When the world does end, no one will be able to accuse the movies of not doing their part to warn us. Perhaps like myself you enjoy spending your weekend evenings with a loved one, a tub of popcorn and the latest apocalypse warming the movie screen. Connoisseurs of catastrophe have of late been indulged to the extent their palate must surely be deadened. ‘The first bombs fell, we were already bored,’ Arcade Fire’s Win Butler sings on the title track of The Suburbs, the lyrics’ imagery bringing to mind Ballardian rotting, deserted gated communities. The end-of-days, then, is not the sole possession of the movies – novels such as Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Justin Cronin’s The Passage and Douglas Coupland’s Player One have imagined the worst in the past year – and the theme is at least as old as the Book of Revelations. Yet it does seem of late that the cinema has had something of an obsession with that trope, and one wonders why there is such an appetite to witness the end of the world.
Only the world very rarely ends in these films. Gregg Araki’s delirious Kaboom has our planet popping like a balloon as its closing image, but it’s the exception. When we talk about the end of the world, we actually mean the end of civilisation, which haunts the imagination to a greater degree than the cessation of all life on earth. And by civilisation we don’t merely mean art, democracy, a sense of decency embodied in a code of law; we mean consumerism. The credits for the Argentinean film Phase 7 play against static shots of row upon row of tinned goods. The supermarket is a totemic location in the apocalyptic movie, with some entirely set in malls (Dawn of the Dead, The Mist). One wonders if what chills us about these films is not the possibility of death and injury but the thought of being unable to pop into the shops for toilet paper when we want to.
Phase 7 is a charming example of the ‘cosy catastrophe’, Brian Aldiss’ dismissive description of The Day of the Triffids. Cosy catastrophes dispense with the majority of the world’s population by the usual methods (flood, fire, killer plants) but allow the heroes a degree of comfort during their ordeal as well as hope that civilisation can be rebuilt. The hero, Coco, is a schlub quarantined within his Buenos Aries apartment block during a mysterious pandemic. Although Coco fortuitously stocked up his larders before being confined, his hungry neighbours soon turn on each other, paranoia a keynote of the subgenre. The film neatly illustrates why filmmakers are attracted to judgement day: not only is the scenario inherently dramatic, it’s possible with imagination to make it on a shoestring budget. You can either make 2012, CGI-bloated epics that crunch continents together like play-doh, or you can tell more intimate stories like Phase 7, which is largely set in a single block of flats.
Closer to Phase 7 than 2012, Perfect Sense marks Scotland’s contribution. Director David Mackenzie deserves credit at least for originality. Something – never explained – is causing mankind to lose one by one its five senses. Each loss is preceded by everyone experiencing the same intense emotion. Before smell goes, for example, everyone grows lachrymose. Sad to report, the film is a cathedral-sized turkey, full of misjudged dialogue and risible visuals. The scene where stars Ewan McGregor and Eva Green romantically mark the loss of their taste by eating a bar of soap will not be swiftly forgotten by those who witnessed it. The director lost his taste before filming began.
What most apocalypse-soon films share is a distrust of government, a point that unites left and right these days, a fact producers are surely not ignorant of. Coco’s friend Horacio is convinced the virus is merely cover for ‘the New World Order’ to reduce the world population to controllable levels. Of course scenes of social disintegration have a rather different meaning here than in Argentina, where only a decade ago the country really was on the verge of collapse after runs on the banks revealed how decrepit the economy was.
In the yet-to-be-released The Divide, a nuclear strike in New York traps a group of survivors in the basement of a demolished building. Inevitably bringing 9/11 to mind, the explosion is at first blamed on ‘the Arabs’, although subsequent events suggest it may have been the survivors’ own government. That audiences and filmmakers can more readily believe their own elected representatives, rather than a foreign power, would attack them speaks of a true misfortune – the electorate’s lack of confidence in the elites that rule them, a credibility gap that does not bode well.
