With The Last Of Us reining atop the video game industry and Pacific Rim and The World’s End both causing respective chaos in the realm of cinema, we investigate the enduring allure of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Impending doom. Armageddon. The end of days. Whatever label you attach to the package, the fundamental contents remain wholly similar. The concept of the apocalypse has been a cornerstone in society’s collective subconscious throughout the course of history. That plausible notion that sees humanity pushed to the brink of extinction and clutching at whatever straws remain in order to survive has been exploited across all forms of media ad nauseam. The causes vary with each individual narrative; from zombies to asteroids, killer viruses to Mayan prophecies, it’s as though our creative thinkers love pitching a different catalyst into the nuclear cauldron. But if these notions are so horrific, so downright terrifying, then why do they have such a broad appeal? Indeed, why is it that our mediums today are dominated by a plethora of post apocalyptic fiction?
First off, it’s important to remember that this craze isn’t exactly an up and comer. It stretches back for aeons. In fact, during the reign of the Roman Empire, some citizens believed that the ‘supernatural’ number revealed to Romulus by the Gods would signify the number of days in a year, therefore marking that their city had 365 days until annihilation. This was in 389BC. Far reaching prophecies like this can often be dismissed as ludicrous and effectively swept under the rug in hindsight, but when it comes to something tangible like, say, a natural disaster, then the degree of believability begins to permeate. For instance, take the Black Plague that spread across Europe in the 14th century, quite simply one of the most devastating pandemics in human history. It wiped out approximately 60% of Europe’s population which, in 1350, amounted to 75 million people. Seventy-five million. That’s roughly the same as the current population of the UK, all eradicated within a decade. It’s destruction on an unthinkable scale. The kind you can’t rationale no matter how many times you try.
Perhaps, then, this is one of the many reasons we become attached to apocalyptic fiction. If these real life calamities are too hard to comprehend, then at least we can fall back into the realm of imagination, which offers us a structured narrative wherein we can readily identify the good from the bad. Additionally, tropes of the genre, such as the ubiquitous fear of death and the re-imagining of a new, untainted world make it one of the most fertile grounds for creativity in books, TV shows, video games and, in a particularly cinematic sense, the film industry.
We have witnessed post apocalyptic fiction evolving into a unique and dynamic genre before our very eyes. As a storytelling vehicle, it provides an unprecedented way of examining the human race. When the pillars of society crumble, moral values and the core legacy of humankind are questioned as survival becomes paramount. It’s a hypothetical endurance that, through the lens of the camera, many, many directors have attempted to transpose onto celluloid.
Movies like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men are examples of making the deeply theoretical primarily cinematic, as the auteurs imposed a sense of twisted realism onto their productions. Romero served as the pioneer for the zombie genre and is the most prevailing reason the reanimated skin-munchers remain in vogue today. His 1968 magnum opus imagined that a fallen satellite had spiked radiation levels on the surface of the Earth, causing the dead to rise and feed on the living.
On the other hand, Cuarón’s film was released in 2007 and depicts a near future where women can’t get pregnant, resulting in the youngest person on the planet being twenty years old. Now, you might say that each narrative is preposterously fictitious, but consider this: in 1968, humanity was slowly getting used to the crazed, power-driven space race and its after effects. Conspiracies theories and cover ups were omnipresent. So to push the envelope and mould the plot of a film around this contemporary anxiety, in this case; wayward satellites, blurred the line between fiction and reality and, in a sense, planted a seed of doubt in the minds of millions. A seed, which acts as the prime instigator in making the strictly unbelievable, believable.
Using a similar technique, Children of Men illustrated the anarchy that ensues when the human race is essentially given a sell by date. Technically speaking, the cinéma vérité style allows the action sequences to resemble news footage from the Iraq war, which effectively heightens the degree of realism. Taking into consideration the modern problems with fertility – as extenuating factors like radiation, obesity and drug use intensify – the plot isn’t exactly outside the realm of possibility – rather, it’s hanging on doggedly, deep in our united subconscious.
This is why the genre has survived throughout the ages. It can readily identify the flaws in a society and project them for the world to see. Deep-rooted problems and anxieties become exaggerated – mind you, not by much in some cases – to represent the near-future consequences of current disasters. In essence, the fears of society act as fuel for the apocalyptic fire. As a result of this relationship, pairing each corporeal predicament with their fictional partner becomes relatively straightforward. Needless drive for goods that can’t satisfy your consumerist hunger? Zombie apocalypse. How about the growing, independent power of technological computers? Skynet. Or maybe the machines in I, Robot or The Matrix or…no wait, come back. I’ll stop.
