Tales of the cataclysm have long been a cinematic staple, and since the movie industry is perpetually on the lookout for ways to turn a profit from the zeitgeist, this seems an especially apt moment for such films. Two have been brought out this season: End of Days, the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, and the Canadian indie movie Last Night. Though in many respects they come from different cinematic planets, both films reveal how, in these unfocused times, we make sense of ourselves and our society.
This kind of sense-making is an essential aspect of end-of-the-world movies. What changes, tellingly, is the nature of the threat as well as how we respond. Each era, it seems, gets the cataclysm it deserves.
However well artistry serves as camouflage, all the most memorable cataclysm films of the 1950s and 1960s--On the Beach, The War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Dr. Strangelove--are morality plays. They embody an ethical certainty, a sense of right and wrong that emerges with startling clarity in the crucible of holocaust.
While these movies are set in the future, the immediate present is their real subject. They are the ultimate dystopian fantasies, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward witnessed from the precipice. The menace in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The War of the Worlds comes from afar--giant pods take over our bodies and destroy our souls; relentless attackers are foiled only when they encounter the earth's atmosphere. But it is communism's decidedly this-worldly threat that gives these films their underlying meaning. The theft of individuality in Invasion of the Body Snatchers represents an image of life under a communist regime. Communism is also the enemy in The War of the Worlds, for it is we, but not they, who can breathe the air of freedom.
In On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove, the peril has shifted. It is hard to imagine two movies more different from one another in their style of narration. On the Beach is the ultimate romance: love and death among the impending ruins, as portrayed by Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner--From Here to Eternity, literally--while Dr. Strangelove is the quintessential black comedy. Still, both films are laser-focused on the same target: the madness of mutually assured destruction and the nuclear holocaust that such a world view invites. Each seduces us in order to scare us straight.
But that was then. Come Armageddon, Independence Day, Deep Impact, and now End of Days, all produced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the U.S.-versus-U.S.S.R. arms race, and what we're up against is just a faceless them, or else a random fact of nature such as a stray meteorite. There is no faith to defend, nothing specific to fear or cherish.
The dollop of pop religion (of the "why do bad things happen to good people?" variety) in End of Days is meant to give some class to the goings-on, but special effects are the real deity here. Climax follows climax: fire bombings and car chases and elaborate tortures, including two crucifixions. Satan, who inhabits the body of a banker, whisks through New York City in the guise of a diaphanous cyclone.
Last Night carries this sense of pointlessness to its nihilist extreme, as the very idea of an enemy has been effaced. In the first scene of the film, a jogger--a female Paul Revere wearing silvery makeup and Pumas--sprints down an empty street in a prosperous-looking city, shouting out that the world will end at midnight, precisely six hours away. The cause of this cataclysm is never revealed. It just is.
There's not a hint in Last Night that anything might, or should, be done to bring a halt to this world-ending scenario. That fatalism represents a new vision of how, when confronted with cataclysm, we respond--and in responding, how we define ourselves.
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In the end-of-the-world films of the 1950s and 1960s, the commons, in its broadest sense, is at risk. Most fiction concerns crucial personal choices, individual dramas in which society provides the setting and context but not the subject. By contrast, the great holocaust movies are precisely about public choices--decisions that the society must make collectively. Whether the menace is nuclear or political annihilation, we either hang together or we hang separately.
The protagonist in the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is no Superman--just a skeptical Everyman. Yet after he eludes the hordes of soul-stripped townspeople bent on retooling him, he takes it for granted that his mission is not mere survival. Somehow he must jolt a complacent citizenry into awareness of the enveloping menace. As the story was originally conceived, his warning goes unheard. He runs alongside a car-clogged highway in the harrowing final scene, trying to bring traffic to a standstill with his message, but the heedless drivers nearly run him down as they speed to their doom.
Apparently this ending was regarded as too disturbing for popular consumption, as the movie was released with a tacked-on happy finale. But there's no such salvation in the 1978 remake, or in On the Beach or Dr. Strangelove. At the end, we become hollow people or else numbers in the worldwide body count.
