Phenomenological Eschatology: The Personal Apocalypse in Recent Cinema

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There has been an interesting trend over the past several years in regard to the cinematic sub-genre known as “disaster films,” or films which depict a large-scale crisis of some sort.  I am referring specifically to the relative influx of films between the years 2011 and 2012 which depict the extinction of human life on Earth, or what I will colloquially refer to as the “apocalypse”.  Narratives have addressed the apocalypse, or the threat thereof, throughout time immemorial, and the cinema is an art form without exception in the matter; what makes the apocalypse-themed films of the past two years worthy of study, however, is a curious tendency to eschew the tropes usually associated with so-called “apocalyptic” films — be they of form or of content — in favor of an increasingly inwardly focused, personally motivated, and humanistic exploration of what the end times may, in fact, resemble for ourselves and our Earthly brethren.

To this end, it is advantageous for us to begin this dissertation with a brief survey of that which these films DO NOT count among their primary thematic or philosophic concerns.  Tellingly, there are two specific traits which are either absent entirely or explicitly dismissed within the recent spate of apocalypse themed films.  One is primarily a matter of form, regarding the role of the crisis (in this case, the apocalypse) in a given film, while the other is more concerned with the philosophic and intellectual ramifications of its content; I will first address the former.

Most apocalyptic filmmaking exists within and adheres to the tenets of the so-called Action Film.  A successful action film encourages the viewer to become engaged with both the technical marvel of its construction as well as the emotional turmoil of its characters and premise.  This balance is usually achieved by pitting a sympathetic protagonist against seemingly insurmountable odds against his own survival; the audience is rewarded for their investment with victory for the embattled hero with whom they have been instructed to identify.  As such, the role of the crisis (be it apocalypse, extinction, genocide, war, etc.) in a typical action film is one of threat rather than of actuality.  Adventure films are, by definition, concerned with heroics, and those which do not have an ulterior cautionary or didactic motive are inclined to favor the bold and the victorious.  They are transparently propogandic, if only to the benefit of the human ego, and are therefore beholden to suppressing any threats upon mankind’s perceived superiority.

The most convenient example for this type of filmmaking is perhaps Michael Bay’s film Armageddon (1998), in which NASA assembles a team of experts to divert or destroy an asteroid which is expected to impact the Earth’s surface in a matter of days, and thus prevent the extinction of all human life.  In the film, which was written by Jonathan Hensleigh, J. J. Abrams, Tony Gilroy, and Shane Salerno, A. J. Frost (Ben Affleck) is a deep-sea oil driller who is apprenticing under a world-renowned driller named Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis); to complicate matters, Frost is also romantically entangled with Stamper’s daughter Grace, played by Liv Tyler.  Frost and Stamper are both contracted by NASA to drill into the asteroid to plant an explosive that, when detonated, will split the asteroid into two halves which would avoid collision with Earth.  When Frost successfully completes this mission, his accomplishment is personal as well as global; in addition to preventing the extinction of all human life, Frost has also won Stamper’s approval and, by virtue of that, the hand of his daughter in marriage.  Despite much collateral damage, the hero has won.

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This type of apocalyptic film is, in my estimation, a fairly cheap and exploitative strain of entertainment that, at its worst, perverts the greatest attributes of the art.  Rather than using finely rendered characters to open up the film’s dramatic conceits to a greater ideological framework, films such as Armageddon do the exact opposite, employing staggeringly weighted scenarios to bolster the audience’s interest in and involvement with poorly rendered characters who would, in another context, be unworthy of our concern.  This needless spectacle is mercifully absent in the films which we will explore.

The second curious absence in the most recent group of apocalyptic films is that of any religious — and specifically Christian — overtone.  The Book of Revelation from the Christian New Testament is, perhaps, the most well known doomsday scenario, and the Bible additionally makes a number of allusions to what is referred to as “the rapture”, or the division of mankind into believers who will be granted eternal life in Heaven with the Judeo-Christian Father and non-believers who will remain on the dying Earth.  Both of these elements figure prominently in many cinematic depictions of the end-times; for instance, the films based upon the Left Behind series of novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are blatantly theosophic in their dramatization of the apocalypse, depicting those who do not claim Christ as their lord and savior as being literally left behind after the rapture to defend themselves against the vagaries and vicissitudes of a dying planet left to the whim of the Antichrist.  The Left Behind films are by no means meritorious, either technically or artistically, but they do handily illustrate a common theme in many religions’ assessment of life on Earth: that our corporeal existence is only a prelude to a greater, perhaps infinite existence beyond our physical grasp.

