EVERY SUMMER brings the end of the world. But not since 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon both threatened the end of the world with objects from space has there been such apocalypse redundancy in summer blockbusters: This year, class wars, real wars, ecological exhaustion, aliens, and zombie viruses destroyed our planet in as many different ways.
In her excellent e-book The Zombies are Coming!, Kelly J. Baker reminds us that apocalyptic fantasies have been part of the popular American imagination since at least the Puritan hellfire sermon. Even without a common religious narrative to guide them, end-of-the-world stories mostly function as a form of cultural critique and utopian longing. We can only imagine a desired future out of the ashes of the utterly destroyed present. In other words, things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better.
If Baker is right that we seize on apocalyptic fantasies both to express a deep feeling that something is very wrong with our current state of affairs and to imagine some better alternative, then this summer’s world-ending movies display a profound lack of imagination. Most of them are not even particularly good at conceiving the end of the world, and none of them offer us a vision of how things might be different.
After Earth, for example, is more an overblown coming-of-age story than an apocalyptic thriller. The film follows Kitai (Jaden Smith) as he is guided via walkie-talkie by his wounded father (Will Smith) across an unknown planet. The planet turns out to be Earth 1,000 years after humans have high-tailed it to outer space. But since we never learn why humans had to leave, the apocalyptic frame feels like little more than an excuse to raise the stakes of Kitai’s journey and a chance to show off some fantastic technology. Kitai’s array of super-cool gadgets pretty much guarantees the creatures he meets will have to be more menacing than anything the old Earth could manufacture. The few glimpses we get of humanity’s new planet suggest a post-racial melting pot where everyone speaks a little Chinese and a lot of English and has a preference for flowing linen garments and nautical decoration schemes. I suppose this is a vision of a better tomorrow, but it felt more like a futuristic Pier One ad.
Oblivion is better at imagining the end of the world than After Earth, though also more nostalgic in proposing a new future. The film follows two techies, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and Victoria “Vika” Olsen (Andrea Riseborough), after all the other humans leave Earth for Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Jack and Vika have been left behind to look after the drones that maintain a deep-sea energy operation. While this sounds like thankless work, Jack and Vika move through their mission with the ease that gleaming technology and well-tailored clothing afford.
As the film unfolded, I couldn’t help but wonder how humans had managed to build high-tech bunkers, drones, and ocean-borne power stations while also finding a way to terraform Titan and transport the remaining humans there, all while fighting aliens. It turns out these are the questions Jack and Vika should have been asking. Suffice it to say the battle with the aliens is far from over and Jack becomes a heroic figure in a band of revolutionaries. A lot is made of the importance of human memory in this post-apocalypse: The life we lost will never be completely gone so long as someone can remember it. Humanity’s future hope involves a forswearing of fancy technology and a return to the earth. But this simpler life requires a radical reduction of the Earth’s population down to a few, mostly white, inhabitants. If aliens kill off the teeming masses, the film suggests, Tom Cruise’s memories and gene pool would make a pretty good new start.
Lacking aliens to clean up the mess of overpopulation and environmental degradation, the rich and beautiful skip town, or rather skip the entire planet, in Elysium. This isn’t really a movie about the end of the world, because, in fact, Earth continues to truck along, one giant ethnically mixed slum, while the wealthy live in an orbiting space station, the ultimate gated community. If the future will have a slight Asian bent in After Earth, the Los Angeles of 2154 is a Spanglish ghetto, where everyone is some shade of brown except Max Da Costa (Matt Damon).
Elysium has been praised for combining a strident social critique with high-thrills blockbuster fun. The director, Neill Blomkamp, who also directed the 2009 apartheid parable District 9, has been clear that his film is not trying to imagine some future dystopia but paint in starker light the world as it currently is. The 1 percent may not orbit the Earth in a space colony, but their access to health care, security, and luxury seems as far away to most of the world’s current population.
But Elysium can’t decide who the target of its criticism is—the wealthy themselves? The structures that create such disparity? The deregulation of basic human services such as health care and public safety? In the end, the film blames an individual: Elysium’s secretary of defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). While the rest of Elysium’s ministers want to have their cake and eat it too, Delacourt polices Elysium’s pristine borders with pre-emptive strikes and merciless immigration policies. It is easy to see the parallels with present social ills, but since in real life there is no Delacourt to target for revolutionary action, the critique loses its sting and the fantasy falls flat.
At least for a moment in Pacific Rim, I could grasp the fantasy at work. As the Kaijus (alien beasts from another dimension) fight the Jaegers (giant machines humans built to defeat the Kaijus), a giant monster tail crashes through a high-rise office building in Hong Kong, and cubicle after cubicle is smashed to smithereens. Well that, I thought, would certainly break up the monotony of the workday. At least the film grasped the cathartic pleasure that can come from watching the infrastructure of modern urban life reduced to ash and crumpled steel. The film, however, doesn’t stick around long enough to decide what should be built in its place.
This is really the problem with all of these movies. Apocalypse is just a narrative device or an excuse for better special effects or a diffuse social commentary that can’t find its mark. In the end, the more things are destroyed, the more they remain the same: the same father-son tensions, the same myth of a lone hero riding in to save the world, the same recycled love story. Maybe there is a kind of comfort in this: No matter how bad things get, human nature will keep repeating itself. But given the collective sense that things are not right with the world as it is, that is a cold kind of comfort, and not a very inspiring reason to keep imagining the end of the world.
Cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek once quipped that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a more modest change in capitalism. One doesn’t have to think that capitalism is the root cause of our social unrest to take his larger point. Even in our most escapist fantasies—where, really, anything should be possible—we cannot imagine an alternative to the current state of things. At best these films gesture to it—We all wear linen! We live on another planet! But this crop of directors is too uncertain of what should lie beneath that bright new surface to show us the close-up. We have gotten so good at imagining the mechanics of complete destruction—bigger alien monsters, strange viruses, supernatural forces—we have lost any collective vision of what we’d hope to build out of the ashes of our demise.
A few recent movies have tried to imagine a solution to our own destruction. Warm Bodies (think Romeo and Juliet with zombies) suggests that what led to the zombie apocalypse was self-centeredness and what will undo it is human connection and kindness. Even This Is the End, the crudely hilarious bromance that gently mocks our obsession with apocalypse movies, has a moral lesson to teach: Looking out for a buddy might not prevent the end of the world, but it will keep you on the right side of the rapture.
My favorite apocalyptic movies are those that drop us squarely in the post-apocalyptic future: The Road, Children of Men, and the AMC television show The Walking Dead do this superlatively. In these films, virtually no time is spent on the spectacle of destruction; civilization has already been destroyed (even if lingering zombies or cannibals or militaries continue to threaten violence). We may not see a full-fledged vision of a better future in these fantasies, but our sense of what should survive the end of the world is sharpened—small acts of kindness and bravery as well as ways to imagine community when our current configurations of “family” and “country” no longer make sense.
In the end, none of these fantasies meets Žižek’s test: We can’t imagine a way out of our worst problems without destroying the world to get there. But if we must have an apocalypse, it is worth asking what would happen if one of these movies lingered a bit longer after the end of the world. Now what? Who governs this new world? How do we arrange our common life? Maybe if Matt Damon or Will Smith invented a super technology that distributes health care and leads to farming collectives, it could even be a blockbuster. It might at least do our fantasy lives some good if we could imagine a new order to things, instead of just another way to destroy what we’ve got.
Kathryn Reklis is assistant professor of modern Protestant theology at Fordham University. She writes regularly on religion and pop culture at www.themothchase.com .
Image: Background desert town after the nuclear apocalypse, YorkBerlin  / Shutterstock.com