It's the "End of Days" As We Know It...
It's the "End of Days" As We Know It...
by Greta Christina
Okay, so it's not like there have never been any movies about the end of the world before. The Fifties were full of them, of course, what with all those space aliens in tin cans and plastic visors threatening to annihilate our puny Earthling civilization. And the subject does keep cropping up in the theaters from time to time; you've got your Dr. Strangelove, your Testament, your China Syndrome, and so on and so forth. But there sure has been a weird rash of them in the last year or two. No matter who or what it is that's slated to get us all, whether it's God or Satan, nature or technology, aliens or astronomy, somehow the prospect of the impending millennium and all those zeroes rolling over in the Great Odometer in the Sky seems to have sparked the imaginations of film producers all over. Or of marketing departments all over Hollywood, anyway. (And yes, I know, it's not the real millennium, the actual new millennium doesn't start until January 2001; but mathematical and historical accuracy notwithstanding, it does seem to be the zeroes rolling over that's making everyone so twitchy.)
Now, along with about a million other film critics, I tend to use scary movies as a handy bellwether for revealing what people are scared of this season. Are we scared of bugs and bats and birds and things? Burning buildings and overturned boats? Ghosts and demons? Tornadoes and floods? Science and technology? God? The devil? Things that jump out at you from behind a tree? Fear itself? Other people? Of course, if you look at movies of the past year or two, the answer to just about all of these questions would have to be a resounding "Yes." The American moviegoing public seems to be a bunch of big 'fraidycats lately, and the disaster movie has made a big comeback, in a wide assortment of shapes and styles. But the one scary theme that keeps coming up again and again lately isn't just disaster -- it's Disaster with a capital D, Disaster on a global scale, Disaster not just for you or your home or your city, but for your entire species.
One thing that's interesting about the latest crop of Armageddon movies is that nuclear Armageddon hasn't figured in them heavily. We've had a lot of religion (Dogma, End of Days), and a lot of big rocks falling out of the sky (Armageddon, Deep Impact), and even one or two sweet old-fashioned space aliens (Independence Day, Starship Troopers), all threatening to terminate existence as we know it. But we haven't seen a whole lot of nukes lately. That's a pretty big change from the past; in the 50's and 60's and even the 70's, nukes were almost always the big scary thing that was going to destroy humankind. Whether the fear was addressed literally or couched in the form of space-aliens, and whether the space-aliens stood in for the Russians or for the bombs themselves or for our own itchy fingers on the nuclear trigger, it used to be that the end of the world being waved around threateningly in the movies almost always took the form of a mushroom cloud or a meltdown. But for some reason, even with the impending pseudo-millennium, nukes just seem to be a big yawn. So five minutes ago.
In fact, come to think of it, the hand of man doesn't seem to be showing up much at all as the potential source of The Big Anvil In The Sky. Not only have there not been any nuke movies lately; there haven't been any Y2K movies either (or if there have been, they came and went so quickly that they completely evaded my radar). There's been no evil madmen (unless you count Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movie), no horribly misguided government, no too-powerful robots turning against their makers, not even any cheap irony about how the technology that was supposed to make our lives easier is now threatening to destroy us all. The anvil is pretty consistently being dropped on our heads by some external force -- God, or Satan, or alien invaders, or even just the inexorable laws of physics and astronomy. There hasn't been any Enemy Within at all -- it's all been very straightforward Enemies Without.
But the thing I find most interesting about the recent rash of end-of-the-world movies is that the end of the world never seems to actually happen in them. It's always narrowly averted somehow, either by one intrepid hero or by a small band of intrepid heroes. No matter how huge or powerful the adversary is, he/she/it can always be defeated or subdued or destroyed by one person or one small group of people, armed with know-how or trickery or purity of heart or just good old-fashioned American arsenals of enormous and powerful weapons. Whether we're blowing up asteroids or planting computer viruses in alien spaceships, whether we're plugging a loophole in God's plan or blowing up Satan with a grenade launcher, we are the captains of our souls, the masters of our destinies, and we are way too cool to be obliterated by some pesky old supernatural power or force of nature.
Now again, along with about a million other film critics, I subscribe to the theory that scary movies exist largely to reassure us (and with a couple of exceptions, end-of-the-world movies are at least a little bit scary -- or if they aren't, they're supposed to be). They find something that'll scare the crap out of us, proceed to scare the crap out of us for 90 minutes or so, and then hand us a happy ending in which the Bad Thing is defeated and life returns to more-or-less normal -- all to reassure us that, whatever it was we were scared of, it wasn't so bad after all. "See?" the movies say. "You're scared of spiders? Well, here's a million jillion of 'em, all angry and poisonous and with sharp pointy teeth -- and yet when all is said and done, the hero lives and the world goes on, and the spiders are driven back into the shadows to chew on us no more. Oh, sure, we might tease you with a few stragglers in the last frame, just to bring you back for the sequel; but we all know that the sequel will be exactly the same, with the hero alive and the world carrying on and the spiders safely in the shadows once again."
So it seems that these days, the reassurance we need isn't just that the world isn't going to come to an end. It's that we can stop the world from coming to an end. The fear isn't just of giant anvils being dropped on our heads; it's of our own powerlessness, our own inability to deal with forces and powers that are way, way, way bigger and cooler than we are. It isn't so much about death or pain or the end of history -- its about our own puniness in the face of God and nature and the unknown. Even the destruction of all human civilization is a minor anxiety compared to the fear that human civilization might be destroyed without us being able to do a goddamned thing about it.
Copyright 1999 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Frontiers.