What is society but a mutual agreement that we live under a certain collection of laws and the unspoken understanding that we will behave toward one another with a certain respect? That doesn’t stop folks from breaking the law, but it keeps the rest of us from following suit.
So what happens when all rules are suspended? Are we, by our nature, kind and benevolent and able to hold things together despite a social contract, or do we plunge into an every-man-for-himself attitude, preying upon others to survive? The Purge takes our fears of runaway crime into a realm where the social contract is suspended and we’re left to fend for ourselves in the face of the worst elements of the human race.
The movies have been performing this kind of social experiment for decades, especially in the shadow of the atomic bomb, but most end-of-the-world films jumped directly to the aftermath of scorched earth and dwindling survivors, as if visualizing society descended into chaos might actually trigger the real thing. It took the chill of the Cold War and the heat of civil unrest and political protest for studios to breach that taboo. Now the fear seems all too contemporary.
Here are some of the most interesting cinematic propositions for life in the face of social breakdown, where there are no more rules and survival of the fittest becomes a social competition. The one thing that binds all these films, and gives us reassurance as the end credits roll, is that we get to walk out of the dark and back into the light of society. At least until one of these comes true.
“Lord of the Flies” (1963)
The cause: British schoolboys shipwrecked without adult supervision.
The culture: Schoolyard rules as a way of life.
The original 1963 screen version of William Golding’s novel, long a standard assignment for high school English students, offers a clear-eyed vision of English schoolboys stranded on a desert island without adult supervision who sink into tribalism, savagery and, finally, murder. Filmmaker Peter Brooks brings the point home with his casting and unadorned direction: These are modern-day Lost Boys whose adolescent sense of play, flaring emotions and one-upmanship spin out of control when left to their own instincts. Watching these cute kids descend into violence as if playing a real-life game of cowboys and Indians is all the more disturbing by the sheer charge they get out of it.
Lessons learned: Don’t turn your back on a pack of schoolboys.
Reasons for optimism: Once the adults return, these kids are really, really sorry that things got out of hand.