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Part II: Hollywood’s End of Days

- Wars

One of the most oft-used scenarios of the downfall of civilisation was the next World War, which Hollywood believed would bring about a nuclear holocaust that would wipe out most of mankind. Most recently, “The Road” (2009) hinted at such a prospect, though like the book, is noticeably vague about the details.

The prospect of World War III first became very real during the 1950s, fuelled by the tension between the United States and the communist bloc- especially with the Soviet Union’s nuclear bomb test, the Communist Revolution in China in 1949 and the Korean War. It was during this era that Hollywood films began to depict a post-apocalyptic world after its destruction by nuclear weapons. Among the first were “Captive Women” (1952), the story of three tribes in a new primitive society fighting in New York City long after a nuclear war, and “The World, The Flesh and the Devil” (1959), the story of a miner who escapes from a cave-in to discover the world ravaged by a nuclear holocaust.

Over the 1960s and 1970s, films such as the Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964), and Planet of the Apes (1968) and its sequels continued to perpetuate the real possibility of WWIII- though Hollywood began to tap more specifically on people’s apprehensions over the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s.

One of the most popular films in the 1980s to use the prospect of WWIII was Kurt Russell’s Escape to New York (1981) set in a post-WWIII backdrop in 1997. While they did not mention WWIII, human wars were also the backdrop of Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and its two sequels (1980). Hollywood continued its obsession with films featuring a nuclear WWIII- which waned off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The September 11, 2001 attacks never did revive fears of a WWIII, primarily because of the united stance that countries took against terrorism and the few countries thought to support this beast. If anything, the concept of WWIII morphed into a probable consequence of social inequality and social unrest- the premise of Kurt Wimmer’s sci-fi cult hit Equilibrium (2002) and most recently, Denzel Washington’s The Book of Eli (2010).

- Pandemics

The end of the world by way of plagues and pandemics is a relatively new one- and really only became Hollywood’s de facto mode of the apocalypse in the 2000s. Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) was one of the earlier ones and depicted a world devastated by disease in which a man is sent back from the future to collect information about.

The year 2002 saw two well-received pandemic themed films- one, the critically acclaimed 28 Days Later (2002), the gritty Danny Boyle film set in London; and the other, the commercial hit Resident Evil (2002), based on the popular videogame. It didn’t take Hollywood long to wake up with the idea that the fears of SARS and H1N1 only made the possibility of apocalypse by viruses ever more real in the 21st century.

So began films like Aeon Flux (2005), Children of Men (2006), I Am Legend (2007), 28 Weeks Later (2007)-the sequel to 28 Days Later, Doomsday (2008), Carriers (2009) and the most recent, Daybreakers (2009) where a pandemic turns the world’s population into vampires, and humans a much-depleted food resource.

- Alien invasions

Where we acknowledged it or not, we somehow knew that we weren’t alone in this vast universe- and thus our fears that something somewhere out there may not be friendly. Films like War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) tapped into these fears and remain as relevant and frightening today as they were before- seeing as how both have since been remade, War of the Worlds by Steven Spielberg in 2005 and The Invasion by in 2007.

The stereotypical view was that aliens were hostile and wanted to decimate our planet for their domination, and films such as Independence Day (1996), Titan A.E. (1996), Signs and even Michael Bay’s big, loud and bombastic Transformers (2007) reinforced this. Last year however, South African director Neill Blomkamp turned these fears on their head with the sci-fi classic District 9 (2009) by parlaying the tensions between humans and aliens into a clever and thought-provoking allegory on discrimination in his home country.

- Ecological catastrophe

Since the 1960s, Hollywood somehow knew that the world could end with some form of environmental destruction. B-movie maestro Roger Corman’s The Last Woman on Earth (1960) was one of the earliest, imaging what would happen if the world’s oxygen levels suddenly dropped precipitously. A slew of other films in the 1960s also dwelt on the effect of man’s flirtation with technology (i.e. nuclear testing) on the environment, resulting in catastrophe by solar radiation (Beyond the Time Barrier, 1960) or the spiralling of the sun towards Earth (The Day the Earth Caught Fire, 1964).

The 1970s saw the well-received Logan’s Run (1975) which was set against the backdrop of an ecological disaster that forced mankind to live in enclosed domes. But the rest of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s saw throwaway disaster movies that failed to make their mark with audiences- even the Kevin Costner expensive bomb, Waterworld (1995), so named because its setting is a waterlogged planet following the melting of the polar ice caps.

Roland Emmerich, the master of the modern day disaster movie genre, rebooted the death by ecological disaster notion with the 2004 hit The Day After Tomorrow, which he upped with his latest box-office winner 2012 (2009). Animation giant Pixar also took a stab at the genre with their charming Wall E (2008) set in a future where mankind has abandoned Earth after massive pollution has made it incapable of sustaining life.

Asia too in their demonstration of CGI prowess decided to make use of the ecological disaster bandwagon- with Japan’s The Sinking of Japan (2006), Korea’s Haeundae (2009) and Thailand’s 2022 Tsunami (2009).

- Cybernetic revolt

What better way to express mankind’s ambivalence with technology than cybernetic revolt, a doomsday scenario where artificial intelligence (AIs) would one day decide that humans are a threat and therefore attempt to enslave them or exterminate them completely. James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), which has since spawned three sequels, was one of the definitive movies about the man versus machine battle.

Another such franchise was The Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) trilogy, which spawned a cultural revolution with its dystopian view of mankind’s control by sentient machines where humans were grown in pods and farmed as a bioelectricity and thermal energy source. (Remember the books dissecting the world of the Matrix and its meaning for the human race?)

Will Smith’s I, Robot (2004), adapted from the Isaac Aminov book, was another such piece of cybernetic revolt fiction. So too the Jude Law- Gwyneth Paltrow movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and most recently, the animated film 9 (2009) where the corruption of machines causes the obliteration of mankind.

If You Missed Part One of THE END IS NIGH >

By Gabriel Chong
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