Everyone inherits the earth. We all have to clean up messes we didn’t make. Our troubles are not the end of the world, because the end of the world is a really, really big deal. These are some of the life lessons kids can pick up by watching a post-apocalyptic film.
Cinematic tales of world destruction, ecological disaster, and civilization collapse can adjust our problems’ scale, teach us to value challenges as opportunities, and offer alternate views into the future.
Screen one of these ten post-apocalyptic films at family movie night and blow your kids' minds! (They are organized by age appropriateness, starting with films for the youngest set.)
1. The Lorax
Recommended ages: 4 and older
Leave it to Dr. Seuss to give us our first child-friendly version of the post-apocalyptic future: Only the grickle-grass grows and there aren’t any birds, excepting old crows, in the poisonous gloom after ecological collapse in Dr. Seuss' The Lorax.
Of the two animated adaptations of the Dr. Seuss story, I prefer the original 1972 CBS cartoon special to the 2012 animated feature and here’s why: the older, shorter version more powerfully presents the environmental message, the truth of the book.
The scriptwriters of The Lorax (2012) stretched the story to feature length by inventing subplots that simply didn’t exist in the Seuss book. The Hollywood-elaborated backstory of the Onceler made the old industrialist much more sympathetic than the evil villain in the book.
The Lorax (1972) doesn’t have snazzy computer animation (it’s all hand-drawn) and its swinging 70s soundtrack sounds a bit stale. But, from the exodus of the brown Bar-ba-loots to the cutting of the last truffula tree, the message is pure Seuss.
>Next: Wall -E
Recommended ages: 5 and older
A robot inner rebellion saves the world in this Oscar-winning 2008 Disney-Pixar film written and directed by Andrew Stanton.
Humanity lays waste to the earth, boards spaceships to cruise the galaxy and leaves robots behind to clean up the planet. After a couple of years sorting garbage, the robots break down (I can relate). But our hero, the trash-compacting WALL-E quietly rebels against his obsolescence and adapts.
Left alone to his own devices, WALL-E develops quirks in his protocol: He befriends a cockroach, starts a junk collection, and acquires a taste for Gene Kelly musicals.
With interests beyond his day job, WALL-E survives loneliness and attains true self-sufficiency in his flexibility. And, because he is flexible, he can fall in love, follow EVE into space, lead a real robot rebellion, and ultimately save humanity.
Rich with life lessons and rated G, WALL-E is a terrific family film. For extra “meta” amusement, try a double feature with Hello, Dolly! WALL-E would approve.
Recommended ages: 6 and older
This 1927 silent film classic directed by Fritz Lang is a beautiful work of art, as well as fun to watch with kids — although you may have to read title cards to nonreaders and explain to younger viewers some of the early conventions of the silver screen.
(For example, when hero Freder was chasing an Erté-clad beauty around the garden I found myself explaining that in the good old days, when you really liked someone, you’d play tag with them.)
A straightforward tale of good against evil, bright rays slashing against the dark, Metropolis has amazing design, groundbreaking motion picture visual effects, and one of the most fashion-forward robots ever shot on film. And who doesn’t love a good Art Deco automaton?
>Next: Planet of the Apes
Recommended ages: 7 and older
The original 1968 film with Charlton Heston is a product of its time. The groovy ape masks and Star Trekkie costuming, the Civil Rights movement allusions, Chuck’s chauvinistic comments to his hottie mute girlfriend, and the G rating (!) — all reinforce the obvious conclusion that this movie is from a bygone era.
But while it's an old movie, it’s a good movie. From the crash landing to the final scene on the beach, it’s an exciting romp across simian territory and through human morality. (The only time the film flags is when the surviving astronaut crew gets philosophical in the desert. But, for what it's worth, that’s where the dialogue of Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling rings most true.)
No spoilers! The ending of this sci-fi classic should blow your kids minds.
>Next: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Recommended ages: 8 and older
A common criticism of this epic 1968 masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick is that it is too slow for younger audiences not used to this pace of storytelling.
The camera shots are long and deep. It takes eons for a space stewardess to deliver in-flight meals, eons during which viewers could presumably A) ponder the lack of earth-oriented direction in zero gravity, B) marvel at the movie magic used to depict weightlessness, C) appreciate the futuristic fashion of her padded turban, D) bliss out on the classical music score, or E) all of the above.
Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube adds more meaning to the film than any of the dialogue. (Even the popular music is great. When Hal sang “Daisy,” my daughter cried — such was her empathy for artificial intelligence.)
