Apocalypse Then: This is the Way the World Ended
Are you attending the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in 2012? You may want to plan on going because it’s going to be the final Worldcon. Why? Haven’t you heard? The world is coming to an end on December 21, 2012 according to the ancient Mayan calendar.
Of course it doesn’t really predict that, and even if it did this would just be the latest in a long history of doomsday predictions that stretch back to Biblical times. Just as people are fascinated with questions about how the universe was created, there is arguably even greater interest in how it’s all going to end. It so permeates our culture that there’s even a discussion of it in Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Annie Hall where young Alvy Singer doesn’t want to do his homework because “the universe is expanding” and if it’s all going to come apart, what’s the point? He doesn’t seem reassured by the jovial cigarette-puffing pediatrician who tells him that won’t occur for billions and billions of years.
Science fiction cinema has taken up the issue of the end of the world in a variety of ways and often when a film is made is a good indicator of the filmmaker’s agenda. During the Cold War era—roughly the 1950s to the 1980s, there were numerous movies about nuclear war. With people concerned that World War III between the United States and the Soviet Union would be the final war, there were many attempts to confront this nightmare head-on. Movies from low-budget entries like Five to star-studded films like On the Beach, focused on what life would be like for the survivors. Clearly it would not be pleasant. Beyond questions of where to get shelter and food after the breakdown of civilization was the reality that atomic warfare would be unlike anything we had ever experienced. One of the most haunting moments in On the Beach is when an American sub crew returns to port and sees a once bustling metropolis consisting of utterly empty, lifeless streets. Worse, the survivors in Australia have to deal with the fatal aftereffects of fallout and radiation sickness. Many of the movies of the ’50s and ’60s dealing with nuclear war made it clear, as a character in Dr. Strangelove suggests, that “the living would envy the dead.”
Sometimes the post-nuclear wasteland was turned into a metaphor for present day concerns. The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a morality play about racism in which a black man (Harry Belafonte) and a white woman (Inger Stevens) manage to forge a bond that is challenged by the arrival of a third survivor, a white man (Mel Ferrer) who seems to think he has a superior claim on her. That post-apocalyptic romantic triangle was also as the core of The Last Woman on Earth and, nearly twenty years later, in The Quiet Earth from New Zealand. Another focus for movies about the world “The Day After” (as a notable 1983 TV-movie was entitled) was what sort of community the survivors could create. In A Boy and His Dog the world above ground was a Darwinian nightmare where brute force was the factor determining who survived. Yet below ground, in the eerie town that seemed to be recreating a distorted version of 1920s small town America, the forces deciding who survives are just as brutal, simply more subtle in how they exercise their authority.
Those themes are picked up in The Postman, based on David Brin’s novel, but coming in 1997—after the Cold War but before 9/11—there’s an unusual bit of hopefulness that civilization can reassert itself over anarchy. The very premise, that a wandering survivor could pretend that authority was being re-established and he was there to deliver the U. S. Mail under the imprimatur of the new American government, made the point how much civilization is a shared construct. If people believe in the power of community and shared responsibility, we can overcome the destructive forces that tore apart the world as we knew it and start again. That optimism was true to the novel but marked it as distinct from most such films. Happy endings in post-nuclear war movies usually involved the survivors reaching some safe haven, not civilization staging a comeback.
The other major source of Earth’s end in the movies is something from outer space. It might be some impersonal force spelling doom for Earth as in When Worlds Collide, Deep Impact or Armageddon. Movies like this are about how we face the end: whether we do so through panic, by planning to save some remnant of humanity, or in stoic acceptance of the inevitable. Occasionally the extra-planetary destruction left survivors, and those were movies that often mixed horror with sardonic humor. The classic in this regard is probably Night of the Living Dead where some strange radiation brings the recently dead back to life as flesh-devouring zombies. George Romero’s film spawned numerous sequels as well as a whole sub-genre of zombie films. In the original, the hellish situation, in which one barely has time to mourn the death of a loved one before one has to fend them off as a predator, paints a dismal portrait of society. Civilization is a thin veneer that collapses with astounding rapidity.
More often, though, danger from space means invading space aliens. In the 1950s the aliens—often from the “red planet” of Mars—were clearly stand-ins for the Russians in movies like Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and even The Monolith Monsters, the last featuring relentless space crystals that grow and threaten to take over the planet. One of the most intriguing films of the decade is the lesser known The 27th Day. Aliens from a dying planet show up coveting Earth but their morality won’t allow them to simply eradicate the human race. Instead they provide the means to do so to five people—an American, an Englishwoman, a German, a Russian, and a Chinese—and announce this to the world. Given the ultimate weapon, will the western and Communist nations wipe each other out, or will the recipients succeed in hiding from their respective authorities during the 27 day testing period? This is as much a Cold War parable as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
After the Cold War the agenda of alien invaders became more muddled. In failures like Battlefield Earth and the dreadful remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still the filmmakers seemed at a loss as to why they were telling the story. In the former it was just hammy alien villains wanting to enslave Earth while in the latter there’s an environmental message that is subverted by trying to graft it onto a Cold War plot. (For a discussion of the failure of the Day remake see “Remake Love, Not War” from the March 2009 issue.) One of the best attempts to rethink the alien invasion film for modern audiences was not Independence Day or Steven Spielberg’s disappointing remake of The War of the Worlds, but the recent Battle: Los Angeles which seemed to capture what H. G. Wells intended with his War of the Worlds novel. Wells wanted British readers to experience what it was like to be the indigenous population being overwhelmed by powerful imperial forces, experiencing the Raj from the other side. Battle : Los Angeles is a giant metaphor for our “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq, only this time the forces with superior firepower aren’t simply trying to overthrown a dictator, but crush any local resistance whatsoever.
