Friday, July 9, 2010

Films: Down With The Apocalypse!!

There was a time when I used to enjoy a good end of the world movie. But I’ve gotten to the point where I really can’t stand them anymore. This has me a little perplexed. What’s changed my opinion about these movies? After careful deliberation, I’ve concluded that the nature of these films has changed: they no longer have a point except to present grotesque imagery. And that makes them kind of sick.

Apocalyptic films trace their history way back. Indeed, the term “apocalypse,” a Greek word meaning “lifting the veil,” derives from the Bible’s Book of Revelations, though every culture had its own version of the end of the world story. It seems that as a species, we are fascinated with our own demise. And I suppose that’s natural because humans are social creatures and we’re big on trying to control our own destinies. Apocalyptic stories sit at the crossroads of these two impulses, as they are warnings about what can go wrong if we let society do the wrong thing.

This, I think, is what made the early apocalyptic films so interesting: they were warnings, i.e. message movies. The writers/directors saw something in our world or in our behavior that troubled them, and they created their movies as a warning about what they saw. Hence, you had films warning about everything from the dangers of nuclear/biological/chemical weapons to the dangers of robots and automation to the dangers of not being able to cooperate to meet challenges to the dangers of divine retribution for our sins. And because these were message films, the majority of the film was about showing us both how we could avoid such a fate or, alternatively, how we could end up rushing head-long into it. In other words, they were lessons.

Now let me be clear: I am not saying that these films were all great or that I believed the messages. In fact, most of the messages were laughable, e.g. their “science” was usually truly awful, and the apocalypts’ interpretation of human nature was pathetic, they seem incapable of grasping that there is a good side to human nature that balances and checks the bad. But at least these films were working on exploring something worth exploring, and the themes were interesting: will weapon X be our undoing? If we give in to our darker sides, what kind of damage can we cause? How will humans respond to such horrors? Etc.

But today, this has all changed. And nothing shows this more than the change in what causes our demise in the films. In the past, our demise was always caused by something that society found acceptable, like our own chemical or nuclear weapons, or science that we marveled at even though we were not yet ready to control it. Because of this, these films always gave us something to think about. When Chuck Heston cursed us all in Planet of the Apes, we wondered if we could really knock ourselves down the food chain if we pushed the button. When we saw humanity enslaved by a computer in Colossus: The Forbin Project, we wondered how far we should trust computers to control our weapons. When Matthew Broderick nearly kill us all in War Games, we wondered how secure our weapons really were? And so on. In each instance, our comfort with the status quo was questioned, and we were asked if we really felt comfortable with things as they were.

Conversely, today the causes are either beyond our control (like an asteroid) or they are the result of criminal behavior by clichéd bad guys. Consequently, there is nothing for us to consider anymore. Indeed, while we may have wondered about the wisdom of hording nuclear weapons after seeing Fail Safe, no one thinks “gee, maybe we should make it more illegal for corporations to make killer, mutant viruses” after watching Resident Evil.

Thus, the nature of these films has changed before a single frame of film is even shot: modern apocalypse films all but wipe out the social commentary aspect of the genre.

Moreover, the focus of the story has changed. The older films dealt mainly with the events leading up to the disaster, with the intention being to warn us of the dangers we supposedly faced and how we could bring about our own demise as a result of those dangers. Even when these films did deal with the after-effects, it was done mainly to add emphasis to the story. By comparison, today’s apocalypse films are all about the after-effects. Indeed, whereas the older films were intended as critiques of human nature, the new films are slick CGI snuff films showing the many ways the film crew could come up with for killing human beings.

What this means is that whereas the older films served a purpose, the newer ones are purely gratuitous. In the older films, the slaughter, when shown, was intended to heighten the drama or to heighten the impact of the consequences of ignoring the director’s warning. But in the new films, the slaughter is what is being sold to you. It is the backdrop for an otherwise bland action story, and it is the action itself. The difference between these two approaches is the difference between a treatise on humanity and a book of gory pictures.

And I that’s why I don’t like apocalyptic films anymore. Even though I disagreed with the older ones (and found many of them laughable) at least they were earnest and the drama was interesting. They had a purpose. Today films have lost all of that. They have instead become mass snuff films, whose only purpose is to satisfy our bloodlust.