The holocaust in these films is brought on by human agency, consequential decisions to which moral responsibility rightly attaches. In On the Beach, we know from the outset that there has been a nuclear war. No one is sure which superpower fatally miscalculated, and it doesn't really matter. In their compulsive hatred for one another, both Russia and the United States resemble those evil empires that, in George Orwell's 1984, thrive because of the threat of war. At a pivotal moment in the story, a respected scientist assails the hubris that has fatally infected both sides of this ideological divide. As a society, he says, we failed to see what was happening around us, and so, despite all our acts of loving kindness to friends and kin, we bear some responsibility for our fate.
A lunatic Air Force warrior and a Hitler-loving White House adviser connive, in Dr. Strangelove, to bring on the cataclysm. Yet the fact of their madness doesn't let the rest of us off the hook. Quite the contrary: These figures caricature an entirely familiar brand of American vigilantism--"extremism in defense of liberty," as Barry Goldwater phrased it during the 1964 presidential campaign--a misguided brand of patriotism that, in the film, is carried to its terribly logical conclusion.
In all these movies, the impulse of those who come face to face with obliteration is not to surrender but to resist. The belief that individuals stand for something larger than themselves--that they regard themselves not as alienated figures but as members of a community that has meaning and value--persists even in the shadow of destruction. The protagonist in Invasion of the Body Snatchers carries on, even though, for all he knows, he may be the last man on earth. On the Beach ends with a final grand gesture of solidarity. The sailors on an American submarine, which has been docked in Australia, vote to return to the United States so they can die on their home soil.
Skip forward in time to the 1990s blockbusters, and belief in the efficacy of community has vanished. As the superheroes try to save the day, the rest of us are simply bystanders--moral couch potatoes. The message, if there is one, is "why can't we get along?", a Hallmark card sentimentality masking our passivity and powerlessness.
Mars Attacks!, a 1996 send-up of War of the Worlds-type space invaders films, did a delicious job of spoofing the entire genre. Though End of Days takes itself quite seriously, it is really a spoof as well. Once Satan himself has been vanquished, what else might possibly portend the end of the world?
There's scarcely a special effect to be spotted in Last Night, and that's not the only way this movie is distinguishable from the blockbusters. The film is constructed around an intriguing thought experiment: How would ordinary people act if they knew that the end of the world was imminent?
This is surely the most personal cataclysm movie ever made--recall The Ice Storm or Terms of Endearment, and you have the idea. The tone is surrealistically calm. No one tries, in Arnold Schwarzenegger fashion, to thwart disaster single-handedly. There is no blaming, no searching for Truth. Political leaders don't try making sense of things, and neither do scientists and clerics; indeed, none of the Great and Good makes an appearance. Even the sporadic outbursts of street anger are perfunctory. Cars get tipped over and fist-fights break out among roaming bands of teenagers, but no one's really into it.
In Last Night, none of the characters has a single word to say about society. All that matters is myself, or perhaps myself and those closest to me. What the characters do is variously poignant or petty, selfish or silly, but their separate lives, when taken together, don't add up to a greater whole. The empty streets--people isolated in their houses, watching TV while the clock ticks down, finding pleasure in sex or solitude or the comfort of routine--reflect the utter barrenness of the commons.
Never in the annals of cinema has cataclysm felt at once so portentous and so banal, so absurd and so profound. Even with the end of life a tick of the clock away, the entirely human instinct is to make things normal, to domesticate the demonic, coming to terms with the unthinkable by turning it into something we can live with.
Like the classic cataclysm films, Last Night proposes that, past all capacity for self-delusion, the choices we make in such telling moments speak volumes about who we really are. Yet the thought experiment upon which the movie rests is ultimately contrived. Because we don't know how we got to this fateful state of affairs--don't know what, if anything, we have done to bring it about--we have been stripped of moral agency as surely as in End of Days.
This is solipsism taken to its ultimate extreme, another dead end in the end-of-the-world genre--when the planet is about to be destroyed, the only response Last Night offers is "whatever."