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It’s The End of The World As We Know It – And I Feel Fine

So last week we had the box office dominance of Zombieland, a post-apocalyptic comedy. Over the weekend we had the simultaneous broadcast across US network television of five minutes of Emmerich’s newest disaster flick 2012. We also may have the first post-apocalyptic Oscar-nominee in The Road this year. And that’s just in the last three months of the year. Looking back over the last decade alone there have been a million-and-one end-of-the-world thrillers, chillers, comedies and dramas. That’s a lot of apocalypse for a relatively small planet. So, what gives? is there a greater reason for the zeitgeist’s fascination with the end of the world?

Darth Vader offers an example of what the end of the world might just look like...

Darth Vader offers an example of what the end of the world might just look like...

Okay, admittedly it isn’t a new thing. The threat of the world ending was frequently articulated during the atomic age – be it the promise of extraterrestrial violence in The Day The Earth Stood Still or the black farce of Doctor Strangelove. And that’s only the mainstream – cheap schlock was filled with all manner of world-ending atomic mutants or post-apocalyptic thrillers. Then there was Night of the Living Dead, the first zombie film, and its sequels (arguably to a lesser extent). Again, despite a blip on the mainstream popular consciousness, these subsequently went underground – only surfacing occasionally for air.

The seventies and eighties saw a few examples and the emergence of the post-apocalyptic thriller as a subgenre of its own. There was Charles Heston surviving a holocaust in The Omega Man and Mel Gibson in a lot of leather for Mad Max. Again, there were a host of imitators directly following each – I remember A Boy and His Dog, for example, with a young Don Johnson. There was also a bleak machine-dominated future that was hinted at by James Cameron’s efforts – Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

These threats and scenarios were all driven by the prospect of nuclear annihilation, which explains perhaps why they had their roots in 1950s paranoia but only really developed after the world had been brought to the brink by the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s. By contrast, once the cold war thawed, things seemed to die down. The thought of being wiped out by our fellow man seemed to subside, at least for a short while. The genre received a slight shot-in-the-arm in the mid-1990s.

In quick succession we received Michael Bay’s Armageddon and its serious drama equivalent Deep Impact. Both dealt with the possibility of an asteroid hitting the surface of the planet, a relatively innocent catastrophe for which there could be little blame – it would be cruel fluke or chance. Fate is cruel mistress. The core notion in these sort of narratives was not the idea that the death of mankind was some unspeakable evil, but an unfortunate coincidence in the grand scheme of things.

Terry Gilliam’s underrated 12 Monkeys proposes an interesting shift in the dynamic. Here Bruce Willis (he gets a lot of work in these films, it seems) is sent back in time to stop the release of a deadly virus which wiped out most of humanity (in fairness, it isn’t a job I’d give Keanu Reeves). In this case the release of the virus is intentional – a plan to create a biblical plague to wipe out humanity. The film is notable for being several years ahead of the curb in this respect.

The notion of a virus wiping out mankind is an interesting idea that has really latched on in recent years – mainly through the new spate of zombie movies. I am very fond and partial to the genre, which I plan to discuss further as Halloween approaches, but it’s interesting to note how the very notion of the cause of zombie-ism has changed. The original Romero films (up to his current spate) treat it as an event without a cause – the dead are rising, maybe from a pathogen or maybe because hell is too crowded over. These days – save an intention homage like Shaun of the Dead – we seem to like a biological explanation. The remade Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later and even Quarantine treat it as a virus (going so far as to link it to Rabies and Ebola) – which is a shame, as I am partial to unexplained zombie outbreaks.

It is an interesting twist -and it shifts the psychological terrors associated with the ambling creatures. The end of the world is no longer associated with soulless consumerism (as represented by the still-shopping zombies of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) or mindless groupthink, but by ‘the infected’. It isn’t something within us gone awry, it’s something from outside trying to get in. Even in Romero’s later zombie film Land of The Dead, the zombies are isolated and contained by class structure (the rich living in guarded skyscrapers). It is markedly different from his original, where zombies were as likely to emerge from within a group (the dead child in the house) as without.

