Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Seeking a Film for the End of the World

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Seeking a Film for the End of the World

Article excerpt

Depression is the inability to construct a future

Rollo May, Love and Will (243)

'Something new'

Beginning in the summer of 2011, I saw a cluster of films that, although very different in form and tone, felt as if they were the same film: Mike Cahill's Another Earth (US 2011), Miranda July's The Future (Germany/US/France 2011), Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter (US 2011), Lars von Trier's Melancholia (Denmark/ Sweden/France/Germany 2011), Abel Ferrara's 4:44: Last Day on Earth (US/ Switzerland/France 2011), Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (US/Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia 2012) and Todd Berger's It's a Disaster (US 2012). Each featured depressed protagonists and an apocalyptic sf motif - the actual, implied or allegorical end of the world.1 Roughly coinciding with the tenth anniversary of 9/11, this cycle of films came in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdowns.2

Certainly, these films' felt similarity had to do with scale, context and timing as well as their shared subject matter. They all played in Los Angeles indieoriented theatres. Made by auteurist writer-directors working with modest budgets, especially for sf, their visions of the world's end were personal in perspective, scope and style. Their apocalyptic scenarios also resonated with the discursive context of their release: the 9/11 anniversary and a national media saturated with political, cultural and critical reckoning. However, where that reckoning generally looked to the past from a global perspective, these films situated personal threats of planetary destruction in the not-too-distant future. This essay will explore these films' timely convergence of genre (sf ) and psychological state (depression) to analyse what I experienced as their felt similarity.

My argument raises significant questions about this cluster's sudden and insistent emphasis on sf and depression: what does each bring to the other and how does their interrelationship affectively engage the cultural moment of their production and release? Sf and depression certainly have contrasting relationships to futurity. Where sf constructs future worlds, however bleak, depression, as diagnosed by existential psychologist Rollo May, involves an individual's 'inability to construct a future' (243). The choice to embed depressed protagonists, whose futures are already psychically foreclosed, within worlds and futures threatened by apocalypse, focalises cosmic catastrophe in personal despair, aligning dramatic differences of scale (the planetary and the personal) and perspective (external or internal).

In the popular press, New York Times critic Terrence Rafferty noted this cluster's inward turn and aberration of scale. Reviewing Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Melancholia, 4:44: Last Day on Earth and Take Shelter, he remarked on their very different approach to 'the sturdy science-fiction trope' of the world's end and asserted that the films 'really do represent something new. Our 21st-century vision of Earth's doom is, it seems, almost entirely inward looking' (12). Observing that these films pointedly avoid science and technology, he concludes, 'A wholly personalized apocalypse is an apocalypse that is, to put it plainly, too damn small' (12). Rafferty thus situates these films firmly within sf while decrying their lack of what he sees as important to the genre - something more impersonal and therefore bigger. These films do not project their viewer beyond or out of the 'wholly personal'. They fail in scale.

Scholars have long asserted sf 's social and political significance precisely in relation to its scale. Vivian Sobchack's foundational work on American sf film, Screening Space, distinguished its generic characteristics from those of the horror films along these lines. In sf, she argued, society and its institutions conflict with each other or with alien beings, these clashes frequently taking place in large-scale locations - big cities, the planet Earth or the cosmos. …

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