THE END IS NIGH
Apocalypse films tap into our collective anxieties, writes Michael Bodey
THE zombies have come and they’re slowly leaving. Now it’s time for the apocalypse. A collective thought bubble means cinemagoers will be subjected to a number of versions of the world’s end, or defence, in coming months.
These aren’t the shameless knock-offs that come after one successful film ( The Hangover’s extreme comedy followers continue to pile up, for instance). The last highly successful film featuring an apocalypse was way back in 1991, and was one of the more accomplished in the genre, Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
This is a moment when filmmakers across several genres, from comedy and drama to high action, and as diverse and notable as Lars von Trier, Seth Rogen, Abel Ferrara and Guillermo del Toro, think the end is nigh. Or at least that the end may make compelling entertainment.
At the more commercial end, Brad Pitt will fight zombies and nihilism in the epic World War Z and Pan’s Labyrinth’s del Toro threatens to out-explode Michael Bay’s Transformers in Pacific Rim (and look out, Sydney will be destroyed). The apocalypse will play for laughs in The World’s End, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s follow-up to Shaun of the Dead, and in the meta-comedy This is the End, where Rogen, James Franco, Paul Rudd, Jay Baruchel and a Hollywood cabal of comics play themselves on the night the world is being destroyed.
They follow last year’s mixed approaches to the last day on earth scenario by von Trier ( Melancholia), Ferrara ( 4:44 Last Day on Earth, starring Willem Dafoe) and Lorene Scafaria, who has the unlikely pair of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The apocalypse doesn’t always misfire on screen. Last year’s impending doom on a southern bayou in Beasts of the Southern Wild was oddly compelling and earned an Academy Award best picture nomination while Michael Shannon’s performance as a dishevelled ‘‘ doomsday prepper’’ in Take Shelter stood out last year.
‘‘ The apocalypse is something that never comes so it’s always ripe for reinvention, which is one of the reasons it’s such a seductive myth,’’ says Marcus O’Donnell, program convener of journalism at the University of Wollongong, who recently wrote a PhD thesis about the narrative of the apocalypse.
At the blockbuster end, the rash of apocalyptic movies merely may represent a penchant for blowing things up among the male directors who dominate the action and sci-fi genres. Certainly the notion of mass destruction with tsunamis of water and slabs of skyscrapers flying from the screen plays well in the burgeoning 3-D format, and the development of digital effects and manipulation means photo-realistic possibilities have expanded for all filmmakers. But a visiting professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University, Sarah Juliet Lauro, notes that apocalypse narratives ‘‘ have been with us at every chapter of our historical experience, and have taken forms of spiritual rapture, plagues, natural disasters, global war, interplanetary destruction.’’
On screen, the apocalypse has been predictable fodder, adds Mick Broderick, an associate professor of media analysis in the school of arts at Murdoch University. He says the disaster epic The Last Days of Pompeii was remade several times during the silent era and was widely popular.
‘‘ Each decade has its peaks and troughs of apocalyptic entertainment, but after the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the apocalyptic imagination increasingly explored themes of man-made holocausts, as opposed to cosmic or divine cataclysms,’’ he says.
Digital advances and Hollywood’s propen- sity for pandering primarily to the male under35 audience through the 1990s and 2000s have meant the apocalypse is only a multiplex away.
Threats have included asteroids ( Armageddon), apes threatening our way of life (the Planet of the Apes series) and a recent batch of enviro-thrillers including The Day after Tomorrow, 2012 and Arctic Blast, in which Tasmania has become the frontline. Even the Pixar Animation Studio with its astounding Wall:E straddled the theme of dystopia after man-made apocalypse.
But clearly there’s something in Hollywood’s coffee at the moment. The present batch of apocalypse films represent a change in tone. Only three to four years ago postapocalyptic films thrived, as it were, with their images of distress and nihilism colouring The Road, The Book of Eli and others.
Then the zombies arrived in a phenomenon that swept across film, television and literature. Vampires were for kids; zombies seemingly are for everyone.
Lauro, who has studied zombies or, more particularly, the phenomenon of people dressing up and staging ‘‘ zombie mobs’’, while working on a doctoral degree, argues they are part of a trend mirroring levels of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval. She sees the zombie walk as a complicated