Graphic: Kristin Ay

Since the beginning of cinema film makers have revelled in depicting the annihilation of our species. Hollywood has certainly benefited greatly from this obsession. But has all of this thirst for carnage gotten out of control?

ACCORDING to Tero Koistinen from the Finnish Chamber of Films, there are currently five tales of the apocalypse being screened in cinemas, with many more to follow in the coming months. Ranging from art house (The Road), to animation (9) and popcorn blockbusters (2012), destroying the world seems to be the “in” thing this season.

“2012 alone was in the top ten list for eight weeks in Finland in 2009 and was the fifth highest grossing film internationally in that year,” notes Koistinen.

Aside from filmmakers cashing in on the 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 from 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.

“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,” Bacon explains.

“Most cultures have stories that explain how things came about and often they also prophesise 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 points out that there are vestiges of this in contemporary films. “The catastrophe brings out both the good and the bad qualities in people – and guess which ones always prevail!”

A natural inclination

Although the concept of an apocalypse in cinema is nothing new, it seems that the themes within the genre have shifted – film makers no longer look to alien invasion or the cold war as the primary means for the cataclysm, but draw upon threats which correlate with today’s grand media narratives. Following the release of Al Gore’s global warming wake-up call An Inconvenient Truth (2006), natural disaster is an especially fecund subject within the genre.

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

Both 2012 and The Road take completely different stylistic approaches and are good examples of the current diversity within apocalyptic discourse. 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich, is the archetypal disaster flick. In the film it is revealed that the cause of the apocalypse is not actually 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 familiar: warming of the Earth, montages of flash floods, tsunamis, gale force winds and melting polar ice caps.

By comparison, John Hillcoat’s The Road takes an art house approach. Stunningly photographed and beautifully rendered, the film looks directly at humanity on its last legs as it prophesises a natural disaster that has caused the collapse of our entire civilization. In a scorched and barren land, a scattering of survivors rummage for food and water.

“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,” says one of the protagonists, referring to the cataclysm.

It’s difficult not to think of this as a direct comment on the current climate change debate. It is also interesting to note that the release of both 2012 and The Road conveniently coincided with the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen.

No happy endings

The other dystopian scenario in vogue today is of course the “virus film.” See 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 fear within the viewer that is heightened by current real world epidemic threats. Media frenzy over the swine flu pandemic unravelled much like the opening montage of a movie. Starting with a few isolated cases in a developing country, people are soon thrust into decontamination chambers and face masks are donned in airports, whilst scientists get to work at creating vaccines.

Aside from the shift in themes, there appears to be one other key difference between the current apocalyptic film and its predecessor. 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 where the fate of the world is determined through the individual actions of certain people; not regular everyday people but high-ranking officials, senators, heads of state, the Kremlin, the White House, secret agents and so on. Thus the actions that decide the fate 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 in films 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 now, with man as perpetrator and victim but also as the key to solving the problem.

This shift from superpower politics to consumer politics where the viewer is put in the driving seat causes debate among certain circles. When asked, Professor Bacon seems sceptical about any ulterior motives. He doubts whether many spectators emerge from any one of these films with an expanded environmental or political consciousness. In his opinion, the rise in apocalyptic fiction has more to do with entertainment value.

Appetite for destruction

“Images of destruction and suffering are just so bloody entertaining. They just have to be kept sanitised in the standard style of mainstream action films. We are able to enjoy the sensations because we basically 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 3D.”

Whether made for simple “entertainment value” or a more profound purpose, throughout their existence apocalyptic films have been a reflection of anxieties in changing and uncertain times. For example, 1950s horror films frequently showed monsters attacking young couples or single women, perhaps reflecting a society unnerved by the coming sexual revolution.

While sifting through all this speculation about the future one thing is clear. It doesn’t look good, at least not according to Hollywood. It’s hard to think of movies that would 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 the apocalypse actually happens.

Johnny W.A. Milner