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by Gabriel Chong | 3 March 2010

Part I: Why the Apocalypse is Big Business

Hollywood may not care much about the birth of mankind and civilisation, but it certainly cares about its end. Within the past few months, it has tantalized audiences with three different versions of how the world would end- beginning with the global cataclysm in “2012”, to the nuclear disaster that led to the father-son journey in “The Road” and finally to the catastrophic war which precipitated the fight for the sacred “Book of Eli”.

Were it not for the outstanding box-office success of “2012”, one would think that Hollywood is alone in its fetish for death and destruction. But if the US$770mil worldwide gross of the Roland Emmerich movie is anything to go by, audiences sure enjoy watching the world end. That would also explain the success of the costly US$80mil Denzel Washington post-apocalyptic tale “The Book of Eli”, which has since taken in more than its budget in the United States alone.

The popularity of apocalyptic fiction is not new- films about the end of civilisation have traditionally found their appreciative audience, and these tend to be science fiction lovers enamoured with the idea of an agrarian future without technology. Indeed, apocalyptic fiction has very often been associated with the end of technology’s reign, portrayed often as evil and malevolent. A classic example of that scepticism is the Terminator series, the most recent of which was Terminator: Salvation (2009), set in a world where mankind is fighting for their survival against machines out to exterminate them.

Apocalyptic Fiction and Nuclear Fears

Film history theorists say that apocalyptic fiction became mainstream during the nuclear age of the 1950s, as people started to grow aware of the real possibility of global annihilation by nuclear weapons. They cite the prevalence of apocalyptic themes and imagery in Japanese manga and anime which they claim was the indelible mark that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left on Japanese culture. Such works imagining a dystopian society ravaged by the horrors of technology resonated with the general public as they became an outlet to express people’s innate fears and anxieties.

In the United States, the threat of the Cold War left a similar imprint on popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the seminal works of apocalyptic fiction during that time was Andre Norton’s “Star Man’s Son”, where a silver-haired mutant, Fors, goes on a quest with the aid of a telepathic, mutant cat through a radiation ravaged landscape in search of a city supposedly left intact. Despite the inherent bleakness of its premise, there was always an element of hope, of survival, and of re-civilisation.

This was the duality of post-apocalyptic tales, which not just told about how the world would end, but also how some semblance of mankind would inevitably prevail, the triumph of the human spirit against the darkness. Cormac McCarthy’s definitive novel “The Road” embodies such a spirit, telling its story of a father and son duo’s journey across a devastated wasteland searching for food, shelter and fuel while maintaining their sense of humanity and morality.

Freudian theory

Freudian psychologists believe that the duality is reflected by our two conflicting central desires- the life drive (termed ‘libido’) and the death drive (termed ‘thanatos’). The life drive was responsible for instincts that sustain the life of the individual and the continuation of the species. It is these life instincts that motivate us to live, to triumph, to succeed and to prevail.

The converse of this was the death drive, described by Freud as an unconscious desire to die, and in opposition with the life drive and its instincts. It is these death drives that Freud believed was the cause of our self-destructive behaviour and our attraction to chaos and destruction. Post-apocalyptic tales, with their emphasis on the struggle of mankind alongside the destruction of civilisation, spoke to both the life and death drive inherent in each one of us, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Religious symbolism

For Christians however, movies such as “The Book of Eli” have an additional significance- they provide a secular context for understanding the religious concept of the apocalypse, rooted in end of the world images described in The Book of Revelations. Author Conrad Eugene Oswalt in his book “Secular Steeples: Popular Culture and the Religious Imagination” says that the apocalyptic imagination in our popular culture has supplemented religion in making sense of the finitude of our world.

Oswalt also explains how such an apocalyptic imagination takes root and continues to perpetuate itself. “We see life around us and we observe it beginning and ending; we know birth and death, and as we imagine our own birth and death, and as we imagine our own birth and death, we extrapolate and hypothesize world creation and world destruction as a way to make sense of time and a creation that outlives us,” he writes. In other words, the apocalypse appeals to our egocentric nature because it is a worldview that is useful in making sense of our mortalities- basically to ease our anxieties of why we die when the rest of the world goes on.

According to Oswalt therefore, our attraction towards that apocalyptic imagination propagated by Hollywood will continue to persist, for it serves a vital function in realizing the inevitabilities of life and death. So too is the durability of this imagination according to Freudians, since each and every one of us are driven by the dual forces of life and death. Yes, either explanation only suggests that post-apocalyptic fiction will continue to enchant audiences with their end-of-world stories and their concomitant portrayals of man’s fight for survival.

So it may have taken the prospect of nuclear war for the mainstreaming of apocalyptic tales into the public consciousness; but they only took root because those seeds were sown in fertile minds, minds which will continue to crave for meaning, for life and for death. Whether Hollywood understands this rationale, or buys into it for that matter, you can be sure there will be many more “2012s”, “The Roads” and “The Book of Elis” in the months and years ahead.

Continue to Part Two >

By Gabriel Chong
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