Here’s to the promised lands that make good on their promise.
Are you tired of roving cannibal gangs and tyrannical despots? Is the pollution-choked sky starting to bum you out? Are you one asshole-who-concealed-his-zombie-bite away from throwing in the towel? Resident of the Apocalypse, you can’t go on like this forever—there’s got to be a better way! Some safe, isolated place where things are how they used to be!
Now you’ve been misled before—strung along by seductive rumors of safe havens, refuge, and promised lands. Some oasis free from whatever ails your particular apocalyptic predicament. It’s a promise that’s too good to be true—but potentially your best shot at survival. An earnest, if madcap gesture of hope, of faith in things not being totally fucked. Surely these sanctuaries can’t ALL be the anxious gossip of the desperate and the misinformed.
Except usually, they are.
It’s a bait-and-switch that’s so commonplace it has become a staple of the genre. A narrative “gotcha!” that doubles as a cynical gut-punch. It’s the radio chatter that promises such-and-such “untouched” paradise, only oops: it is touched—or it doesn’t exist, or it was a trap. In Logan’s Run, Sanctuary turns out to be a myth. Zombieland’s Pacific Playland is not, as rumored, free of zombies. By Resident Evil: Afterlife the uninfected Alaskan paradise of Extinction is revealed to be an Umbrella ruse. When Furiosa and company finally reach the Green Place in Fury Road, they find a sterile, crow-infested bog. Long story short, nine times out of ten, there are cats in America.
We’ve gotten to a point in Apocalypse fiction where subverting sanctuary has become the norm. When we hear that Halifax has the cure for the [blank]-virus, there’s an expectation that Halifax will turn out to actually be populated by cannibals luring survivors to their doom. Or whatever.
And maybe it’s because we’ve been burned so many times, but there is something deeply satisfying about a rumored refuge being real—a relief in harrowing pilgrimages winning out against despair and cynicism. It has a distinctly Messianic mouth-feel to it: a promised land for those fleeing from despotism and persecution actually existing.
There is a place for soul-crushing cynicism in Apocalypse fiction; arguably more so than in other genres. And when properly executed, the reveal that a sanctuary is compromised can move mountains (see: Furiosa throwing her prosthetic aside, defeated, screaming). Committing to hope in dire circumstances requires that one be vulnerable to the possibility of being wrong. And sometimes, it’s nice to see that vulnerability not get exploited.
Below are some examples of legit apocalyptic safe havens where the promised land is as promised. This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you don’t see your favorite non-bait-and-switch sanctuary here, feel free to share it by frantically muttering its coordinates over your local radio frequency.
The Land Before Time (1988) | The Great Valley
What better apocalypse than a mass extinction event? The Land Before Time follows a rag-tag group of young dinosaurs making their way to the Great Valley, “a land still lush and green” in an otherwise barren and decaying world. The journey is long and perilous, with Littlefoot and friends hunted, tested, and defeated up to the bitter end. But what an end. After all that heartache, doubt, and strength they finally find it: the music swells, the clouds part and the Great Valley appears: it’s “all they dreamed it would be—a land of green, of leaves, and life.”
I’m a vicious sentimentalist. Just watching this scene in isolation prompts tears. And growing older and wiser to Bluth’s spiritual overtones hasn’t hardened me one bit (“he’d never seen the Great Valley, but his heart told him that they were close”). Personally, the reveal of the Great Valley is one of my favorite moments in cinema; a happy ending earned by showing the dark so that we can appreciate the light.
Dinosaur (2000) | The Nesting Grounds
That’s right! Another kids’ movie about the dinosaurs dying out! Surprise! Dinosaur sees a group of misfits headed to the “Nesting Grounds,” a valley that’s rumored to be untouched by the no good very bad meteor. There’s an uncanny valley joke in there somewhere. Some then-ground-breaking CGI and paint by numbers storytelling later and the herd successfully struggle their way to their destination. And wouldn’t you know it, it’s as lush, untouched, and idyllic as promised. No inexplicably mute Carnotaurus in sight—just a long montage highlighting the new generation of creepily animated dino babies.
