EVERY MAJOR RELIGION HAS AN END-OF-THE-WORLD-AS-WE-KNOW-IT STORY. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all tell a story of a divine final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Hindu cosmology has history cycling through an endless series of creations and destructions. In the Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, Buddha describes the future fiery destruction of Earth by seven successive “suns”. Even secularists and atheists have their end-time narratives, either brought about by man-made disasters like global warming, or simply the inevitable extinction of the human species and the “heat death”—the complete dissipation—of the universe. And apocalypse stories surface everywhere in popular culture.
I FIRST STARTED PAYING CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE REGULARITY OF END-OF-THE-WORLD SCENARIOS in popular culture—especially in film and television—with the 1998 movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. Both involved the threat of a history-ending meteorite strike (a comet or an asteroid, respectively). Deep Impact attempted a serious dramatic look at the political repercussions and human pathos of an impending world-ending disaster; Armageddon (whose title betrays a serious lack of familiarity with the biblical book of Revelation) was one of those cinematic amusement park rides. Both films were actually “apocalypse-averted-by-human ingenuity and pluck” stories, with heroic, self-sacrificial efforts destroying the incoming mountains of rock and ice (or mostly so, in Deep Impact). This summer I have seen two apocalypse-themed movies, Tomorrowland (which I review here) and Terminator Genisys, both of which are also apocalypse-averted stories. I missed Mad Max: Fury Road, a post-apocalyptic extended car-chase show, as well as San Andreas, a mega-disaster, mini-apocalypse (sort of 2012 lite), and another cinematic roller coaster.
Of course, popular fascination with films about the apocalypse is almost as old as Hollywood. The first end-of-the-world movie was the appropriately named 1916 Danish film, The End of the World (Danish – Verdens Undergang), featuring a near-miss by a passing comet which triggers world-wide natural disasters and social upheaval. The “doom-from-space” trope got a re-start in When Worlds Collide (1951), with the planet-killing heavenly body being a rogue star on a collision course with Earth. This time the plucky ingenious humans build a “space ark” to ferry a few lucky lottery winners to the habitable planet orbiting the rogue star. Then the asteroid apocalypse concept lay dormant until Deep Impact and Armageddon. A variation of the doom-from-space scenario, the “alien invasion apocalypse”, got a classic start in 1953 with the original film version of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. The 2005 remake had spectacular special effects, but for my money the original is a better story, as well as more fun to watch. The alien invasion apocalypse reached blockbuster status with Independence Day (1996), which features a horde of alien barbarians, roaming the galaxy like interstellar Visigoths to plunder planets for their resources. Independence Day also helped lead a new wave of big-budget science fiction films—including apocalyptic ones—that began in the late 1990s and continues to this day.
MY FIRST APOCALYPTIC FILM EXPERIENCE was Stanley Kramer’s 1959 nuclear disaster epic On the Beach (I saw it nearly a decade after its first release, as the weekend entertainment at the private boys school I attended in the late 1960s). Based on Nevil Shute’s book of the same name, On the Beach is a “truly-the-end-with-nothing-after” apocalypse. Set in 1963, the story begins after a nuclear war has devastated the entire northern hemisphere, and lethal radioactive fallout is now spreading to the last outposts of mankind in Australia and New Zealand (in the book parts of South America and South Africa are also still inhabited). Eventually the fallout reaches southern Australia and one-by-one the story’s main characters, to avoid the agony of radiation sickness, commit suicide with government distributed pills. On the Beach was the first cautionary tale of nuclear war, warning of a man-made atomic apocalypse if we did not mend our ways. The same year On the Beach came out, nuclear apocalypse was turned into a parable about disarmament and racial reconciliation with The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The nuclear cautionary tale genre reached a climax in the highest-rated ever made-for-television movie The Day After (1983), watched by over 100 million people. The movie begins with a geopolitical drama between the United States and the Soviet Union, culminating in a full-scale nuclear war. The second half is a “slice-of-post-nuclear-apocalypse-life” story, following the tragic fates of the few survivors in and around the small city of Lawrence, Kansas.
