August 24, 2013 – Apocalyptic Movies: These are anxious times. We need a doomsday we can believe in. Pictured below, Disaster spectacles like “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004) have taken a backseat to smaller-scale apocalyptic stories.
“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,” Robert Frost wrote nearly a hundred years ago, but for moviegoers of the 21st century both the giant conflagration and the big freeze have become a bit “been there, done that.”
Of course the world has been ending, in one way or another, ever since the movies began, but this fresh crop of cinematic apocalypses really does represent something new. Our 21st-century vision of Earth’s doom is, it seems, almost entirely inward looking. Not only are the scientists missing from these pictures, but the political, military and religious leaders — all of whom had their parts to play in the pre-apocalyptic dramas of old — are conspicuous by their absence too. The disillusionment with institutions that might once have provided some hope of salvation, or at least a little reassurance, is sweeping, universal, absolute. We’re on our own. Pictured below, Kirsten Dunst in “Melancholia” (2011).
If you’re going to make a movie about the end of everything, it’s appropriate to search for some kind of meaning. That’s easier to do when the fear is very specific, as it was in the age of nuclear proliferation. Today’s dread is a good deal more amorphous, a gathering cloud of unease about shaky economies, dysfunctional institutions, climate change: The skies are thick with ill omen. (And don’t forget the zombies.) What’s wrong with the world, and what might end it, and why, are tougher questions these days. The planet’s just in a foul, foul mood, and the meds don’t seem to be working.
Big-budget disaster pictures, even when fitted out with an apparently high-minded message, mostly traffic in a queasy sort of cosmic Schadenfreude; the post-apocalyptic wasteland movies too often mistake bleakness for truth. And the new waiting-for-the-end movies, skillful as some of them are, feel peculiarly evasive; a wholly personalized apocalypse is an apocalypse that is, to put it plainly, too damn small. Here in 2013 our heads may all be exploding — or icing over — with doubt, confusion, free-floating anxiety, but hey: it’s not the end of the world – yet! (Credits: Pictures – 20th Century Fox for “The Day After Tomorrow,” and Magnolia Pictures for “Melancholia;” Narrative – Terrence Rafferty for the New York Times).
The Master of Disaster