I guess I just don’t find that cool.


Joel Farnham said...


Another possible reason to not like the new ones is that they don't address possible Armageddon. Like right now, the rise of Islam could easily be put into a movie. It is very real possibility that Islam could end up controlling the world.

Because of political correctness, it will never be made.

Then again, you are getting older, presumably more wiser and find that apocalypse movies aren't as relevant as when you were younger. :-)

Tennessee Jed said...

I pretty much agree with you, Joel. Hollywood has gotten so used to "agenda" films that they often look to things like "man made global warming" as the culprit."

Ponderosa said...

The villain is an inanimate object, zombie or an evil corporation – none has a discernable motive. There is nothing to do but recognize the problem and run. Just boring and dull. Lots of death. Destruction of things. Dull. Dreadfully dull.

Once I’d like to see the following:

The evil corporate titan demands a ransom 100 billion dollars (or whatever) from his secret lair.
The gov’t finds him via satellite, turns off his specific power grid and seizes his assets.

Pelosi: What a piker. Try $14 trillion.


Bambi vs. Godzilla part II

or: End?

Anonymous said...

I won't be home till after 10 so I'll have more to say then. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Very snarky my friend, very snarky. Sorry for being so late, but with this older body, getting out of bed is getting harder... ;-)

I think the Muslim thing is a slightly different angle, though also valid and possibly related. I don't like the fact that modern apocalypse movies seem to be nothing but pointless large-scale slasher flicks. I would be less averse to them if they still had a valid point to them.

And maybe the reason there isn't a valid point to them at this point is that Hollywood is afraid to tackle the real threats that we do face?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think that's right. It's always some liberal boogeyman -- global warming, evil military experiments, evil corporations that are looking to profit by killing everyone.

But, that said, the films are never genuine about it. In other words, these aren't films that include a warning about something specific along with plans for avoiding the danger. Instead, they are just political hit pieces mixed with CGI disaster flicks.

Take The Day After Tomorrow, a nasty little movie. They used global warming as their base, but then never used it meaningfully. Instead, they put together a disaster scenario that wasn't possible even in the worst case scenario put together by the global warming alarmists. Then they added the usual gratuitous shots of landmarks being destroyed and people being killed, sprinkled in nasty liberal caricatures of well-known Republicans/conservatives, and then the rest was a pointless and lame action flick. There was no warning, no lesson, no moral -- it was at best an "ideological revenge film" or a biased action flick.

To me, that's the key difference. In the past, these movies were made to say something. Agree with them or not, at least they had a point. Today, they throw in leftist buzzwords, but they don't say anything.

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, I think that's absolutely right. They've eliminated the motives or they've turned them into standard Hollywood cliche motives. . . "generic capitalist greed." In either event, it's taken all of the thought out of these movies and left us with films that are nothing more than 2 hours of images of destruction and people dying, interspersed with narrow escapes for the hero. They've basically become 2 hour long car chases. And that is very dull.

(It would be hilarious to see Pelosi make it into a horror film.)

AndrewPrice said...

All right Scott, we'll wait for you... ;-)

Unknown said...

Andrew: Although I don't like getting lectured to by half-assed ecologists, I must admit that I found the Toxic Avenger hilarious (at least the first one).

I agree on the apocalyptic messages being lost in the creation of the post-apocalyptic worlds of film. The weird critters and bleak landscapes were fun for a short while (Road Warrior leading the way). But they now all look alike. Many just look like more expensive versions of cheesy made-for-the-SyFy-channel movies. That said, I'm still trying to figure out why I'm one of the few who actually liked The Postman but hated Waterworld.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree. It's become a game of spending big money to make the same pointless movie. In fact, I don't see these movies offering much except for the effects. And seriously, how many times can you watch NY City get blown up? It gets a little dull after a while.

I have no idea why you would like The Postman? Have you sought professional help?

Unknown said...

Andrew: They're considering making my meds a little stronger. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Careful with that Lawhawk! You might end up liking Waterworld too if they make your meds too strong! :-)

CrispyRice said...

LOL, Jed! Anything with Pelosi would be horror enough!

