The Semiotics of Consumption in Post-Apocalyptic Movies

John Pantzalis, Saint Leo University, U.S.A.
ABSTRACT - Post-apocalyptic action movies have been a distinct film genre with its own themes, style and symbolism. This paper conducts a semiotic analysis of two post-apocalyptic movies from the perspective of the consumption activities embedded in them. By focusing at the symbolic aspects of consumption we arrive at an interpretation that reveals a more complex and multi-layered works of art that go beyond the genre of action movies and address deeper ideological and philosophical issues about the role of consumption in the late 20th century advanced economies.
[ to cite ]:
John Pantzalis (2001) ,"The Semiotics of Consumption in Post-Apocalyptic Movies", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 23-27.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 23-27


John Pantzalis, Saint Leo University, U.S.A.


Post-apocalyptic action movies have been a distinct film genre with its own themes, style and symbolism. This paper conducts a semiotic analysis of two post-apocalyptic movies from the perspective of the consumption activities embedded in them. By focusing at the symbolic aspects of consumption we arrive at an interpretation that reveals a more complex and multi-layered works of art that go beyond the genre of action movies and address deeper ideological and philosophical issues about the role of consumption in the late 20th century advanced economies.

"Dryland is not just our destination, it is our destiny"

Dennis Hopper as Deacon in "Waterworld"


As we find ourselves at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the next millenium, we are flooded with an array of forecasts, predictions and prophesies about the future. There is nothing unusual about it; a look at history shows us that the human desire to know, or at least to anticipate future trends has been universal and a constant in all societies and times (Sherden 1997). In modern times, this desire has resulted in a "forecasting industry" that generates future predictions in diverse fields such as business, the economy, politics, technology, culture, etc Despite the forecasting industry’s abysmally poor record, it continues to thrive generating $200 billion a year in fees in the U.S. alone, and showing that the consumers’ desire to believe is stronger than any evidence of the impossibility of a consistent and accurate forecast of the future (Sherden 1997).

A large part of these future scenarios are about the end of the world. These include religious predictions that have existed in a variety of forms for over two millennia (Weber 1999), as well as secular apocalyptic predictions (Kyle 1998). Similarly to the mainstream predictions, doomsday scenarios remain popular despite their continuous failure to manifest themselves (Pate and Haines 1995). Film, as the quintessential art form of the 20th century has used the need to know the future in the development of a distinct genre, the science fiction film. Within this genre, a sub-genre, the post-apocalyptic film has emerged. The following diagram shows how both correspond to the need to anticipate the future.

Mainstream future prediction <-> Science fiction genre

Doomsday future prediction <-> Post-apocalyptic genre

Classifying a movie into a genre is not as straightforward as it seems. Most movies will include elements from several genres thus making clear classification problematic. In addition, the concept of film genre is not without controversy. Bazin (1971), who tends to be more of a universalist connects genres with epic and mythic themes. Warshow (1971) does not view genres as simple reflections of social reality, and focuses more on the production process and the organizational structure of the movie industry as well as on audience expectations as means of classifying films into genres. Alloway (1963, 1971) considers films as iconographical groupings based on viewers’ film experience. Thus, Alloway’s approach is based more on collective authorship with the active participation of the audience, whereas Bazin’s and Warshow’s approaches are based more on single authorship (Hollows and Jancovich 1995).

The problem with attempting to define a genre is that we need to establish certain criteria that one can use to assess if a film belongs to it. However, we can only arrive on these criteria after examining the common elements of films that belong to this particular genre. Thus, we end up creating a circularity that becomes the key problem in genre identification (Tudor 1973). Nevertheless, despite the practical and theoretical difficulties in identifying genres with distinct boundaries, most of the critics accept the notion that there are distinct film categories. In practice, the production, promotion, and evaluation of movies is based on the idea of distinct movie categories. Movie audiences also tend to think in terms of genres such as comedy, drama, adventure, action, science fiction, horror, musical, etc.

In this article the focus is on the consumption symbolism of movies that are classified as belonging to the post-apocalyptic genre. For the purposes of this paper, we define movies that belong to the post-apocalyptic genre as science fiction movies that show a future society that has emerged out of a major catastrophe. This catastrophe has obliterated society as we know it and has transformed it into something radically different. The key concept here is "catastrophe." We are focusing on rapid change, usually due to a single, major event, rather than evolution. Thus, movies such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990) that show radically different future societies with distinct consumption patterns do not belong in this category because the change has been gradual. The movies we are looking at in this paper are only a small sample of the post-apocalyptic genre. We want to get a sense of how consumption in the last quarter of the 20th century was projected into post-apocalyptic movies. Two films were selected; one from the seventies, Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971), and ne from the nineties: Kevin Reynolds’ Waterworld (1995).

