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the end of the world as we know it
the art of the apocalypse
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

So, you know how pop culture writing is, right? Two is a trend. That's why you're seeing so much coverage these days of "oooh, apocalypse!" just because 2012 and The Road happened to come out within a couple weeks of each other.


On the face of it, you've got two movies that couldn't be more different. One, a splashy, crashy, disastery blockbuster of an action movie, with ads and trailers that feature OMG THE CRASHTASM. The other, based on a lyrical novel by someone far more famous for his wordwork than his plotting, all bleak and quiet and gray and oh also bleak again.

And you know what? The face of it is the face of it. The trend is not a trend.

But the question is an interesting question: what draws people to movies about the apocalypse?

My answer is: well, it sure as hell isn't the apocalypse.

Okay, hear me out. It's not that the disaster itself doesn't have some drawing power. An action movie needs action, and it's hard to come up with bigger action than blowing up or tearing down great symbols of our civilization. But the world doesn't actually have to end in order for many, many valuable parts of it to be shown in CGI-heavy, ear-punishing 'splodey scenes. 2012 has a lot in common with disaster flicks of the past, far more than it has in common with The Road. 2012 is the cousin of The Day After Tomorrow and War of the Worlds, the nephew of Independence Day, the next-door neighbor of Dante's Peak and Armageddon, the bastard grandbaby of The Poseidon Adventure. The end of the world is just an excuse, and there are so many other excuses to destroy things. Aliens, naturally, being a favorite. They disrespect us! And blow up our favorite stuff! We really liked that house, the white one, with all the columns. Stupid aliens. Blow 'em up back! USA!

By contrast, The Road has totally different DNA. The only semi-blockbuster it can trace its lineage to is I Am Legend, and even that wouldn't have been the movie it was without Will Smith. Viggo? Is not Will Smith. If you want to trace this one back to its black-sheep uncles, you can point to The Postman, and possibly Waterworld. Neither exactly ringing endorsements, you might notice.

And so, what is it that draws people to either of these types of movies, different as they may be?

The pat answer on this apocalypse thing is that we're in a cultural moment of fear and fright, that we are so concerned that our own personal worlds are crashing down that we can only be reassurred by watching movies where the ACTUAL world comes crashing down to remind ourselves we don't really have it so bad after all.

That's stupid.

A disaster movie is a disaster movie. People see it for the spectacle. 2012 is a disaster movie, plain and simple, and movies full of spectacle do well. Part of the reason for that is simply the moviemaking machine: effects cost lots of money, so the studios want to recoup their investments, and give these movies bigger media pushes and put them on more screens in more theatres to make sure that happens. Do you really think 2012 was about the cultural moment? If so, what cultural moment shoved busloads of the American public into theatres this summer to watch Transformers 2? Was it our fear of technology, our concern with the potential loss of our humanity in the face of the superiority of the technology we ourselves created but cannot surpass from either a physical or mental perspective? Um, I'm gonna say No. Instead, I will offer the success of this picture as purely attributable to two things: recognizable brand, and HOLY CRAP GIANT ROBOTS.

As for The Road, I feel I don't really have to point out why it's doing well because it's actually not. It's a prestige picture, like so many literary adaptations before it, and will contribute to that whole Oscar season rigamarole we have every year where we discuss a) why pictures people actually see never get nominated and b) why movies that are so bleak and depressing they make you want to shoot yourself in the head are viewed as "award-worthy" almost as a matter of course.


My point about the apocalypse and why people would want to watch it is this: we don't. We don't want to see the apocalypse. BUT if we are drawn to the subject for any reason, it's not carnage that intrigues us.

It's survival.

It's not the apocalypse we want to see. It's the postapocalypse. It's the small bands of people getting together, figuring things out, building their lives again. It's the triumph of the individual will -- or so often in these movies, love and devotion to family -- that can survive any bomb or virus or UFO. It's the citizens of "Jericho" holding elections and defending their farms and refusing to give in to violence. It's the crew of "Battlestar Galactica" building a world on their ships because there's no physical world to build on. It's the story of starting civilization again, after everything else explodes. To know that there will be some people left and they will do something with that second chance, because people are inherently good and strong and principled.

It doesn't take a cultural moment to make people want to see that, does it? It's what we want to believe. Full-time.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


back to the future
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topic: pop culture
published: 2.4.08

it's all your fault
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by jael mchenry
topic: pop culture
published: 1.5.04


joe redden tigan
12.4.09 @ 10:33a

i think everything you say here is the reason Planet of the Apes is the greatest apocalypse movie of all time. yes, survival. and look who came out on top... there isn't a single minute of POTA that isn't fascinating, because of who/what the survivors turned out to be, and the storytelling that had to be employed to slowly tease us with how they got there. instead of one crashtasm after another. POTA was post-coital that way, you might say. that is of cource until the most famous movie ending of all time tells us what really happened. goose bumps, i tell ya. goose bumps.

sandra thompson
12.7.09 @ 8:41a

May you say, "bah humbug" to apocalyptic stuff? Well, I say it anyway.

jeff miller
12.29.09 @ 8:48p

My buddy Joe (not that Joe) and I often discuss how we both find the idea of "apocalypse" kinda comforting. We suspect it comes from growing up with films like MAD MAX and The Terminator, and with novels like The Stand.
No matter how bad things get you can always grow out your hair and drive badass rides through the wastelands with your buddies. Throw in a metal soundtrack and a fallout shelter fulla canned goods and what are we missing, really? A few million people? Seriously, who needs em?

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