Behind Hollywood’s Apocalyptic Obsession

The current cinematic climate seems intent on driving home at least one thing lately: The end is nigh, apocalypse: now. This Is The End is the latest in a series of films that traffic in the language and vocabulary of the end times for dramatic effect.

It’s an old trope, a device used in mythologies both ancient and modern. The Norse gods get their start with their twilight, their Ragnarok, hanging over the horizon. And we all know after John set foot on Patmos, it’s hard to see Genesis leading anywhere but Revelation. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

But why? Where, for postmodern Westerners, is this fear of Doomsday coming from?

It’s being done in all sorts of genres nowadays. There’s the dystopian sci-fi perspective—Tom Cruise’s recent overblown turn in Oblivion is a good example. Most recently, with This Is The End, Shaun of the Dead and the like, comedy has been derived from apocalyptic scenarios which would never make us laugh should they actually happen.

The Walking Dead’s ever growing popularity and the upcoming release of World War Z display interest in what seems the most unlikely of end-times scenarios: death by the living dead. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia took a more artful and perhaps the most bleak track to describing the end of the world. There has even been an apocalyptic rom-com: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. And let’s not forget the greatest sign of the world’s impending doom: Nicolas Cage will be starring in the reboot of the cinematic adaptation of the Left Behind series, which is simply too good to be true unless the end really is coming.

So why all the hubbub? Our culture doesn’t seem the most apocalypse friendly, but the evidence seems to show that it is. It seems like a couple years ago, everyone I knew was talking about Gossip Girl and the vanity and immorality of young New Yorkers. Now, those same people are following The Walking Dead with equal gusto and enthusiasm. And I think, in that, we can begin to see why there has been such a boom lately.

It seems the Western world has never been more pampered, medicated, boozy, sexualized, covered in cosmetics, wealthy or vapid as it is now. We live with Roman hubris, devoid of Roman honor. This Is The End is as funny as it is because of how well it taps into the commonplace religious beliefs of our modern society. Celebrities are our new “gods,” in whose image everyone would like to be remade. And here they gather together at the Olympus of our day (apparently, James Franco’s house) only to all meet with destruction and apocalypse.

In our culture’s subconscious still resides the idea that doom follows vanity. Rampant materialism is certainly enjoyable in the moment, but these movies suggest enjoyment is still done with a certain sense of foreboding. It’s not that everyone’s walking around thinking the seventh seal is about to be opened or any explicit end is looming. But the widespread acceptance and box office success of these pre-, post- and plain apocalyptic movies proves there may just be something to the human condition that can’t help but think this is all heading toward destruction.

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The global climate also has a hand in all of this. Ever since 9/11, the capitalistic fancies and comforts of the Reagan down to Clinton eras has been shattered more and more. But the greatest mystery is our refusal to accept the worsening conditions all around us. Economy’s crashing? Keep on spending. More countries seem to be mad at each other than ever? Turn off the news. These fanciful end times movies may just gain their traction because the stories they tell are at least a bit more externalized.

But, you know, I think the zombie movies get it the best. Why the enduring popularity of these films? Why the resonance? I’d say a lot of it has to do with the fact that, to some extent, we’re all walking around dead, zombified, empty. The end is nigh because it seems to already be here for a lot of us. We walk around accruing “stuff” in an attempt to introduce some vibrancy or color into our lives when so much of the world already seems like a wasteland, like a desolate landscape peopled only by survivors and the walking dead. The end of the world may be so popular because it sometimes seems preferable to the doldrum apocalypse which seems to be happening in slow motion each and every day.

Leaving out the bleakness of Melancholia, all these disaster, alien attack, asteroid-heading-to-earth, zombie movies hit upon another bass note which quietly resounds. Beyond the silent human tendency to thinking all this emptiness leads to destruction is the slightly louder human impulse to think we feel so empty because we were made to be full. In The Walking Dead, though the planet’s largely been given over to zombification, humanity reigns through the moral ambiguity and desire for love to thrive that still resides in the survivors.

It’s good Hollywood’s taking a look at apocalypse. That means it’s bugging us. Not so much because the end is nigh but because of how much it would take to wake us out of our apathy. Perhaps one day, movies will be coming out saying the world isn’t just heading for destruction but for renewal. And that the dead will be raised to new life instead of a fate worse than death.

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