The focus of this paper is a semiotic analysis of the consumption activities as the driving force that defines the main characters as well as their philosophical, and ideological differences. In the first part the paper looks at the types of post-apocalyptic movies and provides a rationale for the movies that were selected for analysis. Then, each movie is analyzed separately. After a brief summary of the plot, the key characters/groups are identified and their consumption activities are analyzed semiotically. Finally we conclude by summarizing the key ideas that these movies communicate about consumption in the last quarter of the 20th century.


Post-apocalyptic movies come in all kinds of shapes and forms. Any attempt to classify them could include a variety of criteria such as the level of technology in the future society, the type of disaster that created the post-apocalyptic world, the type of political system, the type of social structure, the state of the physical environment, the key cultural values, etc. Since the analysis is focused on consumption activities, the criteria are the level of technology and consumption. If we take as a base the technology and consumption levels of the last quarter of the 20th century, then we can classify the movies in two types. The first one shows a future society as a complete or partial wasteland with technology and consumption having regressed to levels significantly below the current ones. We call them "Decay into barbarism" post-apocalyptic movies.

The second category shows a post-apocalyptic future with superior technology and consumption. Nevertheless, the superior consumption comes at a high price. We call these post-apocalyptic movies "flawed utopias." The theme is that society has recovered from a major catastrophe, and utilizing superior technology has achieved a utopian level of consumption cornucopia. The price is usually loss of freedom, and the typical plot is an attempt by the hero to achieve liberty even at the loss of consumption utopia. In Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), we have a 23rd century world of pleasure and perfection run by a computer; the price of limitless consumption and leisure is obedience to the computer and a mandatory life span of 30 years. The futuristic society is shown as a huge consumption paradise. This look was achieved by filming most of the movie in a shopping mall in the Dallas Market Center Apparel Mart. Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999), takes place 200 years in the future in a world that has been laid to waste, where advanced artificial intelligence machines draw power from humans. The humans are kept satisfied by making them believe that they live in the late 20th century through a simulation. In this case, the consumption utopia is actually the level we have currently achieved at the end of the 20th century.

Both selected movies, The Omega Man, and Waterworld fall under the category of "decay into barbarism." The reason they were selected is that they can provide richer insights on how we feel about our consumer society relative to the "flawed utopia" type where the main issue is not consumption per se, but rather freedom and the price one has to pay for it.


The Omega Man

The Omega Man is based on Richard Matheson (1954) novel I am Legend written in 1954 and set in a future 1976. The film version is set in a future 1977, where Robert Neville(played by Charlton Heston) is the last man on earth. He is the sole survivor of a biological war that has destroyed civilization, but he is not alone. He has managed to inject himself with an antidote to the plague; the rest of the surviving humans have mutated to nocturnal albinos who are trying to destroy all remaining signs of the old civilization, including Neville. Neville has become a post-apocalypse hunter-gatherer who searches the deserted Los Angeles during the day for supplies, and locks himself at night behind his house/fortress to protect himself from the attacks of the albinos who call themselves "family" and are led by their Messianic leader Matthias. Eventually he finds a small group of other humans and manages to give them the plague vaccine that he developed from his blood before he dies.

The key oppositions in the Omega Man are Neville on the one hand representing the old civilization, and the "family" on the other representing the new order. This opposition is manifested in a variety of ways, including consumption activities. Neville desperately clings on familiar consumption activities and rituals to maintain his sanity and link to the past. In the early part of the movie Neville drives up to a movie theater with "Woodstock" on the marquee. "Great show! Held over for a third straight year," Neville remarks to himself. He walks in the theater, starts the projector and takes a seat. During the movie he speaks the actors’ lines before they even utter them, and at the end he remarks, "Nope, they don’t make pictures like that anymore." Although Neville has seen the movie many times, he still goes through the consumption ritual of "going to the movies." Similarly, when he wants to replenish his supplies, he tries to go through the motions of buying rather than scavenging. When he needs a new car, he goes to a car dealership and goes through the process of "selling" himself a car. He even creates artificial services by pretending to be the doorman at his apartment’s elevator, thus turning the process of stepping into the elevator into the consumption of a service. His consumption of food is also ritualistic. On Sundays he dresses up for dinner with himself in a velvet jacket and ruffled satin shirt. He goes out for rides in a convertible, although in the deserted and destroyed city there is really nowhere to go.

