Understanding our love of the apocalypse

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As How I Live Now opens in the UK, we wonder if products of the apocalypse genre act as catharsis for a crumbling Western society.

How I Live Now, the Kevin MacDonald-helmed adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s 2004 young adult novel of the same name, is the newest high profile entrant into the now well-worn apocalypse genre. Now, while MacDonald is a young director of fairly impressive pedigree already, and while Atonement’s Saoirse Ronan has proved herself to be an exciting lead actor, are we not all a bit sick of this? The constant, doomy visions of societal decay and parched landscapes? Where has our obsession with the end come from?

Apocalypse movies act as not particularly subtle metaphors for our anxieties about change on a large scale

First and foremost, I think it’s because the end really is nigh. Actually the end has been nigh since December 31st, 1999, when we all sat huddled in our bunkers, ready for the millennium bug to turn our machines against us and plunge the planet into a Terminator-esque, cyberpunk post-apocalypse. And we got one, of sorts, thanks to the enduring global recession and the visibility of global corruption and violence (thanks to the internet). I mean, it isn’t enormous robots walking around machine-gunning us all to death, but the prognosis is still pretty grim; the Western world is in peril, capitalism is starting to look like a really stupid and unsustainable economic and cultural framework, and we may not just be able to go back to the way things were. We may be on the cusp of a pretty major change.

Change is the enduring visual shorthand for the apocalyptic genre, especially in film. It’s an event that has impinged upon an environment that we are familiar with in such a way as to alter it irrevocably. It’s a pretty apt (and not particularly subtle) metaphor for the anxieties we harbour about change on a large scale. But what about the apocalyptic genre makes it endure? It isn’t enough to just mirror our fears; where’s the fun – or in this case comfort – to be derived from that?

the road viggo mortensen

The reasons for the genre’s prominence in the millennial film zeitgeist is down to two things that these apocalyptic visions allows us to do: salve and cleanse.

The salve comes in the form of reassurance that the end will be tolerable, even beautiful. Many of the more successful examples of the genre utilise a very sumptuously decayed or overgrown setting. There are lots of lingering wide-angled shots of the obliterated or altered landscape, and great pains are taken to place the protagonists in the middle of these shots to accentuate the enormity and beauty of the desolation. Here we see that the change can be beautiful. The Road, Cloud Atlas and Beasts of the Southern Wild did this extremely well; we are horrified, yet awed by the change. The change is frightening, yes, but exciting as well.

The post-apocalypse, in a way, represents a dark pastoral idyll for us fat and content Westerners

More action-oriented productions will also accentuate the apocalyptic environment’s propensity to provide excitement, often by alluding to other genres such as the Western or martial arts film. Book of Eli is a good example of this; while the film’s world is a lawless wasteland, it’s also a nexus for adventure and we, identifying with the badass Denzel Washington character, are soothed into believing that we can endure. This is as important to our collective cultural identity as it is to our personal one, that we, as the hegemonic West, can endure the change, and the end.

Now we’re convinced that we can survive the environment and the New World Order, we enter the cleansing phase where the apocalypse ends up morphing from something we endure to something we actively seek out and enjoy. The post-apocalypse, in a way, represents a sort of dark pastoral idyll for us fat and content Westerners.


We’re not stupid. In many ways, we know we’re kind of the bad guy; our foreign policy is a joke, we set up puppet governments in war-torn third-world countries and then complain when the denizens of these warzones come over here to escape, our films don’t challenge us, our literature has deteriorated to Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight and we’re constantly menaced by a marginalised and demoralised working class rendered impotent and cultureless by Thatcher/Reaganist economics. And I think that many of us want out. The apocalypse gives us that release and that fresh start. There are no borders and no countries or nations to identify with. We can live like cowboys, hunt food, start again – it’s all very romantic.

The apocalypse gives us a release, a fresh start. We can live like cowboys – it’s all very romantic

It’s also a cop-out. These problems we’ve made for ourselves won’t just go away once the world ends. And even after our banks implode, inflation makes our money useless and we start trading in cattle again, we’ll still have jingoism and ugliness and greed. The apocalypse genre creates a safe environment in which we can act out our salving and cleansing fantasies. But it’s not real; there probably won’t be a neat cataclysm to set everything back to neutral, and the sooner our art starts to reflect this, the sooner we can start to plan what we’re going to do next.


Featured image: Magnolia/Momentum

Inset images: Icon; Summit Entertainment

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