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Apocalypse, Wow

Western filmgoers increasingly like to see it all come down as apocalypse become hot box office.

Call it a doomsday boom or an end days buffet, but chilling and thrilling conclusions seems to be everywhere I look. Besides doom-laden news reports from climate to economy, the Discovery Channel has Earth without People, great novelists like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro have joined chroniclers of humanity's swan song, yet it's really been the big screen where ending it all gets the most splashy, big-budget play nowadays.

At times bleaker than you imagine (The Road, father and son battle last-day cannibals); other times apocalypse can be oddly hilarious (Shaun of the Dead, a zombie plague comedy of manners). Sometimes our own machines turn on us (Terminator Salvation); more often, though, some virus leaves us sterile (Children of Men) or, more frequently, turns us to undead flesh-cravers (I Am Legend). If that's not enough, movies have been regularly serving up the planet's plummet via pollution (WALL-E), climate change (The Day After Tomorrow), dragons (Reign of Fire), and, just for good measure, some fine wrathful deity action (2012, The Book of Eli and Legion). To paraphrase Crazy Horse, it's a good era to die.

And I'm not watching by myself. Even cursory searches of cinematic eschatology (obsessions with the end) reveal a trend spreading like the zombie party in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Surveying exhaustive science fiction film lists, factoring the terminally dystopic into the fatally cataclysmic (what to do with Planet of the Apes movies ...), we can observe doom and gloom grow from big screen amuse-bouche to main menu item.

(This is a Western Hemisphere phenomenon, by the way. It's a genre unknown to Bollywood or even the ultra-exploitative filmmaking markets in Hong Kong and Thailand where ghosts, crooks and kung fu dominate.)

Before the 1950s, nine films plotted out our common demise. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, when nuclear war anxieties ruled, that number doubled. An uptick in downers happened between Reagan's Star Wars and the millennium with 21 humanity-wipeout films. But in the last nine years the holocaust became red hot: 31 disaster-and-the-day-after movies so far, with more on the event horizon.

It could be the profits. According to the The Numbers, a box office data Web site, a few films like Alfonso Cuaron's great Children of Men actually lost money. But the rest killed. I Am Legend, for instance, cost $150 million to make but had worldwide receipts of slightly more than $580 million. On average, the site claims, end-of-the-worlders cost $64,894,373 each to create, but net $160,232,236.

So, what sells these tickets? Who pays for graphic depictions of our own demise? It could be the spectacle, the pure fanboy joy of watching stuff explode, collapse and rain terror. Computer graphic imagery advances have made such visualizations cheaper and easier.

But this trend is merely an echo of the 1970s disaster movie boom beginning with asteroid films like Armageddon (1998) and rippling outward. We know film is an art form based on spectacle, and what's more appealing than safely viewing forces majeure, an ultimate form of movie violence.

This explanation does tend to demean the genre, though. To put the apocalypse on the same plane as Godzilla stomping out Tokyo is Irwin Allen on acid. And most disaster films have upbeat finales. End-of-the-world films can't by their very definition.

So, maybe there is an innate aesthetic of annihilation. Aristotle claimed we enjoy watching bad things happen to well-born people as catharsis, arresting us in pity and terror at the theatrically played-out sight of catastrophe. Even more interesting, he included spectacle as a minor contribution to this pleasure. Movies obviously trump theater in this respect. But again, wiping out a planet seems somehow different than killing off a prideful king. (If everybody is gone, who gets to cathart?) Besides, many recent films like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland are funny. WALL-E, 9 and the online Escape from Terra are animation. Aristotle says nothing about animated cataclysms.

Such stories date way back in the culture, with flood myths like Noah's as clear precedent. Novelistic versions begin with the Romantics. Mary (Frankenstein) Shelley's 1826 The Last Man gets credit for being first at the end, though After London (1885) by Richard Jefferies offers the schematic that most of the genre novels followed, shifting for yourself post-debacle. Works like A Canticle for Leibowitz, On the Beach and Alas, Babylon were a big part of growing up sci-fi in the shadow of the Cuban Missile crisis.