Neville’s apartment is his sanctuary against the family. It is also an oasis of possessions reflecting the consumer society that has been destroyed. It is full of artwork, appliances, and other items that create a middle-class environment within which Neville can drink his wine and play chess against a sculpture of Ceasar, pretending that everything is fine. Neville’s consumption activities and possessions are used as symbols to differentiate him from the "others." He has mastered the consumption code of the middle-class Americans; his consumption activities are full of ritual and style without any trace of vulgarity.

The "others" or the "family" as they call themselves are shown as nocturnal psychotic mutants. Contrary to Neville, they despise everything that signifies the era before the catastrophe. Their rituals represent an antithesis to the 1970s consumerism. They lit bonfires in the streets at night burning books, tools, maps, in summary all that reminds them of the old world. Neville reacts to this by saying: "At it again, I see. What’ll be tonight? The Museum of Science? Some library?" Matthias, the leader of the family calls Neville’s home "a honky paradise." In the sequence when some family members invade Neville’s apartment we see their anti-consumerism manifested in their thrashing his possessions destroying everything from art, furniture, dishes and medical equipment. Neville, by being the last man on earth and by insisting on living and consuming in the old ways needs to be destroyed to open up a new world for the mutants that has nothing to do with the old order. He and everything he symbolizes is the outsider and he must be destroyed so that no trace of the "honky paradise" will remain to tempt the family to return to it. The oppositios, in the Omega Man can be described as:

Neville <- versus-> The mutants

Civilization <- versus-> Barbarism

Utopia is the 70s Consumerism <- versus-> Utopia is the new nocturnal world

Traditional consumption Rituals <- versus-> new destruction rituals

Sophisticated consumption Code <- versus-> vulgar subsistence consumption

Traditional home and possessions <- versus-> "honky paradise"

Neville, at the end dies but not before he can save the last non-mutant humans. Thus, the movie is not clear as to if the family will prevail, or if the new humans will re-establish the lost utopia. In its ambiguity and open ending, it embraces the consumption culture of the 1970s as civilization, but it also critiques it as the root of the global disaster.


Briefly, the story of Waterworld is the following: Several centuries into the future global warming has melted the polar ice and the earth is covered with water. Remnants of the civilization exist on man-made atolls trying to survive through total recycling of all materials including the dead bodies of their deceased. Another group, the Smokers led by their ruthless leader Deacon live on the Deez, the old Exxon Valdese tanker. They operate using the dwindling oil supplies of the tanker. Deacon wants to capture a young girl, Enola, who has been adopted by Helen, one of the atoll residents. Enola has a map tattooed on her back that presumably can guide one to the legendary Dryland. The mysterious Mariner, a mutant human with gills and webbed feet, happens to be at the atoll when the smokers attack. Although indifferent to both sides, he is drawn into the fight and ends up helping Helen and Enola. Ultimately, in a typical mythic hero style, he destroys Deacon and the smokers, he saves Enola and Helen, and helps them and a small group of surviving atoll residents to find Dryland. At the end, his mission accomplished, he sails away into the far ocean where he came from.

The first image of the movie is the earth gradually being covered by water as the polar ice melts due to global warming. Right away we know that Waterworld is the result of excessive human consumption. By the time the story starts, this global catastrophe has occurred several centuries in the past, and is the subject of legend rather than history. Some of the atoll inhabitants consider it almost heresy to suggest that there was a time when the world was not covered by water. Excessive consumption seems to play the role of the original sin, with the destruction of the earth as the equivalent of the expulsion from heaven. Waterworld becomes the new exile for mankind, a boundless, infinite prison. Since everything is covered by water, any place on this world is like any other; there are no demarcations or boundaries. The world is finite, but boundless, same as the universe. It is a small, but boundless liquid prison where humans live on limited and non-renewable resources on limited time for the sins of their forefathers. This exile is not separate from heaven; rather what used to be heaven has now been transformed through human sin into an exile. To punish humans for their excess, nature transforms itself from heaven into hell.

The utopia in this world is Dryland. What is interesting in te movie is the difference between this utopia, and what we normally associate with utopia in our society. Most of our utopias, are separated from us by time. This time can be the future, or, as the case with The Omega Man, the past. Utopia may be religious-based such as some perfect life after death, economic-based such as a perfect free market or the last stage of communism, or some other socio-philosophical "ideal" society. All of them share the characteristic that they are supposed to be found either in the future, or in a glorious past. In Waterworld, Dryland is not some future scenario, but rather an actual location on earth. The separation is in space, not in time. In that sense, it is similar to utopia in another work of fiction, the mythical Sangri-La in Lost Horizon (Hilton 1933). The difference when the separation is in space rather than in time, is that one can achieve immediate salvation just by getting there. If we contrast today’s real world with Waterworld’s fictional world, we have the following set of oppositions:

Real world:

Immediate gratification of consumption <- versus-> delayed gratification in future utopia.


