As our world finds itself in crisis, apocalyptic cinema begins its rise once again.
Are we approaching the end times? I am not talking in a Book of Revelation, fire and brimstone way, but in some kind of accumulation of events that will result in a diminished population scrabbling for the last remaining resources on the planet. I could be mistaken for thinking so, considering the current popularity in apocalyptic science fiction rising up in the cinema this past year. So far we have seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, Divergent, Noah and most recently The Rover. Still to come is a new Mad Max film and the next Hunger Games instalment. If a film is not being released, it is being announced for the not-too-distant future and it makes one wonder; why now?
It takes a certain climate to cultivate the kind of flood we have been seeing lately, a flood not encountered since the 1970s
Apocalyptic science fiction films are not an anomaly, only rare commodities. It takes a certain socio-political climate to cultivate the kind of flood we have been seeing lately, a flood we have not encountered since the 1970s. It takes a collective public awareness of our own mortality as a species to engender the kind of fascination that would increase the prevalence of this sub-genre in cinemas, and for the first time in 40 years, the climate has once again well and truly changed.
The 1970s were a time of global upheaval. The Vietnam War would last another half decade, broadcasting its horrors across the globe in prime time. The oil embargo of 1973 shook the foundations of the global markets and proved how dangerous our dependency on fossil fuels really was. Simmering conflicts in the Middle East came to the boil, with the kidnap of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich and the hostage crisis in Iran. Plus, the founding of Greenpeace at the beginning of the decade proved a growing determination to improve the environment of our planet. Many films of the decade followed suit.
Logan’s Run and Soylent Green dealt with concerns of over-population, with the former positing a future where you’re put to death by the age of 30 and the latter positing that society may one day be driven to cannibalism to overcome food shortages. Silent Running featured its hero stealing the last remaining rainforests on Earth for preservation, after his superiors order their destruction, while in The Andromeda Strain scientists must work against the clock to contain a space born pathogen from infecting the world and ending all life as we know it.
Films like these come when we start reflecting on our progress as a species and look toward the future of the world we live in
Mad Max showed a society that has all but collapsed due to a crisis over fuel, so the population takes to the desert highways, creating a new order of vehicular malpractice and borderline anarchy. The protagonists of Stalker find themselves in the Zone, a strange area within a world ravaged by nuclear fallout where the natural laws of the planet no longer apply. It is films like these that rose out of the tumult that occurred through the 1970s, where we started reflecting on our progress as a species and looked toward the future of the world we were living in, and cast an eye toward the worst case scenario of the future of humanity.
Now, in the 21st Century, the cataclysms that we foresaw 40 years ago seem all the more near. Climate change is all but a matter of fact, with changing weather patterns causing havoc across the globe. The concept of ‘peak oil’ warns of a demise of a lot of the world’s infrastructure. Diseases such as the bird and swine flus, not to mention the current Ebola outbreak, reinforce our mortality and the rise of China as a superpower will result in a monumental paradigm shift in the coming decades.
Once again we’re in a period of insecurity about the future, so we turn to a pessimistic view of where we are headed as a species. Look at films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, where our evolutionary ancestors begin to re-take the planet from us because we no longer deserve the supremacy we previously enjoyed, or the Hunger Games, where a society fractured into a clearer divide between the poor and the elite results in oppression, and exploitation being normalised to the point where it becomes entertainment to keep the masses in line and quell any thought of dissent.
Now, our future seems much darker, and to think we could fulfil the promise of a utopian idyll is considered to be naïve
In Australia, there is a rich vein of apocalyptic miserablism, with The Rover, released today, set in a post-collapse world that closely resembles the Mad Max films. There is also the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road, which furthers the mythology of the Road Warrior himself. There is also a low budget feature film that has just come out of Western Australia called These Final Hours, which chronicles the last days of Earth before an inevitable catastrophe.
Science fiction is at its best when it is using the future to talk about the present, and sci-fi films always reflect what is happening in the world at the time they made. 2001: A Space Odyssey was made in the late 1960s, when humanity looked to the heavens and saw a future where the world could find peace and journey into the stars together. Now, our future seems much darker, and to think we could fulfil the promise of a utopian idyll is considered to be naïve. So we think up apocalyptic scenarios, each one more cynical than the last, because by comparison our present day world does not seem so irreparably bleak – at least not yet.
Read more: 10 great sci-fi films snubbed by Time Out
Featured image: A24
Inset images: Mosfilm; Warner Bros