Looking Back: Versions of the Post-Apocalypse in Contemporary North-American Cinema — by Ana Moya & Gemma López
May 21, 2020
This paper [from 2017] discusses the role of borderlands in I Am Legend (2007), The Road (2009) and The Book of Eli (2010), and the ways in which these dystopic post-apocalyptic films may be understood through the concept of the border, analyzing the negotiations of meaning and representation that take place. Originally published in University of Michigan's journal Film Criticism (Volume 41, Issue 1, February 2017), it is reproduced here via Creative Commons 3.0 License. 

We love apocalypses too much—Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)


The present article analyses three post-apocalyptic films shot in the late 2000s: I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, US, 2007), The Road (John Hillcoat, US, 2009), and The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, US, 2010). Although diverse in possibility and aesthetics, the three share a common anxiety: they speculate with the possibility of human society disintegrating. As such, they are direct inheritors of the type of film produced in the context of the turn of the millennium in American cinema, at least in so far as they all explore social disquiets and fears in relation to the possibility of global catastrophe.[1] Disaster and annihilation may come via a globally expanded virus, as is the case of I Am Legend, an unspecified catastrophe, as has happened before The Road starts, or through a more ordinary trope such as a nuclear apocalypse in The Book of Eli. Furthermore, the three films introduce the possibility of survival since “…each filmic depiction of the apocalypse inherently projects the existence of surviving witnesses,”[2] and so they attempt to envision new spaces beyond culture and the nation, as we know it.

The three stories introduce a main character that is suddenly thrust into a world that has become dystopian, a hostile and alien environment. For Robert Neville (Will Smith in I Am Legend), the father and son of The Road (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Eli (Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli) the known becomes unknown as society reverts to chaos and wilderness. What has emerged after disaster and mayhem is presented as other to human beings who are constantly threatened not just by the possibility of death, but rather by engulfment into the chaos they strive to avoid. A border has been erected, the whole planet has become a borderland and survivors become border subjects, to use Emily Hicks’s term: “[border subjects] live in the interstices between different…communities.”[3]

Hicks develops the concept of border subjects in her discussion of border writing, which for her emphasizes the “multiplicity of languages within any language”, arguing that border writing has the capacity to see “not just from one side of the border, but from the other side as well,”[4] being of a subversive nature as it “disrupts the one-way flow of information.”[5] She uses concepts such as border culture, nonidendity or border crosser to develop her argument, relating her discussion to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of deterritorialization.[6] As Erik W. Petersen comprises, “Deterritorialization is defined by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari as the movement by which one leaves a territory.”[7] Deterritorialization implies detaching a sign from its context of signification, a loss of self as a consequence of separation from a set purpose, a weakening of the established ties between culture and place, a decontextualization of a set of relations. Deterritorialization implies transformation, where undoing is previous to creation.[8]

On the other hand, from the second half of the twentieth century cinema has played a crucial role in undermining the limits of our contemporary modes of perception, offering new ways of thinking and perceiving reality.[9] Cinema has more and more had a vital cultural, political and aesthetic significance, allowing us the possibility of questioning the present state of affairs in the world, renovating our ability to think and envisioning alternative possibilities for living. Within this context, and at the turn of the millennium, I Am LegendThe Road and The Book of Eli form part of the proliferation of dystopian visions of the world in contemporary popular cinema.[10] According to Darren Ambrose, “many of these films display an innate sense that disaster is probably the result of capitalism’s nihilistic drives,”[11] though they seem unable to postulate satisfactory alternatives. Kirsten Thompson argues that the prevalence of such stories in American films has to do with a “long-standing American apocalyptic tradition,” the ingredients of which she goes on to specify as “[a] blend of providential and messianic elements in Puritan Calvinism.”[12] The historical antecedents of this solidly grounded way of making cinema can be found in the science fiction cinema of the Cold War, which re-emerged in the seventies with separate cycles of science-fiction and demonic films, gained further prominence under a turn to social conservatism under Reagan in the eighties, and reached a hysterical peak in the nineties in a cycle of horror, disaster, and science-fiction films explicitly focused on the approaching millennium.[13]

For Thompson, the turn of the millennium became an “explicit narrative focus”[14] culminating in 9/11, the moment in which “dread and fear have regained prominence in the public sphere”[15] and adopted new forms “with anxieties about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism from within.”[16] Indeed, most apocalyptic films of the turn of the millennium depart from conventional notions of the nation to explore the possibilities beyond the end of culture as we know it. We argue that these films’ apocalyptic stories may fruitfully be read through the concept of the border, both as constructed object in itself and with the purpose to create in-between spaces, where culture and identity have to be renegotiated in the search for alternative social models, exploring the possibility of a third space.

