Judging from the crop of action movies that make it into release every summer, and the television series that emulate and support them, humanity—or at least the American variety—hungers for the apocalypse. We routinely celebrate stories about the end of the world as we know it, perhaps just the collapse of western civilization, but better the near-extinction of the human race—although not total extinction, because the story line will always need a handful of human survivors with whom the audience can identify.
This has been going on for as long as I can remember. As a child I saw the Gregory Peck-Ava Gardner movie On the Beach, about a huge atomic cloud, aftermath of nuclear war, that was slowly enveloping the Earth. The death cloud wiped out life everywhere it touched, until only a handful of human beings remained alive in Australia. The story was about how they each had to make their peace with death. For me, that movie gave “Waltzing Matilda” an eternally eerie and sad ring. And then as a young adult I finally read the Nevil Shute novel from which the movie was made—same story, only worse.
You can almost chart the 20th century by its public attitudes towards war. Before World War I, the Europeans were almost eager for the war to start and practiced their belligerence in international politics. The meat grinder of trench warfare on the Western Front sobered everybody, but they took away a bright thought: war and its machinery had become so terrible that humankind was done with it; this was “the war to end all wars.” But then reparations and hurt feelings, a sense of national exuberance, and the strangulation of Depression combined to give us World War II. People endured it as a terrible ordeal—in fact, that was the title of another Nevil Shute book, about a family driven from their home in southern England during the Battle of Britain and who took refuge on their sailboat. People endured great personal hardship during the war, but they were sure it would eventually end, good times return, and life go on.
The atomic bomb erased all that, both intellectually and emotionally. War on a global scale—not the brushfire, third-party wars we’ve been having in Southeast Asia and the Middle East—is now destined to become the final act of humankind, with mutually assured destruction and a descending cloud of radiation. We’ve played that story over and over again. Causes and details of the catastrophe change the story line from decade to decade: we’ve progressed from nuclear war to human-caused global climate change, in both New Ice Age and Searing Desert themes, to the eventual alien invasion, to a viral plague, usually as the result of a bio-warfare accident, which either kills everyone except a genetically resistant handful of survivors, or changes everyone except those survivors into flesh-eating zombies.
Personally, I blame the apocalyptic movie phenomenon on a generation or more of book editors and movie producers, who have responded to pitches for manuscripts and new projects with: “Yeah, but what are the stakes? Why should the reader or audience care about this story?” And on a generation of novelists and screenwriters, pushed to the limit, who responded: “It’s the end of the world, man! The end of life as we know it!”1
That explains why the stories get written and the films made—but what explains the audience response of buying the book or the movie ticket, sitting down, and actually engaging with the story over and over again? Shouldn’t we all be tired of global catastrophe by now?
I think the attraction is that we all—or at least those of us who are inheritors of western civilization, the fruits of the scientific method and modern technology, and the bounties of free-market capitalism—live fairly boring and dependable lives. Most of us have jobs that are safe, unexciting, and predictable. Most of us get three meals a day and as many snack opportunities as we desire. Most of us enjoy the benefits of security systems, surveillance cameras, and the cop on the corner or in the patrol car. Most of us in the rich, capitalistic, democratic, egalitarian West have never been in serious danger, never been mugged or beaten, never gone hungry for longer than an afternoon, and never had to search for potable water or even a clean restroom.2
When life is predictable, safe, and tame, you can afford to dream a little bit about living on the wild side, with no boundaries, no limits, and no rules you need to respect. The lure of these apocalyptic fantasies—of whatever stripe: war aftermath, environmental accident, zombie plague—is that the daily routine becomes irrelevant both for the characters and for the audience identifying with them.
Suddenly, the group of human survivors must put off the social distance that always separates civilized, urban-dwelling men and women from the strangers they encounter every day on the street. The catastrophe pulls together disparate people and forces them to bond as a team and work for each other’s survival. If you doubt me, think of that Hitchcock classic, Lifeboat.
