Hollywood embraces the apocalyptic

There's not a lot to smile about in The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen. Photo / Supplied
There's not a lot to smile about in The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen. Photo / Supplied

Hollywood's mid-year movies are always famed for big set-piece special effects and explosive finales. But as America fights two foreign wars and deals with an economic meltdown, Hollywood's "dream factory" has taken a decidedly nightmarish turn. Suddenly the Apocalypse is in fashion.

From arthouse films to animation to popcorn blockbusters, destroying the world has never been more in vogue. Directors and movie studios are clambering over one another to see who can create the most dystopian and destructive vision of the near-future. Nor is it just Hollywood movies.

Apocalyptic themes have spread to American television and books, too.

Discovery is running a reality show called The Colony in which contestants try to find food and water in a post-disaster world. A book imagining the Earth free of human beings, The World Without Us, has been a bestseller and made into a television documentary.

But it is in the movie world that the trend is most obvious, and it includes all genres of films, perhaps reflecting a zeitgeist of doom that stretches from the liberal salons of New York to the blue-collar suburbs of the Midwest. "We live in angst-ridden times, and so the appeal of these movies is further amplified," says Jamsheed Akrami, a film professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey. "Most of us seem to seek mental relief by drowning ourselves in a sea of doom and gloom for a couple of hours. The experience can be some sort of catharsis."

It is hard, though, to see any sort of enjoyment in The Road, a film set to be released in the US in October and based on the bestselling book by Cormac McCarthy. Unless, by enjoyment, you mean seeing how awful a post-apocalyptic world could be and thanking God you do not live in it.

Dealing with economic crisis and looming unemployment is one thing, but fighting off sadistic cannibals in a dead wilderness is quite another.

The movie, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron, is an unrelentingly grim story of a man and his son wandering a desolate America seemingly devoid of sunshine and covered in grey dust. It is a mesmerising book and all the signs are that the film stays true to its appalling vision of an unnamed catastrophe that has left a handful of survivors to fight it out to the bitter end.

It is unlikely to offer much in the way of hope to an audience looking for a traditional happy Hollywood resolution. At the other end of the scale to the arthouse rendering of The Road is the animation film 9. The film is a cartoon, produced by Tim Burton, and offers up a ruined world populated by rag dolls that are being hunted and killed by a mechanical monster. It is far closer in spirit to a brutalist Terminator movie than a happy-go-lucky Pixar film.

Stephen Sommers, of The Mummy fame, is the director of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which tells of a hi-tech international team deployed to prevent an evil organisation called Cobra from plunging the world into chaos. The apocalyptic trend has invaded the blockbuster genre, too. The Book of Eli is a classic post-apocalypse movie that stars Denzel Washington wandering across an America reduced to a wasteland by a dreadful war. But it is in the film 2012 that the issue is explored on the biggest scale. The film is tied to the date on which, according to a popular interpretation of an ancient Mayan calendar system, the world might end.

The trailer for the film is so over the top when it comes to destruction that it might justifiably be dubbed "Apocalypse porn".

In two and a half minutes the trailer shows a tidal wave sweeping over the Himalayas, Los Angeles destroyed by an earthquake and slipping into the sea, a meteor shower hitting the Earth, the Vatican collapsing and its dome rolling down the street and crushing worshippers, the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro falling down and an aircraft carrier being dumped on top of an exploding White House by a tsunami.

To cap it all, a new zombie movie is about to hit American movie cinemas, though it, at least, provides a humorous slant to the apocalypse genre. Zombieland stars Woody Harrelson as the leader of a group of survivors of a zombie plague that has overrun the world. The group sets about its task of wiping out the undead in a series of bloody but slapstick encounters. The movie's promotional poster even shows a picture of a blackened and burning Earth and the tag phrase: "This place is so dead!"

However, experts say the trend towards apocalyptic thought does not only reflect anxiety over a difficult period of history but, just as important, changing times. Indeed it is often the concept of change as much as the concept of destruction that triggers popular interest in apocalyptic themes, according to Professor Barry Brummett of the University of Texas at Austin. Brummett notes that WWI produced more apocalyptic popular culture than the WWII, despite the latter being on a much bigger and more destructive scale. "The key thing was that the first world war was new and different. That's why it triggered more apocalyptic thought," Brummett says.

In this interpretation it is the fact that the world seems to be changing so quickly that is triggering apocalyptic themes in our culture.

The advent of a new internet-based economy, the rise of China, new ways of fighting wars, changing demographics, growing environmentalism and even the election of America's first black president all add up to a wave of huge change. "There are all these changes going on. We are going to see a lot of apocalyptic discourse because things are changing in so many different ways," Brummett says. That is reflected in the fact that the modern versions of the apocalypse seem so total. In previous trends in films, cinematic monsters often represented a specific societal unease. The horror films of the 1950s often had aliens or monsters attacking young couples or single women, perhaps reflecting a society worried about the coming sexual revolution. Classic Japanese monster films, such as Godzilla, often sprang from worries about pollution. Thus the total destruction being shown in US movies might indeed represent a deep and widespread angst with a world undergoing complete transformation.

But a fixation on the apocalypse is also nothing new. Depicting the destruction of the human race has a long tradition in American popular culture, as would be expected in a country that is still deeply religious - at least compared to much of Europe - and has its origins in being founded by Puritans fleeing persecution.

"The apocalyptic tendency is deeply cemented in the American psyche," says Professor Christopher Sharrett of Seton Hall University, New Jersey.

Religious groups, from Mormon sects to doomsday cults obsessed with UFOs, have popped up through US history with prophecies of doom. In modern evangelical Christianity in America, a belief in the imminent second coming and the triggering of a world-ending judgment day is widespread.

But there is also another long, lucrative tradition in US popular culture, especially Hollywood: a joy in watching things blow up. That is a human desire that movie studios have long exploited, especially in the dog days of summer. Now modern techniques of green screens and CGI mean directors can pursue ever more extravagant visions of destruction.

"Apocalyptic films lend themselves to rollercoaster cinema with an emphasis on special effects. Everyone likes to watch things blow up," says Sharrett.

However, there is one bright spot to be found in all the blood and mayhem.

Like all movies, most apocalyptic films centre on a rugged hero figure. Even The Road has a central father figure whose love for his son and ability to protect him provides the emotional core of the novel. That is why these films are so often box-office successes - and it also gives the audience a little bit of hope amid the world-ending gloom both on-screen and off.

THE END IS NIGH

The Day the Earth Stood Still
This classic science fiction film from 1951 did not see the world destroyed but nuclear Armageddon was at its heart. As the cold war began, its theme was aliens telling the world to live together in peace or be destroyed. Remade with Keanu Reeves as the alien.

The Omega Man
As Vietnam raged, this Charlton Heston 1971 film told the story of a world where biological warfare had killed humans or turned them into nocturnal vampires. Remade as I Am Legend with Will Smith in the lead role.

Mad Max
Mel Gibson starred in this 1979 Australian film, which came to define a whole genre of post-apocalyptic movies in which a rugged hero battles across a wasteland searching for fuel and food. It spawned many rip-offs.

Armageddon
A 1998 film that was a huge box-office smash starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Ben Affleck as astronauts seeking to prevent an asteroid from striking the planet.

The Day After Tomorrow
This 2004 film capitalised on growing concern about climate change. It
postulated that a warming Earth could disrupt oceanic currents and trigger a sudden ice age across North America. Director Roland Emmerich is following it up with his 2012.

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