In his essay “Locations of Culture,” [17] Homi Bhabha articulates the concept of the third space as a space beyond borders where culture and identity are questioned and renegotiated to be reformulated. In an interview with Jonathan Rutherford, Bhabha had stated, “all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity.”[18] He goes on to argue that hybridity means not just being capable of tracing two original moments from which a third would emerge, but a new third space that will enable other positions to originate: “This third space displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom.”[19] Bhabha argues that the process of cultural hybridity originates something different, what he calls “a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.”[20] Following this notion, apocalyptic cinema would reflect modernity’s growing sense of crisis, using the spectacle of global annihilation as a pretext for the exploration of the post-apocalyptic, that is to say, the space left over after disaster has happened.[21] In this direction, these films have often been read as spiritual allegories that explore contemporary nihilism and the general loss of belief in the possibility of social and collective progress, in the face of which the only hope lies in single individuals and their moral purpose. Global catastrophe has brought our known world to ruins, we have come to the end of our nations, our cultures and our identities, and so humanity needs to reinvent itself.

Bhabha states that the turn of the millennium was a moment of transit, which produced complex figures of difference and identity. He contends that it was a moment that helped create an awareness of the subject positions “that inhabit any claim to identity in the modern world”[22] and that we need to think on the moments that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference, which he describes as in-between spaces. Following Bhabha, these in-between spaces of culture, the spaces beyond borders as we conceive them, become crucial for the search of alternative models, and the possibility of a post-apocalyptic world in this panorama of desolation and mayhem. He maintains that these spaces are the ones where new strategies of selfhood will be constructed, as the need to re-define the idea of society will trigger new signs of identity as well as innovative sites of contestation.[23] Bhabha posits that, whether obvious or not, all cultural statements and systems are constructed in these spaces, which he describes as contradictory and ambivalent. Since the meaning of culture would be located precisely in its in-between spaces, cultural values, ideas of community interest and even the collective experience of nation would also be negotiated precisely in these vibrant and pulsating in-between spaces. In this sense, and at moments of historical transformation of which the turn of the millennium is a fine example, the social articulation of difference becomes a “complex, on-going negotiation”[24] that favors the emergence of cultural hybridity, with the concept of a homogeneous culture being repeatedly problematized. As argued above, Bhabha’s notion of hybridity has to do with the fact that “in any particular political struggle, new sites are always being opened up, and if you keep referring those new sites to old principles, then you are not actually able to participate in them fully and productively and creatively.”[25] In this way, the notion of the third space is coined by Bhabha precisely to refer to the in-between spaces of culture, those where cultural hybridity is predominant, so that they may become new areas of negotiation of meaning and representation. His argument can be pinned down to the need to think beyond narratives of origin and initial subjectivities by focusing on the in-between spaces of culture, where cultural differences are articulated and where cultural hybridities may emerge, particularly at moments of historical transformation.[26] Ultimately, Bhabha conceives the third space as a consequence of the need to rethink traditional and fixed notions of cultural identity. Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of becoming may also prove fruitful here. For them, becoming implies a process of change, a flight or a movement within an assemblage –objects/things or their parts gathered into a single context.[27] As a process, becoming suggests movement, implying a change of value to bring about something new. For Deleuze & Guattari, becoming implies deterritorialization and is generative of a new way of being, removing the element from its original functions.[28] All in all, the border subject (Hicks) finds himself in a process of becoming (Deleuze & Guattari), deterritorialized from the assemblage (Deleuze & Guattari), and so thrust in an in-between area (Bhabha) which allows for the possibility of a third space (Bhabha), a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.

But what are the borders that delimit cultural spaces? According to Minna Rainio, “borders are not self-evident and do not exist naturally.” She contends that the practices, ideologies, and fantasies of everyday life repeatedly construct, imagine and maintain the borders through which people and communities create their identities.[29] Going a few steps further, Rainio points out that “borders are spatial, ideological, and social constructions through which individuals and communities construct and maintain their identities.”[30] In other words, both borders and the areas they determine are created by people themselves, whether they find themselves on one side or the other of the border itself, which for Rainio seems to be of little consequence. What matters would rather be the repercussions of such inventions. And so, the identities produced through such processes of confinement and captivity are not neutral or self-evident but constantly evolving and reproduced through the creation and maintenance of boundaries and differentiations.[31] Ultimately, as Rainio argues, the borders of the nation-state serve to differentiate us from not us, through which “the principal objective of the nation-state has been to create an illusion of the people of the nation as having a homogeneous identity and being a unified category.”[32] Consequently, an integral part of the definition of identity, following Rainio, is its relation to the other, by which “every identity has at its ‘margin’, an excess, something more.”[33]

Borders, therefore, attempt to delimit cultural territories that work through processes of identification, though they also contain deterritorialising forces. It is precisely in the in-between spaces of culture where cultural values and even the notion of the nation are negotiated, so that cultural homogeneity is repeatedly contested from there. The identities resulting from what becomes an on-going negotiation would then be the result of processes of becoming rather than just being, with the emergence of the third space, where cultural hybridity would be the norm. And so, identities may no longer be claimed as unified per se and are instead increasingly fragmented and fractured, “multiply constructed across different, often intersecting and antagonistic, discourses, practices and positions. They are subject to a radical historiscization, and are constantly in the process of change and transformation.”[34] The discussion of the three apocalyptic stories that follows is centered around their conceptualization both of the notion of borders and the spaces in-between, to prove that such notions offer fruitful ways of understanding these films and explore the extent to which fiction, more often than not, fails in envisioning alternative third spaces and instead finds itself ultimately overtaken by memory.

