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Post-Apocalyptic Kiddie Movies

Posted by Joshua Glenn  May 14, 2008 09:24 AM

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Gil Kenan's big-screen adaptation of "The City of Ember," a 2003 young adult novel by Jeanne Duprau, isn't premiering until October. But the producers have issued posters, movie stills, and put up an ominous website, so the blogosphere is getting interested.

In the novel, two teens who've grown up in Ember, a truly isolated city, discover that (a) the city is running out of food and energy, no thanks to its corrupt mayor; and (b) the city is underground (no wonder there aren't any stars at night, or animals for that matter), and was built a couple of hundred years earlier to protect a large group of American children from a nuclear holocaust. The children have to decode cryptic clues left behind by the city's founders -- it's a hermeneutic novel, perhaps my favorite genre -- and escape. But will there by anything left on the surface of the planet?


The post-apocalypticist blog Quiet Earth asks whether the Tom Hanks-produced movie, which stars Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway (above) as the teen protagonists, and Bill Murray (below) as the Mayor of Ember, "will be the first Post Apocalyptic Children's film?"


As Brainiac readers know, I'm a lifelong reader of post-apocalyptic juvenile fiction. So I feel that I should be able to answer this question. But it's a tricky one.

I can think of a dozen post-apocalyptic movies that I saw as a teen, in the '80s, at the Harvard Square and Orson Welles theaters -- including "Planet of the Apes" (1968) and sequels, "The Omega Man" (1971), "Sleeper" (1973), "Death Race 2000" (1975), "A Boy and His Dog" (1975), and of course "Road Warrior" (1981). As hard as it is to believe that adults would go to see "Death Race 2000," though, these movies weren't intended for teen audiences. So they don't count.

There have also been a couple of post-apocalyptic TV shows that seemed aimed at teens: the original "Battlestar Galactica," for example, not to mention "Planet of the Apes." I've never seen "Jericho," so I can't say whether it's aimed at teens. Oh yeah, in England, in the 1980s, there was a short-lived TV adaptation of John Christopher's excellent "Tripod" trilogy. (One hears that Australian director Gregor Jordan is working on a Tripods movies slated for 2009.) Also, in Australia in 1976, there was a series made for kids based on the excellent British post-apocalyptic novel "Andra," by Louise Lawrence; and in 1984, there was a BBC adaptation of the also excellent American post-apocalyptic novel "Z for Zachariah," written by Robert C. "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" O'Brien. But we're talking silver screen, not TV screen.

There have been quite a few anime post-apocalyptic movies, but (a) those are intended for adults, too; and (b) Quiet Earth says they don't count.

Apocalyptic movies -- in which an apocalypse almost happens, or is about to happen -- don't count, right? (Except for "T2," see below.) So that rules out the 1980 "Flash Gordon" remake, which was certainly intended for a teen audience. I saw it with a bunch of my fellow 12-year-olds. I suppose it also rules out "Red Dawn" (1984), in which the Soviet Union invades America, and a bunch of midwestern teens -- Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen -- band together to defend their town. I'm pretty sure that Alex Beam once called this the best movie ever, but I can't find any evidence of his enthusiasm in the Globe archives.

OK, that still leaves me with a list of three post-apocalyptic movies for teens. These are controversial picks; like the other movies I've mentioned, they were supposedly aimed at adults. But give me a break -- if you've seen them, you know they're really for teens.


1) "Teenage Cave Man" (1958), starring 25-year-old Robert Vaughn as a character known as The Symbol Maker's Teenage Son. In this Roger Corman-directed SF movie, a tribe of primitives struggle to survive in a barren wasteland; Vaughn's character defies tribal law and crosses a river into a lush land inhabited by a burned monster who turns out to be... a 500-year-old survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Vaughn later called it the worst movie ever made.


2) "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" (1985). The first two "Mad Max" movies were intended for adults, sure... even though the second one is narrated by the Feral Boy. But the third installment in the series, in which Max is rescued from the usual Mel Gibson crucifixion scene by a band of nubile Australian teens and adorable children, wasn't. It's a kid-friendly post-apocalyptic scenario.


3) "Terminator 2" (1991). Again, although the first "Terminator" movie was intended for adults, this one was for the teens. Or tweens. Starring 14-year-old Edward Furlong, the movie recast Ahnold, formerly a terrifying cyborg, as a terrifying cyborg who turns out to be awesome with kids and even a father figure of sorts. Note that A.S. filmed "Kindergarten Cop," in which he plays pretty much the same role, around that time. UPDATE: Several readers insist that "T2" is an apocalyptic, not a post-apocalyptic, movie. The reason that the cyborg travels from the future to our time, after all, is to prevent an apocalypse (robot uprising, nuclear war). However, because the cyborg hails from a post-apocalyptic future, I think that "T2" counts.

So there you have it. "City of Ember" is probably the first post-apocalyptic movie openly aimed at the under-18 crowd. But there have been others.

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz, whose SF blog io9 is terrific, writes: "What about 'Waterworld,' which has a main character who is a kid? And the worst thing the bad guys do is eat spam? And of course 'Wall-E,' which is coming out in a few weeks."

