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Cinema's Apocalyptic Obsession
by Johnny Milner
2010-03-12 09:00:40
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Since the beginning of cinema moviemakers have reveled in depicting the annihilation of our species. Indeed Hollywood has benefited greatly of this obsession. But has it gotten out of control? According to Tero Koistinen at the Finnish Chamber of Films there are currently five tales of apocalypse screening and many more to follow in the coming months; from “arthouse” (The Road) to animation (9) and comedy-horror (Zombieland) to popcorn blockbusters (2012 and the up and coming Book of Eli). Destroying the world is the “in” thing. Koistinen says that “2012 alone held a top ten position for 8 weeks in Finland in 2009 and was the 5th highest international grossing film for that year”.

Aside from filmmakers cashing in on the good odds of commercial success, why is there such a fixation? Is it simply a general inherent human curiosity, or is it that people seek mental relief by immersing themselves in a world of abject misery for a couple of hours? Maybe the experience can be some sort of catharsis.

Professor Henry Bacon at the Film Studies Department at the University of Helsinki believes this fascination is embedded into the human psyche - a curiosity which has consumed many cultures for eons, he says  “Humans are aware of the cycle of life, the limits imposed by time and their own unavoidable death. From this it is easy to make the obvious conceptual leap and ask: what about when everything comes to an end? It can only take place in the form of utter destruction”. He goes on to say “Most cultures have stories that explain how things came about and often they also prophesize how the world will come to an end, or how earlier eras have come and gone. As a part of religious symbolism it is easy to make this a part of the final reckoning, which will serve to restore moral order. Bacon also makes the point that there are vestiges of this in contemporary films. He says “the catastrophe brings out both the good and the bad qualities in people - and guess which always prevail”.

Although the concept of an apocalypse in cinema is no new thing, it seems that the themes within the genre have shifted – film makers no longer look to “alien invasion” or the “cold war” as primary means for cataclysm but instead draw upon threats which directly correlate with today’s grand media narratives – current threats which are real, relevant and of international proportions. Following the release of Al Gore's global warming alarm “An Inconvenient Truth,” natural disaster is an especially fecund subject within the genre.

Films such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) capitalized on the growing concern about climate change. It hypothesized that the warming Earth could disrupt oceanic currents and trigger a sudden ice age across the world. Clearly and dramatically stated the film almost pleads with its audiences - if we continue to ignore the mounting evidence there will be serious consequences.

Both 2012 and The Road, which premiered in December take completely different stylistic approaches and are good examples of the current diversity within apocalyptic discourse. 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich, is an all-out popcorn thrill-ride. It is the archetypal disaster flick – this time Emmerich takes the devastation even beyond his alien-invasion movie “Independence Day”. In the film it is revealed that the cause of the apocalypse is not in fact to do with carbon emissions but rather the Earth's crust shifting and tumbling into the oceans after solar neutrinos heat up the planet's core. Despite this, the presentation and imagery are very much the same: a warming of the Earth; montages of flash floods; tsunamis; gale forced winds; polar ice caps melting etc – the same imagery which strengthens the climate argument – the same imagery which is presented to us through various documentaries and media publications.

By comparison The Road (directed by John Hillcoat) takes an “arthouse” approach and probably won’t offer much to audiences seeking a traditional Hollywood ending. Stunningly photographed and beautifully rendered it prophesizes a natural disaster that has caused an entire collapse of civilization, the landscape scorched and infertile, a scattering of survivors rummaging for food and water – it looks directly at humanity on its last legs.

Although the exact cause of the cataclysm is unspecified, there is one point in the film where the father (Viggo Mortensen), the son (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) and the old man (Robert Duvall) are sitting around a camp fire, the old man says referring to the apocalypse “I knew this was coming. This or something like it, there were warnings. Some people thought it was a con but I always believed in it “. One can’t help to think this is a direct comment on the current climate change debate where there is still strong skepticism and doubts about the scientific findings, where big business, the media and politics determine how the issue is dealt with. It is interesting to note that the release of both 2012 and The Road conveniently coincided with the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

The other “in vogue” dystopian scenario is of course the “virus film” e.g. Zombieland (2009), I am Legend (2007), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Children of Men (2006), Aeon Flux (2005), and 12 Monkeys (1995), to name a few. These films evoke a special fear within the viewer – a fear that is heightened by current and real epidemic threats e.g. SAARS, Foot and Mouth Disease, Mad Cow’s Disease etc. The recent media frenzy over the Swine Flu unraveled itself just like the opening montage or title sequence to one of these films. It starts with a few isolated cases in a developing country, people are soon withheld in decontamination chambers, face masks are worn in airports, developed countries are infected, scientists work at creating vaccines, repellents are devised, new and revised vaccines are developed - some of them containing nasty side effects.

Aside from the shift in themes there appears to be one other key difference between the current apocalyptic film and its predecessor and that is the direct involvement of the audience and their attitudes to the prospect of something like this happening. The “cold war film” for example, is a negotiated affair – whereby the fate of the world is determined through the individual actions of certain people; not regular everyday people but rather high up officials, senators, heads of state, the Kremlin, the white house etc. Thus the actions that decide the fait of the world are out of the audience’s hands, whereas the “climate change film” and climate change as a concept are more incremental. The specific cause of the cataclysm is often harder to distinguish or even left untold. But most importantly the climate change film involves the totality of the human race- in the here and the now - man as perpetrator, man as victim but also man as the key to solving the problem. The message is that we all share a collective responsibility and we all play our own part.

This shift from superpower politics to consumer politics where the viewer is put in the driving seat causes debate amongst certain circles. When asked Professor Bacon seemed somewhat skeptical about any ulterior motives and doubted whether many spectators emerge from one these films with an expanded environmental or political consciousness.

In his opinion the rise in Apocalyptic fiction has more to do with “entertainment value”. He says  “Images of destruction and suffering are just so bloody entertaining. They just have to be kept sanitized in the standard style of mainstream action films. We are able to enjoy the sensations they cater to us because basically we feel safe and comfortable and in the stream of adventure actually keep away from our minds the horrors of the real world. The bigger the catastrophe, the more sublime the experience. Now in 3-D”. Whether it is simply just “entertainment value”, or there is a more profound purpose, throughout their existence apocalyptic films have often been a reflection of changing and uncertain times or anxiety over a difficult period of history. For example 1950s horror movies frequently had monsters attacking young couples or single women, perhaps reflecting a society worried about the coming sexual revolution. Or then the stream of alien movies that came out during 1960s and 70s at the height of space-race period and when the prospect of humans living on different planets was especially potent.

Sifting through all this speculation on the future one thing is clear – it doesn’t look good - at least according to Hollywood. It’s hard to think of movies, which present the future in a positive or optimistic way. Maybe the doom and gloom is simply the film makers’ way of better preparing the world for when an apocalypse actually happens.

Current and up and coming Apocalyptic films include: 2012 13.11.2009, The Road 25.12.2009, Zombieland15.01.2010,   Daybreakers 22.01.2010, Book of Eli 26.02.2010

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Emanuel Paparella2010-03-12 15:28:59
What did Aristotle call it? Catharsis or the purging of the emotions. Another way to describe the phenomenon is "self-fulfilling prophecy." If all you think you are are atoms that have by pure chance come together you will eventually return to being a dancing atom, or as that famous nihilist put it, a "dancing star."

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