Paradise Regained: I Am Legend

Director Francis Lawrence adapts Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954)[35] to portray a world that has been devastated due to a virus that has expanded massively, killing ninety per cent of humanity. The remaining survivors become predatory and vampire-like beings called Darkseekers. Unlike in the novel, set in Los Angeles, the setting for the film is a bleak and desolate New York where military virologist Dr. Robert Neville, the only human survivor, desperately carries out intensive research. His aim is to find the antidote that would presumably become a cure for the virus. New York as beacon of the western capitalist world was in itself a powerful symbol in 2007, though viewed from the present, the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. proved how fragile and vulnerable the whole capitalist system the western world so strongly believed in was. Nevertheless, the fragility and vulnerability of the western world in the face of barbarism had already been proved in 9/11, and so the choice of New York instead of Los Angeles is effective in the film, as it points precisely to the weakness of a world that had largely been taken for granted and which the near future would prove once more to be frail.

In terms of plot construction, the film is structured through a series of sequential flashbacks between the present-time of the film and the “zero moment”, which reverberates with the “New York zero zone” after 9/11, when the expansion of the lethal virus originally created to cure cancer becomes uncontrollable in New York. Prior to this, audiences have had access to a kind of preface or framework, which serves the purpose of explaining the causes that have led to the present situation. The film is, therefore, consistent with a view of history as a logical succession of causes and consequences. The presentation of the main character and partial narrator of the story is also in line with the logics of history that the film formulates, and his identity is well established from the start of the film. Robert Neville is not just any man, but a reputed scientist, both the only one who can redeem society and an active participant in the disaster that has led society to the present situation. A Cartesian figure, Neville is a Crusoe and a Dr. Frankenstein figure at the same time. Driving along the streets of New York with his dog Sam, Neville’s rationality and humanity are never questioned in the story, however threatened his physical existence may actually be. Just like Crusoe 300 years back, Neville never loses sight of who he is and his house, the small island which he inhabits, becomes a cell of civilization in what is presented as a menacing, violent and wild world. The savages are no longer the colonial Other, but the Darkseekers. A regression has taken place as civilization is being devoured from within. Neville is also like Dr. Frankenstein, a believer that science will inevitably bring along a better world. His dismal discovery is that science may actually have the power to enslave and dominate society.

New York is progressively becoming wild, with plants growing here and there in the streets, wild animals running around, and the so-called Darkseekers threatening human existence, a panorama against which Neville consistently reaffirms his humanity through the repetition of certain patterns of behavior at home. Neville’s sense of identity is also clearly affirmed in the film through stark contrast with the Darkseekers. On the one hand, though these uncanny creatures come in large numbers, they are dealt with as if they were one body, some sort of a modern beast. Moreover, the identification of the Darkseekers with Otherness is effective, due to their cannibalistic rituals. In line with Western Enlightenment and Cartesian notions of the Self, cannibalism is unquestionably accepted as other to mankind. By being cannibals, the Darkseekers are automatically understood as non-humans. Neville, therefore, is morally justified in hunting them down, carrying out experiments with them, and eventually killing them. He ultimately immolates himself to save humanity, which atones for his responsibility and transforms him into a modern hero. His death acquires further symbolism as Ana’s (Alice Braga) and Ethan’s (Charlie Tahan) faith in a community of human survivors is finally rewarded. As the film closes, Anna and Ethan arrive at what will surely become a new seed of civilization carrying with them the antidote that Neville has finally found. The doors of the walled community open and a church is shown. Science has annihilated society but it may still be saved back.

Figure 1. Dr. Neville immolates himself and Anna and her son find the colony.

In his discussion of the film, Steffen Hantke argues that “[it] has one strong and single-minded ideological thrust, which establishes and unpacks the core ideology most viewers will take away from it.”[36] Hantke focuses on the final scene of the film in order to uncover this ideological thrust and demonstrate how the film is “a key text of the final period of the Bush years.”[37] The final town, which Anna and Ethan reach, and which opens its gates to welcome them and allows them to discover utopia realized and paradise regained, is emblematic of the film’s final ideological positioning. For Hantke, one of the key issues is the way in which Anna has been referring to this so-far imagined utopia from her very first appearance on the film. She calls it “a colony”. As Hantke argues

the term “colony,” as much as the film’s relentless visual insistence that its location is New England, links the United States’ future, as it unfolds to the survivors of the traumatic catastrophe, with its past. The future lies in small towns, in the political ideal of what Republican candidates during the 2008 presidential election incessantly referred to as “Main Street America,” equating it with—and equally loaded term— “real America.”[38]