Zombies aren’t the only major threat that humanity faces, however. I Am Legend hammered home the threat of unchecked scientific progress with a backfiring cancer vaccine (damn you, Emma Thompson!) leaving Will Smith as the last man on earth. This approach was interesting, as it was our fault for tinkering with something beyond our control, but not in the conventional ‘destroyed by our own weapons’ way. In this case man’s desire to cure cancer brought about our fall. So whether we invest in guns or medicine, we’re still screwed.

Great shot, cosmos!

Great shot, cosmos!

Admittedly we have a much firmer grounding now for a “the environment is going to kill us” stance than we had decades ago – which may explain why various movies have explored the notion of either our own tinkering with nature and reckless polluting killing us. Waterworld showed the effect of rising water levels as the ice caps melted. Apparently it was Dennis Hopper as a psycho pirate. And you don’t want that, kids. Emmerich made his point with a lot less finesse (don’t worry, I didn’t know it was possible to be less stylish than Dennis-Hopper-as-a-psycho-pirate, but it is) with The Day After Tomorrow, where he gave mutha nature a freeze ray (among other things) and set it upon Jake Gyllenhall. And, in fairness, can we blame him? Of course, despite the flakey science, it still managed to be more sophisticated than The Happening, where it was evidently decided that plants would conspire to kill us. And not in a cool Day of the Triffids way.

So maybe a subconscious environmentalism does inform our worries about the future, but this is arguably a subset of a subset. The fact that this seems to be the one area where Hollywood is “on message” may also explain why most of the movies mentioned above are so ridiculously terrible. There’s none of the necessary ambiguity that permeated earlier examples of the “hoisted by our own petard” attitude to the end of the world. Here we screwed with mutha nature and mutha nature is going to mess us up.

This is one of the few areas where I don’t think that the War on Terror hasn’t significantly influenced the developments in the genre. Admittedly there are various subthreads running through certain films (for example the American occupation in 28 Weeks Later), but I don’t think that the Western world really fears being wiped out by terrorism. We all may fear dying in a random atrocity – a bombing or shooting – but I don’t think that we believe that these actions will end human civilisation, at least not in any concrete terms. You could make a case about them affecting civilised society, but extermination seems unlikely.

In support of that assertion, I’d like to point out that the wave of recent end-of-the-world movies began before September 11th and has continued relatively unaffected by the events. Save the reemergence of the zombie subgenre after the attacks, most of what we associate with the movies now was in place already. I don’t think that the threat of rogue states and ideological conflicts have managed to generate the same palpable fear of the end of everything as the prospect of a Russian-American nuclear conflict.

So, if it isn’t a direct event that has inspired this fascination, is it simply that the idea has cyled back to the forefront of popular consciousness? It’s possible it’s just the right time and place for these sort of movies. Maybe it makes nice escapism to focus on a crazy world that is so much worse than the way things are now. It’s weird that you could argue that The Road – with its cannibals and thieves – might serve as a diversion from stock market crashes and fiscal uncertainty and a world lacking the clear direction of a bi-polar political structure, but maybe it’s true. Perhaps that is why we’ve moved gradually away from the ‘cleanse by fire’ approach of nuclear apocalypse to more seemingly random and unpredictable heralds of doomsday – maybe we aren’t concerned about how the world ends, but are somewhat relieved that it isn’t by own own hand. It could be a representation of cultural anomie, a listlessness. Say what you will about the Cold War, at least things were clearer and less ambiguous.

It’s just a wild and crazy theory. Maybe I’m on to something, maybe I’m not. If I’m not, it isn’t the end of the world.

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One Response

  1. Humankind has always been obsessed with its ultimate end. But the most frightening scenario of all, remains Dennis Hopper as a psychotic future-pirate.

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