It’s apocalypse now at the movies, writes Donald Clarke
Don’t worry. It’s not the end of the world. Or is it? While searching for ways to avoid writing this article, I decided to spend some time viewing trailers for upcoming releases. The first promo I happened upon was for The Happening. Happily, despite that terrifying title, the picture does not concern itself with pretentious art-wazzocks flinging paint over one another in SoHo lofts. It is, rather, the latest essay in quasi-mystic gloom from our old pal M Night Shyamalan.
As I understand it, The Happening – which appears to be brain-spinningly Shyamalanesque – concerns a world environmental catastrophe that causes bees to behave strangely and Mark Wahlberg to hug Zooey Deschanel. It looks great.
Then I clicked on the trailer for Doomsday. Neil Marshall’s follow-up to The Descent has to do with the aftermath of an epidemic that wipes out some significant portion of the British population. The infected are quarantined in Scotland, where, it seems, they either die or take to dressing up like characters from Mad Max 2. (Mind you, given the Scots’ famous passion for deep-fried Dream Topping, such a quarantine might actually raise the average life expectancy. Ha ha!) Doomsday looks great too.
But, hang on a moment. Only five minutes ago, we were offered another apocalypse in I Am Legend. Just last year, Britain succumbed to catastrophe once more in 28 Weeks Later. In recent times we have also seen the world face its end in Sunshine, Diary of the Dead and Children of Men. What on earth is going on?
You know how these smart-arse columns usually progress. Screenwriter will gaze out from his aerie, survey the sociocultural landscape and come to some fatuously neat explanation for the phenomenon under consideration. It’s all to do with the McCartney divorce. It’s a by-product of the social-networking craze. That sort of thing.
The current taste for end-ofthe-world dramas is, however, totally mystifying. If the films had emerged six years ago, we could blame it all on the atmosphere of unease that followed 9/11. Had this taste for cinematic oblivion manifested itself in the 1980s, we might have discerned a commentary on the advance of Aids. The financial markets have, it is true, looked a bit jittery recently, and the debate on climate change has become ever more heated, but there seems no clear reason why Hollywood has suddenly turned Chicken Little (Oh, did I mention Chicken Little?)
Earlier enthusiasms for the apocalyptic do seem to have had their spurs in contemporary events. William Cameron Menzies’s great Things to Come speculated on a coming world war in 1936. The first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel in 1956, is often viewed as a commentary on both McCarthyism and fears of nuclear holocaust.
What are we all so scared of in 2008? Well, every broadsheet has, in recent years, been lecturing us about the economic might of China. Yeah, that sounds about right. These films all speak of our concerns about the People’s Republic’s unstoppable advance, Will that do?