I Am Legend, therefore, portrays apocalypse as the inevitable consequence of scientific progress, globalization and the modern world, proposing a nostalgic idealized past as the source from which reconstruction may start. The contemporary world is wrapped up around the city, in this case New York, which is ultimately rejected as “the city is doomed, a place of violence and fear, of uncontrollable contagion; it requires constant vigilance and yet may kill you—the urban jungle, literally.”[39] Post 9/11 New York is symbolic of the dangers of blurred borders, and Lawrence’s production effectively uses the borderland to explore the possibility of re-defining human identity. This is so, because the land where Neville lives is no longer just Home, but has become Home and Other at the same time, while the borders that separated them have become unbearably porous. The nation as such has disintegrated and is being devoured from within so that it has itself become a borderland, with Home and Other becoming one. In this scenario, an in-between space has opened where identity is searched for in order to be re-defined. However, in a recently post 9/11 United States, the film pulls towards purity, nostalgia and reaffirmation, rejecting the possibility of a third space, of cultural hybridity of any sort. Neville’s rationality is opposed to the Darkseekers’ cannibalism, effectively re-drawing the border between “us” and “them,” with Neville’s immolation at the end of the film being symbolic of the search for purity. And so, in the film’s dystopian world, borderlands prove to be destructive and sterile rather than fruitful. Therefore, the colony, the social cell from which to start anew, and to which Ana and Ethan will carry the antidote as a symbolic fire from where civilization as we know it may resurrect after Neville’s death, is a gated community, a contemporary capitalist barricade constructed to fend off the threatening Other.

Dystopia Realized: The Road

In The Road, released only two years after I Am Legend, Australian director John Hillcoat and British playwright Joe Penhall adapt the 2006 novel of the same title by Cormac McCarthy. Audiences are here confronted with a dark and pessimistic view of a desolate and inhospitable post-apocalyptic world, the origins of which is an unspecified cataclysm. The fact that this origin is never disclosed adds to the general feeling of horror and gloom. The effects of the catastrophe, however, are clear from the very beginning of the film: civilization is destroyed, almost all plants and animals have been killed, food and drinkable water are scarce, and the sun has been obscured. In a reference to Blade Runner, the rain is incessant. Two unnamed characters, a father (Vigo Mortensen) and his 10-year-old son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), ramble southwards in the hope that the weather may be milder there. Their physical progress contains also their struggle against the worst version of mankind: hordes of barbarians have been reduced to scavenging or cannibalism and both father and son have to make a supernatural effort in order not be crushed –physically and psychologically- by the nihilism dominating society. In the words of Darren Ambrose, “the film concentrates upon being a much more serious spiritual allegory celebrating the individual struggle to maintain a moral clarity in the face of collective nihilistic savagery.”[40] A constant trope for father and son when confronted with this nihilistic savagery is to remind themselves that they are “carrying the fire” in reference to Prometheus in the Greek myth. Certainly, the notion of “carrying the fire” becomes a leitmotif in the film, the only window of hope in the scenario of despair and universal mayhem that the film presents. In this sense, the two unnamed characters become Everyman figures wondering a world which, like the end of the Middle Ages, needs to be reformulated. Furthermore, the land they walk has also become a contemporary visual image of Eliot’s Waste Land. Indeed, whether the end of the Middle Ages or WWI, the intertextual reference is to a period in history characterized precisely by the instability of national borders. And so, as Everyman figures lost in a land that has certainly become waste, their “carrying the fire” suggests that the characters may be read as pilgrims rather than wanderers, a significant change as it introduces the notion of search and hope, in this case the search and hope for the seed of a new civilization. This is especially relevant when it comes to the boy, whose care and compassion for others redefines for the audience what the collective ethos that has been lost pivoted around.

Figure 2. Father and son in a post-apocalyptic world.

Structured in a series of narrative flashbacks that alternate between moments in the present and the past before the cataclysm occurred, the film cunningly explores “the tension between the selfishness necessary to survive as an individual and the social altruism required to survive as a species.”[41] Hillcoat decides to make use of two contrastive kinds of mise-en-scène to capture the acute sense of gloom McCarthy’s novel conveys through his customary economy of language. Hence the film alternates striking colors for the scenes set in the past –before the catastrophe takes place- and sepia for the scenes in the present-time of the action. The constant jump from one environment to the other, together with the fact that the origins of the cataclysm are never explained, provide not only a feeling of nostalgia and a sense of doom, but also a view of history as absolutely irrational and chaotic, a series of events which refuse to follow an internal consistency or even a motif. Chaos prevails, by which men are vulnerable and weak. While Neville in I Am Legend is somehow in control of his life, the two unnamed characters in Hillcoat’s film are at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Audiences are unable to grasp much about their lives before the cataclysm (the boy, we understand, was born after mayhem had happened); likewise, we are unable to know their actual location, although we may infer by the work of Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe that it is the United States.[42] Far from making empathy and identification more difficult, the idea that they could be any one of us is further reinforced by this lack of information about them.

