Brian Libgober

Apocalypse How?


Still from The Day After Tomorrow, 2004

There is a venerable literary tradition wherein a protagonist confronts his or her death in order to isolate what really matters to them in life. Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Dicken's A Christmas Carol, Ferenc Molnár's Liliom, etc. There is also a corresponding filmic tradition which explores the experience of a community confronting its collective demise, usually with far less edifying results. These are the “Mega Disaster” films, as distinct from more quotidian disaster films such as Skyjacked or Twister. Such films have enjoyed enormous popularity, although they have on occasion fallen out of fashion. A paltry number of disaster movies were made in the 1980s, for example, although this was perhaps due to boredom with the typical variety of disaster plots. Indeed, Mega Disasters are of a rather predictable nature, caused by either one very large attacking animal (Godzilla, King Kong), a horde of more reasonably sized attacking animals (The War of the Worlds, The Swarm), nuclear holocaust (Dr. Strangelove), or a threatening rock (Armageddon).

In the mid-’90s, however, the genre returned with the visible success of two films: Independence Day (1996) and Jurassic Park (1993). While neither of these movies invented a new efficient cause for mayhem—they are both of the “horde of reasonably sized attacking animal” variety—they did innovate in critical ways besides simply having good special effects. Independence Day demonstrated that movie audiences were hungry for more Mega in their Mega-Disaster films; the American public was ready to witness the apocalypse.1 Meanwhile Jurassic Park, playing on then prevalent concerns about genetic engineering, successfully tied the news of the times to disaster without mentioning the word “radiation.” The legacies of these two films were synthesized in the 2000s, when a series of films raised the possibility of human extinction at the hands of a wrathful mother nature. In this essay I would like to scrutinize this genre, which is exemplified by five films: The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Happening (2008), 2012 (2009), Sunshine (2007), and The Core (2003). I want to pose the question, “What is it that we really learn by vicariously experiencing the world’s demise?”

Before taking up that question properly, however, I think it is probably necessary to defend taking the genre seriously in the first place. After all, it is impossible to dispute that these movies are made to be enjoyed by the moviegoing public’s lowest common denominator. These are films for those short on attention and long on ignorance. These are motion pictures for folks who don’t get emotional over mixed metaphors; people that like it kept stupid, simple. It almost seems to be a requirement that the science behind the mega disaster be ludicrous (e.g. 2012, wherein neutrinos superheat the earth’s core, causing its crust to melt). Moreover, the direction that the scenarios lead often presumes an appalling lack of common sense. At one point in The Core, someone actually manages to breathe inside the center of the earth.

Even though these films do not cater to those with any degree of sophistication, they do, for whatever reason, always contain a quite explicit political agenda. The Day After Tomorrow, for example, features thinly veiled take-offs of George Bush and Dick Cheney getting their comeuppance for denying global warming. The satire is a bit more subtle in The Happening, which is about trees fighting back against deforestation. Strewn throughout these films are references to mass human suffering around the world, a connection between the fearsome imagery they contain and the concrete political situation in the present. These films have a satirical side, which cannot be ignored simply because the scenarios presented are so ludicrous. They are all responding to contemporary issues, either in a sophisticated way (“The Happening is a mainstream attempt to scare people into realizing the potentially disastrous effects of ecological encroachment,” according to critic Joseph Foy) or one just a smidge less so (“So we thought, ‘Let's do that,’ because everybody's focusing on global warming and stuff like that. The fear is that everything is heating up—let's go the other way, flip it, and make a film about global freezing…if Sydney's frozen, you know the planet's in a bit of trouble,” according to the director). Given the immensity of the audience these films have, it is important to think about what that audience is hearing.

Which is, now, exactly what? Surprisingly, most of the “wrathful nature” films do not explicitly raise environmental politics; only The Happening and The Day After Tomorrow actually attempt to portray the disastrous effects of pollution. The Core critiques the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile 2012 portrays a major issue in all disaster relief efforts: how does one decide who and what gets spared? The point made in 2012 is a good one, that the rich and powerful will essentially be inured from the consequences of most disasters. Moreover, this is a glaring injustice that will become more and more relevant as the effects of global warming continue to grow: the world’s poorest, who have done the least to create the problems of global warming, who reap the fewest rewards of industrialization, will also suffer its consequences the most. Still, it’s clear that the disaster that happens in 2012 would have happened no matter what environmental policies were adopted, making eco-politics functionally irrelevant.

Although these films may not necessarily mention environmental issues explicitly, they really are about humanity’s relationship to nature. The defining characteristic of these movies is that they all exhibit cities being destroyed, not by rampaging monsters, but rather by forces that are not normally considered to have anything resembling agency: water, lava, lightning, pollen, neutrinos. The question of why civilization is being destroyed by these impersonal forces is asked at some point in most of the films, but the answer hardly seems to matter. There are several cynical explanations for why these films fail to explain the reasons behind their disasters. Perhaps broaching the subject would force the films to confront the science behind the disaster, a lose-lose opportunity from the filmmaker’s perspective: audience members who might be interested in the science wouldn’t buy it, while those who are not interested in the science would simply be bored. Or more simply, perhaps the decision to skip the whys has something to do with the fact that no one in the audience really has any interest in seeing people discuss any subject at all for a protracted length of time. Note how it takes 14 pages before 2012 has more than six lines of consecutive dialogue.

