The Criterion streaming channel is one of the smartest and most viewer-friendly around. It has an invested interest in giving important films much needed exposure to viewers that might not stumble so easily upon them, something that’s apparent from just a cursory glance at their carefully curated thematic collections (something other streamers should take a page from). It’s hard not to feel Criterion’s excitement in getting lesser-known films or more ‘niche audience’ offerings their time in the spotlight.

As a way of ringing in the new year, Criterion has released a “Postapocalyptic Sci-Fi” collection featuring some of the most compelling and stimulating films in the genre, from fan favorites like John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) to more obscure titles like Richard Lester’s comic sketch take on the post-apocalypse The Bed Sitting Room (1969).

The movies included here tend to reveal more about the nature of human behavior when the rules are thrown out the window rather than focus on the spectacle of the end of the world. Don’t expect sci-fi disaster movies like Independence Day in the selection. It’s more about contemplating the end and what comes after. Not just seeing it all blow up.

Here are four movies from the “Postapocalyptic Sci-Fi” collection that best capture the theme and the scope of subject. They’re not easy to watch, but they certainly give an education in genre filmmaking.


  1. The Quiet Earth, dir. by Geoff Murphy (1985)

One of the most impressive showings of filmmaking in New Zealand, Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth takes the man-alone story into a uniquely contemplative place that balances hard sci-fi ideas with introspective ruminations on society without favoring one over the other. It follows a scientist that might’ve had a hand in disappearing the entire human race from the face of the Earth. As he goes through the process of accepting his new reality, new revelations about his own psyche and the physics of our planet start to affect him in existential ways.

Murphy takes the movie’s title to heart, capturing intimately quiet landscapes that inspire admiration rather than dread. It’s haunting, but also calming (in a strange way), and it leads to some incredible vistas of a world left unattended. It’s all anchored on Bruno Lawrence’s nuanced performance of the scientist left alone in the world, a non-static performance that shows the character’s transformation throughout the story. A much discussed and controversial ending rounds out one of the best postapocalyptic films out there.

  1. Panic in Year Zero, dir. by Ray Milland (1962)

As far as postapocalyptic anxiety is concerned, few wreck the nerves as thoroughly as Panic in Year Zero. Ray Milland stars and directs this tale of a traditional American family surviving the immediate aftermath of an atomic attack on California and other key locations. The emphasis here is on the immediate. The family – who gets news of the attack halfway through their road trip to a remote cabin – goes into ‘nuclear’ mode almost instantly, using money to stockpile on supplies before the current currency loses all meaning and people start ransacking and killing for survival.

Panic in Year Zero is a classic example of 1960s Cold War cinema, of a time when tensions ran high and the fear of an actual nuclear attack was commonplace. Milland captures this state of mind in a kind of survivalist take on science fiction that homes in on how quickly civilization collapses during a crisis and how drastically people revert to their most individualistic tendencies to justify their actions. The actual nuclear attack is kept at a distance, meaning all we get is uncertainty as morality quickly fades. When we do get scenes of destruction, it’s to show how people make a bad situation worse. It’s a harrowing watch, but a necessary one for anyone looking to visualize how the fear of the bomb manifested in its time.

  1. Threads, dir. by Mick Jackson (1984)

Whereas Panic in Year Zero keeps you at the outskirts of the atomic explosion, Threads stays in ground zero for one of the most heartrending experiences you’ll ever have watching a movie. As cinematic and colossally visual as this movie is, it was actually released as a tv movie. It broke viewership records in both the UK and the US when it premiered and it’s easy to see why.

Threads is a docudrama that chronicles the slow and painful death that comes with a nuclear attack on the working-class city of Sheffield, England. At almost two hours long, things go dark quick. Families start surveying their immediate areas, looking for loved ones in the ruins of the city. Others find themselves trapped under the rubble or inside what’s left of their homes. And then, the radiation sets in and things go from bad to oppressively worse. It’s an exploration of the monstrous dimensions of the bombs, of the terrible effects it has on reality itself after its enormous power is unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. Brace yourself if you decide to watch this one.


  1. Testament, dir. by Lynne Littman (1983)

Testament puts the post-apocalypse on a slow burn in a story that takes a brutally honest approach to hope and despair after a nuclear attack. It’s set in the fictional small town of Hamelin near the San Francisco Bay Area and it follows a woman called Carol Wetherly and her kids as they get news that several nuclear detonations have happened in and around the East and West coasts. The radiation from the explosions slowly creeps into the town and the families that live there start dying off. It’s a cruelly paced procession of death that leaves a new dark hole in the community every time another person succumbs to the effects of environmental poisoning.

The movie is led by an award-worthy performance from Jane Alexander. Her approach to Carol leans on relatability as she goes from becoming the pillar of strength for the family to tragic survivor. Through her, the audience gets a different kind of postapocalypse. By not being in close proximity to the explosions, death becomes an invisible force that spreads aggressively without warning as to who goes next. It creates an overwhelming sense of finality that embodies the very idea of unfairness. And yet, director Lynne Littman finds ways to inject small glimmers of hope throughout. Like the other films here, Testament is not an easy watch. But it is an important one.