“I think it’s the apocalypse,” says Jay Baruchel in the trailer for This is the End. To which you feel like replying, “So what?” If it’s not the Rapture, then it’s zombies, or General Zod, or sea monsters from the deep. Of the top-grossing films of the 1990s only a handful were about asteroids or aliens threatening to wipe out life on Earth, but in today’s movies we’re faced with annihilation on a weekly basis. We’re like Riley Finn, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s boyfriend, when he complains, “I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”
Christian-backed companies have been funding low-budget apocalypse movies since the 1970s, albeit mostly beneath the average filmgoer’s radar, but in the 1990s the End Times began leaking into the mainstream, perhaps prompted by economic crisis, cultural unease and the imminence of the Millennium, since when the blockbuster laws as rewritten by Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay and the real-life horror of 9/11 have been dictating that local is no longer enough. Action and disaster movies used to be about saving people in a tower block, or on an ocean liner, or in a town, but now the destruction has to be on a global scale. Where the end of the world used to be a big deal, it’s not any more. We’re running the risk of Apocalypse Fatigue.
The thing about end-of-the-world scenarios is how many of them chicken out. Cinema may be free and easy with its apocalypsi (yes, I know – I’m messing with you) but it’s more comfortable with the near-miss or aftermath than with the Extinction Level Event itself, which often turns out to be not as Extinction Level as all that. Civilisation as we know it may collapse, but there are usually raggle-taggle remnants of humanity left to carry the torch for humanity in films like Panic in Year Zero!, Mad Max 2, Night of the Comet, A Boy and His Dog, and The Road, even if the world does end up looking like a cruel Cormac McCarthy-esque vision of the Wild West. The post-apocalyptic film is by its very nature optimistic. Yay! We’re still standing!
Rare are the films that go for broke and a 100% casualty rate. (And please stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers in movies released more than 14 years ago.) For obvious reasons (the end of all life on Earth isn’t exactly feelgood), such films tend towards the arthouse auteur or low budget ends of the filmmaking spectrum, though Andrei Tarkovsky backed down from the brink with The Sacrifice (1986), and in Melancholia (2011) Lars Von Trier made an excellent case for planetary annihilation being not as tragic as all that, in the scheme of things.
All the way through The Rapture (1991), starring Mimi Rogers in a career-best performance as a swinger turned born-again Christian, you assume writer-director Michael Tolkin is talking metaphor, but then blow me if he doesn’t bring on a low budget Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the final reel. Likewise, Steve De Jarnatt’s underappreciated Miracle Mile (1989) flirts with ambiguity until a remarkably late stage in the story, when it erupts from madcap rom-com into all-out MAD.
Nuclear apocalypse is rarely upbeat, unless it’s satirical, as when Dr. Strangelove ends in mushroom clouds and Vera Lynn, or the cop-versus-yakuza duel in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive (1999) suddenly and hilariously escalates to planet-threatening levels. You don’t hold out much hope for survivors at the end of the devastating BBC TV movie Threads (1984), or the gentler but no less devastating When the Wind Blows (1986), or On the Beach (1959).
Then there are the quieter, more personal depictions of imminent annihilation. In Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998) and Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) the emphasis is not so much as the end as on what the characters choose to do with the short time remaining to them – which often, unsurprisingly, involves sex and drugs. And we also have the non-specific, vaguely ecological and possibly metaphorical disasters of The Last Wave (1977), Kairo (2001) or Take Shelter (2011), which leave you feeling distinctly uneasy, but perplexed rather than depressed.
I can think of just one big budget SF near-blockbuster that went the whole hog and destroyed the planet a few years ago (with solar flares, if you must know) but more often so-called apocalypse movies prefer to leave us with a glimmer of hope. I mean, who wants to confront their own mortality at the movies? Unless, of course, you’ve deliberately chosen to see something by Michael Haneke (who in 2003 presented us with his own apocalyptic scenario in Time of the Wolf) in which case you’re asking for it. Most of us prefer to hear Idris Elba in Pacific Rim yelling, “Today we are CANCELLING the apocalypse!” Hurrah!
ETA: Of course, any film that actually shows the end of the world will also, by its very nature, draw attention to the fact that it is a film, since even after the world is destroyed we’re still alive and watching the screen.
I was reminded of this recently by the hypnotically bad TV movie Annihilation Earth, in which the planet is destroyed by a perfect storm of stupid decisions by scientists, terrorists and Counsellor Deanna Troi with an awful Southern accent. Not even Luke Goss can save his wife and kids when supercolliders go bad and the world explodes, after which the word ‘EXTINCTION’ blinks up on screen.
Aha, you think, but if the world has just exploded… who put that word up there?
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2013, to tie in with the UK releases of This Is the End and Pacific Rim. It has been edited and updated.