That said, the whys and wherefores of The Divide’s day of reckoning remain fuzzy, as they nearly always do in the subgenre. How did the virus develop? When did the supervolcano erupt? Why on earth have the dead risen to snack on the living? Perhaps the scriptwriters believe giving a reason would distract; perhaps they imagine not gifting the audience with a credible rationale imbues the film with a metaphysical dimension. Actually, it’s annoying and lazy. On top of which The Divide is misanthropic and ugly, and, as the radiation-sick survivors turn on each other, it becomes a sci-fi Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom.
A more interesting take on the politics of apocalypse was essayed recently in Stake Land, which is, to adopt the language of the high-concept, The Road with vampires. It’s set after a plague of vampires have destroyed America’s government and civil society, with what survivors there are banding together within barely safe walled-off communities. At first Stake Land comes on like a dour Tea Party fantasy. The hero Mister is a ruthlessly self-sufficient vampire slayer whose motto is ‘Live free or die trying’. A point is made of telling us that lily-livered beltway politicians ran away during the first wave of vampirism. Perhaps unwittingly the scriptwriter actually provides a critique of where Tea Party policies would deliver America in its depiction of a no-government world, a society atomised and vulnerable to predators. All it can offer in the end is a Hobbesian view of mankind without any remedy, and it is striking that the film ends with the murder of another staple character of the subgenre, the pregnant woman. Phase 7, a more even-tempered film, permits Coco’s pregnant girlfriend an ending with a happier hue.
Vampires and their brother-monsters, zombies, form a subgenre within a sub-genre. It’s interesting to note not merely the resurgence in their popularity, but the relative neglect of werewolves, mummies and creatures from the black lagoon, who don’t appear to speak to our era. The vampires here are not the soulful bloodsuckers of the Twilight movies, but ravenous slobberers, zombies in all but name. One of the finest ongoing examples of the ‘zombie apocalypse’ genre is Robert Kirkman’s comic book series The Walking Dead and its AMC television adaptation, which is less a supernatural shoot ’em up than a spirit-quelling examination of what happens to humanity when tested to the point of destruction. Why these monsters, why now? Zombies and vampires are both devouring, mindless creatures, and one doesn’t need a degree in Advanced Allegory to know that they speak to our fear that mankind is the monster, draining the planet of its resources as it brings on a real-world doomsday. The film Daybreakers, set in a future where vampires have taken over and have almost run out of human blood, makes the parallel explicit.
‘Oil is the blood of the earth’: not a line from Daybreakers but from A Crude Awakening, a disturbing and discouraging documentary about peak oil, the moment the world runs out of the resource that keeps civilisation running. A Crude Awakening is one of a number of documentaries I’ve watched recently that are by some degree more chilling than any of the slick but ultimately childish fictional takes on social collapse. It’s tragic that these documentaries will never get even a hundredth of the audience the multiplex-safe holocausts attain. Movie-goers need to see, for example, Collapse, where journalist Michael Ruppert argues that unsustainable energy and financial policies are about to rupture society. His gruesome and forensic explanation of the consequences of ‘our own suicide’ led critic Roger Ebert to say of Collapse, ‘I don’t know when I’ve seen a thriller more frightening.’ The same could be said of Countdown To Zero, which is about the danger nuclear weapons still pose in the post-cold war era. The film contends it is merely a matter of time before a terrorist assembles a dirty bomb or, worse, a computer error launches a full nuclear strike. ‘What isn’t forbidden is compulsory,’ one expert testifies; if a miscalculation can happen, it will happen.
Why do we prefer our end-zones to be fictional? Is it because they’re easier to dismiss? Does watching a documentary like Countdown To Zero not place on us an obligation to act while we still can? One fears a baser reason lies behind our fascination. Could most of us believe on some level that through our use of the earth’s raw and finite materials we’ve basically shrunk the future to feed the present? And, despite sensing that, we entertain ourselves with dark forecasts in the hope they come to fruition not on our watch but on our children’s? Wouldn’t that be a textbook definition of decadence?
Phase 7, Perfect Sense and The Divide are on general release later this year.