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It’s in these post apocalyptic scenarios that we witness the breakdown of order and civilisation, so much so that we question our own beliefs, even as viewers. In fact, more than any other genre of film, we lose ourselves in these narratives. Plotting our own escape plans, hideouts and what rationed tin of beans to eat for dinner, hypothesising the cataclysmic end of the well oiled societal machine is something we all ponder from time to time, even if we don’t like to admit it.
Like any other type of narrative, the demand for the apocalypse has had its peaks and troughs. Of late, the genre’s rise in popularity can be largely attributed to the turbulent epoch known as the 20th Century. Two world wars, a cold war, the Vietnam war, missile crises, a great depression, nuclear fallouts and a whole bunch of other catastrophes, all within the space of a hundred years. If these anthropogenic catastrophes can teach us anything, it’s that human beings, as a species, have a remarkable ability to push themselves uncomfortably close to the brink of extinction. It’s the reason apocalyptic stories have slowly become conceivable in recent times. Their ability to adopt a strain of topicality and address the social dilemmas of their era allow films such as Dr. Strangelove, which reflected the chaotic atom-bomb era of the 1960’s, to truly drive the idea home to their audiences: what if this situation was real? If there are two words that support any apocalypse story, it’s what if. It gives artistic thinkers a decimated sandbox to create a structured yet bleak world that has meet its end. Consequently, it becomes relatively easy to identify the ingredients in the formula. Many of these worlds revolve around a sole, or group of survivors that trudge across a barren wasteland, enduring a traumatic state of lawlessness. Social structures have become irrelevant. Great architectural achievements are nothing more than devastated ruins. But it is what these stories are built on that draws a means for comparison.
Each narrative has an existential horror element in their foundation. A unique, pioneering feature that elevates them beyond the shackles of your typical genre film. They frighten their audience in a way horror movies can only dream of. Forget non-diegetic music and clever editing, instead, this brand of fiction presents a portrait of humanity’s wicked, primal nature (exactly what would you do to stay alive?). A world without order or morality demands a reaction from the audience. Films such as The Quiet Earth and Mad Max portray dystopian worlds that are a consequence of the greed and corruption of the past. So much so, that in each narrative, the subliminal and collective thought process of our society is played out across the broadest, cinematic medium: what excessive foible will bring about our downfall?
If there’s one thing that’s certain, humanity will be brought to its knees by an ecological crisis in the future; post apocalyptic fiction is merely an imagined extension of this societal paranoia. Denial is either nonsensical or just downright oblivious, and I’m hoping it’s the latter. Bear in mind that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived on planet Earth, have been eliminated by an ecological disaster; be it volcanoes, asteroids or tsunamis. So, once you step back and consider the facts, it becomes utterly apparent that the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight and, more often than not, the factors accelerating it aren’t what popular culture would have you believe. Consider how billions and billions of Dollars, Pounds, Euros and Yen are pumped into any given economy, foreign war and corporate enterprise, leaving only a minute percentage of a country’s GDP to be invested in sustaining the environment. As an example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently presented the scientifically clarified fact that sea levels will rise between 18cm and 50cm this century alone, and yet, it felt as though this alarming truth blurred in society’s peripheral vision. In the report, it states that Greenland is losing five times as much ice today as it was in the early 1990’s. The writing is on the wall. Any potential argument against melting ice caps has become rather redundant against the overwhelming wave of evidence. Although, it still hasn’t initiated an environmental outcry. Al Gore attempted to push climate change into the mainstream with his controversial documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, but, after a brief spell of car pooling and recycling; it slowly disappeared from our culture’s shared priority.
Albeit, protecting the environment for our future generations isn’t determined by global warming alone, it also has to consider the overpowering influence of the food industry.
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The sensitive equilibrium between food intake and crop growth has been shackled due to the erratic population growth of the 20th century. So much so, some scientists predict that in order for Earth to support the predicted 9 billion population threshold of 2050, the majority of human beings will have to switch to a primarily vegetarian diet. Now, this ‘fact’ may be sensationalised somewhat, but there is a degree of truth in their claims. Take the rising cost of meat as an example; even though – statistically speaking – meat consumption is declining in the United States, the core unsustainability of producing beef poses serious eco-problems for future generations. The energy input grossly outweighs the calorie output of much meat and dairy based food, particularly because producing meat is a water intensive operation. In fact, 80% of the fresh water reserve in the US is used in food production, so what happens to this ratio when impacted by a disastrous weather event, or the inevitable population increase? (Granted, population growth is spiking in the lesser economically developed countries more so than the Western world). Nevertheless, all it takes is for a sizeable catastrophe to shatter the fragile structure we call a food industry and humanity could be brought to its fragile knees.
The aforementioned global warming, for instance, will inevitably impact the comfortable, flawed lifestyle of the modern world – at a slower pace than The Day After Tomorrow illustrated, mind you. Take the fact that thirteen of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last fifteen years, since humans began correlating the climate in 1895. Through 1997 to 2011, these searing temperatures resulted in droughts, food shortages and fierce forest fires, thereby disturbing the unstable global food supply, exactly because of its crippling reliance on the Earth’s climate. As an example of this dependence, rising sea levels will affect the low-lying Asian rice fields, which, considering rice is the principal food for 60% of humanity, is a terrifying, well publicised statistic.
But maybe that’s just it: well publicised. Perhaps the reason post apocalyptic fiction has inundated our creative mediums today is because apocalyptic forewarnings have inundated our mediums in reality. You don’t have to look too far to find examples of the inane, slightly rational plans for the end of days. Among other examples, a web company based in Florida – scholarexperts.com – is offering a $1,000 course that focuses solely on how to survive a potential zombie apocalypse. One thousand dollars. That’s a staggering amount of money to become educated in something that derives from fiction, you may as well study dream architecture in the manner of Inception, and yet, sometimes real-world disasters can be stranger than fiction.
You may remember May 26th 2012 as just an average day, but in Miami, things were much, much different. On a Saturday afternoon, a naked man was shot and killed by police for, and I quote, ‘chewing the face off another man’. Cannibalism. On a busy highway. In front of hundreds of people. The news story became all the more profound after local authorities revealed the aggressor was ‘growling’ and continued to chew, even after being shot. Stranger than fiction indeed. The ramifications led to an electronic wildfire spreading across the internet in the vein of: was it the beginning of the much fictionalised zombie apocalypse? Are there others like him out there? And, who the hell moved my survival kit?! Hey, you’d rather have one and not need it than not have one and need it, right?
Even though the investigation concurred that the crazed attacker was under the influence of Bath Salts – a type of amphetamine that acts as a stimulant; inducing paranoia, hallucinations and an abnormally high tolerance to pain – which explains his erratic actions, the imaginative seed was still planted in society’s collective subconscious. The mass exposure to media as we know it meant this horrific story became worldwide news in a heartbeat, causing conspiracy theories to snowball and apocalyptic ambassadors to begin hording tinned foods.
Gruesome news stories aside, the point is that people are ready, almost accepting for something like this to happen. As a result, it’s often said that many of us have an inherent nihilism that warps our perspective on reality. Life is shit. It always has been shit and always will be S.H.I.T. But forget that pessimistic outlook, instead, the potential apocalypse offers an interesting return to basics for humanity as a whole. The fall of governments, the internet and the X Factor would indisputably catapult the human race back to the age of the Homo sapiens. Imagine the famous evolution chart. On the left side we have the primate which, after millions of years, began to change into the Neanderthal, who in turn morphed into the Homo sapiens and finally, the human being as we know it today. It’s widely considered that humanity has reached the peak of evolution thus far, boasting accolades of putting men on the moon and cracking the theory of general relativity. In spite of this, the vast amount of humans living today that are utterly reliant on technology is staggering. Take that away, via an apocalyptic event, and you’re left with people who can’t provide for themselves. Fast food and electricity? They’re out the decimated window. No longer can we ask Google for the answers, the apocalypse will actually force humanity to find solutions outside of their comfort zone. Hunting your own food. Rationing resources, and building a safe haven to batten down the hatches are all generic conventions in apocalyptic stories, and they echo the lifestyle of the atypical Homo sapiens.
