by Matt Christman

Divining cinematic trends from serendipitous release dates is usually a mug’s game, but when five movies about the end of the world come out within a few months of each other, especially given the relative scarcity of apocalyptic films since the end of the Cold War, it’s not going too far to suspect you’re catching a glimpse of the zeitgeist.

The fall/winter movie season is giving viewers their flavor of Armageddon: the secular (Zombieland and The Road), New Age pseudoscientific (2012) and religious (The Book of Eli and Legion), all crafted to appeal to a different subset of the coveted 18-35 white male demographic.  Some of them deal with the spectacle of destruction that will come with the end of the world, others focus more on the Mad Max-ey task of rebuilding society in a world without plumbing or non-ragged clothing.

It’s probably a coincidence that this deluge of end times films, the first since the mid-80s era of nuclear saber rattling, is coming during a time of economic instability unseen for generations.  But perhaps this renewed interest in the collapse of civilization reflects a creeping suspicion that the “great recession” isn’t like past downturns. Even as the stock market rebounds and bailed out investment banks rack up profits the economy continues to shed jobs, with no one capable of articulating exactly where new jobs could possibly come from.

Deindustrialization has turned huge swathes of the Rust Belt into sets for the next round of post-apocalyptic thrillers, and ever-exploding personal debt is crippling the service and consumer economy that was supposed to replace manufacturing in the first place. What’s next? “Green jobs?”  Given that our sclerotic government is incapable of even reforming a manifestly broken health care system, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be able to summon the collective will for the massive public investment necessary to reorient the entire American energy infrastructure. The same governmental gridlock that will probably doom any effort at recreating a sound foundation for the economy is also ensuring that nothing meaningful will be done to combat global warming until it’s too late.  Just as we all suspect that this new economic order will feature mass unemployment and chronic crisis, we know that runaway carbon emissions, ocean acidification and the continued depletion of fossil fuels could likewise spell the end of our comfortable lives of compulsive amusement and heedless waste. We look around our couches uneasily, just waiting for the cracks in the foundation to spread.

If this swirling vortex of economic collapse and environmental catastrophe have given credibility to cinematic apocalyptic visions, what could make people want to seek out such visions for entertainment purposes?  Our latent anxiety about impending doom is mixed with a giddy anticipation for oblivion.  Not only would the apocalypse offer the greatest spectacle in the lives of people conditioned above all to crave the spectacular, but it would signal the end of every mundane stress factor and petty indignity that make up an existence marked alternately by the dull and the disheartening. If we survived the mass destruction, we would live in a new world governed by the fight-or-flight response, not the intricate and soul-crushing array of social norms, economic necessities and personal failings that rule our day-to-day.  It would mean a return to the nasty, brutish and unrestrained lives our bodies were evolved for.

Of course, all of these dreams of postapocalyptic adventure are predicated on the assumption that we will be among the few survivors of such a cataclysm.  We’re going to be in the plane with John Cusack, not in the car tumbling off the highway into the yawning abyss below.  We’re going to be Viggo Mortenson, not some anonymous burned-over carcass. Even in the face of a world annihilating catastrophe, we cannot abandon our subjectivity. In the end, we can never really accept the fact of our own deaths, even given the overwhelming statistical likelihood that any apocalyptic scenario would kill every single person who went to see 2012 this weekend.  But the end of the world is just like the lottery: someone’s got to win.

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