Ending the world is one of the most popular themes in cinema. No matter what decade it is, there always seems to be another threat on the horizon. Let’s look at the main kinds of threat humanity face on-screen, how likely they are to succeed and what they do to us as the viewer.
1. Virus or Plague (excluding Zombies)
My personal favourite, humanity under threat from a virus, that needs a brave band of scientists to defeat it. Examples include Outbreak, Contagion, 12 Monkeys, The Rock and Mission Impossible 2. The reason this is successful is down to the ability of the film to scare the viewer with realism. People might not believe an asteroid is going to hit the earth, but a virus originating in a foreign country or engineered in a lab could easily happen. Apart from making you wash your hands more often, these films prey on our memories. We have all been sick, it’s not pleasant and depending on your personality it may be more of a disaster for you than physical injury. Seeing a film that explores the virus element on-screen and the effects it can have on the body hits hard. Suddenly your disbelief is suspended and you can imagine all sorts. You suddenly forget the realistic time scales needed to develop a cure. You think that a cure can be found overnight, or due to the brave actions of one scientist, so you begin to root for them and it drives the narrative along. In reality if a virus emerged that put the world at threat, it would already have made its way past all our known antibiotics and defences. Unless we were sealed in a germ-free zone, we would have no chance. look at last year’s Ebola crisis, the previous swine flu and avian flu. The panic in the press and the fear that spread when the first Ebola case made it to New York was frightening. In reality this was a serious but easily contained disease. If this had been a humanity killer then we would all have been infected before we could mobilise against it.
Related to a virus, but clearly deserves a heading of its own. Leading examples are any of Romero’s Zombie films, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, World War Z, Shaun Of The Dead and even Game Of Thrones. Zombies are a cultural phenomenon, they have permeated all forms of media and are a credible threat to the end of humanity discussion. Unfortunately there isn’t a grounding in reality. If this was possible, it would have happened by now. The key fear factors that work in zombie cinema are, the rising of the dead, the turning of loved ones and the eating of brains, each effect people differently. Some may like the world in peril aspect of films like World War Z, everyone knows what is going on and they are on the defensive immediately against the threat. The problem with Zombies is that they multiply so quickly. Within a few harrowing minutes on-screen we can see that, humanity has no chance. The numbers game beats all. A different more common approach, is the Zombie aftermath. The main characters in The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later, wake up after all the action has taken place. They are then left to make their way in a world full of zombies and low on people. It taps into a different place in cinema, less focussed on the adrenaline pumping escape and battle and more focussed on the dread and the need to survive. By this stage the world has already gone to ruin, so you wonder what’s left.
What is it good for? Ending the world for one. When I mean war, I don’t just count man against fellow man, I’m thinking man against their creations and weapons. Terminator, The Matrix and Mad Max. Three films that deal with a war scenario tat leaves humanity on the brink of destruction. We all know of war and seeing it portrayed on the screen can be harrowing. Think Platoon, Saving Private Ryan and more. The message comes across that war is bad, and it is man against man, that is the real problem. When you take this to the next level and bring the end of humanity scenario into effect, hindsight rules all. When a force emerges like Skynet in Terminator, people always react the same way. ‘If only we had put our petty squabbles behind us.’ Too little too late, it’s the same as when Aliens invade. The effects of years of man fighting man, leaves all humanity weakened when a real threat emerges. In any case humanity is left as the rebel force on its own planet, struggling for survival against an enemy force. These films generate a good sense of camaraderie in cinema goers. The common enemy theme makes them forget that it is likely humanities fault that we have ended up this way. Not every Alien is as simple as the brilliant Mars Attacks. Independence day, War of the Worlds and Battle For Los Angeles, keep the binary Alien bad, human flawed but good profile but District 9 subverts it enough for it to swing back to being humanities fault. In effect, lesson learned, War is bad, if the world ends due to war, it is our own fault.
4. Natural Disaster
This is what cinema was made for. Full on end of the world, Armageddon and destruction. Caused by Weather, global warming, death of the sun, earthquake, volcano, meteorite hitting earth, you name it , you have seen it on-screen. This taps into the spectacle of cinema-goers. Everyone has a morbid curiosity to see what happens at the end. In 2012 we got an assault on our senses. The earth tore open and ever weather system imaginable ended up killing most of the planet. Unfortunately in reality we see this too often with earthquakes, tsunami ,flood and drought counting for thousands of lives. On screen to end the world they usually combine a number of these events. San Andreas is the latest to hit the screen. These events are all grounded in reality. While the action may be spectacular and the accumulation of disasters unlikely, people can easily draw real world parallels and so these films take on a grave reverence in the audience. Even a personal favourite of mine Sunshine deals with a real world concern, albeit in a very unrealistic way. Science has told us that the sun will slowly burn itself out. While it won be in our lifetimes, the grounding in reality gives the film some credence before the madness starts. The likelihood of a disaster of this magnitude hitting without warning is minimal. Therein lies the draw of these films, minimal but not beyond the realms of possibility or more importantly imagination. If you have heard the scientific basis of one of these disasters, then while watching, it becomes possible and the only likely cause of the end of humanity.
A small aside from the others as I don’t feel this has been explored to its full potential on-screen. The end of the Bible, The Rapture, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse and any other religious prophecy you can think of. American Dad did a rapture episode, The Leftovers touches on the theme, unfortunately that is it for me. Other religious threats come in the form of the devil being reborn on earth. Constantine, The Exorcist, Ghost Rider, and End Of Days, use this as the primary theme, but they fail to make a film of the actual aftermath or end of humanity. By seeing it through the eyes of a few main characters, rather than all of humanity the potential is lost. Imagine seeing angels falling from the sky to fight demons rising from the earth on a grand scale. Depending on your religious persuasion this could be a fun special effects laden masterpiece or a chilling tale of what might happen. Unfortunately I live in hope for this very film, one day maybe.
What way do you like to see the world end on-screen? Do you like the realistic approach or does an unlikely and narrative rich scenario do it for you?