Immediate suffering and deprivation in Dryland <- versus-> immediate gratification

The key duality in Waterworld, in a typical mythological pattern (Levi-Strauss 1962, 1963) is the opposition between nature and culture. Nature is represented by the Mariner, and culture by the atoll inhabitants and the smokers. Mariner is a symbol of nature, because he is the one adapted best for this world. His adjustment is not just a matter of behavior (he recycles his own urine and uses it as drinking water), but also of physical mutation. He has developed gills and webs between his toes and he can swim like a fish. In some ways, he is more of an indigenous species of this new world than human. Although he deals with humans and trades with them, he does not have a name, and he does not feel in any way connected with them. He is a loner, and not a social animal like the rest of society. Like nature, he is indifferent to human suffering. He coldly wants to get rid of Enola to save water for the trip. He feels no empathy for either the atoll dwellers or the Smokers. His distance from human aspiration and culture is also reflected by his total lack of interest in Dryland. He is content with the way things are, and is not seeking any utopia. Even when he gets there, it does not appeal to him. He is a creature of the sea, and ultimately he returns to it. Waterworld is his element, and he has no need to search for anything else. We can summarize the oppositions between nature and culture as follows:

Nature <- versus-> Culture

Mariner <- versus-> Humans

Physical Adaptation <- versus-> Artificial Adaptation

Solitary life <- versus-> Community

No desire for Dryland <- versus-> Search for Dryland

Culture is represented by two distinct societies the atoll inhabitants and the smokers. The key difference between the two lies in their consumption style, which in turn determines their relationship with nature and with their different visions of Dryland. The atoll dwellers’ consumption is based on an attempt to preserve their limited resources for the long term. Recycling is part of their consumption philosophy, indeed part of their culture and religion, as it is demonstrated in the ritual burial of one of the members. The body is considered a resource that will be recycled back. Even when they condemn the Mariner to death, they use the term: "sentenced to be recycled." The atoll dwellers are in awe and fear of nature. They live in a physical and psychological state of scarcity, as if they were repentant of the sins of their forefathers. However, in spite of their attempts for recycling and preserving resources, their way of life is doomed to extinction. Left to their own devices, they cannot sustain their lifestyle, neither can they reach utopia, i.e. Dryland. It is as if symbolically, they were carrying the sins of the forefathers and unable to reach heaven despite attempts to change their ways. As the Mariner says: "There is nothing I need here. You do not have anything. You are dying." The failure of their society is combined with their fear of nature. Once they find out that the Mariner is a mutant, he is arrested and condemned to death. Nature is feared and at the same time loathed despite their attempts to harmonize with it.

The smokers consumption activities are more short term oriented. They live on an old tanker, the Deez, which is supposed to be the same Exxon Valdeze that was involved in the Alaska Oil spill. Thus, their residence is already a strong symbol of excess consumption and environmental destruction. They consume non-renewable goods such as cigarettes, oil, and whiskey. They even drive a car on the tanker, a wasteful and meaningless activity that captures their propensity for conspicuous and wasteful consumption. Despite their dwindling supplies, they continue to live high and fast. The Deez functions as a metaphor for the world before the melting of the ice capes. When the Deacon gives his "vision speech" and the Smokers start rowing to get to the Dryland, Deacon is the first to admit that he has no idea where they are going. Still, he claims that it will take a month for the rowers to find out that he is clueless as to their destination. The whole situation shows how Deez, and the world it symbolizes, moves blindly in an infinite space, lost and without sense of direction, propelled forward only by the illusion of leadership and guidance.

The Smokers’ approach to nature is not one of fear, but rather one of defiance and denial. They look at nature as a resource to be consumed. This is obvious in the Deacon’s speech about his vision of Dryland. He describes this promised land as a place to be exploited and enjoyed ruthlessly. Nature is nothing to be feared, or respected, but something to be tamed and used. Similarly, the Smokers do not fear the Mariner. For them he is just another enemy, an obstacle to their goal. Enola tries to explain to them that he is different, a force of nature, but to no avail. Ultimately, neither the Smokers, nor the atoll inhabitants can understand the Mariner. The Smokers pay the price when he destroys their ship by throwing his life at them in reckless abandon. This is clearly demonstrated when he says, "I never bluff" before he throws the fire flare in the tank and blows the whole ship up. The atoll dwellers start to think of him as human when he helps them find Dryland, only to realize how different he is when he leaves to return to the ocean. In summary, the key oppositions between the two human cultures in Waterworld are:

