Picturing the End: While Entertaining, Post-Apocalyptic Movies about Death and Depravity Have Their Theology All Wrong

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Picturing the End: While Entertaining, Post-Apocalyptic Movies about Death and Depravity Have Their Theology All Wrong


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


READERS OF THE Bible might have found themselves thinking about the first chapters of Genesis when watching last year's biggest movie. James Cameron's 3-D blockbuster, Avatar (20th Century Fox), dropped 21st century audiences into a mystical Eden called Pandora--a lavish garden overflowing with primitive innocents, a lush cornucopia of radiant flora and fauna, and its own magical tree of life.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But viewers of The Road (Dimension Films), based on Cormac McCarthy's book of the same name, and the Hughes brothers' The Book of Eli (Warner Bros.) were probably more reminded of Revelation, having been abandoned in a bleak post-apocalyptic wasteland where civilization has been annihilated by some ungodly wrath.

IN MCCARTHY'S TALE, A NAMELESS FATHER AND SON (PLAYED by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) make a grim pilgrimage to the sea across a desolate wasteland that used to be America. Haunted by dreams of their lost past and nightmares of a frightening future, the pair journey through a barren wilderness of failed crops and withered vegetation, a forsaken landscape dotted with the monstrous ruins of human habitation.

But it is not just the dead and dying that frighten them. In the aftermath of civilization's destruction, the man and boy struggle to hold on to their lives and humanity while fighting or fleeing roving bands of robbers, predators, and cannibals. The world has become an endless conflict against the forces of evil, and in this tiny remnant trying to "carry the fire" of civilization, there is courage but little hope.

DENZEL WASHINGTON IS TREKKING ACROSS AN American wasteland alone in the Hughes brothers' post-apocalyptic film, The Book of Eli. Wearing a tag that reads "Hi! My name is Eli," this armed and violent stranger is headed west with a book he claims will give him the power to build and rule a renewed civilization.

Naturally lots of other hard-case survivors want to take this treasure from him, especially Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the boss of a particularly nasty western town where Eli ends up making his ultimate stand. Luckily Eli, who puts his faith in the book he carries, is pretty good with a knife, too--along with a pistol, rifle, shotgun, and the occasional karate blow.

The Road and The Book of Eli both have something of the Western about them, and it is not just the desolate terrain and search for water that reminds one of John Ford's films about trekking across Southwest deserts in search of murderous renegades or bands of robbers. Like a number of other post-apocalyptic films, The Road and The Book of Eli are parables about surviving outside the norms and niceties of civilization, a central theme of so many Westerns.

IN MANY (IF NOT MOST) OF THE WESTERNS OF THE '30s, '40s, and '50s, the hero had to make his way in a wasteland without the law and order that arrives with settlers, farmers, and churchgoing folk. The cowboys played by John Wayne, Gregory Peck, and Henry Fonda lived in a dangerous wilderness beyond the towns where people followed rules and didn't carry a gun to work. …

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