The “cautionary end-of-the-world tale” genre added the “environmental apocalypse” in 1972 with Silent Running, in which an unspecified environmental disaster has destroyed all plant life on Earth. Saturn-orbiting “bio-domes” hold the last botanical remnants, for scientific study and possible re-forestation in the future. In Soylent Green (1973) the problem is run-away overpopulation and industrial pollution. The primary food source, a green wafer called Soylent Green produced by the Soylent Corporation, is made of processed human remains. The threat of global warming first makes an apocalyptic appearance in 1993 with the television mini-series The Fire Next Time. Waterworld in 1995 continued the climate change end of the world trend, conjecturing a planet totally inundated, while The Day After Tomorrow (2004) paradoxically had run-away global warming ending in a new ice age in much of the Northern Hemisphere.
THE MOST POPULAR WORLD-ENDING SCENARIO for the last few years has been the “zombie apocalypse”. The literary and film beginnings of the zombie have deeper roots, but the idea of a world overrun by the “undead” began with the novel by Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954). In Matheson’s book one man, Robert Neville, remains unaffected after a unspecified biological agent has infected everyone else in the world with vampire-like symptoms. Matheson’s book was made into a movie in 1964, The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price as the main character. George Romero admitted he borrowed heavily from Matheson’s book in his 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Romero’s infected undead were the first to crave and consume human flesh. Though in the original script he typically referred to these infected humans as “ghouls” (which are evil spirits who feed on dead bodies), Romero used the term “zombie” in subsequent interviews and publicity events. The “zombie” apocalypse was born. The concept of a world-wide biological pandemic turning the human race into crazed, often flesh-eating, “undead” began to spread. Matheson’s book itself was made into a movie twice more with The Omega Man (1971) and I Am Legend (2007), and Romero produced several sequels to Night of the Living Dead. The undead got their own television series, AMC’s The Walking Dead, in 2010. About to start its sixth season, The Walking Dead chronicles the daily struggles of groups of survivors seeking food, shelter, and meaningful relationships while they try to avoid the ravenous appetites and infectious bites of “walkers”. A zombie apocalypse soap opera. The apotheosis of the zombie apocalypse film was reached in 2013 with the Brad Pitt-fueled blockbuster, World War Z.
There have been over 250 end-of-the-world movies, as well as many more that incorporate some kind of apocalyptic theme, ambience, or symbolism (such as David Ayer’s 2014 war film, Fury, which I review here). Over 100 of them have been made since 2000. The first end-of-the world television show may have been the 1953 Twilight Zone episode Time Enough at Last. In this clever story, the only apparent survivor of a nuclear war is a meek librarian, played by Burgess Meredith (I won’t spoil the rest of the story; you can watch the entire episode here). In the last twenty years the end-of-the-world genre has become increasingly popular on the small screen. Current shows alone include the zombie apocalypse The Walking Dead, TNT’s The Last Ship (biological apocalypse), Fox’s recently concluded Wayward Pines (a mixed genre environmental/evolutionary/zombie apocalypse), TNT’s Falling Skies (alien invasion apocalypse), CBS’s Under the Dome (mixed doom-from-space/alien invasion apocalypse), SyFy’s Defiance (mixed alien invasion/environmental apocalypse), and the CW’s The 100 (post-nuclear war apocalypse), to name just a few.
THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT CONTINUES TO EXERCISE A FASCINATION on the popular imagination. In fact, it’s growing. The number of apocalypse-themed movies from 2000 to 2009 doubled over the previous decade, and they are on pace to be doubled again by the end of this decade. Why are we so fascinated with stories of our own impending doom?
Next Week: It’s the End of the World as We Know It: The Apocalypse in Popular Culture, Part II – Not Your Father’s Apocalypse