Waiting for the end of the world

June 11, 2014


When I would complain about some trivial disappointment as a child (or even a teen – and, really, disappointments at that age never feel as trivial as they are), my mother would say, “Well, it’s not the end of the world.”

Fortunately, she didn’t live to see contemporary pop culture. That seems to be all we think about, judging from the films and TV series with which we are being inundated.

I happened to watch the pilot for a new series for the Syfy network, called “Dominion.” The first thing to appear on the screen were these words: “Twenty-five years ago, God disappeared.” Yikes. Never a good sign.

This is the same network that is in the second season of another show, “Defiance,” set in 2047: “A new Earth – with new rules.” Extraterrestrials have taken up residence on Earth – which is the same as the end of the world, right?

OK, so that’s a stretch. But consider the recent NBC series “Revolution,” about a post-electric society: life without the grid. Or “Terra Nova,” about a family in 2149 (when the world is about to END!) transported into the prehistoric past.

There’s also Tom Cruise’s new film, “Edge of Tomorrow,” which has an almost-the-end-of-the-world story, with the victory of vicious alien invaders an imminent threat. Upcoming on TNT is “The Last Ship,” which Michael Bay has transformed from a tale of post-nuclear-holocaust life to one of a post-pandemic world (much scarier and, seemingly, more possible). There’s also a new Australian film, all the rage at Cannes this year, called “The Rover,” which begins with the simple words, “Australia, after the fall.”

That, of course, is not to mention the ever-popular “Walking Dead,” and “World War Z,” preceded by “28 Days Later” and “Night of the Living Dead” before that. And let’s not forget Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion.” OK, so zombies and rapidly spreading lethal bird viruses are different things – but when you’re talking about the end of the world, do those kind of niceties really matter?

And now here comes Nicolas Cage in “Left Behind,” about the Rapture – which may or may not be the instigating event in “The Leftovers,” the new HBO series based on the novel by Tom Perrotta.

It’s a familiar trope: The world ends. Now what? How do we survive? How do we rebuild? How do we avoid the mistakes of the past?

Certainly, these kind of epochal-catastrophe/post-apocalypse tales are nothing new. But I was struck by just how many of them there seem to be at this moment in our culture.

Inevitably, they become about what all stories are about: power, money, sex, control. Just as inevitably, the struggle for power seems to define all the other issues – and also mirrors our own fears about our worst impulses as human beings.

There’s a reason that none of these post-apocalyptic stories ever seem to imagine a world where mistakes have taught lessons, where we’ve learned from our past and put it to use to imagine a utopia that gets it right this time. Civilization is a man-made construct; when civilization collapses, incivility runs rampant.

Which is why, in books, movies and TV, post-apocalyptic societies are always Darwinian. That may be the real message here: that we are, however tentatively and tenuously, still a civilization of thinking people – because we don’t need to kill our neighbors to save ourselves. But we’re just one disaster away from atavism rearing its ugly head and then, suddenly, it’s kill or be killed.

That’s obviously a powerful idea to use as a metaphor and it can be teased out in all sorts of directions, whether politically, philosophically or otherwise. Just as alien invasion movies and sci-fi monster tales supposedly allow us to confront our fears about real-life issues (take your pick), so do these post-end-of-days stories force us to confront our worries about what we are turning into right now – as individuals, as a nation, as a planet.

So, cheer up – it’s not the end of the world. Just the beginning of the end.

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