CATASTROPHE HAS LONG BEEN a staple of cinema, from the extravagant pageants of ancient warfare first seen in silent Italian epics through Cold War sci-fi allegories of nuclear armageddon to the 1990s golden age of Hollywood blockbusters, in which the techniques of the action film joined forces with the new powers of computer-generated imaging to offer hyperreal battles against aliens, dinosaurs, tornadoes, and asteroids. But 2013 feels like it gave us more visions of the apocalypse than any year prior. After Earth, Oblivion, Elysium, World War Z, Pacific Rim, and Ender’s Game all served up illustrations of the end of the world as we know it, their stories taking place before, after, or during. This tendency could even be found in no fewer than three comedies released this year: This is the End, The World’s End, and It’s a Disaster. Indeed, it was hard to find a science fiction or fantasy film that didn’t try to picture widespread devastation of one sort or another; the latest Star Trek reboot, otherwise a loving pastiche of retro-optimism, succumbed to this imperative by showing a future San Francisco crushed by the impact of a massive spaceship.
This eschatological efflorescence is yet another way cinema continues to compete with small-screen media. Post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-Katrina, post-tsunami, post–Great Recession, post-Fukushima, post-Sandy, we’re more familiar than ever with the documentation of chaos and its long aftermath, and so Hollywood must up the ante. More insidiously, the boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.
At the movies, Elysium connected these possible outcomes most clearly, picturing a scenario in which the despoiled Earth is left to the suffering poor while the superrich live in an orbital gated community with the benefits of miraculous medical technology. Though Oblivion and After Earth posit the eviction of humanity from its home planet thanks to alien attacks, these too have moments of mourning for a lost world, whether via Tom Cruise top-gunning his aircraft through the canyons of a buried Manhattan, or Jaden Smith ogling massive herds of bison and sky-darkening flocks of birds, replenished after a thousand years of human exile. Recent cinema, then, has modified its obligation to escapism, helping us imagine scenarios of survival through the apocalypse, rather than giving us hope of victory over its inevitable arrival.
At the same time, there is a deep irony that these warnings are packaged within the most expensive movies in existence, products of the same turbo-capitalism that has pushed us past the point of no return. Today, the financial future of Hollywood depends upon producing unwieldy, overbudgeted spectacles that are too big to fail, their successes propped up by the dark arts of marketing and publicity. Desperate to entertain at any aesthetic cost, these films are structured around a pointedly twenty-first century temporality: crisis time, an essentially reactive time, the exhilaration of responding to disastrous events as they unfold, whether outsmarting zombies in World War Z, maneuvering through the void in Gravity, or playing the life-or-death contests of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games: Catching Fire. These are cynical films at heart, allowing us to fantasize about negotiating survival within a failing system rather than letting us hope to replace it with something better. Their anxieties mirror the just-in-time logic of networked economies, in which a typical day of work consists of the management of multiple crises, thrown onto the laps of multitaskers thanks to the unfettered spread of instant connectivity.
It seems inevitable to invoke Susan Sontag here, whose 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” set the tone for all future considerations of science-fiction cinema. Atomic-era films such as Mothra or This Island Earth, she wrote, “are only a sampling, stripped of sophistication, of the inadequacy of most people’s response to the unassimilable terrors that infect their consciousness.” But a far less well-known fragment from Sontag is even more apropos to our current situation. In her diaries of August 1975, Sontag proposed that “a new style will emerge in the last decade of this century, with the ascendancy of the ecological crisis—and possibility of eco-fascism.” Here, she refers specifically to an architectural style, but her words resonate beyond this, suggesting that in response to widespread systemic breakdown, new forms of total control will emerge. In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of Elysium, After Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.
Ed Halter is a founder and director of Light Industry, New York.