Cyclones, Cults & Cosmos: A Look At 2011’s Low-Fi End Of Days

We’re living in strange times. Between the “Aflockalypse,” the Singularity, Harold Camping’s highly prophesized and publicized Judgement Day predictions and the cold, black shadow of December 21st, 2012, the air seems to be thick with doomsday anxiety.

Hollywood – not usually one to shy away from exploiting cultural fears – seems to be preoccupied with an apocalypse of its own, though. As the gears of the studio system spark harder than ever to churn out what they deem to be “safe bets,” they seem to have forgotten one of the surest successes of all – the doomsday picture. Leave it to the indies pick up their slack, then. For some strange reason, 2011 seems to be chock full of dark, low-budget films dealing with the end of the world.

Take, for example, Lars von Trier’s upcoming Melancholia. The film, his follow-up to 2009’s equally depressing Antichrist, is centered on two sisters trying to cope with the knowledge of an upcoming apocalypse. In this case, it’s manifested in the form of a hidden planet that’s recently appeared from behind the sun. As the planet comes closer to colliding with the Earth, von Trier is more concerned with examining its effect on their fractured relationship than on the world at large. It’s this kind of deep, interpersonal focus that seems to be defining the other films as well.

Michael Shannon is an actor who has been electrifying audiences for the last few years. Having cut his teeth primarily on the stage, he remained unnoticed in film for a long, long time, usually playing bit parts. It wasn’t until he garnered an Academy Award nomination for his role in 2008’s Revolutionary Road that the public stood up and took notice. His new film Take Shelter sees him in a rare leading role as Curtis LaForche, a family man suddenly plagued with dreams of an apocalyptic storm.

As the dreams continue, Curtis begins to lose grip on his life, crippled with anxiety and fear. In a desperate attempt to save his family, he begins working on building a shelter in the backyard, eventually losing his job, all of his money and the faith of the people around him. All the while, Curtis wrestles with the very real – and just as terrifying – possibility that he’s also losing his mind. Take Shelter premiered at Sundance to rave reviews and will be released by Sony Pictures Classics later this year.

Also making waves at Sundance were two high-concept films co-written by and starring newcomer Brit Marling. In the first, Another Earth, she plays Rhoda Williams, a young woman who gets into a car accident with an older man that ends up killing his entire family. To further complicate matters, this happens around the same time that scientists discover a duplicate Earth that had been hiding behind the sun. (Sound familiar?) As details emerge about the other Earth, Rhoda begins to wonder if it might contain another her, one who made better choices and whose life remains intact.

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Marling’s second film to premiere at Sundance was titled Sound of My Voice. It centers on a pair of documentary filmmakers that infiltrate a cult whose leader (played by Marling) claims to be from the future and has come back to warn her followers about an upcoming apocalypse. As the project progresses and they learn more about the cult and its rituals, their beliefs are pushed to a breaking point. The film – shot on a miniscule budget – trades on big ideas rather than big effects and is another heartening example of story taking precedence over budget. Both Another Earth and Sound of My Voice have been picked up by Fox Searchlight for distribution later this year.

Whether or not these films are connected by some thread of existential dread is arguable, but there seems to be a major paradigm shift happening in independent filmmaking. Writers and directors seem more willing than ever to take on big stories in a small way and we, the audience, are beginning to see the apocalypse in a totally different light – from the eyes of the people. Only time will tell whether we’re entering a new subgenre of indie film or if we’ve already reached “the end.”