If art, culture and wisdom have taught us anything over the millennia – and cinema over its short, spectacular century – it is that we are all bewitched by what we shouldn’t be bewitched by. The attraction of human beings to the forbidden was established in the Garden of Eden and has thrived ever since.
Look at us mortals today. Loving a safe and peaceful life, we look for the vicarious experience of danger and violence. We don’t want crime or murder in our lives, yet insist on them in our stories and movies. We hate or fear air travel, but thrill to screen stories about doomed airliners. Or doomed travel of any kind, including that by land or sea.
This is a double jeopardy year. It is not just the centenary of the Titanic disaster, which would suffice as an occasion for bells-and-emergency-whistles commemoration. It is, many tell us, the Mayan calendar’s year for the end of the world. (Some others, Nasa among them, claim the 21/12/12 date is reached by unreliable or apocryphal arithmetic.) What more auspicious moment to contemplate the love of catastrophe in our fables and fictions?
We cling to life despite the worst that life can throw at us. Yet we are drawn to stories in which life ends, preferably on a mass scale. At the Venice Film Festival last September I sat down with director Abel Ferrara, whose own end-of-world movie 4:44 Last Day on Earth opens next week in the US. Ferrara is the granddaddy of the forbidden on film. He made the pioneer “video nasty”, Driller Killer (1979), as well as that canonic tale of corrupt law enforcement, Bad Lieutenant (1992).
Unexpectedly, his new film champions the bulwark of belief systems against the tide of planetary destruction (caused in his film by climate change). The hero, played by Willem Dafoe, is an artist: a faith and creed of sorts. His girlfriend (Shanyn Leigh) is a Buddhist. “If you don’t have a spiritual base,” Ferrara tells me, “if you don’t live a life where you believe in something, whether it’s heaven or hell or reincarnation, then when everything you do believe in – which is the material world – is taken away, what have you got? You’ve got nothing. And that’s the point of the film.”
Its other point, or strength, is that Ferrara, like many directors, sees the end-of-the-world story as a rite of reckoning. The movie asks two questions. How do we want to remember ourselves, as defined by our last acts of will, conscience or desire? And how do we want to remember the world, which, like life, only comes into full focus when we’re about to leave it?
Consider a rival Armageddon merchant. Lars Von Trier, director of Melancholia, was feted at another film festival last year. Briefly and notoriously, at Cannes, it was a feting worse than death. Von Trier gabbled some ill-thought remarks about Nazism and was declared “persona non grata”. But when you’re a wild child of world cinema you’ve got to act the part. Not surprisingly, Melancholia was the antihero of the Cannes competition, hated by some, loved by others (me included). It bandied its voluptuous, mischievous, godless despair at one end of the schedule while Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – the competition’s messianic favourite – spoke up at the other end for love, goodness, God and the infinite possibilities of human improvement.
Of course Malick got the Golden Palm. The devil gets the best tunes; the angels get the prizes. But I’ll wager Melancholia stays around longer as a film people actually want to watch. Von Trier’s end of the world is about colliding planets, colliding humans and the nature of “faith” in a secular world. God is nowhere in this story. Yet a weird kind of trust, vision and belief are present. A final “act of faith”, the building of a tent of sticks by the heroine (Kirsten Dunst), is absurd, quixotic and destructible. But it speaks for the will to hope, which at the crunch, Von Trier contends, will always remain stronger than the will to capitulate.
Rites of defiance and rituals of continuity. That is what this cinema presents and represents. Take an iconic top half-dozen of apocalypse dramas on screen. They all imagine the worst, yet keep a faint, tenacious, defiant light flickering for the best.
On the Beach (1959) The bomb has gone off up north. Down south, Australia starts to flood with fallout. Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and a non-dancing Fred Astaire agonise: how should they compose themselves for death? Stanley Kramer's direction plods. But Nevil Shute's story is prototypically end-of-the-world. We respond to the unimaginable by carrying on doing the banally imaginable. It’s heroism, and brave determination, of a sort.
Dr Strangelove (1963), directed by the other Stanley. In Kubrick's nuclear-equation black comedy nations with missiles equal nations with missiles: it’s a MAD world of mutually assured derangement. As the Armageddon countdown begins, so do the parodic postures of logic, dignity, bravery. Everyone pretends to stand up for wisdom and democracy. By the end of the satirical slapstick, barely anyone stands at all. Yet there is still a sense that life – if only a cosmic laughter-force born on the nuclear winds – will carry on after curtain-fall.
The War of the Worlds (1953 and 2005). Martian war machines herd humans into flocks of fight and flight. Before reaching the screen, this was a tale of cosmic mayhem crafted by two near-homonymous mischief masters, HG Wells and Orson Welles. Both saw it as a fable of the world’s serio-absurdist resistance powers. Life doesn’t quite end, but it comes close enough to skywrite the eternal question. Are we demigods who can handle our destinies and our survival? Or are we insects who can fluke them better than bigger creatures?
