Academic journal article CineAction

The End of All Things: Overcoming the End of the World in American Cinema

Academic journal article CineAction

The End of All Things: Overcoming the End of the World in American Cinema

Article excerpt

There is nothing especially new about speculating about the end of the world--cultures have, after all, prophesized and fantasized about the end of both human existence and the "world as we know it" for thousands of years. (1) The concept is simple: everything dies. In representations of the apocalypse this individual biological certainty happens simultaneously for all, and brings about the extinction of humanity. Such a hauntingly bleak fate has found a home in interpretations of the prophecies of the long since vanished Mayans, John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost and the paintings of John Martin, for example. (2) Whether captivating audiences with the alarmingly high body counts presented by such destructive storylines or just engrossing them in global death as something fantastical, the end of the world has unsurprisingly also found a home in film and, especially, American film. These films, which meet the destructive semantic and syntactic demands of the disaster genre, position their narratives within a wider, global setting.

For the spectator such films both estrange the cataclysmic sights they cinematically witness and personalize them (by addressing the threat of extinction). In fact, the commercial viability of films that fixate on the death of everything was demonstrated when Roland Emmerich's 2012 became the [5.sup.th] highest-grossing film worldwide in 2009 (behind three well-established franchises and James Cameron's Avatar [2009]), while films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (fames Cameron,

1991) and Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) similarly dominated the box office as the highest-grossing films of their respective years. (3) These big-budget Hollywood successes indicate an audience fascination with mass-destructive spectacles--a fascination that Winston Wheeler Dixon fleetingly calls "the romance of Armageddon" in his book Visions of the Apocalypse, (4) But just how are these images presented? How are we able to watch hundreds, thousands, even millions die in a single shot and not be disturbed, repulsed or saddened? What cinematic manipulations are at work in order to ensure that the prospect of the death of (almost) every human being remains an enjoyable form of entertainment for audiences? What I propose is that there are three key forms of spectatorship at work in this body of films: one detached from its atrocities, yet optimistic about their outcome (tales of survival in the face of destruction); one that encourages a more personal, yet pessimistic viewing perspective (in which the world does ultimately end); and finally, one where optimism and pessimism are equally weighted in a familiar, yet fantastical rendition of the end of the world (the post-apocalypse). It is the first of these, the hopeful engagement with the apocalypse, with which this article is primarily concerned. (5)

When considering the representation of the end of all things in these films, one might argue that The Bible has been one of the most prevalent influences on their contents, at least within an American context. In "The Revelation of John," the Apocalypse is presented as a global/human ending which separates the negative aspects of life from the positive--by casting them into fire:

   Then I saw a great white throne, and the One
   who sat upon it; from his presence earth and
   heaven vanished away, and no place was left
   for them. I could see the dead, great and small,
   standing before the throne; and books were
   opened. Then another book was opened, the
   roll of the living. From what was written in
   these books the dead were judged upon the
   record of their deeds....I saw the holy city, new
   Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from
   God ... I heard a loud voice proclaiming from
   the throne: "Now at last God has his dwelling
   among men! ... He will wipe every tear from
   their eyes; there shall be an end to death, and to
   mourning and crying and pain; for the old order
   has passed away! … 
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