With The Walking Dead still a ratings juggernaut and Mad Max: Fury Road having pulled in $124 million worldwide, our culture’s fascination with what happens after it all hits the fan shows no sign of letting up. It’s no surprise that many find post-apocalyptic stories alluring, because they are simultaneously bleak and hopeful: They explore humanity in the most dire of circumstances, often in situations where other humans are the biggest danger of all. But many of them are also, by their very nature, ever so slightly hopeful. After all, they imagine that there are at least still some people who have found a way to survive, no matter how challenging the new status quo. The best post-apocalyptic stories are both a celebration of humanity’s stubborn persistence, and an excoriation of our darker impulses.
But “post-apocalyptic” is also a term that often gets used interchangeably with similar descriptors such as “apocalyptic” and “dystopian.” Any attempt to round up the best examples of the genre must first settle the problem of definition. So, for the purposes of this list, we’re concerned with both the post and the apocalyptic. We wanted movies that are defined by some singular event that either destroys civilization or at least strains it to the breaking point. We also want a bit of distance and time between that event and those of the story, so we can see the ways people have adapted to try and make their way in their new reality. World War Z was surprisingly compelling, but unlike the book, it’s set right in the midst of an apocalyptic zombie outbreak, so it doesn’t really fit our criteria. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Equilibrium both take place after devastating wars, but civilization has recovered and reordered into forms that are better described as dystopian, far removed from the hardscrabble existence that the words “post-apocalyptic” bring to mind.
With all that said, here are the best examples of post-apocalyptic storytelling currently available on Netflix Instant.
1) Snowpiercer (2013)
The end of the world as we know it: Man-made climate change
A decade and a half after mankind accidentally froze the planet, the last vestiges of our species survive in the most unlikely of places: the Snowpiercer, a massive train powered by a “perpetual-motion engine.” The train circles the globe continuously, with no possible destination except continuing to move and keep its survivors alive. Unfortunately, humanity’s worst instincts are still thriving aboard the train, with the passengers divided into an oppressive caste system: the elites enjoy comparative opulence in the front cars, while the poor are crammed into the dismal tail section. Spurred by on by his mentor (John Hurt), a tailie named Curtis (Chris Evans) leads an insurrection and begins fighting his way toward the front of the train. There he will face an inevitable confrontation with Wilford, the eccentric, Howard Hawks-ian industrialist who built Snowpiercer, and decide the fate of the last vestiges our species.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and based on a French graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is a truly surreal vision of the post-apocalyptic world, from the unlikely setting to the aggressively bonkers performance of Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason, Wilford’s second in command whose goofy appearance belies a black, power-mad heart. While the core concept of train as Noah’s Ark makes less sense the more you let your brain pick at it, Bong Joon-ho does an outstanding job of bringing the claustrophobic world of Snowpiercer to life, showing off nearly every element of how this microcosmic civilization subsists while permanently crammed into a series of metal shoeboxes. He also packs in some truly memorable action sequences, including one where the tailies find themselves fighting Wilford’s men in a pitch-black train car—while their opponents are sporting night-vision goggles.
Snowpiercer is by turns funny, thrilling, scary, freakish, and very, very weird, but it’s absolutely worth booking passage on Netflix. Even if you hate it—and the divisive climax will leave some out in the cold—I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.
2) Young Ones (2014)
The end of the world as we know it: Drought
Of all the potential apocalypses on this list, the grim world of Young Ones seems the most feasible from today’s vantage point. One need only look at California’s record-breaking drought or dire predictions about water scarcity later in this century to imagine the parched future of Jake Paltrow’s post-apocalyptic Western as being all too close for comfort.
In a near future where widespread drought has pushed civilization to the brink, Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) ekes out a living transporting supplies to workers who extract precious water from deep wells in the desert. After his pack mule breaks a leg, Ernest purchases a four-legged cargo robot as a replacement, in the process putting himself on a path toward an ugly confrontation with the disreputable Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), one that will have dire consequences for his family.
While the movie is set in the future and includes such sci-fi trappings as robotic mules and flying drones, Young Ones is very much channeling the style and tropes of classic Western films. You’ve got hardy characters attempting to tame an unfriendly land, and bedeviled by violent men willing to kill to take what they want. Themes of family and rough justice are at the core of Young Ones’ story, with Ernest’s son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee) forced to grow up fast in the wake of tragedy and do what must be done to protect his own. Jake Paltrow’s script is a mix of familiar material, but it’s elevated by a top-notch cast, a satisfying revenge arc, and a well-realized vision of an uncomfortably plausible near future.
One of the biggest stars of the show isn’t even human. Ernest’s four-legged robotic pack mule is actually based on a real-life bot: BigDog, a “rough terrain” robot designed by Boston Dynamics. The movie’s contrast of high-tech robotics against a dusty, desperate dystopia is both striking and fascinating, and the inclusion of real-world cutting-edge tech only adds to Young Ones’ sense of verisimilitude. Plus, the bot even gets to shoulder one of the film’s biggest plot developments.
