The Neverending Apocalypse

Kristi Yeung and Zinan Zhang examine the surge in apocalyptic films: What is it that makes the global disaster genre so resilient and captivating?

Zinan: This is the end. Be it zombies, aliens, global warming, God, or ourselves, we have seemingly reached the world’s end. Or at least that’s what recent movies keep telling us. In the 20th century, there were approximately 110 apocalypse-themed films made. Yet in the past 13 years, more apocalyptic films have been made than in the 20th century. Just in the past year, we saw the release of After Earth, The World’s End, This is the End, Oblivion, The Host, World War Z, Elysium, Pacific Rim, Snowpiercer, The Colony, and now, I, Frankenstein. Evidently, we are obsessed with impending doom and what happens after. But why?

Kristi: Apocalyptic films seem to tap into an ever-present public fear about the world’s end. And perhaps the reason why they are so popular is because this fear is about as old as civilization itself. Humans have always been concerned about the end of the world: the Mayans made a calendar with an end date, John wrote the Book of Revelations, and in 1920 Robert Frost published “Fire and Ice.” In this poem, Frost writes that either fire or ice would “suffice” to end the world. But looking at apocalyptic films, it seems like the simple fire or ice explanation is not enough for audiences.

Just 30 years later, the early apocalyptic films of the 1950s explored two possibilities vastly different from fire and ice: alien invasion and the atom bomb.  Modern viewers want even more.  We want an environmental meltdown, a corporate dystopia, an invasion by supersized alien-robot cyborgs, a disease that kills everything in its path, zombies, and possibly a combination of all these things in one.  But actually, the apocalyptic film is much simpler than it seems.

A good apocalypse doesn’t arrive through the most elaborately gruesome means. It instead takes advantage of the predominant cultural fear of the time – nuclear destruction during the Cold War, alien invasion during the space race, a contagious lethal virus in the age of Purell, God’s judgment at a time of declining morality. Films about the world’s end won’t end because they are unfailingly relevant.

Zinan: Not only are apocalyptic films culturally relevant, the social commentary embedded in these films is often timeless. Our fears have certainly evolved with the times as reflected by the shift from movies dealing with mutually assured destruction (Dr. Strangelove, 1964) to movies dealing with global warming (The Day After Tomorrow, 2004), sentient robots (The Matrix, 1999), and the end of the Mayan calendar (2012, 2009). However, a closer look at this genre reveals the persistence of several motifs. The threat of a deadly virus may seem like a 21st century fear—thanks to SARS, H1N1, and multi-drug resistant MRSA and TB—spawning movies like Contagion (2011), I am Legend (2007), and the Resident Evil franchise (2002-12). But The Andromeda Strain (1971) suggests that our fears about foreign microbes have been infecting the movies for more than 40 years due to the smallpox epidemic and the Space Race. More fundamentally, we fear alien invasions, God’s judgment, global warming, and viral pandemics because we fear the unknown and what is out of our control.

Apocalyptic films often portray these fears to be conquerable and within our control; they put their faith in breakthroughs in weapons development, stricter government regulations, changes in energy policy, and advancements in medical research. At the heart of apocalyptic films is the theme of human mortality but also human bravery. We fear the end yet we console ourselves with fantasies of being remembered, leaving a legacy, and having an afterlife.

But what if human civilization ceases to exist? What if there is only the end? Apocalyptic films are popular because they attempt to address these unanswerable existential questions, but cautiously they portray a terrifying yet still optimistic post-apocalyptic world, mollifying the audience until the next apocalyptic film comes along.

Kristi: Recently, apocalyptic films that are less haunting and more comedic have appeared on the big screen. Pixar’s WALL-E (2008) uses a destroyed and deserted earth as a backdrop for an uplifting tale about robot love and following your heart. Even the depiction of human beings – round as medicine balls and confined to mobile beds in an outer space spa because they exploited all of earth’s resources – isn’t too scary. Seeking a Friend For the End of the World (2012) gives another playful take. Rather than meet the conventional characters of the apocalypse (zombies and cannibals), Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) meet characters pulled out of a traditional romantic comedy (the handsome ex-boyfriend and the eclectic single father). Though both films have their poignant moments, both ultimately use the world’s end to fuel lighthearted romance.

The apocalypse came to the forefront of comedy in this summer’s This Is The End (2013).  Seth Rogan, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride take us on a rollercoaster ride of exaggerated portrayals of themselves, numerous cameos, expected crude humor, unexpected actual horror, and the too-obvious explanation that this apocalypse is none other than the biblical Apocalypse itself.  Having lived through so many false alarms, we’ve passed the point of taking the end of the world seriously.

Zinan: Alternatively, the comedic tone of recent apocalyptic feature films may simply be a coping mechanism for our inevitable demise. In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, we are left with the message that love transcends death and gives life meaning. In This is the End, we learn that death is not the end; rather, for those of us who were “good,” there is an afterlife. These films seek to console us and teach us to laugh at our mortality; we should appreciate life by not taking it too seriously.

While post-apocalyptic, dystopian films may seem like a stark contrast to comedic apocalyptic films, they can actually be quite similar in theme: all things may come to an end, but some seemingly ephemeral things can be eternal. In I am Legend (2007), Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last human in New York City after a pandemic, and the most beautiful part of the story is his relationship with his one and only remaining friend—his German shepherd, Samantha. Similarly, V for Vendetta (2005), a government dystopian film, which is highly reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, focuses on V’s (Hugo Weaving) and Gordon Dietrich’s (Stephen Fry) love and nostalgia for music, literature, and culture. Even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009) highlights the bond between father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in a hopeless world filled with cannibals. And most recently, Oblivion (2013) portrays our human connection to Earth and Mother Nature. Ultimately, apocalyptic films reveal to us that, regardless of our condition, life is and can be beautiful.

Kristi: When I think of apocalyptic and dystopian films, I often ignore their uplifting sides. But Zinan raises an important point: at the heart of every Hollywood apocalypse – no matter how determined it is to reveal the ugliness of human nature or to strike panic into the minds of the public – is a silver lining. The recent increase in apocalyptic films more light-hearted in tone reveals a widespread celebration of human resilience. Rarely do post-apocalyptic films show nothingness. There is always life after the end.

Having survived so many apocalypses – nuclear threat, space travel, the new millennium, and the end of the Mayan Calendar – today’s audiences know that it’s not the end of the world yet. And this means it’s not quite the end of the apocalyptic film either. While we wait for our demise, we can continue to watch the world’s end on the big screen – fearing, learning from, and laughing at all the ways the world might end and how we might handle the aftermath.

Who knows what tomorrow’s apocalypse in film might look like? Will a computer virus spread like wildfire through Facebook accounts and turn into a real virus killing millions of users around the world? Will Princeton’s grade deflation policy spread throughout the nation creating a Hunger Games-like situation with students competing to the death to take their place in the top 30%? Hopefully, Hollywood’s ideas are better than mine. But only time will tell. Deeply rooted in our cultural fears and phobias, apocalyptic films evolve to meet the interests of the contemporary moviegoer, proving their resilience along with our own.