Despite the slow pace of the film, you may still find the plot confounding. I recommend you pick up a copy of the Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same title.
>Next: City of Ember
Recommended ages: 8 and older
Recommended by the friendly staff at my corner video store (shout-out to Seattle's Reckless Video!) this fun 2008 sleeper owes as much to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as it does to the book by Jeanne Duprau that it's based on.
To save the human race, the Builders build the city of Ember far underground. Hundreds of years later the city is falling apart, and the great generator (Moloch!) that enables this life underground is sputtering. With all the old people set in their ways and in denial about the obsolescence of their city, only the clever young people can figure out how to return life to the surface.
As far as intense sci-fi action goes, City of Ember has what they call “mild peril.” There’s action, but it’s thoughtful action. (There are no weapons in the social experiment of Ember.) I suspect the only reason it got a PG rating is because of the gorgeous and gluttonous giant shrew.
Mom-crush alert: City of Ember stars both Bill Murray and Tim Robbins! (No, they don’t look their best cast as the greedy rotund Mayor and the seemingly slow genius father of the protagonist, but who cares?)
Recommended ages: 9 and up
As awesome as this 1984 Japanese anime classic is, adults should pre-screen this for kids. Though the overall message is pacifist, the film uses intense sci-fi action and violence to get to peace. It’s anime after all.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and based on his manga of the same name, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is very beautiful and very weird. Miyazaki gives us toxic jungles, mega-normous trilobites, jet-powered gliders, a village of windmills, and one of the apocalyptic genre’s best heroines, Princess Nausicaä.
Oh, if only my daughters would imprint this warrior princess on their psyches! Nausicaä is selfless, compassionate, clever, and she can really get around on her glider! Still, she isn’t perfect, she can lose her temper and crush skulls, but mostly she’s a sweet kid.
> Next: The Fifth Element
Recommended ages: 9 and older
All the things that annoy adults about this 1997 Bruce Willis vehicle make it a pretty great kids' movie. But be forewarned, it’s rated PG-13 for explosive sci-fi violence and sexy stuff like Milla Jovovich jumping off buildings in a Jean-Paul Gaultier swimsuit that looks suspiciously like a dirty ace bandage.
My kids loved the It-Girl-focused plot of The Fifth Element. In the future, supermodel Jovovich is a divine entity who babbles and baby talks her way into cyber-cabbie Willis’ heart while saving the universe from a monstrous cloud of pure drivel, I mean, evil.
Note that my children did not dismiss Jovovich’s acting as simpering and twee, nor did they make snide comments about her Ronald McDonald dye-job — that was all me.
Mom crush alert: Even dorked out with a bad hair-cut and a futuristic visor that looks suspiciously like a hacked plastic liter pop-bottle, Gary Oldman is still thrilling in a crouching tycoon, hidden Southern gentleman kind of way.
>Next: Pacific Rim
Recommended ages: 10 and up
Domo arigato, Guillermo del Toro. Thank you very much, El Director de Toro for this 2013 double-deluxe giant monster movie.
Rising from space-time chasms deep in the ocean floor, enormous and super creepy monsters attack human civilization. To combat this threat, the nations of the world ban together to create colossal war machines, and guess what? It’s a Giant Robot Monster Rumble!
Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and violence, and a smidge of cussing.
>Next: Ender's Game
Recommended ages: 11 and up
I’m sorry. Everyone has to read the sci-fi classic by Orson Scott Card before seeing the 2013 movie. It’s a rule.
As we would expect from any film adaptation, loads of character motivation and entire subplots have been wiped from the script. What is really impossible to comprehend is why the scriptwriters lamed out on the ending.
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action, violence, and alien genocide, Ender’s Game comes off a mash-up between War Games and Red Dawn, with a dash Starship Troopers and a smidge of Harry Potter – and overall, that’s a good thing.
One of the best things about Ender in both the book and the movie: Even though he’s a child genius, he only becomes a hero through extra effort and practice in his free time. He doesn’t coast on his smarts alone: Ender puts in the time and he saves the world.
From my parenting point of view, this is why we should watch post-apocalyptic films with our kids: for the heroes.
The heroes of post-apocalyptic, dystopian, or world-destruction movies are never totally responsible for the mess, but they always, always have to clean it up.
About the author: Annie Fanning is a mother of two brilliant daughters, a Seattle Tree Ambassador, and a flower-throwing anarchist.