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It Only Gets Darker After the Lights Go Down

Analysis: In movies, popular books and TV, the end of the world makes for an unsettling season.

"It's the end of the world as we know it, and we feel, well, hopeful."

The end of the world, it seems, is weighing heavily on the minds of Americans.

The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight — with the villainous Joker trying to destroy the world out of sheer pleasure — broke all sorts of records. It had the biggest opening day and opening weekend in Hollywood history, and in the first 10 days of its release, the movie grossed over $300 million and is now the second-highest-grossing Hollywood movie ever. (The previous two movies that made so much money so quickly were decidedly lighter fare — Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Shrek 2.)

Even the previews before the start of The Dark Knight were dark. James Bond is full of anger and vengeance, and the tagline for the new Terminator movie is "The End Begins."

Earlier in the summer, Pixar's Wall-E, animating a post-apocalyptic Earth filled with garbage, was popular among critics and audiences, though perhaps less so with the kids.

The already dark Battlestar Galactica, the Sci Fi Channel's sharp re-imagining of the '70s show for a post-9/11 world, got even darker as the first half of the final season came to a close. The surviving humans, out in space for years, finally reach Earth, only to find it completely destroyed.

And even Oprah Winfrey has given in to her inner gloom. In 2006, she picked Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road — about a father and son trying to survive in a bleak, charred landscape — as her book club selection. Leading up to Oprah's discussion of the book, and a rare interview with McCarthy, the novel shot up the bestseller lists. Though The Road does not have the same type of insistently dark, violent scenes that populate his earlier books such as Blood Meridian, McCarthy does not turn away from the obligatory humans eating humans in time of great lack. (The movie version comes out later this year.)

So, what's up? Why are we collectively feeling dark? Why are filmmakers in particular dealing with the end of days, and why are we consuming their visions in bunches?

There is, of course, nothing new about apocalyptic cinema. It has been a consistent interest and obsession for American filmmakers since at least the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki created images of landscapes and life that could be annihilated in a matter of minutes. The question is not whether the subject of these films is new, but rather what is the socio-cultural catalyst for them. Why now? And what do these particular examples suggest about our current mood?

Two recent books of film criticism provide both historical background and some possible answers.

In Apocalyptic Dread: American Film at the Turn of the Millennium, the film scholar Kirsten Moana Thompson argues that "social anxieties, fears, and ambivalence about global catastrophe," what she calls Apocalyptic Dread, "first became apparent in the science-fiction cinema of the Cold War, re-emerged in the seventies with separate cycles of science fiction and demonic films, gained further prominence under a turn to social conservatism under Reagan in the eighties, and reached a hysterical peak in the nineties in a cycle of horror, disaster, and science-fiction films explicitly focused on the coming millennium. After 9/11, this dread took new forms with anxieties about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism from within."

Each of the eras Thompson mentions has its corresponding classics: On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove from the '50s and '60s, the aptly named Apocalypse Now for the Vietnam-era '70s and Blade Runner, The Road Warrior and The Terminator from the early '80s.

Thompson's book looks particularly at films such as Cape Fear, Signs and The War of the Worlds and suggests that they articulate a specific anxiety about the family and family values while broadly embodying our worries about millennial "historical fragmentation and change."

And in a fascinating rescue of certain horror films from the ghetto of the "popular," Adam Lowenstein argues that these films are allegorical responses to national trauma, such as the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Vietnam.

As he writes in the introduction to Shocking Representation, "rather than offering reassuring displays of artistic 'meaning' validated as 'productive' in the face of historical trauma, they demand that we acknowledge how these impulses to make productive meaning from trauma often coincide with wishes to divorce ourselves from any real implication within it."

In other words, certain films allow us to step away from trauma, while others force us to examine our involvement with it.
So why in 2008 is the Terminator back? What are the cultural underpinnings for yet another moment in the cycle of dread? Thompson suggests 9/11 and the rise of terrorism. To this we can add the on-going conflict in Iraq, the daily presence of global death on the news, the spreading consciousness about global warming, the high price of gas and a teetering economy in which people fear the loss of their jobs and homes. As the Olympics have shown, athletics is about athletics, but also about the rise and fall of empires. The medal count is not just math but an accumulation of symbolic power.

At the moment we might still be standing too close to the screen to have a clear picture of whether these recent works are responding to 9/11, melting icecaps, the gas prices or some wicked combination of them all. But there is certainly a general dread in the air, and The Dark Knight, Wall-E and The Road have picked up on this. And while they engage with different strands of the dread, what also ties these works together, interestingly, is a streak of hope. Not Pollyannaish hope but something more subdued.

In the most hopeful of the three, Wall-E the robot spends the first 45 minutes of the film in the company of garbage and a single surviving bug. But ultimately, a combination of love and photosynthesis allow for humans to return to Earth.

The Joker, two and a half hours after he begins the mayhem inspired by his self-professed ideal that "some men are meant to watch the world burn," is vanquished and a semblance of order is restored.

And the young, seemingly naïve son in The Road teaches his father lessons about maintaining humanity in a world permeated by hunger and violence, while the father keeps going with the hope of finding safety for his child. At the end of the novel, after the father dies, the son continues down the road.

At least on one level and one reading, these particular films and novel have been so popular because they allow people a peek at the trauma, without having to linger there too long.

Battlestar Galactica is the most allegorical of this group. Over several seasons, it has dealt directly with issues ranging from authoritarianism and military rule to the erosion of personal freedoms and the prospect of the enemy within. And because the show's effectiveness is based on its allegorical power, the show has greater freedom to deal with the bleakness more fully.
The final 10 episodes of Battlestar don't air until January 2009. There is hope yet for complete darkness, or at least a show that deals more fully with our implication with the trauma we are now experiencing.

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