Ever since Indiana Jones climbed into a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast, we've all used "nuking the fridge" to describe cinematic implausibilty. But one new movie gives us a much better replacement: the post-apocalyptic iPod. Spoilers below...
Disclaimer: I haven't seen The Book Of Eli yet, but I have read tons of articles about it, including interviews with star Denzel Washington and directors The Hughes Brothers. And by all accounts, the movie takes place thirty years after the end of civilization — but somehow, the main character, Eli, is still toting an iPod and using it to listen to Al Green. His iPod still works! Thirty years after Apple ceased to exist! No matter how magical or fantastical the book Eli's toting around turns out to be, it can't be as miraculous as Eli's iPod. In fact, Eli's iPod is crucial to the plot, because he winds up going to the evil town to recharge his iPod battery.
So how exactly does Eli's iPod manage to keep working 30 years after the collapse of civilization? Do they have Genius Bars dotted throughout the post-apocalyptic landscape? After just a few years of use, surveys show that many iPods suffer damage to their scroll wheels or drives — and that simple sweat can destroy an iPod. So the dirty samurai carrying an iPod across a nuclear-blasted wasteland for 30 years would be almost certain to inflict some major harm. Add to that the fact that battery life is bound to go down — and if Eli can only charge his iPod once in a few months, he may only get a couple hours' listening before it needs to be charged again.
Really, Eli? Really?
And this is just the tip of an iceberg of iPods. Movies are always giving us these weird examples of technology surviving the end of the world, and often it's the technology least likely to survive. That's why we need to start talking about the "post-apocalyptic iPod" as a symbol for a whole kind of thing. Consider the following examples:
- In Battlefield Earth, it's the Year 3000, and Earth has been crushed by aliens, the Psychlos. And yet somehow, the good guys find 1,000-year-old fighter jets under ground, and they still fly perfectly.
- This is a huge trope in Doctor Who, where ancient computer systems regularly shudder to life after a good buzz from the sonic screwdriver. Case in point: the long-dead computers in "State Of Decay."
- In Reign Of Fire, they're living in a destroyed world, under siege by dragons 'n' shit... but their coffee-maker still works perfectly and makes delicious, robust-tasting coffee. Mmmmmm.
- The cigarettes in Waterworld shouldn't have been much fun for the Smokers — in fact, all of the wood-based products should have been mulch long before. The salt water would have wreaked havoc with anything metal over time as well.
- In Wall-E, that video tape of Hello Dolly should have been decayed past watchability long before the year 2805.
- All of the buildings in Zombieland inexplicably have electricity. I guess those zombies over at the power plant are hard at work!
- The apes in Planet Of The Apes somehow have things like firearms and pens, that the apes wouldn't have had the industry to be able to create. Unless there's a Bic pen factory staffed by ourangutans, somewhere off screen?
- In The Postman, the prison somehow has a working movie projector, on which the inmates watch an action movie and a musical.
The post-apocalyptic iPod is more than just a plot device, and often it isn't even a plot device — Wall-E doesn't actually need his Helllo Dolly tape for anything plot related, and Eli could have chosen to visit that town just to get his sneakers repaired.
Instead, it's meant to make an emotional connection with us, the viewers — we can barely grasp the idea that almost all the humans are dead, but the idea that there's just this one lonely iPod still cranking along, playing classic soul music for this guy in the wasteland is way sadder than a thousand corpses. It's like a little piece of our culture, still surviving — and reminding us of everything we've lost. Never again will we log on to the iTunes store and download Lady Gaga! Civilization is over!
But also, we bond emotionally with these gadgets, and the idea that one of them could outlast the end of civilization itself is incredibly comforting.
Part of the thrill of the post-apocalyptic movie is seeing who we are with all these toys and conveniences swept away. Take away our underwear, our hot showers, and our fancy computers, and who are we? What's left of us when all of our high-tech comforts are wiped out? The post-apocalyptic movie reassures us that there's still going to be something noble and awesome left in humanity, even if we can't Twitter any more.
But it's too heartless to strip us of every shred of tech — there has to be something left, some shred of gadgetry remaining in our lives, or else you're left with The Road.
There's also the fact that ever since James Bond did that thing with the watch and the pen, gadgets=personality in Hollywood. If your post-apocalyptic Paladin doesn't have any gadgets, then what character quirks could he possibly have? It's too expensive to give him an actual personality — this is a recession, people! — so he's got to have one little item of technology that makes him stand out somehow.
Most of all, though, the post-apocalyptic iPod makes the almost unimaginable rubble after global destruction seem relatable and gives it touches of familiarity. It's anchored in our world, in a way that rusting old cars and crumbling gas stations doesn't quite achieve. And you just know that some enterprising soul will start a fake Twitter account as Eli — perhaps including what song he's currently listening to.
Additional reporting by Cyriaque Lamar.