The sudden popularity of Contagion, a film that is nine years old, may surprise those who would expect audiences to turn to escapism rather than apocalypse in a time of high anxiety. 

Apocalypse films depict terrifying, life-threatening situations, but in doing so they present visual representations of our fears and hopes. The philosopher Noel Carroll  and many psychologists believe people seek out scary movies in controlled settings, so they can confront their fears in a safe environment. This can, for some, be a comforting experience. 

Apocalypse films affirm the value of human life and tell stories of survival. They feature hope as well as fear and show us that we can still make choices that matter. New and better worlds, some of these films suggest, can emerge from the destruction. 

We have selected five films that represent different apocalyptic scenarios to examine tragic, but also some surprisingly positive and hopeful visions: 

1. Contagion (2011)

The film about the spread of a fictional virus, MEV-1, and the breakdown of society at the height of a frightening epidemic, sounds as though it is a little too close to home right now. Yet Steven Soderbergh’s movie has the second highest viewing figures in Warner Brothers catalogue in 2020. 

So why might this film help with Coronavirus anxiety? It can prepare viewers for what is to come, while reassuring us that Covid-19 is not as deadly as the film’s virus, which is fictional after all. It also gives us new courageous medical heroes to save humanity and punishes the conspiracy theorist who prioritises profit and self-interest over public health. Notably, the film’s heroes are scientists and experts. It speaks out in favour of knowledge over ignorance and rumour. Contagion will reassure us that trying times will inspire us to work together for the good of all. 

2. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

In George Romero’s second zombie apocalypse film, the dead are reanimated and become flesh-eating zombies. The focus is on a small band of survivors hiding in a suburban mall. Zombie films may be the ultimate “controlled environment” for horror fans to experience a variety of fears. Dawn of the Dead tells a story of death and destruction, and its pleasures for horror film aficionados are found in the gory scenes of violence and the social commentary. 

Reviewers, such as Roger Ebert, have highlighted the film’s criticism of consumer culture and the lack of solidarity among the survivors. This is of particular relevance in a time of supermarket shopping frenzies when we are supposed to be physically isolating. In this way, the film provides lessons about how not to behave in times of crisis.

Yet, even within this scenario audiences will be comforted, because there is hope for the future. Pitted against the destructive power of the zombie is humanity’s capacity to adapt, to imagine, and perhaps build something better. One of the protagonists, Fran, radically changes her outlook and behaviour in this new world. She will do what is necessary to secure the survival of her unborn baby and represents the possibility of rebuilding humanity from the ashes of destruction. 

3. Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia begins with its own spoiler by showing the ending. The Lars Von Trier film tells us with an eight-minute opening sequence that the actual end of the world does occur. While this might appear to be a film devoid of hope, literary critic Frank Kermode argues in The Sense of an Ending that apocalypse narratives are comforting precisely because they end and we can step outside of the fictional world.

4. Children of Men (2006)

Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón and loosely adapted from P. D. James’ dystopian novel of the same name, Children of Men imagines a future world where humans are infertile.

The film’s focus is on the horrors of this dystopian world and the prospect of the end to humankind. Yet, as noted by the sociologist Krishan Kumar, the different worlds that we imagine always hold “the elements of both terror and hope”. 

Children of Men’s hope is found in the future of humanity through the possibility of a new birth, thought to be impossible. This hope inspires ordinary people.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The fourth in George Miller’s Mad Max series features the post-apocalypse of a resource crisis in which warlords have taken advantage of the collapse of civilisation. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is the favourite war captain of one such warlord, Immortan Joe. She turns against him and is pursued by an entire army determined to retrieve five of Joe’s possessions, women known as “breeders”. 

The theologian Catherine Keller has argued that a feminist apocalypse “transforms the object of fear into the site of hope”. While the film has Mad Max in its title, it is really about Furiosa’s feminist rebellion as she leads the women to the “green place” in which she was raised. This is a true feminist apocalypse that allows audiences to confront our fear of resource shortages and divisive gender relations in a productive manner and imagines a matriarchal future capable of rebuilding the “green place”.