What we do know, however, is that they are the good guys under constant threat from the bad guys. This clichéd terminology derived from Western films and nineteenth century melodrama is the one that the father has taught the son in order to keep him in the right track. It shows how Hillcoat’s film explores the characters’ identity through the contrast with what is presented as Other. Cannibalism is effectively used as a metaphor for the disintegration of any moral order and it points to the notion of man becoming a predator to man. Through the use of the cannibal motif, the film seems to be exploring what ultimately makes us human, arguing that the frontier between humanity and otherness has become porous, if not blurred. Where does civilization end and savagery begin? What is the border between these two categories composed of? In the face of desperation, would we all turn into savages?

Hillcoat refuses to provide solid answers for these questions, and his reading of McCarthy’s novel does not offer any salvation or sense of solace. Even the use of the familiar filmic trope of voice over proves absurd. As Darren Ambrose describes, the film is dominated by the “impossible narrative voice-over by Mortensen, who is literally telling us the story as if placed in some out-of-place narrative position, from a place of transcendent safety other than the unrelenting fabric of despair in which the film is set.”[43] Indeed, the post-apocalyptic world that the film depicts finds itself in a moment of transition, though the audience is left disturbingly discomfited, as the film refuses to envision what that transition may lead to. The narrative, in this sense, evades any promise as to what the future of mankind may be like, though it is clear that there is a future, or at least the possibility of one. The ending of the film, with the boy integrating himself in a new family, thus highlighting the bonds of love, mutual care and responsibility wrapped up around the symbol of the fire, makes no promises as to what lies ahead, at the same time as it leaves the audience with hope in a future that may be better than the present. Perhaps there may be something more than wandering among ruins, after all. And though the vivid colors of the past never come back and sepia still dominates the screen in the final shots, there are glimpses of bright colors as the boy and his father reach the seashore. Furthermore, the green beetle and the flying bird that appear at that point are signs that we may be heading somewhere, paving the way for the insertion of the boy in the family unit, the cell from which a new society may re-emerge.

It may be concluded, therefore, that the space that the film displays before the audience is an in-between space where characters are trapped as a consequence of the collapse of the nation. Yet, however barren and desolate, this space is crucial as a suitable arena where notions of individual and collective identity may be remodeled and reformulated. Indeed, the film tackles notions of community interest and even the collective experience of the nation, with the notion of a homogeneous culture being contested. As opposed to I Am LegendThe Road refuses to fix the reasons that have led to the situation presented in the film, the post-apocalyptic world, which contributes to a sense of dismal chaos, where the past is not idealized, and is instead simply remembered. Once again, the nation as such has disintegrated and is being devoured from within, having turned into a borderland, with Home and Other becoming one, as happened in I Am Legend. However, contrary to what happens in Francis Lawrence’s film, The Road does not pull explicitly towards cultural purity and unity of meaning. Instead, it outlines the disappearance of the nation state while it timidly points to the family unit as social cell and seed of society. The space explored in this film is contradictory and ambivalent and Hillcoat’s work contends that the notion of a homogeneous culture finds itself in a process of redefinition. In line with Bhabha’s argument outlined above, the film renders the extent to which social articulation of difference becomes a complex on-going negotiation at moments of historical transformation. Bhabha’s third space, the one where cultural hybridity is predominant, is promised at the same time as it is discarded in The Road. On the one hand, the film seems to conclude differentiating Self from Other at the end when the boy asks the father of the newly found family if they eat people and if they are also “carrying the fire,” articulating the hope that they may find more people who are not cannibals, representative of the civilization that has been lost. Yet, and on the other hand, by focusing on the child –who cannot remember the bygone times-, the film also looks to a future that is left in his hands. It is a new generation and with it comes the promise of a new way of doing things, with the possibility of a third space being laid out before the child and the audience being left with the dream of something new, even if that something is still impossible to imagine.

Humanity Redeemed: The Book of Eli

Directed in 2010 by the Hughes brothers, The Book of Eli explores the consequences of a nuclear apocalypse. The protagonist bears the religiously charged name of Eli (Denzel Washington) and is a mysterious wanderer who possesses a unique book: the only Bible which has endured mayhem and which will hopefully serve to inspire a new beginning for society.

The Book of Eli bears superficial resemblance to The Road, although as Ben Child argued in The Guardian film blog, the latter film “is likely to stand the test of time rather better.”[44] Both films are set in similarly conceived post-apocalyptic Americas populated by prowling gangs of cannibals and killers. Eli, like the father and son in The Road, has also embarked on a journey towards the coast. However, if the characters in The Road are unnamed, the name of Eli is charged with Biblical resonances, being the name of a judge and High Priest of Shiloh, according to The Bible the second-to-last Israelite judge –succeeded by Samuel- before the rule of Kings. Eli’s journey becomes epic, culminating when he delivers The Bible before he dies in Alcatraz (San Francisco) at the end of the film, being succeeded by Solara (Mila Kunis), who leaves Alcatraz to go back and take the light of the sacred word to the world.