Three other signs of the apocalypse in science fiction movies may be more mundane, but their destructive powers threaten the end of life as we know it just the same. There are numerous movies where insects, birds, or animals seem to rise up to overthrow human hegemony. In Them! the giant ants are mutations caused by atomic testing and are clearly a warning about our new atomic age. At the end of the film the entomologist helping government authorities battle the gigantic insects informs us there’s no telling what other horrors or challenges may face us now that the atomic genie is out of the bottle. In Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds we never do get an explanation as to why birds are uniting in attacks on humanity. What’s important is that some things are beyond human understanding and there’s no guarantee that we will prevail.
Then there’s the threat of robots or computers gaining sufficient knowledge and power that they are no longer content to work for humanity. Such stories go back to R.U.R. and Metropolis, but in terms of destroying civilization one of the best examples is Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which a computer programmed to protect America takes its job beyond what its programmers intended. This is a devastating film that was far ahead of its time. Viewers expecting a happy ending where the humans finally best the rogue computer will be surprised when the story doesn’t go in conventional directions. The world is still standing at the end of the movie, but it’s not the world that existed when the story began.
Movies like The Terminator and The Matrix continued in that tradition. Machines that start out as simply tools develop to the point where we no longer know how to control them. Eventually they evolve into things which develop their own priorities; priorities that no longer include protecting us. Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics were a brilliant attempt at defining relations between humans and sentient machines, but other writers are not bound by them. Could humanity create thinking machines that are so powerful that they seek to supplant us? The Terminator and Matrix series follows that notion to conclusions that are not reassuring.
Thirdly, in the era of AIDs it’s not surprising that some stories find that Earth will not be destroyed by bombs or aliens or robots, but by things too small to see with the naked eye, and which are often created by other humans. The Andromeda Strain is an alien invasion movie of a sort, but the invader is a deadly disease and the human heroes have to find the cure before it’s too late. The movie ends on a disturbing afterthought: what if the disease can mutate faster than we can fight it? Often the disease is man-made, as in The Crazies, 12 Monkeys, 28 Days Later, and I Am Legend. Several of them are variations on the zombie films, where Earth’s destruction is caused by infected humans who now attack “normal” humans. As a metaphor for the human condition these may be the bleakest movies of all, predicting the end of the world, not in a mushroom cloud, but in a cannibalistic orgy in which infected humans devour the remaining uninfected ones. One of the most interesting iterations of that idea was Daybreakers in which the virulent disease turns most of Earth’s population into vampires, who require blood from the remaining normal people in order to survive. In the story things have reached a point where most of the remaining humans exist solely to be harvested, a solution which won’t be tenable in the long run.
Finally mention should be made of those films which confront of the end of the world and want us to laugh. The humor is dark, but it is an approach that wants us to not accept Doomsday but defy it. It’s not so much that we should treat actual horrors as a joke but that the contemplation of them ought to remind us that we’re still alive and can do something about it. The model for such films is, arguably, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Kubrick and his collaborators look at nuclear apocalypse as man at his most absurd. When General Buck Turgidson wrestles with Russian Ambassador DeSadesky (who has been surreptitiously taking pictures of the “big board” in the inner sanctum of the Pentagon) President Merkin Muffley delivers a line that could stand as the definition of irony, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the War Room.” By the end of the movie, as they’re confronting the possibility of a “death shroud” covering the Earth for a century, there is a discussion as to whether survivors hiding deep below the Earth’s surface would have to dispense with “traditional monogamy.” Dr. Strangelove answers, “Regrettably yes,” in a way that suggests he doesn’t regret it in the slightest. After all, he continues, this change would only apply to the surviving males.
Twenty years later, in Night of the Comet, radiation from a comet destroys most life on Earth. Our heroines—two Valley girls—see this as a chance to go shopping. The surviving adult “authorities” are none too helpful, and in fact seem ready to preserve what’s worst about the world that’s been destroyed. When the two young women go through a shopping mall to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s ’80s anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” that’s a declaration that those who embrace life ought to prevail over those who cherish order and authority. More recent comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland also celebrate survival over civilization. Yes, it’s important to beat the flesh eating zombies, but the notion that reestablishing “authority” is a priority is quickly dismissed. These are films that tell us that being alive is better than being the main course at a zombie feast, but that otherwise we needn’t concern ourselves with what’s being lost. In many ways these are films that are endorsing anarchy so long as we humans get to survive.
Movies about the end of the world give us a chance to confront the ultimate issue: what happens when we die? Death is literally the end of the world for the individual involved, and so these movies provide an opportunity to imagine that when we go there won’t be anything left because, as we head for the exits, the rest of the planet will be joining us. That explains the popularity of this genre of films, and also explains why it remains so problematic. Deep down we don’t really want to confront the notion that the world will continue going on after we’re gone. Instead what these apocalyptic films tell us is that, while we’re fascinated with looking into the abyss, we much prefer to think that we will be among the lucky few who will be spared as the rest of the world is destroyed. Death, after all, is something that happens to other people. As the mushroom clouds bloom or the robot or zombie hordes run rampant, we hope that, when the dust settles, we’ll still be around. Ironically, by destroying the world on screen, these movies let us live out the fantasy of our own immortality.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran film critic and author of Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and Other Observations on Science Fiction Movies (Fantastic Books) He is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and reviewed for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 25 years. His reviews now appear at NorthShoreMovies.net. He is a correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University. In addition to being a frequent contributor at CLARKESWORLD and Space and Time, he is the author of an award-winning history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (2004), a history of DreamWorks, The Dream Team (2006) and I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.