Apocalypse Now: The End of the World in Modern Cinema

We human beings sure love our own destruction don’t we? From alien invasions to governmental coups to superheroes saving the world while simultaneously murdering hundreds of thousands (looking at you Man of Steel) numerous films, particularly in recent cinema, seem showcase absurd amounts of destruction with the overhanging sense that the end of the world is upon our characters.

Some films even go as far as to have their films take place in a time when the apocalypse has already happened and our unfortunate band of survivors have to struggle to obtain supplies or overthrow some corrupt dynasty, whatever the plot may be. The threat of an apocalypse is a plot device that’s been present in cinemas for decades yet recently there’s been such a growth spurt in films using this plot device that it borders on obsession.

Let’s list some films from last year that depicted an apocalyptic environment or an impending plot to end the world: The 5th Wave, Batman v Superman, Independence Day: Resurgence, X-Men: Apocalypse, Gods of Egypt, Warcraft, The Girl with all the Gifts, Suicide Squad – the list goes on. Even before last year’s surge we had some films where the end result was the world literally ending. Examples include The Cabin in the Woods, The Cornetto Trilogy’s The World’s End and even the alternative ending to Little Shop of Horrors. Why is this the case?  Are we as a species just naturally bloodthirsty or is there some underlying social reason why so many films seem fixated on preventing or surviving an apocalypse?

Perhaps from a social perspective it’s because the world is naturally dangerous. As we grow older we learn about things that were kept from us as children to protect our innocence – such as modern terrorism or atrocities in history like the Holocaust or the Crusades. We even learn about pinnacle events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, something many historians would debate as the closest humanity ever came to Nuclear War and thus a potential apocalypse.  We learn that the world is a scary place. Thankfully, even before we made this harrowing revelation, film serves primarily as a form of escapism and continues to do so. If The Avengers or Katniss Everdeen or even a drunk Simon Pegg can prevent the end of the world or even navigate their way through an apocalypse maybe we can handle our own struggles and woes, regardless of a lack of superpowers.

Maybe that’s the key reason why we like seeing the apocalypse in cinema, or maybe it’s just because we like how visual mediums depicts devastation. Whatever the reason, film has served as a source of comfort or even as a coping mechanism since its inception, frequently using the apocalypse as a means to an end. Lately however problems have begun to arise around how seemingly generic the apocalypse has become. The end of the world is constantly looming over the heads of heroes and every young adult film post-Hunger Games looks the same with its dystopian setting (although Allegiant’s disastrous box office seems to have finally killed that trend). How long will it be before the world means as little as a stubbed toe, or until apocalyptic settings replace common suburbia in film?

For this more variety needs to be introduced. Let’s assume audiences desperately need their thirst for destruction quenched – apocalypses are fine, but now mundane, and thus filmmakers need to do more to explore other aspects of the plot device. Last year’s The Girl with all the Gifts wasn’t especially good but it had a very provocative ending that suggested its central zombie apocalypse was the next stage in life and that it was best for humanity to just let nature take its course. The alternative ending to Will Smith’s I am Legend did something similar before opting for a more formulaic route. Had it gone with the previous ending it would have been much more remarkable and thought provoking than it eventually became. Recent Marvel films like Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War had more personal, self-contained threats, rather than international ones and judging from the trailers Spiderman: Homecoming seems like it’s going to do the same. These either choose to ignore the end of the world or convey a novel perspective on it, and are therefore essential if we want to continue to appreciate the apocalypse in cinema.   

Films obsessing over the end of the world is nothing new and odds are they’re liking going to continue to do so for years to come. That’s all fair and good given the spectacle we’re usually treated to but hopefully we’ll get more variation on our doom in future. After all it’s not what you do that makes something original; it’s how you do it.

[Calum Cooper]

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