The Appeal of the Apocalypse

From "Elysium" to "Defiance" and beyond, many of 2013's series and movies have one thing in common: the end of life as we know it

By Colin Bertram
|  Monday, Aug 5, 2013  |  Updated 5:47 PM CDT
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Ready for the end of the world as we know it? The popular culture certainly is.

When "Elysium" blasts into theaters Thursday it will land on an already busy post-apocolypse-obsessed entertainment landscape.

Ahead of Matt Damon attempting to leave the slums of 2154 earth for the rarefied existence of a space station (the titular "Elysium") where the wealthiest 1% live out a pampered existence above the chaos below, the summer box office has witnessed a slew of movies centered around worst-case scenarios for Earth dwellers.

Most recently "Pacific Rim" featured giant robots piloted by humans defending the earth against an alien attack. Prior to that Brad Pitt endeavored to halt a global takeover by ravenous zombies in "World War Z." In "After Earth," Will Smith found himself stranded on our planet 1,000 years after humanity has flown the coop following cataclysmic events, and "Star Trek: Into Darkness" pitted the crew of the Enterprise against a one man weapon of mass destruction with the Earth in his sights.

Things are as equally dire on the small screen. NBC's ongoing series "Revolution" takes place in a Chicago that no longer has access to electricity. Over on AMC, "The Walking Dead" wrapped its third season earlier in the summer with a record-setting finale that drew 12.4 million viewers happy to witness zombies terrorize a band of survivors eking out an existence in a decimated area of Georgia.

Brock Wilbur, author of "Filmpocalypse! 52 cinematic Visions of the End of the World," believes the genre is universal. "It transforms as we do. The apocalyptic cinema serves as sort of a gateway to talk about bigger issues in an exaggerated way and in different time periods."

"Elysium" director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9") believes the future Earth depicted in his film is not far from where we will eventually find ourselves.

"We are reaching a place in the world that we have never experienced before," Blomkamp says. "We have so many people and less and less ability to give them water, food. The only way to raise standards of living is to come to the places that have more. And that results in its own problems as we empty one bucket to fill another."

Directors have looked to globe-changing scenarios since the early 20th century when Dutch film makers released a movie about a meteor crashing into the planet Earth (1916's "Verdens Undergang"). Over time, such perceived threats - real or imagined - have grown as our view of the planet and humanity expanded.

"Ever since the finish of the second world war when we got the glimpse of the atomic bomb there’s been this sense that the world could end in the blink of an eye," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "One of the reasons it may be so resonant now is that there are so many things we hear on a daily basis that seem to say to us that the possibility of massive planetary annihilation is within the realm of think-ability"

It's real life informing reel life and vice versa.

Thompson says there are often "documentary overtones" humming in the background of such fare. "If you look at the monster films of the 1950s, they are quite believable given what we were starting to know about radioactive mutation. 'The Day After Tomorrow' was kind of couched in some of the climate change arguments we had been hearing in the news at the time. These kind of exaggerated, speculative things get a little more voltage because they don’t seem that totally outrageous."

Art imitating life is not always planned. "Oblivion" saw Tom Cruise living on a drone-policed Earth destroyed by a nuclear holocaust that was triggered to battle alien invaders. Apt timing considering that drones have been a constant presence in the news of late. According to the film's director Joseph Kosinski the parallels are a mere coincidence.  Kosinski wrote the original story eight years ago - drones included. "It’s interesting how the news seems to somehow parallel the entertainment business," Kosinski said.

Such coincidences do not mean the premise or inspiration should be discounted though, warns the director. "['Oblivion'] explores the idea of our relationship with technology and it can be good and not so good," says Kosinski." "I think it is something we need to be wary of. Technology is amazing and can do amazing things for us, but it is something for us to keep an eye on."

And as these perceived notions of impending global dangers has increased over time, so too has the way we expect to see them portrayed on screen.

"The Vietnam War was a big turning point in the level of gore we saw in movies," explains Thompson. "Suddenly all the sanitized versions of blood and guts that had come before just wasn’t realistic to audiences anymore."

In a post September 11, YouTube-obsessed world where everything can be filmed and posted online via cellphones and personal tablets, bigger is better when it comes to wowing audiences with sequences depicting apocalyptic scenarios.

Thompson believes the images we repeatedly witnessed in the weeks following the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings trumped every disaster movie ever made. "How do you make something seem big and shocking after that. A lot of people said, 'Oh we’re not going to be seeing exploding buildings now, it’s going to be too soon.' They were absolutely wrong. What we instead saw was a ratcheting up of the scope. To be bad enough now you had to be taking out whole cities. Back in the day we could be shocked by Hitchcock terrorizing a little seaside village with birds. Now we have seen and heard so much that our expectations are so extreme that we have to take out the entire world to make it seem like it matters."

Ultimately though, what draws us to the genre is not seeing our destruction writ large, but what happens next.

"The interesting thing is that most cases in the genre, while they are about the so-called end of the world, the world doesn’t end," Thompson says. "In 'The Walking Dead' the zombies are all over the place but there are other people who on some level are triumphing simply by being alive.The same goes for 'Revolution' or 'Defiance' – it's the story of the survivors."

Author Wilbur sees the appeal in pushing the "reset" button. "The way that we live now in 2013 has a real disconnect with what we are as a species," he says, "and post-apocalypse films get back to that idea of wanting to roam around and hunt and gather and scavenge and live in a tent and not have to answer a cell phone or worry about Facebook. It’s a chance to reset and go back to what our biology tells us we should be doing. That can make the bleakest film actually uplifting. It's the same reason that post-apocalypse themed video games are such a hit."

The producers of  SyFy's "Defiance" took that idea to heart, launching a video game based on the series - which centers on an earth drastically changed following the arrival of aliens and a war for supremacy - to coincide with the series' televised debut.

Yet no matter how frightening or thought-provoking these movies, series and games may be, we return to the post-apocalypse genre again and again for that opportunity to push the reset button, to start over, to build a better future once the dust settles. 

"I like to think it's a hopeful message," "Elysium" star Matt Damon said in a publicity statement of the films dystopian view. "Even in a future where it is everyone man for himself, it'll be possible for a human being to hold on to his humanity."

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