It is, however, possible to give a more charitable explanation for why the films do not, in general, try to explain why the events are happening. Namely, it is understood that the effects of the disaster are going to happen no matter what, so nothing dramatic hinges on the answer to why it is happening. Indeed, the only one of these five films that actually does ask why at any length, The Happening, is able to do so because the exact nature of the disaster remains murky for most of the film. The murkiness of the disaster leads to a situation where the characters’ survival depends on actually figuring out what’s happening. When Mark Wahlberg does determine what is actually going on, the why swiftly disappears as a concern from the film. There is nothing for Wahlberg to do for people in general; there is only the opportunity to save himself and those close to him. Indeed, in all of these films, the immensity of the disasters seems to dwarf the capacity of the protagonists for action. Everyone in these films simply has to focus on doing the best he or she can, and leave the big questions for later. By depriving the characters the time or inclination to ask why, the films heighten the sense of helplessness that the characters feel in the face of the disaster.

This is where the explicit agenda of these films connects to the subject matter they portray: they are both about human beings, as well as humanity in general, being helpless, small, and fragile. Scientists dabbling with what they know not (The Core, Sunshine), industrialists run amok (The Happening, The Day After Tomorrow), humanity unwittingly close to its own demise (2012): the common theme is human hubris, and the fall that follows is supposed to be a more accurate re-estimation of humanity’s real worth.2 At one point in The Happening, while Mark Wahlberg’s character is fleeing through a post-apocalyptic New Jersey, the audience is presented with a prominent advertisement for a new McMansion development. The advertisement reads, “Because you deserve it,” a fitting explanation for the mayhem itself. In 2012, a character issues what might easily be read as a broad indictment of contemporary society, “Civilization means to work together to create a better life… there is nothing human and nothing civilized about what we're doing here.” Indeed, these films often present a stunning condemnation of humanity. They bring into focus humanity’s limitations, our frailty, and our wickedness in the face of our certain destruction.

Or, that’s what these films would do, were it not for the fact that, without exception, it turns out that the certain Armageddon proposed was not so sure after all. The apocalypse never actually happens in any of these movies. All the protagonists positioned to earn our affection survive not much the worse for wear. Civilization continues much the same as it did before. Indeed, these films are not actually about humanity confronting its frailty, but rather about humanity rising to face challenges never before confronted. It’s Humanism, the celebration of humanity and human potential, that these films preach, not anti-Humanism, the derision of humanity and the nay-saying on our race. In fact, as a rule, anti-Humanists are mocked in the film, as for example Woody Harrelson’s character in 2012, whose only character description in the screenplay is as a 62-year-old “crazy looking guy with binoculars around his neck.” This character is the only one who is enthused about the prospect of apocalypse (“You'll never make it out in time. Just stay and enjoy the big bang!”), and he is crushed to death by a hurtling molten rock. Or, if the naysayers aren’t mocked, they’re reviled, as in Sunshine, where a crazed sun-worshipping astronaut ends up destroying two spaceships because he believes that the ships will interfere with the God’s/the Sun’s intent to destroy mankind. The astronaut is portrayed less as a human being and more as a clever, fast, and malicious zombie.

It’s clear in these films that you do not want to be against Humanity. Rather, the point these films demonstrate is that if you’re resourceful, like the protagonists, and don’t give up hope or go crazy, then you can brave all the odds and actually survive that which cannot be survived. It’s not necessary to have made any preparations, and you don’t need connections to wealth or power: all you need is ingenuity and you’ll be able to avoid the pathetic, humorous death faced by the overwhelming majority.

In short, these films really encourage the public not to worry about the possibility of massive environmental danger; someone else will figure out how to deal with the problem. And even though a lot of people might die, each individual audience member will, like John Cusack or Dennis Quaid or whatever protagonist the audience member identifies with, probably be able to look after himself and all the people he cares about. We’re encouraged, in the end, to believe that each of us is somehow one of those destined to be spared from the disaster. Far from encouraging us to be more prudent in the face of our current challenges, films in the avenging earth genre induce complacency. Insofar as this is the case, these are some of the most hypocritical films Hollywood has ever produced.

1 In order to find an American blockbuster prior to Independence Day that presented a comparable disaster, one needs to go back 17 years to 1979’s Meteor.

2 Sunshine makes the point most unsubtly by christening the space ship sent to reignite the sun “Icarus.” Why humanity would jinx its last hope for survival by associating it with a man who flew close to the sun and died is anyone’s guess.

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