The end’s variations are endless. Some blend of ecological, meteorological, or extraterrestrial holocaust. Will it be plagues, famine, or smog that do us in this time? How about robots, meteors, or aliens? Then there are angry gods, bad DNA, and invasions of undead that need to be shot in the head. Our planet never seems to just die peacefully, of old age.
I’ve counted nine films released between Memorial Day and Labor Day whose plots detailed how some civilization-ending catastrophe will occur: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise as a drone repair man stuck on our ruined earth; After Earth, wherein Will and Jaden Smith return to a trashed planet run amok with mutated beasties; Star Trek Into Darkness, with its predictable madman destroying the planet plot; same with Man of Steel, the Superman flick; Brad Pitt versus the zombies in World War Z; the giant Rock’em Sock’em Robots fest, Pacific Rim; Elysium, about health care woes on a ruined future Earth; and two comedies: Seth Rogen’s star-studded This Is the End and the British The World’s End about a bloke reunion gone wrong when aliens overtake their hometown.
What did we learn during our dystopian, end-of-the-world, summer vacation at the movies?
Our Fears Have Changed
This summer’s post-apoc crop reflects new anxieties about how we’d wreck the planet. Go back to the 1960s: Planet of the Apes (1968) echoed fears about what lay ahead—space exploration, social breakdown, hippies—as Charlton Heston entered a trippy time-travel fable about social evolution. Go too far into the future, we’ll end up in the savage past.
In the 1970s, food shortages and environmental decay were all the rage: Think Silent Running (1972) and Soylent Green (1973). The Reagan Era gave us Thatcher-esque class warfare: Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) portrayed tribes of survivors dressed like heavy metal band castoffs in gangs of have-petrols and have-nots. The Day After TV movie (1983) fed into the nuclear World War III hysteria.
As Wall Street and Silicon Valley grew in power, so did angst about rule by computers and corporations: The Terminator quartet (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009) and The Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003). As the 20th century ended, we worried about civilization’s end from Biblically proportioned natural phenomena: asteroids (Armageddon, 1998) and comets (Deep Impact, 1998). Now, mired in the Great Recession, random bombings force us to think of a life after civilization is destroyed by terrorists, not nations.
It’s Too Late for Heroics
In Elysium, Earth’s inhabitants deal with the wreckage (and a really messed up health care system). No one’s saving the day, so good luck finding an Armageddon-style crack detonation team, led by a quipping Bruce Willis, to divert the asteroid from its collusion course. We’ve lost, so it’s all aftermath. No hope. Time to recalibrate.
Special Effects Are a Magical Ritual
We need to psych out the apocalypse. If we can finally bring a lifelike spectacle to the movies—tsunamis crashing, the Capitol dome imploding, 200-foot monsters battling—let’s do it, and do it big, because we can. Visualize our worst fears as loud and eye-poppingly detailed and terribly real, and this keeps our demons at bay. See “the end” as ritualistic spectacle every summer, and maybe bad stuff won’t happen in real life.
The Robots Have Already Invaded
With iPhones and iPads already implanted into our hands, and wearable computers like Google Glass on the horizon, perhaps we have already been assimilated into the Borg. In a way, we’ve already rolled over to Apple. We’re idiots, already living in that grim, multitasked, distracted, inhuman digital future we’ve been fearing for decade. We’re already living in “game overland.”
Actually, Sometimes We Do Still Want to Save the Day
Nuke the enemy. Kill the baddie. Blow up the threat. See Star Trek, Man of Steel, The End of the World, Elysium, Pacific Rim. But there’s always a new threat: a hidden menace or final virus that’s going to come back. The sequel.
Armageddon, You’re Our Only Hope
Sometimes we have to blow it all up to reboot civilization.
Above all, what we saw this summer were fantasies of being forced back into a simpler world. In Oblivion, a movie most of us have already forgotten, Tom Cruise discovers his old secret bunker in a hidden valley, his old records and books, and begins again. In movies like Elysium, the only way out of this mess is to explode it all apart, get reborn like Adam and Eve, and try again. In Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston screamed, “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up!”
When we do finally blow it up, digital won’t survive. The aftershocks won’t be televised. It will be lived again, in analog, vinyl, hardcover. If we embrace the aftermath, and hit rock bottom, we can look for clues for getting it right on Planet Earth 2.0.