat to us that he has permission to commit any act in the name of protection. But what has the Boy to live for, someone who only knows the road, born after the world-ending cataclysm? “I wish I was with my mom,” the Boy says one night. “You mean you wish you were dead?” his father replies. “Yeah,” says the boy, glad his father understands. The Boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) had chosen to kill herself rather to extend suffering. “You mustn’t say that,” the Man insists. “It’s a bad thing to say.” But seeing as the Man has established to his son that suicide is a viable option to escape suffering, why is the Boy’s suggestion so terrible?
To us, people now accustomed to living in a world that feels, at times, apocalyptic, living endlessly in the hellscape of The Road does not seem appealing. But the Boy isn’t just tired of the world — he’s tired of living the way his father has decreed. The Boy is hopeful and desperate for company. He chases a phantom child around a building, before his father restrains him, reiterating that they are to talk to no one. The Man imposes a framework onto the Boy to shape how he sees the world. He invents a mystical ‘Fire’ that he says they both carry, giving his son a responsibility to shoulder as they press on through the wasteland, insisting they have a reason to live. He imposes a binary between good and bad people to impress some structure on their desolate empty lives. It’s not until after the Man’s death when the Boy meets another family — with its own leader, the Veteran (Guy Pearce) – does he realise there are other ways of viewing the world. “Stay off the road,” the Veteran tells the Boy, undoing everything his father had taught him.
Most post-apocalyptic films end on a note that establish some form of normality, a hopeful insight into human society being reformed. The Road is not about outliving the post-apocalypse, but about a boy outgrowing the lessons of his father. Gradually, the Man extends kindness to those they encounter, feeding an old man, and allowing the Boy to return the clothes his father forcibly took from a Thief. And as the Man dies, the Boy tries to compel his father to shoot him, but the Man can’t. Bit by bit, the Boy’s compassion has worn away at the Man. He spares his child’s life, despite him wanting to not go on alone.
Survival can rob us of kindness. It can make us retreat into ourselves, and view our fellow humans unkindly and suspiciously. The Man had something pure in his life, and instinctively wanted to hide and obscure it, rather than letting its goodness affect others. His death and failure to kill his son lets the Boy take control over his own survival and live a life defined by empathy. Normality may not return in The Road, but kindness can. Cruelty is a choice.
These films are anxiety-inducing and unsettling, but within them also lie honesty and compassion.
The fact that we survive isn’t the most interesting aspect of apocalypses to Nichols, Soderbergh, and Hillcoat. It’s the struggle: the toll it takes on the human condition. When the world ends, we are mentally and physically broken, and have only ourselves to help put the pieces back together. That is, unless we reach out. That’s the constant seam under these three films, and what is ‘True’ about the True Apocalypse Trilogy — the humans at their centre and their lasting, defining empathy. Survival may be interpreted as the shutting out of other people, looking only inward, but community and connection are crucial to maintaining a semblance of humanity when the worst happens.
Right now, we’re distanced from each other, but this distance only makes our method of survival clearer. We sync up our Netflixes, we share recipes, we open books we had always meant to read. Survival is on everyone’s minds, and there’s a comfort in knowing that, no matter how bad the crisis, we will get by with stories that have been told, and that they all spell hope.
They say we survive together.
Rory Doherty is a recent graduate of University of Glasgow, a screenwriter, and playwright. Obsessed with films for as long as he can remember, he has plenty experience in making embarrassing but endearing shorts in the woods with friends, and has worked tirelessly to make sure none of them see the light of day. He loves sci-fi, comedies, mysteries, and anything that combines the afore-mentioned genres. His love for using stories to make sense of the world has driven him online to spread as many of his entertainment related opinions as possible. He currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.