Monday, March 17, 2008

It's the End of the World

From the March 14, 2008 edition of the Wall Street Journal:

On a recent Saturday night, I went to the movies. Walking past the theater showing I Am Legend (plague kills most of humanity), I opted to watch Cloverfield (inexplicably angry alien destroys Manhattan) instead. After sitting through back-to-back previews for Hellboy II: The Golden Army (ancient truce between Hell and Earth is revoked, resulting in mass destruction) and Doomsday (lethal virus ravages England, a disease-ridden cinematic cousin to 28 Days Later and Children of Men), I found myself disturbed. The End of Days suddenly seemed imminent. Should I cancel my post-movie dinner reservation? What's with all this apocalyptic entertainment, I wondered, and what does it say about those of us who are filling the theater seats?

Apocalypse-themed films proliferate, according to Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, former communications director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, because they "reflect an idea that haunts the human imagination ... a sense that this world is not permanent and faces some kind of comeuppance. Once it was thought that only God could bring that about. Today, we believe we can do it ourselves, due to the power placed in our hands by science or by our irresponsible behavior toward the environment."

It is interesting, though, that the biblical telling of the apocalypse is seldom seen in these films, says Nicholas Guyatt, author of the book Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans Are Looking Forward to the End of the World. Even the Left Behind series of movies (based on the end-times novels that are wildly popular among evangelical Christians) has gone straight to video, which, according to Mr. Guyatt, "says something about the popularity of the 'official' version of the apocalypse." ...

But the secular films do bear a slight resemblance to a religious idea of the end times. "In the Christian view, God will transform the world into his eternal kingdom, and the apocalyptic literature usually portrays this as a cataclysmic event," Msgr. Maniscalco says. "These films share the idea of a cataclysm, but not the hope based on God's providence."

Indeed, the odor of nihilism pervades virtually all secular apocalypse-themed films. Steven Greydanus, head of Decent Films Guide, a Web site of "film appreciation, information and criticism informed by Christian faith," notes that "religious faith is what enables us to see an apocalypse as anything other than ultimate disaster. And so perhaps one thing you have in some of these films is the phenomenon of post-Christian Western man facing his post-Christian fears and finding them bleaker than the apocalyptic visions of his religious ancestors."
Read the whole thing.

For my two cents, I don't agree that all non-religious, post-apocalyptic stories are nihilistic. A
favorite trilogy of mine (and it's for children, of all things) starts with just such a premise, but uses it to highlight humanity's ingenuity and our ability to work together. Writers need conflict, and tearing the world to bits at the beginning of a narrative is a sure-fire way of providing some.

(Picture: CC 2006 by Martin Kingsley)

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