Children of the Apocalypse: Post-Nuclear Nuclear Families in Film

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by Melanie Reed

When well-done and believable, few films can be as gripping as the post-apocalyptic film, which works on us like a kind of delicious bad dream. Chronically overwhelmed by the complexity and confusion of the world, we constantly ask ourselves where it’s all going, who’s in charge, what we should do, and what happened to our dreams. Post-apocalyptic films give us the chance to imagine what starting over would be like, rebooting these questions in a land of different alternatives, where our challenges may range from fewer, clearer and simpler to harder, more obscure and more complex.

The first determining factors are who and what is left, posing creative challenges to the survivors who we watch like scientists watching a group of handicapped lab rats. Michael Haneke’s grim but gorgeously filmed 2003 film Time of the Wolf begins with the unnamed cataclysmic event having only recently happened, as we see a French family of four attempt to take shelter in their weekend forest cabin. But a brutal survival ethic is already underway, and the family leaves their former home one member fewer, with no choice but to take to the road, eventually following the railway where they form a tentative alliance with a teenage boy who, like the stray dogs who are becoming less domesticated, is a self-protective scavenger – stealing dead men’s jackets for warmth and a living man’s glasses to use as fire starter.

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The group eventually reaches a railway station where people have gathered to shelter. Here the boy leaves them, but tells the daughter, Eva, that he will stay nearby in case a train arrives. The trains, however, run erratically, and a brief radio message tells of supply and personnel shortages, livestock deaths, rationing extensions, and contaminated water. Mother Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her children do their best to manage within the conflict-ridden confines of the station, where leadership struggles run rampant, new bargaining systems arise, and food and water shortages cause emotions and tempers to flare. When a new crowd of people suddenly descends, the station’s already strained resources are further strained, and confrontations arise between old enemies, including Anne and her husband’s killer, who has arrived on the scene with his wife and children.

This film entices the viewer into it like a crafty human enticing a wary animal. As if to underscore the film title’s time frame, it is framed with night scenes – the earlier sections characterized by extreme darkness — and the viewer, along with the characters, strains to see the dimly-lit streets where Anne begs for food for her children from unhelpful villagers, and the dimly-lit barn in which they first find shelter. The scenes brighten up shortly after the boy is introduced – perhaps inaugurating an opened-up sense of travel and awareness – and at this point the viewer is invited to enter into scenes of static shots where a minimal amount but important type of action takes place, and of long shots where the action is far away and not obvious at first glance. These techniques are underscored by the complete absence of a musical soundtrack that might telegraph any emotions from a distance, allowing the viewer to draw their emotions from the simple buildup of the scenes themselves. Additionally, the subtle, abridged scene quality gives us just enough distance from the characters so as not to lose our sense of the horror of the whole. Although these characters are real and believable, we are not meant to get involved with their “stories” as much as simply observe their reactions: overwhelmed mother Anne who seems to collapse once she gets her children to safety, sensitive but tough daughter Eva, who tries to process things by writing letters to her dead father and re-socializing the boy, and shell-shocked, tragic son Ben, ready to sacrifice himself to the new gods – a kind of canary in a coal mine, whose wild, trapped, fire-silhouetted actions mirror and frame the desperate flutterings of his pet bird trapped in the barn.

The “hour of the wolf” is the hour between night and dawn: the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, and when nightmares are most real. It is when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear and when ghosts and demons are most powerful. This film reflects not only a specific time of day, but a general sense of perpetual “wolf time” in world-time. At the end of the film, we see an extended traveling shot of the landscape from a train, but the point of view is unknown and the countryside is empty, as if to show that the machines we have set in motion may surpass our own human frailty.

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John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 prize-winning book, uses the idea of wolf-time sacrifices to project a more directly moral message. Although more violent than Time of the Wolf, The Road avoids gratuity and keeps us focused on the characters by moving them through the landscape, maintaining an immersive sense of the surroundings by stunning long shots dotted with tiny human activity. Here an unnamed father and son traverse a bleak gray landscape ten or so years after the cataclysm, protected only by a gun with two remaining bullets. The father’s voiceovers provide the background details, and we learn that the world is cold and growing colder, the animals have died, and the trees keep falling. Most people have taken to the road pulling carts, and gangs carrying weapons prowl for food and fuel.