UPDATE: Newitz has put together a poll at io9, asking readers what their favorite post-apocalyptic kiddie movie is. The choices: "Teenage Caveman," "Wall-E," "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, "Waterworld," and "Terminator 2." So far, "T2" is in the lead.


UPDATE: As of today (Saturday 5/17), the only movie that Brainiac or io9 readers have suggested that fits the bill is "Solarbabies," a 1986 flick directed by Alan Johnson (a choreographer whose only other movie as director seems to be the Mel Brooks remake of "To Be Or Not To Be"). "Solarbabies" starred 19-year-old Jason Patric, 20-year-old Jami Gertz, 23-year-old James LeGros. IMDB user plot summary: "In a future in which most water has disappeared from the Earth, we find a group of children, mostly teenagers, who are living at an orphanage, run by the despotic rulers of the new Earth. The group in question plays a hockey based game on roller skates and is quite good. It has given them a unity that transcends the attempts to bring them to heel by the government. Finding an orb of special power, they find it has unusual effects on them. They escape from the orphanage (on skates) and try to cross the wasteland looking for a place they can live free as the stormtroopers search for them and the orb." I've never heard of it! I'm going to have to rent it now.


More SF- and comics-related stories: "We are Iron Man!" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Kiddie Movies" (Brainiac) | "The Slacktivism of Richard Linklater" (Slate) | "Black Iron Prison" (n+1) | "Back to Utopia" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "In a Perfect World" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Philip K. Dick: Hermenaut of the Month" (Hermenaut) | "Journeys to the Center " (New York Times Book Review/IHT) | "Climate of Fear" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Pulp Affection" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Eco-Spaceship Redux" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Juvie Lit" (Brainiac) | "The New Skrullicism" (Brainiac) | "Prez" (Brainiac) | "Life Imitates Comic Book" (Brainiac) "Vintage Ads of Fictional Futures" (Brainiac) | "The Partisans" (Brainiac) | "The New Gods" (Brainiac) | "Rarebit Fiend!" (Brainiac audio slideshow) | "Dr. Strange vs. Dr. Craven" (Brainiac)

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11 comments so far...
  1. Okay, I've been trying to remember the name of a book I read when I was a kid: it was about the aftermath of a disease that kills anyone over fourteen or so. Gang warfare and general post-apocalyptic badness ensues. I feel like there was a female protagonist who was protecting a younger brother...maybe? Can't remember the author or title to save my life...any help? I hope that I've been sufficiently vague.

    Posted by mel May 16, 08 01:45 PM
  1. Mel, you're thinking of one of the all-time most popular post-apocalyptic YA novels, "The Girl Who Owned a City" (1975), by OT Nelson. It's actually not on my Top Ten favorite list, but it definitely blew my mind when I read it as a boy, in the late '70s.

    See this Brainiac post for a list of more post-apocalyptic YA novels:


    Posted by Josh Glenn May 16, 08 04:23 PM
  1. I think SOLARBABIES (1986) counts as a YA post-apocalypse movie.

    Posted by buzz May 17, 08 05:08 PM
  1. Thanks, Buzz. A few io9 readers have also mentioned Solarbabies. Sounds like it does fit the bill. I've added a mention of it to this post, and I'm going to rent it!

    Posted by Josh Glenn May 17, 08 06:26 PM
  1. "The Girl Who Owned a City"...That's the one! That has been a nagging loose end somewhere deep in my brain for years now - thanks!

    Posted by mel May 19, 08 11:14 AM
  1. I was going to suggest Night of the Comet, but then I seemed to recall that not everyone in that movie was a teen. In looking up Solarbabies on IMDB I realized I could use their plot keyword search to pull up a few more tagged movies. The short list is here. Salvation just sounds sad, but City Limits (evil CEO Robby Benson!) sounds tremendous.


    Posted by anon May 19, 08 03:50 PM
  1. City Limits and Night of the Comet do sound like they fit the bill... Thanks!

    Posted by Josh Glenn May 19, 08 06:04 PM
  1. Solarbabies also has the distinction of sharing parts of its soundtrack with Beyond Thunderdome. Jean Michel Jarre recycled the material from the Thunderdome soundtrack to fill out Solarbabies.

    Posted by Marshall May 30, 08 01:17 PM
  1. There is a New Zealand show in the late 90's early 2000's that is about a post apocaliptic world in which all the adults have died from a misterious disease. It is Called 'The Tribe'.

    Posted by Yasmin Bateman May 26, 09 12:51 AM
  1. SOLARBABIES was crap i mean who ever directed this stupid movie should be sent to the spicemines of kessel or ELBA II or should at least searn the calls of varuous birds becuase owls dont sound like hawks

    Posted by Flu-Bird June 17, 09 04:03 PM
  1. Oh my gosh thank you for posting "The Girl Who Owned a City". It was a book I read years ago but I couldn't remember any details of it; just something about kids surviving and street wars. Something made me think about it yesterday and I've been searching online all morning to try and find out if it ever existed and what it might be called. Thank you!!!! I can now go back to work...

    Posted by celia August 24, 09 06:15 AM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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