Strangely enough, what unites nearly all the books and films is not showing the actual fire next time. In fact, except for 2012, which wags have dubbed "disaster porn," most of these skip the fireworks and dwell in the day after obsessing on its impact on the social compact. Apocalyptica throws us into a world where all bets are off; where human contact might bring food offerings or makes us the dish.

The "lesson" of day-after movies, then, is that the world's collapse has trust issues. In pop terms, they most resemble desert island stories. Like, say, The Lord of the Flies, but with the island writ large.

Contemporary critics tend to view the genre as trauma study. In "After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse," Yale English lecturer James Berger examines our desire to repeatedly witness "The horror! The horror!" Berger first views this genre though Sigmund Freud's essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," where Freud formulated death urge theories, analyzing a child's curious behavior (the so-called Fort/Da game), purposefully losing and then finding an object repetitively: "to work over in the mind some overpowering experience so as to make oneself master of it."

Berger also quotes the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek's surmise that this kind of fictional fun becomes "an ecstatic identification with the trauma," which "results in symbolic healing." The symptom becomes the therapy, the neurosis the cure. Zizek sees apocalyptic stories as a rupture between society and our idealization of it, but Berger himself sees them encapsulating traumas that came before and projecting them into the future. Susan Sontag's "The Imagination of Disaster" situates contemporary humans between "unremitting banality and inconceivable horror." Doomsday stories lift us "out of the humdrum" while distracting us "from the terrors."

You don't need to be a Ph.D., though. My neighbor thinks we like this stuff because we know our death awaits us in the future, so fictional holocausts are somehow vicariously consoling. My spouse believes it's all about wiping the slate clean and then free, watching to see what will happen next — ultimate curiosity satisfaction.

Me? I think maybe we should be asking why now instead of just why we like this stuff. Remember, apocalyptica is a sub-species of science-fiction movies that began spreading in 2001 (try not to think of 9/11 quite yet). Sci-fi usually represents thoughtful people considering the shape of things to come, and the group mood affects their vision. The disco 1970s gave us Star Wars and E.T. But this is speculative fiction born after millennium year one (try not to think about Stanley Kubrick, either).

Remember the millennium? It didn't really bring out the crazies, the repent-now religious fanatics. The worst manifestation of future fear was Y2K, a cataclysmic glitch that failed to happen. But the 21st century dawned and lots of bad things did, too (OK, remember it now): 9/11, al-Qaeda, other terrorist acts, climate change, the global economy tanking, mad cow disease, avian and swine flus; bees dying; Korea; Katrina; tidal waves; newspapers failing and Facebook taking off — horrible things.

But Berger — who was writing before the millennium — is wrong. These movies are not trauma residues — though 2012 does have two towers and an airplane flying between them. This is a wave of horror films — even the comedies have zombies and monsters — representing a displaced millennialism, a loss of faith in us.

Our momentary optimism about 2000 was betrayed badly, and we're scared. It's so bad, we're making children's films like WALL-E in which machines have more soul than we do. In 9 the machines are all that survive. We live in abject horror of Tomorrowland.

Next year, The Book of Eli and Legion have God directly involved in wiping us out. It's time to repent, says Hollywood, our newfound crazy preaching on the corner. There's another film due out in January titled Daybreakers, in which an unknown plague has changed Earth into a planet of vampires with a dwindling supply of humans for blood. It combines our fear of pandemic with the end of our oil supply. We're just meat.

"Let it come down," is what one murderer says to another in Macbeth, talking about rain, but implying a sanguine willingness to see things fall. This genre is pleasure mixed with a lot of guilt: Deserved plagues are here. It's fun because we think we have it coming, but all this contrition is starting to blur, and the zombies can't entertain forever.

One hopes it's something filmmakers get out of their system soon, for no other reason than they can get back to making science-fiction films again in which the future is an adventure, not without perils, but very likely survivable.

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