In focusing on a parent and child, the film both uses the apocalypse as a symbol of the worst kind of world in which to raise children and speaks to the moral choices that parents are faced with in any human world. A child born to middle-class parents around the time of the apocalypse might be somewhere in between the position of a stressed child born in poverty or war and an over-protected child raised in an isolated home-school situation. Here the parents would be less able to guide their child into normal socialization and pressed more urgently into a harsher climate where survival might dictate an “every man for himself” morality.

Parents who are unable to adapt to a challenging situation together create a rift that reduces both their own morale and risks compromising their child’s. Through flashbacks, we learn that the mother eventually abandoned her husband and son when the boy was around five years old by walking into the cold and recommending that they head for the coast so that they could survive the next winter. Although the father thereafter retains warm, feminine memories of his wife, he himself is unable to create any kind of physically safe home base or social sense of safety for his son, instead resorting to telling his son “old [fantasy] stories of courage and justice” to maintain morale. These themes can come in handy as long as you can figure out who the enemy is, when it’s necessary to kill, and how much to help others. But the father’s actions seem based more on a kind of gut reaction geared toward every day’s survival, and the contingency of planned suicide also comes up as an option, despite his painful memories of his wife’s own suicide. While clearly staying alive mostly for his son, the father is only inclined to try to come up with a greater good when his dependent, socially idealistic son acts as a kind of post-action moral litmus test.

The confusion of these kinds of choices is succinctly summed up by an old man they meet on the road who avers, “Even if you knew what to do, you wouldn’t know what to do,” and “it’s dangerous to be on the road with the last god.” But for the father, whose domestic life has been shattered by his wife’s death, the road seems even safer than the discovery of a fully-stocked fallout shelter, because it is a place to escape painful memories by saving his son from danger every day and staying in motion. When their “road” ends at the coast, the father’s vague fantasy of somehow being saved gives way to hopelessness and he begins to fade, while his hopeful son is more focused on simply the thought of connection, envisioning another father and son on the other side of the ocean. Here the innocent son serves as a kind of child-god for which the remiss father must ultimately sacrifice himself, whereas the appearance of an intact family complete with son, daughter and dog just when the father is fading seems to point to the suggestion that families who walk the road in hopeful unity will be the ones rewarded with being able to survive to create a better world.

What is entailed in handing over the reins? How much do we owe our children and what do we want for them? The film’s answer to all of these questions seems to be: the kind of hope that is derived from and includes positive human connection. And because any family is a microcosm of the human family, these questions will continue to be asked by all parents of all children who are all at least symbolically tasked with starting the world afresh, whether the world they’re born into is riddled by generations of fallout or a new Eden fresh and clean of old mistakes.

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The problem with a new Eden is that some people are all too eager to exchange it for the complexity of the old world beyond the gates. Jim McBride’s 1971 film Glen and Randa, set several decades after the apocalypse, features a much younger road-driven man, in a thriving natural world largely emptied of people. Like the other two films, it is loaded with gorgeous cinematography full of long takes of tiny characters in a looming landscape. Like Time of the Wolf, there is no music, but rather a sequence of brief but powerful scenes. We first encounter teenage couple Glen and Randa in a summery forested setting, where ever-exploring and experimenting Glen has laid out a matrix of sticks spelling out their names on the ground, and shortly after discovers a car in a tree. The ensuing conversation illustrates their extreme reversion, as Randa does not know what a car is, and Glen, driven towards those more “advanced” aspects of humanness that he senses and sees traces of, but that are ever-fading and elusive, speculates that maybe cars become trees the way leaves become butterflies.

