Why Is The World Ending In Almost Every Blockbuster Movie Lately?

Even the movies think we're screwed.

In two early spectacles from this year’s blockbuster season, humanity’s end comes in the form of death from above. In April, Captain America: The Winter Soldier had a fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D helicarriers, outfitted with NSA-like data analytics, programmed to target and destroy those citizens with a propensity for civil disobedience. In March, Darren Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah had a disappointed and vindictive creator poised to raze civilization from the earth with a global flood.

Judgment has been passed, you see. The sin is original and humanity has to pay its due. In Captain America this cataclysm is narrowly avoided, of course, by the efforts of a band of superheroes, but at the cost of a whole lot of global stability. Noah, on the other hand, goes the whole hog. Humanity dies violently (and Aronofsky lingers on the screams of the desperate few within ear-reach of the ark), and Noah and his battered family are left to pick up the pieces – and live with the guilt.

Hollywood blockbusters of late always seem to have the fate of the world at stake. As Lost mastermind and veteran script doctor Damon Lindelof explained in a pretty candid interview with New York magazine in August last year, the world-conquering threat is practically a mandatory requirement when a film is of a certain budget: “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world”.

But our recent blockbusters aren’t just engaging in world-saving heroics: they’re also increasingly pessimistic about the inevitability of our coming disaster – and what can be salvaged out of it. If these films can be reduced to a common theme it’s probably something like this: we are so totally screwed.

Movies tend to reflect the spirit of the times, so this is not altogether a surprising sentiment, given the current state of things: like, oh, say, this, and this, and this, and, oh hell, why not, this. Humanity is on the outs, it seems; undone by disease, drones, climate disaster, and political intransigence (a.k.a. old mate over here) – and the movies are here to tell it to us.

Godzilla: The Post-Human Era Has Begun

If you never thought a mega-budget film about the pathetic insignificance of the human species would come out of a major Hollywood studio, Godzilla rumbled out in May to prove you wrong. In fact, in a perceptive op-ed over on The Dissolve, film critic David Ehrlich labels Godzilla “the first post-human blockbuster”.

A lot of this has to do with the recessive presence of the human characters in the film. Bryan Cranston does some capital-a Acting in the early portions of the film, but leading man Aaron Taylor-Johnson — grotesquely swoled-up since his days as Kick-Ass — could very well be sleepwalking and we’d never know the difference. The majority of humans bumble through the narrative, the paltriness of their goals and intentions even more marginalized by their thin characterization. Humanity is the ultimate cause of all the troubles that afflict them in the film—developing and testing the nuclear technologies that awaken, and feed, the MUTOs (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) that plague their cities—and everything they do to fix the problem only makes it worse.

It’s up to Godzilla, the unquestionable star of the piece (and remember how weird it is that there’s a Godzilla movie that starred Matthew Broderick?) to rid our cities of the MUTOs. Director Gareth Edwards gives audiences a long build-up to Godzilla’s first appearance on screen, delivered strictly through human-level perspective. When the monster finally lumbers into frame at the movie’s climax, it’s like the canvas of the film tangibly widens.

Having arrived, Godzilla shows absolute indifference to the human characters, but the film gives itself over to the monster anyway. Godzilla even gets the most adorably human-feeling moment in the entire film, when, after dispatching one of the MUTOs, it stops to take a little breather, chunky body heaving with exhaustion. Then a building falls on it.

By the epilogue of the film the desperately thankful humans have crowned Godzilla ‘King of the Monsters’, but when it finally heaves its bulk out of the ruins of San Francisco and into the ocean it doesn’t even wave goodbye.

It’s clear that Godzilla versus the MUTOs is the real spine of the film’s story, Cranston and Taylor-Johnson’s familial crisis be damned. The human actions, when they aren’t merely negligible, are actually obstructive. Gareth Edward’s film gives humanity gets a front row seat to its own absolute ineffectuality in the face of disaster. We can’t even save ourselves.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes: Crisitunities

But disasters, social and otherwise, are also a kind of revolutionary tipping point. The upside of all these end-times is the possibility of a new beginning. After all, what better time is there to seize power than in the midst of a disaster? The Bolsheviks made good use of the widespread discontent and rioting sown by Russia’s involvement in the First World War to make their play for governance. The Occupy movement is indelibly linked to the anti-finance outrage bred by the great financial crash of ’09. When even Russell Brand is telling us that now is the time for a massive redistribution of wealth and social power, you know the idea has traction.

This theme gets some airing in the ongoing Planet of the Apes saga, the latest instalment of which was released this month. Quite bizarrely for a series from the Murdoch-owned Fox studio, the Apes films are genuinely motivated by and interested in the possibility of revolutionary upheaval.

