Why is “the end of the world” the lowest common denominator of Hollywood’s latest blockbusters? Probably because we have a healthy obsession with art’s apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian genre. This is not because we live in a so-called “culture of fear,” but because this genre allows us to view our society through retrospective lenses and, in so doing, we gain a unique understanding of the problems at present, illuminated by existential threats to humanity, or the eventual consequences of current practices. They offer a glimpse down the road which might prompt us to ask Siri to plot us a new destination.
After Earth is a film about a father and son (Will and Jaden Smith, no kidding) who crash land on a future, inhospitable mother Earth. For a while, I got this confused with Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise, which is also about the return to a has-been home for humans. Not to be mistaken for Elysium, where a super wealthy minority prospers in a remote community (a wheel-like space habitat known as a Stanford Torus, also known to many from the video game HALO) while the earth is overpopulated with poverty and crime.
Apocalypse movies, such as 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Terminator 3, and War of the Worlds all show the recognizable world coming to an end, either through natural (possibly human-induced) disaster, nuclear holocaust, the take over of machines, and/or alien invasion. This group actually shows the end of the world, even if humans eventually adapt and prevail. Two upcoming films that focus on Judgment Day are This is the End, starring comedy’s front men Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Michael Cera; the other is Pacific Rim about an alien invasion via a wormhole beneath the Pacific Ocean.
Post-apocalypse movies, on the other hand, may show some of the initial disaster, but are mostly focused on what comes after, how societies rebuild, adapt, or struggle to survive. Some are focused on the handful of isolated survivors, like I am Legend, The Postman, and The Road. Others might show a revived humanity that has endured disasters and taken to rebuilding civilization or else has fled from the surface of the Earth completely (some go below, like the Eloi in The Time Machine, others take to the sky, like in WALL-E, After Earth, Oblivion, and Elysium).
A further category is the dystopian, where society undergoes a profound and often final transformation that we as viewers find morally repugnant. These “end of history” scenarios may come about by natural human progression, or are brought on by devastating wars or as the result of a novel political movement. Normally, some kind of resistance movement develops which we see quashed or succeed. I’d mention the Hunger Games, but I’ve neither seen the movie nor read the books. I should, I know.
So, why do we like this genre so much? Because it tells us about our own time much better than we often can see. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, don’t they say? Most dystopian/apocalypse/post-apocalypse movies, books, and TV shows mythologize the past (our present). They either show a lost paradise, or a reckless people who brought about the world’s end, or something of a combination.
At a very base level, this genre challenges our infinitude. Many suggest that humans cannot be stamped out, that we will evolve whatever the circumstances, such as Kevin “Gills” Costner in Waterworld. Others show simply that the future is up for grabs. You might be more persuaded by Aldous Huxley’s vision of the future, a world full of self-gratification and devoid of meaning. Or you could stick with Orwell and worry that humanity might end up enslaving itself, that “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face—forever.”
Here’s a list of major films that have, are, or will soon hit the theaters: Oblivion, released April 19; The Colony, April 26; M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth, on May 31; Some levity on June 12 with This is the End; On June 21, Brad Pitt fights zombies in World War Z; Find out what lies beneath the pacific on July 12 with Pacific Rim; Watch the undead be bloody bludgeoned by the incomprehensible west Londoners in Cockney’s vs. Zombies; on August 9 see Matt Damon take on the world’s super rich (including Jodie Foster) in their secluded, serene spacewheel in Elysium, directed by District 9’s Neill Blomkamp; and, on August 23, finish this summer with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as they push through zombies on the way to the pub in The World’s End. (This is the same duo that gave us Shaun of the Dead, quite easily my favorite zombie film, and certainly the best comedy on the undead).
Image from http://www.oblivionmovie2013.com/