Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Apocalypse Now

Tornadoes! Earthquakes! Hurricanes! The weather on the east coast this summer reads like a disaster movie, and the confluence of extreme phenomena has some people spooked. The twisters that tore a swath through western Massachusetts were odd enough, but when a rare quake shook the coast mere days before a hurricane struck, even my most level headed friends were publicly wondering what it all meant. Could it be a sign… of the end of the world?
This odd turn of events comes just months after the famously mocked “Judgement Day” came and went on May 21, without any sort of judgement. Harold Camping and other fringe elements had predicted a global earthquake and the Biblical Rapture would happen that day, but it passed uneventfully. People laughed it off, and it was soon nothing but a memory. So why are so many now contemplating end time scenarios?
The time is ripe for such a line of thinking. The economy is still miserable. The world remains in turmoil, with an ongoing war in Afghanistan and anxiety provoking activity in Iran. Nuclear weapons, once the fodder of so many doomsday scenarios, remain a very real threat. Changing societal mores—the ongoing rise of gay marriage being one prominent example—have provoked a backlash from religious conservatives who warn we’re on a path to damnation. We’re also highly aware of global warming, but an effective and concerted response has yet to emerge. In short, people are stressed out and depressed, and world destroying forces seem more tangible than ever. No wonder we’re imagining an apocalypse.
Pop culture doomsday's have been in vogue for a while now. A rush of zombie films starting in the early 2000s imagined the world falling to hordes of the undead. (“Not a zombie” zombie movies such as 28 Days Later feature ever-more-plausible results of biological warfare or experimentation gone awry.) Roland Emmerich, who made his name with the oddly prescient Independence Day (substitute terrorists for the aliens and you’ve pretty much got 9/11), has continued his streak with the global warming themed The Day After Tomorrow and the mythology exploiting 2012. (The approach of that date has spawned plenty of end times thinking all on its own.) Genre television from The Event to Fringe has imagined a world rocked by bizarre and supernatural events. On this fall’s Terra Nova, Earth grows so unstable that a group of colonists head back in time and attempt to rebuild society in the prehistoric era.
The idea of our world ending has always been dramatically compelling, but the recent turn of events has put me on a Judgement Day movie streak. On the eve of Hurricane Irene, I revisited the hokey but effective Day After Tomorrow, which seemed like a ridiculous distortion of global warming at the time. Watching it now, I found it both fun and deeply unsettling. After all, tornadoes didn’t hit LA, but they did make an unexpected appearance in my hometown of Springfield, MA this summer. And while no tidal wave swept through the streets of Manhattan last weekend, there was flooding in the lower part of the city, much of which was evacuated. On a lighter note, I followed with Mars Attacks!, a knowingly ridiculous homage to space invader films of the 50s. In its kooky, ultra-stylized way, the movie still dramatizes many of our worst fears, notably that our enemies are as intelligent and powerful as they are hateful and mindlessly destructive, and that our leaders are woefully inept. Jack Nicholson’s President Dale seems smarter than, say, George W. Bush, but he still refuses to see the writing on the wall until it’s far too late, giving the Martians second and third chances to attack and kill the American people.
Why am I and others so fixated on the end of the world right now? The superstitious answer is that we all sense the end is truly near. More realistically—and history bears this out—we are merely in the latest cycle of global anxiety and collective fears manifesting themselves as the worst possible scenarios. The world can be a scary and dangerous place—but let’s not get carried away. Rather than wallowing in morbid panic, we’d do well to follow the unflappable example of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who saved the world more than once on her long-running television series. Refusing to give up her social plans, she once quipped, “If the apocalypse comes—beep me.”

No comments: