It’s the End of the World as We’ve Known It

Good old Earth was nearly destroyed, almost extinguished, and threatened with slaughter every hour in cinemas this summer. And yet, here we are. Our film critics pinpoint the collapse of the apocalypse genre.

From Melancholia (2011)

Mike Baker is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cinema Studies at the University of British Columbia. Pasha Malla is the author of four books and a longtime contributor to The Morning News. Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life, an essay collection recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Pasha Malla: Are there more end-of-the-world (EOTW) movies out this summer than usual?

Michelle Orange: My sense is yeah, there are more apocalypses than usual happening this summer. Wikipedia’s rough list shows a surge in these kinds of movies beginning in the 1970s. We had about the same number each decade through the ‘90s, but in the 2000s that number almost doubled, and the first three years of this decade put us on track to more than double the number again. This would seem to be the story audiences want to see play out, although a number of this summer’s apocalypse (or post-apocalypse) movies—namely After Earth, World War Z, and Pacific Rim—have underperformed, relative to their absurd, world-ending budgets. Still, it appears disaster fatigue might finally be setting in.

I hope so. The novelty wore off for me while I was still in high school. Somewhere between then and now came the idea that watching major cities fold in on themselves like cake batter is the peak of summer entertainment. You didn’t see this kind of thing when the world actually was folding in on itself, say in 1942. There’s an obvious argument to be made that these movies spring from and seek to engage a growing anxiety about the state of the post-9/11, globalized, war-on-terror, climate-changing world. But isn’t there also an argument that their extremities are designed to titillate an audience that has trouble feeling anything if it’s not exploding in IMAX 3D?

With the recent crop of apocalypse films, the apocalypse feels like more of a genre add-on than a central feature.

Mike Baker: The new seriousness in Hollywood blockbusters these days was sparked (not entirely) by Christopher Nolan’s films, particularly The Dark Knight, but has quickly evolved into a joylessness exacerbated by the often middling—if not outright bad—storytelling on display in these films and uncritically accepted by so many moviegoers. Even mainstream critics I otherwise trust have trouble being tough on many of these films.

I think This Is the End and Pacific Rim get a pass in terms of dealing with the heaviness of the EOTW thematic because they are both so earnest and crowd pleasing and happy with themselves as exercises in genre and summertime movie-going. It’s the city-destroying and loss of life on unspeakable scales endlessly on display in films like World War Z and Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises that is getting really bothersome. Aesthetically, I think Michelle is absolutely right to suggest there is a link between “IMAX,” 3D, and the large-scale destruction that is now the go-to third act of nearly every summer blockbuster. It’s not background, it is the movie.

MO: With the recent crop of apocalypse films, the apocalypse feels like more of a genre add-on than a central feature. In fact, I would say This Is the End, a movie I saw twice of my own volition, is the only one that uses, or even attempts to use, the apocalyptic as metaphor: end of friendship = end of the world.

World War Z seems like a standard zombie movie but zombies AT THE END OF THE WORLD. Pacific Rim strikes me as pretty classic sci-fi, but it’s sci-fi AT THE END OF THE WORLD. It feels rare that one of these movies presents a sensibility coherent enough to be chilling, or put anything true at stake.

PM: Aren’t all EOTW movies metaphors for the actual end of the world, or at least the EOTWAWKI (viz., “and I feel fine”)? Any lay-Marxist could read the family in World War Z—all middle class American families, really, as they’re portrayed in movies—as representative of bourgeois capitalist order, and notably, and obviously, it’s their safety that motivates Brad Pitt’s character to join the resistance, not the threat to civilization. So if these movies are playing on any current fear, it’s not exactly a fear of Armageddon, but a much more immediate fear of the end of a certain type of comfy lifestyle, caricaturized to an absurd eschatological endpoint so we can sit back and enjoy it, a little.

MO: Yes, but zombie and sci-fi already have their own EOTWAWKI metaphors built in, so I guess my question is, why bring the actual end of the world into what is effectively the background?

MB: Many commentators are arguing there is a concrete link between this current North American boom of EOTW movies and life post-9/11, post-2009 market crash, etc. I also think it’s just the natural cycle of genre filmmaking—everything old is new again, always, in popular culture—and there are parallels to the current “state of things” and the early-to-mid 1980s with the horror/slasher cycles along with Reagan-era capitalism, class struggle, Cold War fears of imminent destruction. So in one way, there’s nothing very special about what we’re seeing and we’re going to see it all again in 15-20 years. If the world doesn’t end first.

PM: This Is the End, as a parody of the whole genre, seems more sophisticated in its treatment of these themes. But as for the rest of these movies, I struggle to see how they’re cathartic in any way, other than that the world never actually ends at the end of them. The huge difference between the book and movie versions of I Am Legend is such a good example of Hollywood’s approach: instead of being executed in a prison cell, Will Smith builds an ersatz family and finds a colony of survivors. The world will go on, and so will some version of the social order—phew!

MO: Maybe we should just talk about This Is the End. Did I mention I saw it twice? Or let’s talk about money: Pacific Rim and World War Z both cost about $200 million to make, a fairly staggering sum. The money would suggest at least the most obvious kind of investment in the movies, which has always been a part of my confusion with these kinds of movies: they work really hard for that level of incoherence.

The absurd effects in This Is the End trumped anything else I saw this summer, if only because I could identify what I was looking at—a demon with a giant dong, for one thing.

MB: Ironically, the real “end” is the end of the movie business as we know it—so maybe we just empty this conversation of politics entirely and give producers and studio heads credit for being clever and self-conscious and self-deprecating?

PM: Is it laziness, then? Like a capitulation to spectacle over storytelling? Knowing that audiences are numbed anyway, so all a movie needs to do is flash and dance and blow shit up?

I’ll be honest, I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on in most of the fight scenes in Pacific Rim. There wasn’t even anything to look at, just a vague impression of motion on-screen. I can’t imagine how this is satisfying to anyone, but we continue to flock to these movies, and some people apparently even enjoy them. But they aren’t even really spectacular shows of destruction when you can’t make out what’s happening; afterward I just feel exhausted and duped. So, what’s my point? Basically that even the absurd (and kind of terrible) effects in This Is the End trumped anything else I saw this summer, if only because I could identify what the fuck I was looking at—a demon with a hilariously giant dong, for one thing.

MO: It’s not laziness, exactly, but it seems to me the usual greed is overlaid with a new cynicism. These movies are made for an international market—the only way they’ll make their money back—so there’s less attention to story or nuance or themes that might appeal to a large but still particular audience, like, say, North America. The sad thing is I found Pacific Rim to be more coherent than average, in terms of its action scenes. But then I’ve seen far too many of these movies, to the point where I tried to engineer my life such that I wouldn’t have to watch them anymore.

What if anything impressed you both about Pacific Rim and World War Z? Did they scare or excite you at any point?

PM: I actually kind of liked about two thirds of World War Z, though the convenient coincidences and baffling plot moves in the final act were kind of unbearable. Also, I think we’re going to look back on these large-scale CGI effects as we do King Kong-era Claymation—those jumbles of thrashing pixels aren’t fooling anyone. I did appreciate that they called the zombies by name. I’m tired of movies, and The Walking Dead, in which there seems no taxonomical precedent in human or cinematic history for these lurching, face-devouring undead humanoids. They’re zombies! We know this! You kill them by shooting them in the head, and if you stop at a small-town, roadside diner, while one of your party pumps gas and you go inside to “look for supplies,” invariably and mystifyingly a really decayed one is going to come staggering at you from behind the counter. But don’t worry, the sketchy guy you previously never trusted will save you with a hatchet.

MB: The thing I liked about Pacific Rim was the fact that the action sequences were comprehensible. I felt Del Toro went out of his way to establish the scale of the robots and the monsters, and their strengths and limitations, and I appreciate the fact that his films are generally filled with color when so many of his contemporaries feel the need to paint the world in black and grey. Pretty much every other element of the film was immediately forgettable, but I found the whole huge-robots-punching-monsters thing entertaining in the most adolescent and wholesome way. So much so that the EOTW narrative driving Pacific Rim didn’t really register with me. I’m not sure I’d even call it an EOTW movie—it was Top Gun with huge-robots-punching-monsters. And Top Gun wasn’t an EOTW movie.

Children of Men was a fantastic film. 28 Days Later was a fantastic film. It’s no coincidence these were British productions with international casts and crew.

World War Z, on the other hand, felt tired and insincere and over-reaching in the most unentertaining ways. The hollow mechanics of the whole enterprise could not be ignored moment by moment. International star: check. International locations: check. Action set pieces in lieu of characters and story: check. Hasty 3D post-conversion to increase domestic and international box-office: check. All things that describe Pacific Rim, and yet Del Toro’s film left me feeling all warm and fuzzy. It was, overall, a really great summertime trip to the Cineplex, much like those when I was a teenager. World War Z made me feel bitter and old, in part because from the very first moment I felt above the film.

MO: What would a good apocalypse movie do for us that these are not doing?

PM: I think a good apocalypse movie will capture some subjectivity. These are all about large-scale spectacle, so we as the audience only ever experience things voyeuristically. I liked that This Is the End paid attention to human relationships and the various personal crises one might experience if the world were really ending—like, who gets to eat the last Milky Way? Weirdly, it’s the closest any recent movie has come to feeling like the actual EOTW to me, if only because I could identify with how inept the characters were at survival. Also, I think the last line of World War Z, which is something like, “This isn’t even close to the end,” makes the title even sharper.

MB: For a good apocalypse movie to really resonate, I think the stakes need to be unequivocal (duh… it’s the end of the world) and the threat needs to be effectively communicated to the audience so that we can actually fear the consequences of the action unfolding on the screen. This means characters you actually care about—and those generally don’t exist in Hollywood blockbusters. Children of Men was a fantastic film. 28 Days Later was a fantastic film. It’s no coincidence these are British productions with international casts and crew. This Is the End was so satisfying precisely because the characters were so believable—within the context of a buddy comedy and the caricatures they chose to adopt for themselves—and true to our conception of what those guys must be like in their day-to-day lives, while the stakes were pretty clear: the world was ending, there was nothing they could do to stop it, so the question was “heaven or hell?”

PM: We haven’t talked about Melancholia, which seems like another parodic take on this whole genre. Should we?

MO: Melancholia is a perfect example of an apocalypse movie that made sense to me, in every possible way. As a metaphor, as a straight story, visually, tonally. If the end of the world really were to arrive, first of all it would be the media story to end all (ha ha) media stories. I could see the endless human interest shit-shows clogging cable news. But when it came, if we knew it was coming, the idea that one would simply step outside, find a spot on the lawn, and ideally a hand to hold felt exactly right. The story followed a few people negotiating an extreme situation, as opposed to an extreme situation littered with interchangeable people.

Which gets me thinking: Of course the end of the world is coming for all of us. Could the apocalyptic sensibility be a kind of backward projection of a culture of death-denial? Again, I wonder why we want to see so much death, the more realistic and massive the casualties, the better.

PM: I think we’re moving out of death denial into a culture of ongoing self-eulogy. Like that old Baudrillard line about how we’re born dying and live dying until we die, but now we have somewhere to publicly document it. Maybe the internet’s promise of audience suggests a kind of agency. Though, wait, I want to try to still talk about these movies… If 9/11 presented the possible (even inevitable) death of what we think of us as Western “culture,” maybe there’s some attendant acceptance of our own personal deaths? Zizek says we’re in the “acceptance” phase of living in the end times, so maybe EOTW movies have gone from Cold War hysteria to articulations of mortality.

MB: The curmudgeon in me wants to say EOTW movies are just more proof that genres are the foundation of movie business (all popular entertainment, really), that genres work as profit machines until they stop working, and that given time for a new audience to mature, or an older audience to start feeling nostalgic, any genre will return and reflect in some small way the prevailing social and political mood of the moment. The Western, slasher cycles, superhero franchises, serial killer television shows, CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Grand Theft Auto, auto-tuned female dance anthems, Lollapalooza, and on and on and on and on. Everything old was and will be new again. Maybe EOTW are just appearing on the scene or maybe they are just another evolutionary step that has already delivered us the Armageddons of the 1990s, the disaster movies of the 1970s, and the science fiction invasion films of the 1950s.

In the case of EOTW movies: Yes, some are better than others and the very best find a way to tap into the personal—e.g. This Is the End, Melancholia—rather than settling for the pure spectacle that we seem to agree is uninteresting, unfulfilling, and perhaps even alienating. But aren’t we just biding our time until the next round of Star Wars movies, Iraq war films or Holocaust epics hits the screens? And depending on what is being bombed, which city is under siege, or which strain of Bird Flu is decimating rural populations, won’t we be inclined to discuss these films as somehow speaking to our post-9/11, post-Occupy, post-Facebook moment?

MO: I agree in the sense that my frustration with these movies is largely with their refusal to yield meaning. But then you could argue that any given genre movie is less about itself than it is about perpetuating/expanding the genre, and its the parameters of the genre and its context that yield meaning.

MB: I’m not suggesting genre and it’s importance isn’t precisely as you describe it be, Michelle. I was just asking whether there was anything particularly special about EOTW movies, specifically in terms of quantity since this was the metric introduced in the original question posed to us. You’re right, Michelle, that I was wary of making a mountain out of a molehill, but not because we were barking up the wrong tree—I was just concerned that maybe we were missing Occam’s Razor for the cartoonish-ly enormous devil dong. Maybe I’m asking it too late, but it now seems like the question is: as a genre, are EOTW movies (assuming they are their own fully fledged thing) reflecting the current “state of things” any different (better or worse) than other Hollywood genres? And is this question complicated/illuminated by the related query acknowledging “the end of cinema?” As someone who sat through The Canyons less than 24 hours ago, I have the icky feeling that cinema is already dead.

PM: Well, in the New York interview with Damon Lindelof, he talks about the necessity to end/save the world as a product of Hollywood commercialism—”It’s almost impossible to… not have a final set piece where the fate of the free world is at stake”—and the piece also mentions Spielberg’s proclamation of Hollywood’s impending implosion, so in some way these movies continually saving the world does seem a transparently desperate attempt to “save cinema.”

Which makes me think of Cabin in the Woods: not an EOTW movie until the end of the movie, when the world, as it almost never does in most of these movies, actually does end. The experience of leaving the theater after the final credits was weird, almost as though I’d expected to feel like the Omega Man stumbling into the ruins of the post-apocalypse—but here was Starbucks, and here was Popeye’s, and lots and lots of people, and a dog peeing on a mailbox, and it was, amazingly, business as usual on the living Earth. The movie lied to me! Which I liked, because it shifted my understanding of things, if only a little. I’d enjoy more movies if that was more often the case.