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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The apocalypse after tomorrow

As I noted in my review of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, it slavishly follows the conventions of the disaster movie—so much so, in fact, that the movie nearly qualifies as a parody of a disaster movie.

It’s a fair question whether 2012 should actually be considered a disaster movie or an apocalypse movie. On the face of it, it is an apocalypse movie. After all, it deals with events that can be fairly considered apocalyptic. And this is probably a good time to advise hapless readers that I will not be inhibited about discussing plot points in the movie so, even though the film, in my opinion, is so predictable as to be un-spoilable, you have been warned if you want some hope of being surprised by it. And, while I am it, I will probably spoil Planet of the Apes as well.

As I see it, in the division of movies into genres, there are disaster movies, there are apocalypse movies and there are post-apocalypse movies. Movie titles are not always a reliable guide for deciding which is which. For example, Flirting with Disaster is not properly classified as a disaster movie. It is a comedy. Apocalypse Now is neither an apocalypse movie nor a post-apocalypse movie. It is a war-as-absurdity movie. Resident Evil: Apocalypse nor The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse are not apocalypse movies either. At least as far as I know, since I haven’t actually seen them. Neither, for that matter, is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, although that gets us to the problem that the word “apocalypse” is often thrown around rather loosely. Originally, the term apocalypse referred specifically to one particular set of events: those outlined in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, in which the final battle between good and evil takes place. Given that the word refers to a singular event, its usage technically should always be “the apocalypse” rather than, say, “an apocalypse.” But, as is often the case with these things, the word’s meaning in common usage has been diluted to become more or less synonymous with cataclysm or calamity. For movie genre purposes, it is probably sufficient to say that apocalypse generally refers to the end of civilization as we know it.

Now that I’ve cleared that up, what is the difference between an apocalypse movie and a post-apocalypse movie? As the prefix “post-” suggests, a post-apocalypse movie deals with events following the apocalypse, whereas an apocalypse movie concerns itself with the events of the apocalypse itself. For example, George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy are clearly post-apocalypse movies. So is John Hillcoat’s current movie The Road, based on a Cormac McCarthy novel. One easy way to spot a post-apocalypse movie, aside from the fact that civilization has broken down and/or is completely non-existent, is that it is a common convention not to tell the viewer what actually caused civilization to break down. Usually, it is assumed or inferred that there was a nuclear war, but more recently it has become trendy to assume a global environmental disaster.

And that gets us to one of the more intriguing criticisms I have heard of 2012. The BBC’s Mark Kermode said on the radio that he was bothered by the film’s story because “it’s nobody’s fault.” It’s true that another convention of apocalypse and post-apocalypse and, for that matter, disaster movies is that it is usually implied or stated that mankind brought the disaster down on itself, usually by not reining in nuclear weapons or by abusing the ecosystem. In disaster movies like Irwin Allen’s Towering Inferno or James Cameron’s Titanic, the disaster is caused by designers and/or builders not paying enough attention to safety. In Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, it’s the fault of politicians who did not deal with climate change. Perhaps the most heartfelt indictment of people who caused everything to go to hell was in a post-apocalypse movie that we didn’t even know was a post-apocalypse movie until the very end. That would be Charlton Heston screaming, “You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” in the climax of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, when he finds the remnants of the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he has been on earth all along.

In case it isn’t clear by now, because of this frequent element of us destroying ourselves because of our hubris or audacity, most of the movies we are discussing are basically updates of the myth of Prometheus. But we have trod that ground before.

Planet of the Apes points up how tricky things can get with deciding how to classify movies when time travel is an element of the story. For example, would we consider Cameron’s The Terminator a post-apocalypse movie because it concerns events that were set into motion after an apocalypse, i.e. the enslavement of mankind by the very machines it had created? Or would it be more properly designated a pre-apocalypse movie? It makes our collective head hurt.

So far we have been mainly discussing post-apocalypse movies. Are there many good examples of just plain apocalypse movies? Well, 2012 is one. Others tend to be much more sober. Two that came out more or less simultaneously in 1983 were the TV movie The Day After (definitely not a prequel to The Day After Tomorrow), depicting a nuclear attack on Kansas, and the feature film Testament, in which Jane Alexander copes with nuclear annihilation in northern California.

Should Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later be considered an apocalypse movie? Well, no. It’s really more of a zombie movie, although purists will point out that technically the staggering actors in the movie are not really zombies, since zombies are the undead. In Boyle’s movie they are infected, living humans. But to all intents and purposes they are zombies. In any event, it is or should be understood that apocalypse and post-apocalypse movies should be realistic to the point of at least not having supernatural elements, which zombies or quasi-zombies clearly are.

Sometimes movies deal with a grim future, but the grimness is not actually caused by a cataclysm. It is more a case of that’s just where society ended up, all on its own. A classic example would be 1984. This is not a post-apocalypse movie. It is a dystopian movie. The opposite of a dystopian movie would be a utopian movie. We don’t see many of those because, frankly, a movie about people living in peace and harmony just doesn’t have many dramatic possibilities. It’s much more fun to watch the end of civilization.

-S.L., 10 December 2009

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