Atoll Inhabitants<- versus-> Smokers

Long term orienttion <- versus-> Short term orientation

Focus on recycling <- versus-> No recycling

Consumption is limited <- versus-> Consumption is wasteful

Consumption based on own production such as cigarettes, whisky, oil, etc. <- versus-> Consumption of pro-catastrophe products

Seek harmony with nature <- versus-> Seek domination of nature

Nature is feared <- versus-> Nature as resource to be harvested

Dryland as redemption <- versus-> Dryland as new source of resources

We, the viewers are supposed to be against the Smokers since they are the villains. However, the consumption behavior of most viewers is closer to the one of the Smokers, than the one of the atoll inhabitants. Reflecting our propensity for immediate gratification, the Smokers would rather live a short life of high consumption and fun than live longer in the misery of the atoll dwellers. Throughout the movie, there is no question that the Smokers are the ones who have more fun. They behave more like teenagers at a party than like hard core villains. Indeed, the way the smokers are portrayed in the Deez looks like a parody and reminds one of the Animal House. The Deez and its Smoker community is a perfect sign of us today. This is why it is fairly difficult to despise them strongly; they are very much like us. On the other hand, the atoll dwellers are too repressed and superstitious, and they also live so bland, boring lives that it makes it hard for the audience to really care for them. The Mariner, at least initially, is too much a part of nature, and too indifferent to human tragedy to allow for any audience identification. Only Enola, the young girl, with the innocence of youth and a background and personality that separates her from the atoll dwellers captures our sympathy. She as the innocent child not yet corrupted by culture plays the same role as the innocent children in the Christian religion: she is the key to heaven, in this case Dryland. Ultimately, it is she, who in her innocence draws the remnants of the Mariner’s humanity on the surface and makes him care for her and for Helen, her adopted mother.

Dryland, the spatially separated utopia from the inhabitants of Waterworld is a metaphor for heaven. Once the survivors of the atoll, together with the Mariner, Enola and Helen arrive there, they find an unspoiled nature in pristine state. The movie does not allow any humans on Dryland. Even the ones who used to live there, Enola’s parents are now dead. It seems that heaven can only be heaven without humans in it. The Mariner, as a part of nature does not see anything special in it. Now that his mission is accomplished, he withdraws himself from the humans, and ultimately leaves them to go back to the sea. Since he is a symbol of nature, he does not need Dryland, or any other unspoiled paradise to be content.

In summary, by focusing on the symbolic aspects of consumption, we arrive at a different interpretation of Waterworld. Although the action elements remain the key visual attraction, the movie provides another message. It becomes an example of cases when art turns into a mirror of society’s anxiety and fear, in this case the fear that our economic success is undermining our long term survival. At the end, humans are left alone again, without the Mariner, and thus without any support from nature. This is similar to the fear that our increasingly technology-based society has lost touch with nature. Humans have arrived on Dryland, but the nagging thought is that it may never be the same unspoiled piece of heaven again. The final message of Waterworld is that utopiacannot be utopia once you get there. It is utopia only as long as it remains separate from human need and action by either time or space. Whenever humans reach utopia, it ceases being heaven and it turns into earth.


Both movies are supposed to be about the future, but like all science fiction they communicate ideas, fears, desires and concerns about the time when they were made. In The Omega Man, we see some of the anxieties and ambivalence of the early 1970s. This was the height of the cold war and the fear of global destruction through nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapons was prevalent. The memories of the student revolts in 1968 in Europe and the US were also fresh, and the whole notion of materialism through consumption was questioned. At the same time, more middle-class Americans were moving to the suburbs, living in gated communities, a trend that continues to day. Thus, Neville’s home represents the distance the middle class is trying to establish from the inner city dwellers and the anxiety the middle class is feeling about being "contaminated" by the lower classes (Sample, 1998). Consumption is shown as both a symbol of civilization, as well as a symbol of class distinction (Bourdieu 1987); thus it also a source of conflict and even a global catastrophe.

In Waterworld we have a more critical, even pessimistic view of consumption. It is the direct cause of the disaster through global warming. Neither one of the two alternative lifestyles and consumption ways (Smokers and Atoll dwellers) in Waterworld is appealing or viable; they are both being shown as running out of time. The utopia is shown as utopia as long it is unspoiled by humans and consumption. Thus, Waterworld takes an almost nihilistic environmentalist approach against consumption reflecting a lot of the anxieties of the 1990s about the sustainability of the current level of consumption. Both films share an anxiety that can roughly translated as follows: Our current lifestyle and consumption (in the advanced economies) are almost utopian, but there may be a price we have to pay for them in the future, and the bill may already be in the mail.



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