Damnation Alley (1977) | Albany, New York
World War III has tilted the earth off its axis. Giant, irradiated scorpions roam the planet. The sky has a been scorched with permanent aurora-borealis-like scars. Nuclear fallout sucks and things aren’t peachy. And so: our heroes are on their way to Albany, New York—the source of a lone radio transmission, “the only place we ever got a signal from.” Riding in their trusty Landmaster, our heroes face flesh-eating killer cockroaches in Salt Lake City, tidal waves in Detroit, and pick up some lucky survivors (including an adolescent Jackie Earle Haley) along the way. When they finally arrive in Albany, it’s shockingly unscathed; full of picket fences, trees, and crowds of Albany locals clamoring to welcome their fellow survivors and their rad dirt bikes.
Waterworld (1995) | Dryland
In Waterworld (in case the title didn’t give it away), climate change has submerged every content on earth and what’s left of humanity lives at sea, baby! Everything is ocean now! OR IS IT? There are whispers of a mythical Dryland and of a girl with a map to its location tattooed on her back. Some Dennis Hopper mugging and insane production value later, and our hero merman Costner has cracked the map and found the Dryland: the top of Mount Everest, verdant and lush. With survivors in tow, things are looking up for mankind. As for merman Costner, this land wasn’t meant for him and his freaky gills. Just because apocalyptic refuge exists doesn’t mean it’s for you, fish boy.
Antz (1998) | Insectopia
You might not remember the early Dreamworks effort Antz being set during an apocalypse, but I think you’ll find that it was. I’ll jog your memory: Antz sees a neurotic worker ant with dreams of individualism and free choice lead a rebellion against a totalitarian state intent on culling its colony to create a master race. And hey, a flooded ant colony is one arc shy of the old testament. But in this case, the arc is a heavy-handed metaphor for the value of community and teamwork and did I mention that there’s an ant voiced by Sylvester Stallone that takes a swig from an aphid’s asshole at one point?
Anyway. An old drunk infects our anxious hero with aspirations of living in Insectopia, a bug paradise where you can be your own ant and the streets are paved with food. Later, we learn that Insectopia is a very real garbage can where decaying fish heads and half-chomped mini doughnuts are aplenty.
The Mist (2007) | Anywhere that’s not misty
One of the most devastating parts of The Mist (which is saying something) is a punchline that doesn’t land until shortly after David has his “I’ve made a huge mistake” moment. It all starts when the Lovecraftian horror fog rolls into town, signaled by air raid sirens and Dan Miller’s frantic shrieks that “there’s something in the mist.” The grocery store manager begs the townsfolk to stay put but one woman explains that she has kids at home and needs to leave. Everyone tells her to stay: the mist could be poisonous, they heard men screaming in there, “for their sakes, don’t.” But she has to go, she says. When she asks for help she’s met with silence. So she storms off into the fog.
It’s written on their faces: everyone in the store thinks her children are dead, that she will die trying to save them, and that anyone foolish enough to go with her will meet the same fate. Woman with Kids at Home (a gut-wrenching Melissa McBride) is the one character in The Mist who never gives into fear and never gives up hope. It’s no coincidence that she’s the only character who survives and saves her loved ones—who never abandons the hope that the mist can be survived and escaped. As for David, in the end, maybe he’d have preferred to have not found safety at all.
I Am Legend (2007) | A Survivor’s Camp in Vermont
Robert Neville lives in post-apocalyptic New York with his good dog Sam and a shit load of UV-sensitive zombies (sorry: “Darkseekers”). Robert eventually meets Anna and Ethan, two immune survivors traveling north to a rumored outpost in Vermont populated by other immune folks. Because Robert is a hardened grump, he insists that the camp does not exist. In the official (read: shittier) version of the film, Robert is the victim of a very, very unnecessary self-sacrifice accident—blowing himself and his lab up as Anna and Ethan escape with Robert’s findings: a single vile of cured zombie blood. Anna finds the well-defended and very livable Vermont camp (suck it, Robert) and is welcomed inside. Whether the survivors will be able to synthesize a cure from the blood sample is another story.