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009). Roland Emmerich is modern Hollywood’s director-in-residence for Judgement Day dramas. In the first film, the world freezes over thanks to climate change. In the second, the Mayan calendar gooses the cast into running about the globe, trying to stop the December 21 2012 doomsday cancelling Christmas with only three shopping days left. Convulsive emotions and events again get to work. And, again, hope and faith lie in the simple, stubborn, even banal reassertion of human values, including the very right to hope and faith.
Of course, looked at in daylight, “the end of the world” is a vague, multivalent phrase. Do we mean the destruction of the planet? Or the extermination of human life? Or the devastation of the landscape so that only a few ragged nomads, or nomadic groups, exist?
You could create an entire “Apocalypse chic” fashion year from cinema’s depiction of the survivor groups of Mad Max (1979), The Road (2009), Dawn of the Dead (1978 and 2004); all those armies of post-cataclysm survivors wearing threads, shreds and surreally tatterdemalion thrift-shop improvisations. Catnip for the catwalk.
These last-tribes-on-earth movies constitute a subtly different genre or subgenre. They propose that civilisation has broken down and returned us to barbarism, for which you don’t always need a cataclysm. The Hunger Games (opening next week in the UK) does nicely without one: a tale of gladiatorial death fights between teenagers in a dystopian society. Berserk spectacle has climbed out of reality TV and set up in our futuristic midst. Death as spectator sport. Death as cathartic ritual. Death as ratings strategy.
The end of the world, in sum, gets bigger and bigger as a concept. Yet, simultaneously, it gets smaller and smaller. Life ends for each of us eventually, in those sovereign, individual Armageddons called death. We multiply it to create the plural pageant of disaster or apocalypse drama, as if numbers will beef up the metaphysical resonance. Becoming a zero is a depressing thought (goes the thinking). If you string several zeroes together, with an arbitrary figure at the front, you get that empowered, box-office thing, a catastrophe, with its capacity for triumph-of-the-spirit catharsis and defiantly transcendent optimism.
In those parts of the globe where religious belief and observance are on the wane, this aggrandising of death becomes a substitute mysticism. There is comfort in numbers: if we congregate in the tragedy of mortality, we can make it a communion. So the end-of-the-world story becomes a latterday Last Supper.
No wonder we are newly fascinated by that gospelled event, as seized on by novelist Dan Brown for his meditation on the conspiratorial complexity of faith and history in The Da Vinci Code (2003). Brown followed up, almost inevitably, with The Lost Symbol (2009), which chases the Mayan doom-date to both its source and likely consequence.
Which proves again: all fables of momentous termination meet up, eventually, at the same place. We, as the human race, just want to turn a crisis into a drama: a drama which will wring a meaning from, and ring out a celebration of, our stature and significance in the story of the universe.
Whether this imperative is any more pressing today than before is not clear. We may be feeling time’s winged chariot or sensing that the world’s end is closer than it used to be, but, then, maybe there are more events to fuel our foreboding. Or maybe there are more modes of communication to convey those events and that foreboding.
Seldom before could the world have witnessed, as if glued to one enormous television, the detailed landscape of devastation created by Japan’s 2011 tsunami. The earth, quite literally, vanished from our eyes, kilometre by kilometre. The moving shroud of water moving the immovable – houses, office blocks, factories – as it covered the dead or dying body of a modern, busy, thriving civilisation.
Every year there is a meteor scare or solar flare alarm, explained in microscopic, minatory detail on TV, in the papers, on the web. Climate change, we are told, may kill us all as surely as the dinosaurs. (They had their end of the world despite having been around longer than us.) Nuclear missiles in the wrong hands may be a “big bang” that bookends the entire story of cosmic existence.
It is an exciting time to be alive: life gets longer while Life (or the promise of it) gets shorter. No wonder the desire to speculate on the death of the planet has increased to fever pitch. No wonder it has become such an industry in the movies that apocalyptic dramas are beginning to be tossed around as if they are slice-of-life stories.
There are so many “ends of the world” that doom has become a supermarket, a Walmart, of product choice. Take your termination scenario to the checkout counter. If you don’t like it, bring it back next time.
Perhaps it has always been like this: eschatological horror as a matter of taste, whim and individuality. In 1931, Abel Gance, the great French director of Napoleon, made his contribution to global extinction cinema, La Fin du Monde. It was released in the US under the title Paris After Dark. It just shows: one person’s end of the world can be another person’s night out on the town.
Today, the apocalypse trend shows no sign of fading. The end of the world appears to be endless. The only sure date for the extinction of the human race is the day the sun burns out and leaves our planet unsustainable. That, I am told, is a few billion years off. Plenty of time still to enjoy panic, terror, despair and timor mortis, vicariously, in our homes, theatres and multiplexes.
‘4:44 Last Day on Earth’ goes on limited US release on March 23; ‘The Hunger Games’ goes on UK release on March 23