3) Stake Land (2010)
The end of the world as we know it: Vampire plague
When it comes to monsters unleashing the end of the world, zombies and giant Godzilla-style beasts tend to have all the fun. Stake Land occupies the same bleak corner of the end times as The Walking Dead, but with the shambling undead swapped out for the considerably more sprightly victims of a vampire plague. Our guides through the ruins of civilization are a teenage boy named Martin (Connor Paolo) and a gruff vampire hunter named “Mister” (Nick Damici), who takes Martin under his wing after the boy’s family is slaughtered by a hungry bloodsucker.
The apocalypse always seems to divide people into two types: the ones who hunker down and try to build as secure a life as possible, and those who stay on the move, often in search of some distant rumored safe zone. Mister and Martin fall into the latter category, cutting across the overgrown highways of America in search of “New Eden” up north. Along the way, they encounter isolated towns where the hardy have restored some semblance of normalcy, but where each sundown holds the potential for disaster and bloodshed. Unfortunately, they also run afoul of a fundamentalist cult convinced the vampires are doing God’s bidding and purifying the world. Needless to say, they aren’t the sort who are willing just to agree to disagree.
Stake Land unfolds as a road trip and a series of vignettes, with quiet moments interspersed by brutal violence—and one particularly clever set piece involving a helicopter. Like The Walking Dead and many other apocalyptic tales before it, Stake Land posits a world where the threat posed by the undead is often eclipsed by that of other humans. Director Jim Mickle is in well-trodden territory here, but the journey is still enjoyable, and Stake Land showcases some truly gorgeous examples of nature growing up around mankind’s decaying footprints, from crumbling churches to empty, water-logged warehouses. It perfectly suits the layer of melancholy beneath all the bloodshed.
The climactic confrontation with a vamped-out cult leaded does jump the shark a bit, but not so much that the rest of the movie is in need of a staking.
4) The Last Days (2013)
The end of the world as we know it: Fatal agoraphobia
A global deep freeze. Crippling drought. Freaking vampires. So far the apocalyptic events on this list have been pretty bombastic. The element that brings mankind to its knees in the 2013 Spanish thriller The Last Days (Los Últimos Días) is considerably more subtle, but arguably even more debilitating. Namely, what if you couldn’t go outside… ever again? In The Last Days, humanity is slowly enveloped by a pandemic form of fatal agoraphobia, a fear of outdoor spaces so intense that simply walking out the front door of your building can spark a panic attack so intense it can kill you. It might not sound as dangerous as an angry vampire at first, but really think about it: If you had to survive, forever, on the contents of whatever building you’re in right now, exactly how screwed would you be?
Writer/directors David and Alex Pastor take this concept as a launching point to create a fascinating vision of a broken world where people are nonetheless adapting to a life of forced house arrest, digging through building basements and underground parking garages to access the sewers and subway tunnels that crisscross most large cities. The story follows Marc (Quim Gutiérrez) and Enrique (José Coronado), a pair of formerly antagonistic office workers in Barcelona, reluctantly banded together to try and reunite with their girlfriend and father, respectively. Using a stolen GPS device, they make their way through an urban underworld populated by the hungry and the desperate, constantly hindered by the simple fact that they can’t use any route that will take them aboveground.
Like the best post-apocalyptic flicks, The Last Days blends large-scale social extrapolation, inventive action set pieces, and small-scale personal storytelling. Gutiérrez and Coronado are stellar together, and their journey ramps up toward an epic, triumphant moment built upon a thoroughly mundane act: crossing the street.
5) Hell (2011)
The end of the world as we know it: Solar flares
With a name like Hell, the bar for post-apocalyptic misery has been set pretty high. Of course, in German “hell” just means “light,” but this tight little German-Swiss thriller manages to get plenty of thematic mileage out of both potential interpretations of the title. Set in 2016, Hell envisions a world where solar flares have blasted the Earth’s surface temperature upwards by a full 10 degrees Celsius. This is a world where “the harsh light of day” has taken on a very literal meaning, and survivors of this heat-blasted world must either remain largely nocturnal or else drape themselves in protective covering for the times when they must brave the scorching daylight… which, unfortunately, won’t protect them from the darker impulses of their fellow humans.
Through this blinding landscape, we follow sisters Marie (Hannah Herzsprung) and Leonie (Lisa Vicari), who are, along with their friend Phillip (Lars Eidinger), headed for the mountains inside a day-proofed Volvo. Along the way, a man named Tom (Stipe Erceg) joins their group as well, but given that they all meet when he’s in the process of trying to rob them, their alliance is an uneasy one at best. Still, their mutual distrust is soon overshadowed (ahem) by far bigger problems after they all wander into a trap set by very bad people possessed of very bad intentions. The end of the world really does bring out the worst in some people, doesn’t it?
Director Tim Fehlbaum does a top-notch job both selling the intense heat and ratcheting up the tension, with everyone distrustful of everyone else, and for good reason. Solid performances across the board also help disguise the fact that Hell sometimes plays like a post-apocalyptic greatest hits reel. If you’re even passingly familiar with the genre, Hell’s surprises aren’t going to be much of a surprise, but that’s OK. There’s no shame in being a good cover band.
Honorable Mention: Tank Girl (1995)
The end of the world as we know it: Comet impact
Look, I’m not here to tell you that Tank Girl is a great movie. Or even a good movie. It does, however, star Ice-T as a human/kangaroo hybrid. And how many movies can honestly make that claim?
Screengrab via MOVIECLIPS Trailers/YouTube