Illustration: Vivian Uhlir
“The world is going to end. We will all be consumed by nuclear fire, wiped out by disease, or roam the planet as the undead while the consequences of our actions wreak havoc on a now unrecognisable world. There is no hope for the human race, and we will slowly start to eat each-other.”
At least that’s what the guy at the box office said, selling tickets for some new zombie shoot-up flick. The closest he was coming to nuclear hellfire was the glow emanating from the popcorn counter. Behind me, many more people are lining up to get their taster of the end of the world, avidly awaiting the upcoming struggle.
Audiences are drawn to the post-apocalyptic, everything from Mel Gibson in leather to Dwayne Johnson beating up earthquakes. But why is it that movies displaying more doom and gloom than granny’s funeral seem to intrigue everyone, as they munch on their popcorn to the sound of nuclear bombs and anarchy?
Do we even need these movies? Some say this violence and dystopia should not be onscreen, and it is insensitive to very real issues facing the world today. Guzzling the black fuel these movies dish out fires up our appetite for destruction. This is the sceptical view; that traditional outlook where we as audience members are passive drones who are numbed by what we see on the big screen. If you ever suggest that in actuality the audience is engaged with the post-apocalyptic genre, they will run over in a flurry to shut you up.
In fact, it is precisely the worries we have about the world today, the same worries we have inherited from the past, which make these films so important. This is why we are so engaged with them; we understand the issues being presented and appreciate the way they are being investigated.
It’s not surprising to hear that this genre really got into its stride when the Cold War kicked off, and the fictitious stories of annihilation suddenly risked blowing over into reality. Some of the most famous films of this era like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Planet of the Apes (1968) are apocalyptic in their nature. They gave us a glimpse of the end of the world as we know it. And then George A. Romero made us shake hands with the undead, his Living Dead trilogy becoming the new benchmark for horror movies. One of the most interesting is A Boy and His Dog (1975) – a lone man and his mutt wander the ravaged wasteland salvaging, slugging and surviving. It has a cult following and influenced some of the most common visions of a nuclear wasteland we have today, such as the Fallout video games.
The zany George Miller also used this as inspiration for the Mad Max Trilogy. Mad Max 2, The Road Warrior (1981) is revered to this day as one of the greats of action and apocalypse films, as is Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) which dominated the last Oscars ceremony. They in turn have influenced many successive apocalypses – Waterworld (1995) is basically Mad Max 2 plus Kevin Costner, minus land.
Why then, do we hear so much about how this world is doomed and full of hate? Why are we moths to the nuclear flame? Why do film companies repeatedly churn out these horrific pictures of our future to drool over, set in worlds we cannot relate to? It is because post-apocalyptic movies are not detached from real lives at all; they are a reflection of fears and worries about the real world. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) reflect very real worries about climate change, Night of the Living Dead (1968) had messages relating to racism, while Mad Max: Fury Road focuses on pollution, hierarchy and equality.
These are not issues locked in the great underground vaults to protect us from some ethereal struggle. They are issues we all face today. These are problems which can reveal the true nature of human beings and talk about things in ways that cannot be said in mere words. Presenting them in the way they do makes we the audience listen, and perhaps come to understand how the characters involved have all been affected by the onslaught around them.
It’s not even that new – The End of the World (1916) was about a comet bringing disasters on a massive scale to our planet. The visions of global destruction capitalised on the paranoia generated by the first sighting of Halley’s Comet six years before, as well as fears of decimation from World War One. Even now, the recent surge in movies like this reflect the uncertain times we live in – the new threats facing the world, economies imploding and generally a sense that the world has screwed itself over. Young people are especially sensitive to these issues, hence (partly) the success of the Hunger Games franchise and The Divergent Series.
But that is not to downplay the escapism provided by these films. The best apocalypse films recognise that no-one will pay to see a lecture on global warming if it takes away from an interesting and high quality film. This genre is one of the most fascinating to watch, and it is testimony to the genius of film-makers that they can present issues of the real world in ways that still whisk us to mythical lands of annihilation and emptiness.
Without these explorations of a world robbed of future and life, our concerns about the environment and conflict would be heavily sterilised. These films are the only way to really communicate the threats of such problems to the masses, and force us to stop and think about our world. So to the boy at the box office preaching the destruction in this latest outing for the apocalyptic, I say “Good. Man should talk… and talk… and talk… if we are ever to stem this avalanche.”