Structured in a linear manner, The Book of Eli’s mise-en scène is, like The Road’s, dominated by a sepia hue except at the end when Eli and Solara get to Alcatraz, and a very strong sense of a new seed of civilization is built, with Alcatraz ironically becoming a kind of garden of Eden, the point from which civilization may emerge again. Unlike in The Road, however, the origins of this post-apocalyptic milieu are clearly specified: it is the result of a nuclear war that has taken place some 30 years before the action starts. In this Mad Max kind of scenario, the world has become completely devastated, there is scarcity of water and food, and radiation from the sun is too strong for humans to be able to be outdoors without glasses. If Dr. Neville, in I Am Legend, is a Cartesian figure (like Crusoe and Dr. Frankenstein) and the characters in The Road reverberate with Medieval Everyman figures, Eli is a prophet figure, carrying salvation to the world and feeling he has the mission to guard the book from those that want to destroy it. Indeed, he tells Solara he has heard a voice from within, yet one that he could hear as if it came from outside, guiding him to his mission. Also, his invoking The Bible at different points in the film, especially at moments of danger, as a source from where to draw power, further suggests his status almost as a semi-god figure, which contributes to the epic dimension of his narration.

Figure 3. Solara takes on Eli’s mission.

Furthermore, Eli believes that the book will be safe if he takes it west, where the world may start all over again. The use of the west is culturally charged in the story: on the one hand, the west is San Francisco, by which it resonates with echoes of western civilization (more so as Eli arrives there at the end of the film to find that books such as Shakespeare’s works, representative of western culture and civilization, have been rescued and are being kept there). On the other hand, the west is associated with the re-birth of Christianity, by which identification between western civilization and Christianity also takes place. Finally, the words of the Gospel according to St John are evoked: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (chapter 1 verse 1), by which it is suggested that one of the potential causes for the destruction of the world may have come about as a consequence of religious wars. This suggestion is further reinforced by the fact that all the Bibles have been destroyed after the war and Eli is carrying the only surviving copy.

The Book of Eli debates the role of religion in society, confronting the view of religion (The Bible) as a weapon of power with that of religion as a light that may illuminate the world again (faith). The character played by Gary Oldman, Carnegie, is a case in point here. Carnegie, a leader in a bizarre frontier outpost, desperately searches for a mysterious book (audiences soon learn it is the same book Eli carries), which he conceives of as a weapon of overwhelming power. The irony of the name should not go unnoticed: Carnegie is named for the philanthropist who endowed America with public libraries[45] but he stands here for all those evil characters which have been actively misreading sacred texts in order to remain in power and enslave the rest of humanity to their whims. Indeed, The Bible that Eli is carrying is in Braille, ironically pointing to the fact that those like Carnegie are blind to what the Bible really contains and represents. This turn of the plot is what takes film critics such as Andrew Pulver to describe the film as “po-faced religious tract.”[46]

As has been seen in our discussion of both I Am Legend and The Road, the directors of The Book of Eli also juxtapose cannibalism and civilization effectively. Here, cannibalism is portrayed as a practice belonging to a society without God, whereas civilization is identified with the Gospel and with Christianity. The Christian faith is constantly proposed as a redeemer to humanity, and Eli becomes the incarnation of a prophet of God, with Solara as the film’s hope for the future. In the face of the collapse of the nation, which once again has disintegrated becoming Self and Other at the same time, The Book of Eli pivots around religion as the necessary unifying force. The in-between space that has opened, where the nation has become a borderland, is a dismal territory where negotiations about individual and social identity are reduced to a fight for power and domination. As in I Am Legend particularly, The Book of Eli rejects the possibility of a third space, of cultural hybridity, in this case pointing to religious faith as the necessary homogenizing force in the face of the failure of the nation. If national borders are porous and open hybrid spaces before humanity where the social articulation of difference becomes a complex on-going negotiation, Christianity is depicted as the only cohesive force that remains. A new enterprise is laid out for man, to convert the heathen, and Solara becomes the new Christian crusader.

Almost ten years after 9/11, The Book of Eli elaborates on the relation between religion and society in the contemporary world. Certainly 9/11 proved that religion, in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, could permeate national borders and destroy the nation. In the aftermath of the terrorist attack, the film rejects hybridity and confirms that human beings conceive reality and identity, whether individual or national, following a system of binary oppositions, at the heart of which is the necessary distinction between “us” and “them.” In a scenario in which the nation as such has collapsed, The Book of Eli points to Christianity as the remaining healing force, where The Bible becomes the antidote, the fire that is necessary to trigger a new beginning. West/non-West, Christian/non-Christian, civilization/cannibalism, the film concludes conforming to a set of binary opposites, giving up on the possibility of hybridity and reaffirming the distinction between “us” and “them.” We are back to square one.