This approach to the apocalypse — namely that of a reckoning, or final judgment — often serves the didactic motive of propagating a specific faith and/or a morally prescribed taxonomy of acceptable behaviors deduced therefrom; the ethical and philosophical problems inherent in this particular mode of artistic expression are manifold and worthy of their own discourse at another time.  For our purposes, however, we need only acknowledge that this is a common, albeit not universal, attribute to apocalypse-based fictions which presume as fact the speculative religious doctrines they address.

One noteworthy exception, however, is Michael Tolkin’s 1991 film The Rapture.  In the film, which was both written and directed by Tolin, Mimi Rogers plays a born-again Christian who risks her own salvation by refusing to pledge her allegiance to a God whom she considers amoral and malicious.  What makes the The Rapture superior to films such as those in the aforementioned Left Behind series is Tolkin’s interest in exploring the ethical and philosophic ramifications of an omnipotent deity which prescribes upon the Earth its subjective conception of an objective morality.  In favoring the perspective of an autonomous protagonist capable of ethical reasoning, Tolkin opens the discussion to the metaphysics of belief, morality, and the definition and role of the “Self”.  While this extends the intellectual scope of the film well beyond the confines of the traditional religious apocalyptic allegory, it nonetheless treats the Christian dogma of the eponymous rapture as fact, thus precluding it from inclusion as an early entry into this new sub-genre of apocalyptic cinema.  (It is worth noting that the film Deep Impact, which took a more contemplative and scientific approach to the asteroid-headed-towards-Earth premise of Armageddon and was released only several months after Bay’s film, was also written — although not directed — by Tolkin.)

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Though the films which we are to discuss make little to know mention of it, the religious and mythological element of apocalyptic predictions is cogent in that it does perhaps offer us a clue as to why so many filmmakers have chosen this period of time to address our potential extinction.  Recently, the popular Christian scholar, author, and radio host Harold Camping made headlines for his prediction that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011, at which point those chosen by God would be taken directly to Heaven.  According to Camping, the next five months would see fire and brimstone across the globe, taking the lives of the remaining non-believers and culminating in the total destruction of the Earth on October 21 of the same year.  Camping based his predictions on his own study of the numerology of the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible, and had actually predicted decades earlier — to smaller fanfare — that the rapture could potentially occur in September of 1994.  Despite his prior imprudence, Camping’s 2011 predictions generated a great deal of interest in the media (partly by his own efforts, particularly via his syndicated “Family Radio” program) and a dedicated following; needless to say, they once again proved false.

End-of-the-world scuttlebutt continued into 2012, however, thanks to the widespread appropriation of misinterpretations regarding the calendar and mythology of the Mayans.  As explained in the Popol Vuh — which details, among other things, the Mayan creation myths as well as their cosmological context — we are currently said to exist within the fourth in a series of “world ages”, or cycles of time.  These so-called “world ages” are believed to last for thirteen b’ak’tuns, a b’ak’tun being a measurement in the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar totaling 144,000 days.  The thirteenth b’ak’tun of the fourth world expires on December 21, 2012, which has led many to speculate that this is in fact the date of our impending doom.  Mayan scholars and skeptics alike have insisted, however, that this is not true; the former believe that December 21, 2012 will mark an evolutionary progression or a spiritual awakening in humanity, while the latter dismiss the date entirely as mere hemerology, no more than a red herring comparable to the much ballyhooed Y2K threat thirteen years prior.

Whether scientifically plausible or not, these two examples of numerology run amok have placed the apocalypse front and center in our cultural discourse for the past several years.  Additionally, ecological activists like Al Gore have been raising the public’s consciousness of our own destructive impact on the Earth and its diminishing ability to sustain human life.  Davis Guggenheim’s Academy Award-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth used Gore’s lectures on global warming to illustrate the risks that global climate change poses for the planet and for humankind, and encouraged discussion of another, much more likely and protracted doomsday scenario.  Given these factors, it’s fairly easy to see why the cultural climate one decade into the new millennium has proven so fertile for apocalyptic filmmaking.  What these circumstances do not explain, however, is the genre’s recent tendency to favor a technique of presentation which I will call “Phenomenological Eschatology,” or the subjectification of the experience of the apocalypse in order to illustrate a greater insight into the human condition.

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One response to “Phenomenological Eschatology: The Personal Apocalypse in Recent Cinema

  1. Pingback: When Life Gives You Nerve Gas… | Considering Film·

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