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SciFi 101: This Is The Way The World Ends … Again

In 2007, viewers endured the end of the world by a misguided cure for cancer (I am Legend), nuclear attack (Jericho), viruses (28 Weeks Later and Heroes), zombies (Planet Terror and Resident Evil: Extinction) and religious phenomena (The Reaping). Directors love to destroy the world. And theyre not alone. Apocalyptic fiction has enjoyed a wave […]

In 2007, viewers endured the end of the world by a misguided cure for cancer (I am Legend), nuclear attack (Jericho), viruses (28 Weeks Later and Heroes), zombies (Planet Terror and Resident Evil: Extinction) and religious phenomena (The Reaping). Directors love to destroy the world.

And theyre not alone. Apocalyptic fiction has enjoyed a wave of popularity, headlined by the Left Behind series. This multi-volume epic has spawned hordes of imitators, including the superior Christ Clone Trilogy by James BeauSeigneur. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for The Road, a bleak novel about a man and his sons trek through a post-apocalyptic world.

While a shared cultural concern about the apocalypse is nothing new, we are undeniably living in an age of pessimism. The prevalence of apocalyptic work is tied to the current state of the world. Not since the Vietnam War has such a bleak outlook graced our books, televisions and theaters.

The 1968 classic Planet of the Apes depicts mankinds decent into second class citizen status. The anti-war sentiments of this film are apparent, as guerrilla warfare turns into literal gorilla warfare, complete with an anti-war protest in the sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

As public sentiment for the war eroded during the 1970s, The Omega Man, the Planet of the Apes sequels, and the Mad Max series took turns showing the dark destiny that awaited mankind. The United Statesfailure in Vietnam left a lingering shadow of pessimism that would persist until the end of the decade. In 1978, Ken Foree utters a line in Dawn of the Dead that typifies 1970s pessimism: When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth. The world, clearly, was going to Hell.

Two books stand out as eponymous works of the ’70s. Hal Lindsays Late Great Planet Earth” defined modern prophecy and popularized the impending apocalypse; Stephen Kings masterpiece The Stand dramatized it. Both books have seen extended years of popularity.

As painful memories of Vietnam faded, the 1980s ushered in an era of apocalyptic work more optimistic in tone. The Terminator presented the theme that man could change his destiny, and ultimate victory over machines was inevitable.

In 1984, the end of the world was portrayed as fun in the campy cult film Night of the Comet. This little know gem is as preposterous as it is entertaining, with a mix of zombies, valley girls, and a shopping mall.

The 1990s saw the end of Communism and the Cold War and a quick and successful Gulf War, so the optimism continued. Kevin Costners disastrous duo of The Postman and Waterworld were jettisoned in favor of programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To Buffy, the apocalypse was a minor inconvenience compared to the rigors of high school life in California. When the Terminator returned in the 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, people apparently werent ready for the end of the world, and Judgment Day was postponed indefinitely.

Without a country to serve as an enemy, comets and asteroids became the vehicles for planetary destruction in Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” While “Deep Impact” was certainly the darker of the two films, it still left a world capable of being rebuilt. “Armageddon,” on the other hand, was a thrill ride from the start, fitting in perfectly with the 1990s optimism.

So when did the new age of pessimism begin? The answer is painfully obvious: Sept. 11, 2001. When the twin towers came crashing to the ground and the Pentagon burst into flames, the world changed. And so did our entertainment.

Since that infamous day, I am Legend, The Day After Tomorrow, Cloverfield, and Heroes have all depicted a battered New York City. Not since Planet of the Apes, when the remains of the Statue of Liberty were seen buried in sand, have such depressing images of a devastated New York been presented. Yet none of these visions match up to the real horror witnessed on 9-11.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines arrived in 2003 with a very different message than its predecessor. Judgment Day cannot be avoided — it is inevitable. Such a dramatic shift in tone makes sense, given the context. Terminator 2 was after the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War. Terminator 3 was made in an age of terrorism, one year after a major stock market collapse.

Fears of a nuclear end of the world made their return to the small screen in a big way. Jack Bauer has fought off no fewer than three nuclear threats since the mainstream hit series 24 debuted in 2001. But it was Jericho that presented some of the bleakest post-nuclear imagery since the 1984 masterpiece the The Day After.

The Iraq war in 2003 ushered in a new wave of apocalyptic zombie movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake, the Resident Evil movies, and Land of the Dead. Its not surprising. The dehumanization of zombies correlates in the human psyche with the dehumanization brought about by war. Seeing people reduced to their most primal, violent instincts frightens us. When we lose our humanity, we lose all hope.

And we live in an age of pessimism.

Homework
In His Image: Book One of the Christ Clone Trilogy by James BeauSeigneur
Planet of the Apes as an American Myth by Eric Greene
Apocalypse Movies by Kim Newman.

Dan Compora is an associate professor at the University of Toledo, and contributes SciFi 101 twice monthly for Airlock Alpha. He can be reached at drdan@airlockalpha.com.

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