I just finished reading The Stand, Andrew, and want to watch the mini-series again. As I remember, it was largely about how many gross corpses could we show. ;)

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Yeah, that's the first 14 hours of the miniseries. Then they kind of drop that and get into the weak plot. Don't get me started on King!

rlaWTX said...

I think that the only ones I have every enjoyed were the volcano one in LA and Armageddon. Oh, I kinda liked the Postman too.
I don't generally do the zombie, evil virus, global warming/cooling movies, so I have no opinion.
If you knew me better, you'd know that was truly a harbinger of the end of the world!!!

rlaWTX said...

and 2 more things:
[1] would GWTW be an apocalyptic movie? if so, there's another one I don't like! :-)

[2] my secret word for the last post was "exazzwv". How is that a WORD???
this one is "compinf"
< head shake >

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, We'll watch out for more signs! LOL!

I'm not saying it isn't interesting once in a while to see the effects as a city is digitally blown up, but I think that without there being a more interesting reason for the story, you've got nothing but gratuitous violence and destruction.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I don't think they are really words. I know Google claims they are, but I don't believe it.

As for GWTW, I would be careful suggesting you don't like GWTW around here. We apparently have a few GWTW fanatics hanging around. . . and I think they're violent!

Individualist said...


For the most part I would agree with you. The exception I would posit is "The Box" released in November of 2009.

This is a story that does not show the end of the world but the process by which Man is bringing that out. It is a science fiction film with aliens but it is very cerebral and almost no CGI and the few effects where just parlor tricks.

The story is a morality play which asks the question: Is mankind moral enough to survive and evolve to the next stage. It was really good.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I missed that one, but it sounds extremely interesting -- I'll have to check it out! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

After thinking about this for most of the day, I find I don't have much to add! I saw 2012... the constant death and destruction started to bother me after a while (and that rarely happens) and it simply wasn't that fun to watch. I can't really explain it... Independence Day is fun to watch and even Armageddon qualifies as a guilty pleasure. I even saw part of The Postman when it was on HBO and I remember thinking, "This isn't as bad as the critics said!"

Re: a few things brought up in the comments

-Why NYC? I think because everyone in the world knows what the Empire State Building looks like. You can't say the same for the capital building in Des Moines! And with big cities, there is a sense of scale. A shot of an asteroid hitting the Atlantic Ocean is more difficult to pull off since there are no objects around for comparison. (Deep Impact did this but it was a shot in space.)

-And on that note, the bigger the threat, the more cinematic and exciting the movie is (in theory). To put it in another way, would Star Trek IV have been as exciting if, instead of whales, the crew had to go back and retrieve a potted plant?

-I think technology has once again reared its ugly head. Now all characters have to do is "zoom and enhance" to diagnose the problem and formulate a solution.

-I think a future article could be written about threats that we do face which can make great movie plots, from terrorism to... well, whatever. Even I get stumped and often come back to "eeeevil corporation." It's just so easy!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I do think the problem is that there isn't much left to most of these movies except the effects. There is no lesson, little philosophy, and not much to think about. There isn't even much left in the way of story -- it's basically one giant car chase with the hero running from danger point to danger point.

I agree on NYC, they pick on NYC because everyone knows what it looks like. It's the same reason you see the Eiffel Tower get creamed and the Vatican. . . they're recognizable.

I've talked before about the connection between the size of the threat and the emotional effect (and how they use bigger and bigger threats as a proxy for real story telling). I do have to disagree about the whale thing though. They didn't choose whales because they were big, they chose them because they were an environmental cause in the 1980s.

It's not the technology so much that's the problem as the over-reliance of the writers on fake technology. It's become like the spy satellite thing where people now think that the CIA sits in secret rooms watching real time images of bad guys and can call their operative and say "he's hiding behind the garbage can." That simply isn't correct, but it's an easy way to make a story more interesting. . . though it also makes the solutions a lot less interesting. "How do we stop Satan? Let me check the internet... oh, here it is, mix 10 Oreos with one box of kibble, bake for an hour, toss at Satan." Yawn.

Finally.... that might make an interesting article, trying to come up with real threats. The thing is that there are multiple parts to this -- who is the bad guy, what is the threat, how to do you stop it, etc. It might be a very difficult column to write in any way that makes sense. Let me think about it though.

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