I am an American, due to circumstances beyond my control. So, for reasons that will probably be clear to anyone who’s glanced at the news recently, I’ve had a rather trying week. Anyway, since I didn’t post a Monthly Movie Rant for October, and since the real world appears to be headed towards an apocalypse of one kind or another, I thought this might be a good time to take a look at apocalypses in film.
The end of the world has been a popular subject in movies–and all media, really–for a long time. It works its way into all sorts of genres: zombie movies, disaster movies, religious horror movies, post-apocalyptic punk car racing movies…there have even been romantic comedies set during or after the apocalypse. Not all of them are good, but they usually make decent money. Which is really friggin’ weird, if you think about it. Why are we, as a species, so entertained by imagining our own extinction?
Essays, dissertations–nay, full textbooks–have been written in an attempt to answer that question. And I’m not going to say that any one answer is more valid than another. But I know why I, personally, like end-of-the-world movies.
First, it’s because they’re so darn pretty. This only applies to good post-apocalyptic movies, of course. Some of them look really boring and washed-out. But that’s just poor cinematography. Picturing a world without humans–a world after humans–gives the judicious filmmaker a ton of great aesthetic options that a normal movie doesn’t have. There’s something starkly beautiful about an empty, overgrown city, or a barren desert, that you don’t get in your typical present-day movie. It’s the same attraction that drives people to travel hundreds of miles to look at ruins.
Then there are the outfits. Whether out of tradition or necessity, post-apocalyptic characters always seem to wear the coolest fashions. Which makes them both fun to watch and fun to cosplay.
But there’s a deeper reason, too. As crazy as it sounds, I think a lot of end-of-the-world scenarios are wish-fulfilment fantasies. Bear with me.
Real life in the modern world is very complicated. We’ve got societal pressures coming at us from all sides. We’ve got to make money, pay bills, get educated, look good, get the right number of followers on social media, build a family, take care of the family, travel, vote, and on and on. It can get overwhelming. But if you take away the infrastructure of society and all its little “luxuries,” like the Internet and money, life becomes very simple. Most protagonists in apocalypse movies have only one real goal: survival. It’s a simple goal–easy to wrap one’s head around. And for those of us who have never actually had to fight for survival in the real world, the simplicity of it can sound weirdly attractive. Especially if it involves katanas.
But the wishful thinking goes beyond that. In the present, there are a lot more teeming, inhabited cities on Earth than overgrown, abandoned ones. And every single person in those teeming cities wants to believe they’re somehow special and unique. But in a world full of people, where everyone has a platform to voice their thoughts and opinions (thanks to the Internet), how can one person stand out in the crowd? (They can make cat videos, of course. But even those start to all look the same after a while.) In most post-apocalyptic movies, there are at most a couple million people scattered all over the globe, instead of the billions that pack the surface today. Our hero usually trudges through miles of abandoned farmland and cities before finding a settlement of a few dozen survivors. And when your society consists of a few dozen survivors, everyone is special. Everyone’s important. And, for me, that’s where the wish fulfilment really kicks in.
Take, for example, Will Smith in I Am Legend. His backstory is that he’s a scientist, one of many who were working on a cure for cancer before it went horribly wrong. By the time the movie starts, he’s the last man on Earth (or in New York City, at any rate), and now he’s working on a cure for crazed vampirism. Which makes him…wait for it…legendary. Because he’s the only hope for the human race, by default. However lonely and depressing his life was, who didn’t want to be Robert Neville while watching that movie? (Yes, I know, everyone wants to be Will Smith no matter what. But the point still stands.)
When I imagine an end-of-the-world scenario, I am, of course, imagining one where I survive the apocalypse. And the idea of being able to start over, create a new identity in a world where nothing matters–not the circumstances of my birth, not my online following, not my education or job skills–except my ability to survive, is rather appealing.
Of course, in any remotely realistic apocalypse, I would die quickly. I have more flab than muscle, and I don’t know how to build a fire without a lighter. But that’s why we have movies, isn’t it? To escape from reality. And, occasionally, to remind us exactly why we find reality so escape-worthy.
Anywho, that’s how my diseased brain responds to end-of-the-world movies. Perhaps I’m alone. But I doubt it. Because in real, present life, I’m not special, and I’m certainly not the last blogger on Earth (thank Heaven).
So what are your thoughts? Why do you like apocalypse movies? (I’m assuming you do.) And what are some of your favourites?