In the Apocalypse, It’s Every Family for Itself

Post-apocalyptic movies reflect the selfishness we’re living through

“A Quiet Place.” Photo: Jonny Cournoyer/Paramount Pictures

The family crosses a bridge, single-file, in silence. Movies always teach us the rules of the worlds in which they take place, and we rapidly learn that in the universe of A Quiet Place, sound is peril. Mother, father, daughter, and two sons proceed, in painstaking caution, across the bridge, in a motion we understand is one of countless silent steps they have been taking since long before the film began. But when the youngest boy’s toy begins to pulse and beep, the looks of horror on his family’s faces, and his father’s failed attempt to rescue his son from the faceless hordes that descend and snatch him away, indicate a foundational trauma. The family is imperiled; the family must protect itself.

With the past six months, a near-endless interlude of disappeared childcare followed by intense panic about the back-to-school question, families like mine can sometimes feel like protagonists in a post-apocalyptic movie: A small band of survivors venturing out into a world of danger and distrust, populated by a mysterious, looming menace. As with Covid, the enemy in A Quiet Place is everywhere, invisible, and omnipresent. It can strike without warning, and even the smallest misstep can be fatal. Parents like the central couple of A Quiet Place are thrust into scenarios in which they must protect their children against the horrific unknown. Everything outside the family is a potential threat.

The family-against-all paradigm is one of the most durable in contemporary culture, justifying violent excesses like Liam Neeson’s vengeful-dad roles and Jack Bauer’s torture-happy warrior on 24. A tenet of the post-apocalyptic narrative is the tension between familiar and other, between those to protect and all those countless others who must be fended off. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009) has Viggo Mortensen going to extremes to protect his son from the brigands and cannibals of an American Armageddon. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) has Clive Owen’s benumbed drone belatedly embrace responsibility in the effort to protect the only pregnant woman in a world in which fertility itself has become all but extinct. In Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), perhaps the greatest of the 21st-century post-apocalyptic narratives, another surrogate family forms in the desert vastness where Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy) agree to collaborate, surrogate parents to the fleeing harem of a vengeful warlord. In each, the world at large is uniformly hostile and murderous, demanding unbending harshness and self-concern as the only possible response.

Every-family-for-itself selfishness represents some, though not all, of Americans’ worst reactions to Covid-19 and institutional racism in this dramatic summer.

This fall will see a new crop of such stories, mostly on television, like Marvel’s Helstrom series on Hulu, about a family of demon hunters, or the HBO limited series The Third Day, whose plot details are still mysterious but involve Naomie Harris as a mother of two daughters on a seemingly cursed island. We are attracted to these nuclear-family-against-all stories because they simultaneously fear society’s collapse and anticipate it, in much the same fashion that pre-9/11 films like Independence Day and The Siege predicted those acts of spectacular terrorism. We are attracted to these movies because they show us what we most fear about right now: that we won’t find the same world waiting for us when we get back to public life.

Parenthood is, in many ways, a higher selfishness. We become parents, and we transform ourselves into people who devote themselves to the health and well-being of others. Those others, notably, are our offspring, who we may come to see as our reflections, our inheritors, or our legacy, and sometimes we look out for them by hardening our hearts to others.

In fact, the whole concept of the post-apocalyptic movie’s small group — a family, a band of outsiders — mirrors the every-family-for-itself selfishness that represents some, though not all, of Americans’ worst reactions to Covid-19 and institutional racism in this dramatic summer. In all those movies I mentioned above, from A Quiet Place on back, the family (almost inevitably a white family) must close ranks to keep out all intruders and interlopers, must fend off the chaos and terror intent on encroaching from the exterior. Strangers are menaces.

We want to protect our own. We may seek to divide the world into us and them, those we are responsible for and all the rest. But the lessons of 2020 indicate that the easy labels “us” and “them” are rendered irrelevant by the sheer scope of our current crises. The crux of our twin disasters in 2020 — the disaster of the coronavirus and that of racial violence — is that we can ultimately only protect ourselves by protecting others. We can only stay healthy by ensuring that others also stay healthy; we get sick when other people fail to look out for their friends and neighbors. We build a better country by insisting that the lives of others matter every bit as much as our own. The failure to consider how your actions affect others is precisely what leads to the genuine nightmares of the moment, whether it’s protesters in state capitols demanding the right to sicken others, police officers casually murdering African Americans, or governmental leaders insisting that the coronavirus will disappear on its own and that the economy must be reopened at all costs.

Like many others, my family is wrestling with the questions that consume American life right now: Is it safe for children to attend school this fall? What degree of normalcy is even possible for Americans right now, as the virus burns through large portions of the United States? There are no correct answers to these questions, or if there are, only ones that will be visible in the rearview mirror.

My wife and I have tremulously decided to send our children back to school in New York City — a reopening that has already been delayed by 10 days. We are comforted by the low infection rates in the city but frightened by the likelihood of a second wave. I’ve decided to teach my college class remotely this semester, in the hopes of not spreading the infection to my children and putting their school year at risk. All these plans are subject to change, to reassessment, and to the possibility of proving drastically misguided. Such is life as an American in 2020.

A Quiet Place was a surprise smash hit on its release in 2018, grossing $188 million at the domestic box office. And after the enormous success of the first film, there is now a sequel on its way, directed once more by John Krasinski, and starring Emily Blunt and Millicent Simmonds as (spoiler alert!) the survivors of the first film. Originally slated to be released in March, the ongoing closure of movie theaters has led the studio to push back its release date twice, with the film now slated to be released April 23, 2021. We do not know yet what the United States will look like when A Quiet Place Part II is finally released. That will all depend on whether we look out for other people, or just ourselves.

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.

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