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Although, in these oblique tales it’s the subliminal themes that really appeal to us: monetary problems would dissolve, it would be infinitely better than your mundane 9 to 5 and, ultimately, it would allow human beings to live rather than simply exist. If people were to go through a hypothetical, dreadful disaster, they would do so together. Everything would be stripped away. Social hierarchies would liquefy. The terms First World and Third World countries would become mere, inessential monikers. The Earth would return to the way nature intended it to be: a whole. Our world wouldn’t be segregated by the borders of countries; instead, humanity would exist on an unprejudiced, almost unsullied planet. People would be forced to connect, regardless of cultural context. Today, walking through your local metropolis, be it Belfast or New York, you realise how individuals live within their own momentary, ephemeral world. Eye contact is considered taboo, let alone interacting. But in a post apocalyptic world, things would be much simpler, precisely because the hardships the populace have gone through are so massive, it labels current worries and fears as insignificant. It’s idealistic, of course. The reality is that the probable cause of an apocalypse would ruin our picturesque planet, but perhaps the downfall of civilization would give us the opportunity to discover what it means to be fundamentally human.
Even though it has become such an established brand of fiction, the apocalypse story arc has slipped towards cliché. The film industry has snowballed extermination to the point of banality, including books, TV shows and comics, they’ve used the idea so many times it doesn’t even feel like a word anymore. Seriously, try it. Apocalypse. Apocalypse. Apocalypse. Apocalypse. Apocalypse. The force and impact of the word, and indeed its concept, has been diluted because of this excessive over-exposure. Today, it feels as though the saturation point has been reached, meaning any piece of fiction from the genre is either a clone or a reinterpretation of the same core idea: What would it be like to live in a society devoid of rules and governance? It’s one that has enticed viewers, readers and thinkers for centuries and will continue to do so, clichéd or not.
Most recently the trend can be identified as a consequence of 9/11. This catastrophe embodied the potent vulnerability of America which, in our modern culture, is seen as the most powerful and influential country in the world. In fact, when you consider it further, power and wealth are fundamentally finite entities, and all it takes is an event of this scale to soberly remind us of their brief, fleeting lifespan.
As this craze continues on a seemingly endless trajectory, and our elemental notion of destruction shifts from radical to prosaic, we become desensitised to the explicit violence and decimation. No longer is the apocalypse the sharpest utensil in an artist’s toolbox, instead, repetition has plagued the content like rust to a blade. But, as we’ve seen, there is a logical explanation for its durability in popular culture. A core, profound element that transcends the literariness of these stories: humanity has an inherent problem with comprehending the scope of time. It’s as though we fail to understand that the Earth can, and indeed has existed without us, and will continue to do so long after we have either perished, whittled away, or blown ourselves up with our shiny nuclear toys. So, rather than attempting to contemplate the age and magnitude of the universe, we simplify it through these stories because they have a beginning, middle and an end. 6,000 years is much easier to compute than 14 billion, don’t you think? Therefore, substituting the inconsequential chaos that is the universe with a simplified yet concrete narrative gives humankind a sense of comfort because, in reality, we understand almost everything as stories. A three tier structure that is neat and easy to understand, and if the beginning is the dawn of man, which leaves the lifespan of the human race as the narrative arc, then the story needs a good ol’ apocalypse for the finale.
This reliance on storytelling as a means of understanding therefore spawns from our collective inability to grasp the sheer immensity of time. Life is transitory. Human beings weren’t around for 99.999% of the universe, and unfortunately we won’t be around its colossal, rather unthinkable lifespan – cryogenic freezing or not. Subsequently, post apocalyptic fiction taps into this intuitive naivety by imposing a sense of purpose onto an insignificant race, as terrifying as that sounds. But, without slipping into a New Age-esque perspective, analysing these literary texts and their existential nature is fascinating. How they reflect real life anxieties, create hypothetical, genre-defining situations, while also tapping into the collective subconscious of human beings.
I suppose in the end – of this article, not the world – it comes down to those two words again: what if. What if it really does happen? Then again, what if it doesn’t and humankind exists for longer than we predict? Nonetheless, this unanswerable question will allow post apocalyptic fiction to exist in many forms of media for the foreseeable future, precisely because humans fear and hypothesise about their own death all the time. Even though it has smothered our mediums, we can always take solace in one thing: should the apocalypse occur anytime soon, we can’t exactly say that we didn’t see it coming.Previous