Conclusion: Looking Back

The three films that have been explored elaborate a poetics of the border which involves, according to Johan Shimanski and Stephen Wolfe, the study of “how territorial borders are given form through narrative and symbolic…presentations,”[47] the matter of the three stories being what Homi Bhabha describes as the in-between spaces of culture. To do so, the films offer critical readings of a common contemporary fear: the post-apocalyptic collapse of civilization. Apocalypse may come about as a consequence of the expansion of a lethal virus, a nuclear cataclysm or even after an unspecified disaster; in all cases the nation as such is brought to a debacle, becoming a pervious borderless space, a barren and desolate borderland. In this manner, the post-apocalyptic scenarios presented in the three stories lay out an arena where notions of the nation, of individual and social identity, are contested in a search for the possibility of reformulation. Indeed, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent crash of the financial system in the Western world after the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. attested to the permeability and precariousness of national borders, confirming that the nation could be destroyed from within. The nation changed from being Home to becoming Home and Other simultaneously, a borderland where homogeneous notions of individual and social identity seemed no longer possible.

It is true that, as Fredric Jameson suggests, sci-fi’s affinity for the post-apocalyptic and the dystopian is symptomatic of the genre’s “deepest vocation … to demonstrate and dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future.”[48] Jameson contends that post-apocalyptic contexts, more often than not, imply a collective failure of imagination. In this connection, and in a previous study on representations of post-apocalypse, James Berger had already claimed that, “in the late twentieth century we have had the opportunity … to see after the end of our civilization.”[49] He argues that we have tried to imagine what the end would actually look like, whether “it would look like a Nazi death camp, or an atomic explosion, or an ecological or urban wasteland.”[50] Berger finally concludes that, “we have been able to see these things because they have actually happened.”[51] Following this line of argument, post-apocalypse, therefore, would be the outcome of a déjà-vu, not a prospective horror to come. We have been there, Berger suggests, and therefore we know all about it. The three films we have explored here, with their retro-apocalyptic aesthetics and border politics are much more than mere instances of a “global ideological regression,” to use Slavoj Zizek’s term[52]—they make use of the post-apocalyptic as a reminder of what was and a warning of what may be coming.

In the aftermath of 9/11, these films concern themselves with the in-between spaces that spread out after the apocalypse has taken place. However, none of them openly embraces the possibility of a third space, though The Road is more ambiguous in its outlook towards the future than both I Am Legend and The Book of Eli. In this sense, I Am Legend roots for a re-start that would pivot around the symbol of the colony, nostalgically looking back on American national history, while The Book of Eli looks back on religion and Christianity as the force capable of triggering a new beginning in the light of the failure of the nation. In both cases, the main characters’ (Dr. Neville and Eli) dreams are trapped in a past with which they are unable to break. In the play of forces between deterritorialization and reterritorialization, as conceived by Deleuze & Guattari, both films opt to pull towards reterritorialization, somehow re-doing what has been undone: “Memories always have a reterritorialization function.”[53] In contrast, The Road refuses to head in a specific direction in a clear manner and, though the nuclear family is hinted at as a possible starting point, the film makes no promises, rejects nostalgia for a gone past by making the central character a boy and having the father die before the end. In doing so, The Road opens the possibility that traditional and fixed notions of cultural identity may be negotiated to create a third space, so that a process of becoming unfolds before the boy, one triggered by his deterritorialization from the assemblage. The future is open in The Road, so open even that the film does not dare hint at what it could be like. Maybe we are still not ready for this.

Acknowledging the apocalypse as a moment of transition, a necessary in-between space to explore the possibility of alternative social models and structures, the three stories in one way or another ultimately believe in the possibility of a future for humankind, opening a window of hope in the form of the antidote, the fire or The Bible respectively. Finally, though these stories envision the consequences of the failure of the nation, at one and the same time they reveal the extent to which they are still trapped in a discourse of binary opposites where borders are inevitable in the construction and definition of individual and social identity, even if they are only to distinguish between good guys and bad guys.


Research towards this article was carried out with the help of research project no. FFI2010-15312 of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation and the DGA reference no. H12.

Author Biographies

Ana Moya is a professor of English literature and film at the University of Barcelona. Her research interests include Adaptation Studies, Film Studies and Cosmopolitanism. She has recently published “Neo-Feminism in Between. Female Cosmopolitan Subjects in Contemporary American Film”, in G.J. Robert & Nadine Muller (eds.), Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (Palgrave, 2013).

Gemma López is a professor of English literature at the University of Barcelona, where she also earned her Phd. Her research interests include Contemporary Fiction, Film Studies and Cosmopolitanism. She is the author of Seductions in Narrative (Cambria Press, 2007).