In the first film of this franchise reboot, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a genetically modified, super-intelligent ape named Caesar grows up under the care of an Alzheimer’s researcher, played by James Franco. When Caesar’s super-intelligent antics get him into the trouble with the local authorities, he is detained in an ape sanctuary, where he eventually leads the inhabitants in a revolt against their captors. Out on the streets of San Francisco (the Bay Area being, apparently, our preferred home for humanity’s downfall. Also, the tech industry!) the apes swing by the medical research laboratory where Caesar had been born, and do a spot of liberating. The new ape army then storms past a blockade on the Golden Gate Bridge, and hustles off to the forests to live in freedom.

Rise implicitly links the success of this simian revolution to a sub-plot hovering in the background. Franco’s research team has inadvertently come across a good old-fashioned population-destroying super-virus, and unleashed it into the community. The world-wide health disaster spawned by this epidemic (as outlined in the opening credits to Dawn) provides just the sort of crisis to distract the human power structure, while the apes work to consolidate their uprising.

By the time of this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the human population has been decimated, and Caesar has taken this absence of interference as an opportunity to build a peaceful ape paradise in the forests surrounding San Francisco. The apes live, hunt, and school themselves in relative harmony, all under the rule of a few simple precepts—scrawled on a rock in their camp—foremost of which is ‘Ape shall not kill ape’.

Meanwhile the human population is rebuilding, too. The survivors of the virus have built themselves a tidy little community in the ruins of San Francisco, and are attempting to secure a permanent energy source with which to expand and reconnect with the other remnants of humanity. To that end, a small group of workers are attempting to restart a dam in the hills surrounding the city – leading them right into the apes’ territory. The clash of civilizations this sets off brings out the worst in both communities and, inevitably, the breaking of the apes’ first rule.

Humanity, Rise tells us, will be handed the short end of the stick in this conflict. By the time the apes get their hands on some machine guns, and then ride horses through flames shooting these machine guns and bearing their teeth in terrifying snarls, the cause seems totally lost (to add insult to injury, they also seize a tank). If you want a compact image to sum up this era of the post-human blockbuster, there’s probably none better.

But the new social order built by the apes is not so new. The crisis moment offered by the simian virus has failed to produce real social change. It doesn’t take more than a brief encounter with the humans for Caesar’s moderate rule to be quickly undermined by a bellicose, anti-human faction. The apes have inherited the violence of the very power structure they sought to overthrow, and the cycle of oppression begins anew.

It seems that even our brave new worlds swiftly take on the troubles of the old. Which brings us to this year’s unlikeliest blockbuster…

A New Way: Snowpiercer

Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian sci-fi epic (and English language debut) is finally getting a limited release in Australia this July, after some dubious handling by The Weinstein Company.

In Snowpiercer’s not-so-distant future, a cooling agent dispersed into the earth’s atmosphere to combat global warming has instead turned the planet into a frozen wasteland. The last dregs of humanity survive only on the titular train: a ginormous marvel of industry that circles the globe on an endless loop. Inside, the train is strictly divided by class, and the lowly inhabitants of the tail end live under the cruel heel of the pampered elites of the front.

Stung by the yoke of inequality, a band of revolutionaries—led by a dour Chris Evans as Curtis, and John Hurt as Gilliam, the resident wise old man—stage an ambitious attempt to break through the carriages and seize the engine at the front, all the while doing battle with the agents of Wilford, the visionary industrialist who built and controls the train.

Said agents are lead by Tilda Swinton, who gives her apparatchik character Mason a hilarious kind of fascist schoolmarm joie de vivre. This performance, which veers from comedy to cruelty, is typical of the pleasures the film offers. Like director Bong Joon-ho’s films in his native Korea, Snowpiercer has an unusually flexible tonal register and an ambitious amount of narrative turns.

Its various peculiarities as a story might feel over-stretched to some audiences, but it’s actually tightly controlled. The film hews firmly to a surprisingly cogent treatment of the revolutionary possibilities of social crisis: cogent because, like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s hard-nosed and cynical about the redemptive possibilities of this crisis, and the lengths we have to go to if genuine change is to be achieved.

Curtis and his ragged band make good initial progress up the length of the train, but as he advances farther and farther forward the logic of the situation begins to warp and change. The simple revolutionary inversion envisaged by Curtis and Gilliam—the tail-enders will displace and subjugate the front-enders—starts to look dangerously narrow-minded. To say more would spoil the various surprises the film has in store.

Like Godzilla and Dawn, Snowpiercer cannily articulates humanity’s lot in this crisis against a series of visions of non-human life. As the revolutionaries advance up the train they encounter three varieties of animal, each more surprising than the last, and each laden with meaning about the humanity’s place within, or without, the social system of the train.

So what comes next? If horrible worldwide cataclysm is our fate, then there’re really two options. You can make like Rusty Crowe and pull a Noah: sprawl out butt-naked on a beach, drunk on homebrewed wine. Or pull a Caesar: fight on for family and home, long past the corruption of your ideals. Both fine choices, really. Whatever the end of the world looks like, life goes on.

Snowpiercer opens in limited release July 24.

James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.