The catastrophe blows away the mind-fuzz that floats through modern life. The survivors no longer must remember to pay the mortgage or the rent on the first of each month. They don’t have to figure out how to work all the buttons on the new phone, coffeemaker, microwave, car dashboard, ATM machine, or the other near- but not-near-enough-intelligent devices of the modern world—although they do have to learn how to operate their cache of modern weapons. And they no longer must play the subtle and sophisticated political games, with kabuki email exchanges and endlessly polite meetings, that exist in every overstaffed but underachieving work environment. None of these mundane tasks, worries, or obligations is life threatening or even daunting, but they do drain you.
The catastrophe also blows away the sedimentary weight of modern law, too. We all carry at the back of our minds the thought that the Code of Federal Regulations, last reported at some 42,000 pages long, is growing every year. And IRS regulations add some 9,000 pages to that. Somewhere in all that miasmic verbiage is a felony waiting to catch each one of us. And the notion has occurred to everyone that—while we can all go free for now, because of the benign neglect of federal, state, and local governments—computer systems and electronic recordkeeping are becoming more sophisticated all the time. One day soon enough, the Feds, the IRS, and the cop on the corner will be able to access and track what you eat for breakfast and what you’ve got in your pockets. And not long after that … house arrest, ankle bracelet, and gulag!
The catastrophe blows away social conventions, too. Even if our modern law did not prescribe a dozen definitions and degrees of homicide, and hundreds or thousands more liabilities that can get you jailed, bankrupted, and stripped of your possessions, we all know that certain things are just not right. For example, shooting someone without fair warning or explanation. Or commandeering a parked car, an empty house, or an unwatched Hostess Ding Dong®. But when the world is coming to an end, Ferraris are just lying around waiting to be gassed up with a siphon hose and driven to destruction, with no thought of eventually finding the right tires for it or paying the mechanic’s bills. Mansions wait for you to move in, with no thought about whether the taps run with hot and cold water, the toilet flushes, and the light switches work. And if anyone bothers you—or shows the marks of the zombie plague—you are free to blast them with the available shotgun or assault rifle, for which you can always find the right ammo.
Apocalyptic movies are about life in the raw, about adventure and danger, about a future time when men will be free to become savage again, and women will be compliant—unless they’re armed-to-the-teeth Amazon queens—but still scantily dressed and with access to all the modern cosmetics. Apocalyptic movies are fantasies of a world where modern rules, modern comforts, and modern frustrations fade away, and the happy survivors can live as noble savages—which means fighting for their lives in desperate circumstances.
I should despise such stories—and yet they give me a kind of comfort and hope. For as long as people respond to them, we know that life in a society that spawns such books and movies is still pretty good. The fear factor is way below the historic human average. People are mostly eating regularly and able to ruin their appetites with popcorn and candy. The quotients of personal safety and comfort are high. And the future holds no real or imminent terrors. Long may civilization reign!
1. This has always seemed to me like the desperation of a small imagination. A skilled writer can make you adopt the viewpoint of, sense the drama in, and respond to even the most mundane characters in the smallest conflicts in the least contentious parts of the world. The trick is to make your characters believable, their situations familiar and absorbing, and the stakes important—to them. “The end of the world as we know it” is a theme too large and complex for anyone to consider seriously without inviting brain freeze and emotional meltdown. Some of the best stories are small and intimate.
2. We all know about exceptions, of course. Soldiers on deployment, wives experiencing domestic violence, children in broken and violent homes, and people in marginalized communities all know fear and danger, occasional hunger, and eternal, gnawing desperation. And that experience, even if it only occurs once or it happened long ago, has a tendency to mark a person and change his or her attitudes about life. But, again, these are exceptions to what the majority of the modern, western-oriented population experiences. Not so long ago—perhaps half a millennium or less—violence, hunger, and imminent death were the common lot of the average human being.