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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