Global Catastrophe in Motion Pictures as Meaning and Message: The Functions of Apocalyptic Cinema in American Film

By Hamonic, Wynn Gerald | Journal of Religion and Film, April 2017 | Go to article overview

Global Catastrophe in Motion Pictures as Meaning and Message: The Functions of Apocalyptic Cinema in American Film


Hamonic, Wynn Gerald, Journal of Religion and Film


The Rising Popularity of Apocalyptic Cinema

Films with apocalyptic themes have never been more popular. John Walliss and James Aston report that the 21st Century has seen a significant increase in the number of films having an apocalyptic theme.1 Mary Bloodsworth Lugo and Carmen Lugo-Lugo estimate that there were 59 apocalyptic films released between 1980 and 1999, and there were close to 90 in the time span between 2000 and 2013.2 The author's survey of apocalyptic films produced over the last 100 years found that only a handful of end-of-the-world motion pictures were produced in the period before 19503, and with each passing decade after 1950 until the 1980s the number of films released to audiences steadily increased. During the 1980s and 1990s the number of apocalyptic films released remained steady before an explosion of apocalyptic films in the 21st Century.4 In "Why Are Dystopian Films on the Rise Again?," in addressing the recent popularity of apocalyptic films, Christopher Schmidt posits two questions: "Why, then, do we shell out 12, 13, 14 dollars for films that seem designed only to frighten and depress us? What species of entertainment, much less relief, do these nightmare scenarios offer?"5 In this article, in finding answers to the questions posed by Schmidt the author argues that the steady rise in production of apocalyptic cinema over the last seven decades, those films that depict "a credible threat to the continuing existence of humankind as a species or the existence of Earth as a planet capable of supporting human life,"6 can be explained by the growing number of diverse functions these films serve in society. The author will describe seven functions commonly found in American apocalyptic cinema expressed both in terms of its meaning (the underlying purpose of the film) and its message (the ideas the filmmakers want to convey to the audience).

The Functions of Apocalyptic Cinema

1.To Make Sense of the World and to Order Chaos

In Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, the author claims that humans are profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that our lives form only a microscopically short period of time in world history. We feel trapped in the middle. So much has transpired before we were born and so much will take place after we die. To make sense of this disconcerting fact we look for a 'coherent pattern', and invest in the thought that we find ourselves in the middle of a story. In order to make sense of our lives we need to discover some 'consonance' between the beginning, the middle, and the end.7

Kermode's coherent patterns are "fictions" to impose structure and order on the idea of eternity. We need fictions of beginnings and fictions of ends, fictions which unite beginning and end and endow the interval between them with meaning.8 The author cites the works of Homer, Augustine of Hippo and Plato in support of his claim.9 These temporal fictions "humanize the common death" and allow us to coexist with temporal chaos. Kermode writes: "'Men in the middest' make considerable imaginative investments in coherent patterns which, by the provision of an end, make possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle."10

Drawing upon a tradition of Christian apocalyptic thought dating back to the birth of Christianity, Kermode argues we have adopted the belief that the beginning was a time of prosperity and advancement. The middle period is the age in which we now live, and is distinguished by 'decadence', where what was good has declined and is in need of 'renovation'. In order to usher in a new age, a process of painful purging (or 'terrors') needs to be endured. This allows us to explain the chaos and 'crisis' we see unravelling around us.11

People living in the middle often believe that the end is very near, and that their own generation is the one with responsibility to usher in a new world. Kermode writes: "It seems to be a condition attaching to the exercise of thinking about the future that one should assume one's own time to stand in extraordinary relation to it. …

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