Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Apocalypse in Movies

While sitting in the movie theater awaiting the start of Zombieland, I couldn't help but ruminate on the "zombie apocalypse" theme in movies and how it's developed over time. Between mouthfulls of popcorn and Butterfinger minis, I traced as best I could the historical process that has allowed our culture to lampoon this erstwhile bone-chilling subject in the form of a comedy/horror flick. Is it no longer "too soon" to laugh about the prospect of mindless, brain-eating undead creatures roaming the streets? Has the end of humanity become nothing more than a set up for Ruben Fleischer's punch lines?

But as the trailers started to roll, and visions of John Cusack and Paul Bettany flashed across the screen, I began to see that other end-of-the-world themed films are finding their way into the theaters. The zombie apocalypse is tried and true, and (as we have seen) makes for pretty darn good satire when done right. But unlike Zombieland, nothing in the trailer for Legion - about the traditional religious-themed, Angel-heralded apocalypse - made me anticipate a barrel of laughs. Likewise, 2012 - while substantively nothing more than an excuse for Roland Emmerich to flash his special effects - looks to present a straightforward thrill ride chronicling the large scale destruction of everything we hold dear. A kind of secular apocalypse, if you will.

I know that movie trailers tend to cater to the demographic that came to see the feature presentation, but I felt that something more than coincidence was at work in seeing these three similarly-themed movies grouped together.

But is there really more than coincidence? Do more people have the end of the world on the brain now than ever before? 2012 (the year, not the movie) is right around the corner, after all. Let's see what we can find.

The "zombie apocalypse," referenced by name in Zombieland, calls to mind a test of one's survival tactics more than anything else. Whenever I find myself in an enclosed area or perusing a hardware store, I always ask myself, "How would I fortify this place against zombies?" or "What kind of stuff would I loot from here to use against zombies?" Fighting zombies has almost become as prevalent a recurring dream as falling or running away from a pursuer you can't seem to shake.

The general premise of the zombie apocalypse involves a viral infection/genetic defect/whatever the hell that affects more and more of the population until it eventually spreads to everybody. Stories about such an event generally follow a group of people that remains unaffected by the affliction and their efforts to survive. The zombie apocalypse has had its share of exposure in mainstream horror cinema, usually using the desperate nature of the situation to touch on broad cultural issues or send a message of some kind about society. I tend not to notice such messages while watching these movies, as most of my mental capacity is reserved for tempering the accompanying fear/shock enough to keep my brain functioning somewhat normally.

The concept has evolved from such serious and groundbreaking fare as Night of the Living Dead (and all its remakes) and Dawn of the Dead (and its remake), to the angrier, faster, and altogether more modern 28 Days Later (and all its sequels). Our culture has developed this subject enough to enter into the foray of humorous satires and comedy/horrors, thus we can assume we all understand it pretty well. The collective morals of these stories always seem to focus on an individual's ability to make decisions under pressure or a group's ability to get along despite immense external and internal hardships.

Religious apocalyptic stories haven't progressed much since Daniel and John, with the theme of Angels bringing the end of the world. I haven't seen Legion, on account of because it hasn't yet hit theaters, but from what I've gleaned from the trailer is that it's basically a Noah's Ark remake, with Angels playing the part of the flood, and starring Paul Bettany as Noah/the Ark all rolled into one. While it has all the trappings of an apocalypse story, it seems to me (again, just from the trailer) that the overall theme is finding the one last kernel of good in humanity, and defending it against the would-be apocalypsers.

Regular end-of-the-world type stories have not developed to the point where we're comfortable satirizing them, but they have developed over time, in that they've become more fatalistic. In 1998's Armageddon/Deep Impact, the cause of the world's destruction was clearly identifiable and preventable. In 2004's The Day After Tomorrow, the causes are identifiable and explainable (if only to crackpot scientists), even if nothing can be done to prevent the outcome. In 2009's 2012, nothing at all can be explained about the end of the world, except that a bunch of ancients, mystics, and crazies predicted it would happen.

Extensive research into the Apocalypse has revealed to me that the term (from the Greek apokalupsis eschaton) actually refers to some kind of revelation at the end of an era rather than the massive death and destruction with which it has come to be identified. I'll be the first to recognize that meanings of words/concepts change over the course of history, and I firmly believe that the concept of the apocalypse has undergone such a change. But we can still ask: how much, to what degree, and what of the original concept can we still find in its current usage?

Keeping in mind the original meaning of the term "apocalypse," let's look at these three themes through the lens of revelation. In the zombie apocalypse, revelation takes place on a cultural scale; gradually and through experience. Everyone involved has to go through a learning process and adapt to living in a totally different world. Zombieland does a good job of outlining this process through Jesse Eisenberg's character's lists of rules, etc. In religious apocalypse stories, the revelation comes as an individual and immediate vision, as in the Revelation of St. John. The vision also includes a moral message: you can avoid all this beast and harlot nastiness if you play nice and follow our Christian principles. The theme of revelation is clearly recognizable in Legion, albeit with a slightly militaristic bent, as Paul Bettany's character descends from on high and reveals to Dennis Quaid's ragtag band how to give humanity a fighting chance.

What kind of revelation, if any, is involved in 2012? According to the posters plastered on bus stops and billboards, "We Were Warned." But what exactly could we have learned from these purported warnings? When we see Los Angeles collapse around John Cusack and his family, there's seemingly nothing to connect those events with whatever warnings could be derived from the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar - it's just senseless destruction with no way out. John's revelation is based in a longstanding tradition and appears in context of that tradition. Roland Emmerich's revelation merely suggests that whatever might happen in approximately three years' time can only be described by cutting edge computer graphics - a sort of Independence Day without the aliens.

Despite being filled with decidedly apocalyptic images (at least in the modern sense of the term), the movie 2012 doesn't appear to have much to do with the original Greek apokalupsis. Nor does it seem to have anything to do with the actual 2012 phenomenon, beyond the irrational fear that some people like to latch onto when presented with any kind of excuse to feel such fear. (Y2K anyone?) But as for me, someone actually looking forward to 12/21/12, my excitement for the actual date is inversely proportional to my excitement for the movie. Intelligent and insightful stories about the apocalypse (in all its various meanings) serve to inspire thought about what people are actually thinking about as zero date approaches. I can only hope that Emmerich's joke of a misguided, exploitative movie will pass with little to no clamor, letting the rest of us enjoy our consciousness shift in peace.