They join a group of nomadic people dragging carts of scavenged objects, but in contrast to Glen and Randa, these silent people seem stupefied, beaten down, and barely human. The group is interrupted by the arrival of a flamboyant older man riding a kind of custom-built motorcycle/camper, who loudly proclaims his intention to entertain them. Glen has heard about the existence of a city somewhere, and pumps “the magician” for information, who responds with a long, rambling discourse, equally full of facts, poetry, pop song lyrics, and personal history, stating that he was born and raised in the city, that “they were dropping dead in the streets for years,” that his father had “the biggest fallout shelter in the Bronx,” but was “on the road when it came down,” and that he doesn’t think there are people in the city. However, Glen still wants to go, and the magician gives him a map of Idaho, explains to him what a map is, and states that Glen is “too great a man to slave,” and that he is giving him a quest to “find the Holy Grail.”

Although Randa continues to lobby for a simpler, safer and easier life, the couple splits off from the group with nothing but the map, a suitcase of canned food, a box of matches, and a horse they don’t know how to ride. The landscape they travel is gorgeous and wild, but Glen’s combination of naiveté and stubbornness – like trying to comfort a pregnant Randa by telling her a Wonder Woman comic book story — makes their survival conditions erratic and precarious.

Eventually the couple reaches the sea, where they encounter Sydney Miller, an aging fisherman who says he hasn’t seen anyone in 20 years. He tells them of a house that they can stay in that is “20 minutes from here,” which Glen agrees to, although he does not know what a house is or how to tell time. Unlike the magician, Sydney Miller has become so merged with the mystical routine of his natural surroundings that his sense of any other world has begun to seem vague and dim. He believes “the city” is ten miles down the road but “heard it all burned down.” Meanwhile, Glen’s fantabulations of his own city have been increased by the Wonder Woman influence, and he now describes “our city” as “Metropolis,” where “all the clothes are white” and “everybody can fly.” But closer to “home,” he now finds out how a house works, labelling its parts “kitchin,” “stove,” “wall,” etc. even while building a campfire in the middle of the floor.

This domestic idyll is interrupted by Randa giving birth. But although Sydney Miller is familiar with goat midwifery, he is unable to pull her through, and only the baby survives. A non-plussed Glen still wants to find “the city,” which, in a fantasy-vision similar to the son’s in The Road, he now thinks may be “at the end of the ocean,” where “we could find a name for the baby.” Although Sydney Miller initially resists, in the end we see a repaired, well-stocked boat, complete with goat and baby launch off into the waves, and as in The Road, a new family group sets off anew from the shoreline.

But somehow the launching of a tiny boat manned by a confused mystic and a fantasy-driven seeker of mythical cities seems closer to the last hopeless shots in Time of the Wolf that combine the persistent notion of human progression with a vision of the natural world completely empty of people, making Glen and Randa basically a tragedy. Like Time of the Wolf, it presents a variety of characters who symbolize different responses to a new state of the world. Since this is decades after the cataclysm, with few people left and nature taking over, the responses are split between those who hope to retain or regain some parts of civilization and those who would like to settle down and simply build a simpler life. In the nomads, we see those who are too exhausted from their scavenging and baggage-laden lifestyle to even talk to each other or consider the idea of remaining in one place. In the magician we see a lonely one-man traveling personification of the best parts of civilization, but one whose only family resides in his Polaroid pictures. In the fisherman and Randa, we see people who appreciate the bounty and beauty of nature but can’t convince Glen to settle down and do the same. And in Glen, we see someone who is clearly smart and energetic enough to forge a new positive life for himself and Randa, but is ultimately too driven by fantasies of mysterious past civilizations.

By sacrificing Randa, this film argues for a return to the new Eden, but by sending Glen out across the ocean in continuance of his quest, it also makes the statement that this is unlikely to happen. The fisherman is probably someone who could be grounded enough to help build a nature-based community, but Glen isn’t interested, and just wants him to help with his quest. As it stands, Glen is doomed by his strength, stubbornness, persistence, restlessness and aggressiveness.

No matter at which point in time each of these films chooses to set its post-apocalyptic world, all three use sacrifice to speak to the importance of human connection. Films like these not only refocus us on the obvious need for survival, but pose less obvious questions. How is individual survival different from group survival? What are our best qualities, and how do we manifest, model, and obtain support for them? What positive things have been lost, and what new positives must be found? These questions are explorable in any human world.

Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.

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