  1. Kirsten M. Thompson, Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millenium (New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 2007), 1-2.
  2. Wheeler W. Dixon, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema (London: Wallflower Press, 2003), 3.
  3. Emily D. Hicks, Border Writing: The Multidimensional Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), xxvi, 1.
  4. Hicks, Border Writing, xxiii.
  5. Hicks, Border Writing, xxvii.
  6. Hicks subtitles her Introducion to Border Writing (1991) “Border Writing as Deterritorialization”, and relates her discussion of border writing’s “dismemberment of language” (xxiv) to Deleuze and Guattari’s deterritorialization: “…one could argue that the nineteenth-century European notion of the subject is replaced in the work of the border writer by fragmentation in cultural, linguistic, and political deterritorialization.” (Hicks 1991, xiv) Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari’s notions of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, as used in this article from here on, are developed mainly in Kafka, Towards a Minor Literature (1975), A Thousand Plateaus (1988) and What is Philosophy (1991).
  7. Erik Werner Petersen, “Design as Seven Steps of Deterritorialization”, accessed 1 June 2016. http://www.nordes.org/orj/index.php/n13/article/veiwFile/232/215
  8. Gilles Deleuze & Feliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury, 2015 (1980)), 5-11, 591-3.
  9. Darren Ambrose, Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief (Alresford, Hants: Zero Books, 2013), 3.
  10. Films such as Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996); Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998); Armaggedon (Michael Bay, 1998); the Terminator Series (James Cameron 1985; James Cameron, 1991; Jonathan Mostow 2003; Joseph McGinty Nicol 2009); The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) or War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) are a few examples of this prolific genre.
  11. Ambrose, Film, Nihilism, 47.
  12. Thompson, Apocalyptic Dread, 2.
  13. Thompson, Apocalyptic Dread, 2.
  14. Thompson, Apocalyptic Dread, 2.
  15. Thompson, Apocalyptic Dread, 17.
  16. Thompson, Apocalyptic Dread, 2.
  17. Homi Bhabha published The Location of Culture, a collection of some of his best known essays in 1994. One of his essays, “Locations of Culture”, which gives the title to the whole collection, has been reprinted in numerous books and anthologies. The source that has been used here is Sanjeev Khagram & Peggy Levitt (eds.), The Transnational Studies Reader. Intersections & Innovations (London & New York: Routledge, 2008).
  18. Jonathan Rutherford, “The Third Space. Interview with Homi Bhabha”, in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 211.
  19. Rutherford, “The Third Space,” 211.
  20. Rutherford, “The Third Space,” 211.
  21. Ambrose, Film, Nihilism, 48.
  22. Bhabha, “Locations of Culture,” 333.
  23. Bhabha, “Locations of Culture,” 333.
  24. Bhabha, “Locations of Culture,” 334.
  25. Rutherford, “The Third Space,” 216.
  26. Bhabha, “Locations of Culture,” 333-334.
  27. Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 585-587.
  28. Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 318, 340-342.
  29. Minna Rainio, “It Was So Sacred: The Finnish-Russian Border Imagined and Constructed in the Stories of Border Area Inhabitants”, in Post-National Enquiries. Essays on Ehtnic and Racial Border Crossing, ed. Jopi Nyman (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 129.
  30. Rainio, “It Was So Sacred,” 133.
  31. Rainio, “It Was So Sacred,” 133.
  32. Rainio, “It Was So Sacred,” 133.
  33. Stuart Hall, “Who Needs Identity?” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall & Paul du Gay (London: Sage, 1996), 5.
  34. Hall, “Who Needs Identity?,” 4.
  35. There have been two earlier adaptations of this novel, namely The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona, 1964) and The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971).
  36. Steffen Hantke, “Historicizing the Bush Years: Politics, Horror Film, and Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend,” in Horror After 0/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror, eds. Aviva Briefel & Sam J. Miller (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2011), 166.
  37. Hantke, “Historicizing the Bush Years,” 166.
  38. Hantke, “Historicizing the Bush Years,” 168.
  39. Hantke, “Historicizing the Bush Years,” 168.
  40. Ambrose, Film, Nihilism, 67.
  41. Ambrose, Film, Nihilism, 68.
  42. Javier Aguirresarobe rejected computer-generated effects for the cinematography. Instead, he decided to shoot at real American locations such as Pittsburgh and New Orleans. He even used some areas in Louisiana which had been devastated by hurricane Katrina. As Philip French argues in his review of the film for The Guardian, this “created a world both abstract and real”, which greatly contributed to the uncanny feeling produced by the striking cinematography (2010).
  43. Ambrose, Film, Nihilism, 71.
  44. Ben Child, “Your Review: The Book of Eli” in The Guardian Film Blog, accessed 17 December 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2010/jan/18/the-book-of-eli-hughes-brothers.
  45. Philip French, The Roadfilm review. The Observer, accessed 17 December 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/03/review-the-road.
  46. Andrew Pulver, The Book of Elifilm review. The Guardian, accessed 17 December 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/14/book-of-eli-film-review.
  47. Johan Schimanski & Stephen Wolfe, “Border Poetics? A Comparative Perspective”, Tromso 11-13.11 (2004): 2.
  48. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London & New York: Verso, 2005), 288-289.
  49. James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), xiii.
  50. Berger, After the End, xiii.
  51. Berger, After the End, xiii.
  52. Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (London & New York: Verso, 2011), 64.
  53. Deleuze & Guattari 2015, 342. They develop the notion of reterritorialization further in their work arguing, for instance, that “Deterritorialization must be thought of as a perfectly positive power that has degrees […], is always relative, and has reterritorialization as its flipside or complement.” (62)
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