We sure do like seeing pretty people suffer. Hollywood has delivered us the apocalypse in a dazzling array of colours and flavours in the last decade, from teenage dystopias to political zombies to global warming. Though visions of armageddon have been present through the history of cinema, end-of-the-world movies are a reaction to the geopolitical climate of the day. The 20th century had cold war stories about nuclear apocalypse (Dr. Strangelove) and space travel-inspired tales of creatures from outer space (They Came From Beyond Space). However, the new millennium has seen not only topical apocalypses but many, many more of them. Could they be a response to the triviality of our lives? Faced with an endless barrage of micro-decisions, the petty melodrama of selecting where to buy today’s cappuccino, maybe it’s natural that we crave high-concept, high-stakes, cosmic epics.
But it’s probably more significant that we’ve seen an increasing wave of Apocalyptia in the wake of 9/11. The sudden change in the tone of these films has been noted by scholars such as John Walliss, James Aston and Matthew Leggatt. Ground Zero, in a way, was the end of the established world for the West. The apocalyptic world is a state where nobody is safe, no matter how many health foods you’ve eaten, how many ethical products you buy, how good a career you’ve built. These movies reflect the insecurity we feel, knowing that the new warfare is personal and can reach anyone, anytime. Jesus, we’re so scared that America made Trump a serious presidential candidate. Clearly these images of desolation and hubris resonate with today’s audience. There is a catharsis, almost a familiarity when we see images of the structures of our world, once thought to be unshakable, laid to waste. Nothing is certain anymore in a world of nationalism and paranoia, of biothreats and surveillance. We’re constantly hailing ‘the end’, what with the rise of China, global terrorism, untrustworthy government and the media’s constant ‘outbreak’ scaremongering.
The misleading thing is that in recent years, these movies are actually not stories about the end of the world. Leggatt notes the abrupt shift from the ‘disaster is coming’ narratives of the late 90s (Deep Impact, Armageddon) to ‘the end has come and gone’ (Mad Max, The Road, Walking Dead, Hunger Games). They’re phoenix stories. They’re not so much about destruction as survival, adjusting, human ingenuity pitted against the perils of the natural world. The new template is the lone (anti)hero roaming the wasteland of civilisation, an anarchic world governed only by Darwinian law. This used to be a need filled by the western, by stories of the world’s unconquered frontiers, but there is no uncharted territory anymore, and so we have to imagine not a world untouched by human hands, but decimated by them. If any government does exist, they’re unhelpful and sometimes sinister, often hoarding resources (Snowpiercer, Hunger Games). Our doomsday visions are largely a rejection of centralised authority, a vote of no confidence in the greedy, selfish powers that be.
We’ve rejected the monster movie, the external threat, to focus on humanity as the cause of our own demise. We’re preoccupied with self-destruction, the enemy amongst us, the zombie-bitten comrade standing in for the suicide bomber who looks like a secretary. The pre-9/11 cinemascape positioned technology as a weapon for humanity against sinister forces. Now, computers are as likely to doom us as save us. Technology is oppressive and dangerous, expressing our fears about over-reliance on increasingly intelligent machines. Salvation is for those who can live off the land, rediscover our primal selves, adapting to the simple mode of survival. Life after the apocalypse is singularly physical, the perfect counterpoint to our ultra-convenient, free-delivery, order-online lifestyles.
So the post-apocalypse is both a fantasy and a nightmare, somehow inevitable, even necessary. In a way, these grim blockbusters are the swansong of America, which is why we repeatedly see the icons of the US- the statue of liberty, the White House, Central Park, the Golden Gate Bridge- reduced to rubble, replaying the Twin Towers over and over, scattering the ashes of a once monolithic global power. Often, these narratives end with a passing of the torch, the final remnants of the old world dying and a chance for rebirth. In this way, the metaphor becomes unexpectedly reassuring; not an end, perhaps, but a beginning.