Flooded cities. A plague of blindness. Humanity huddled in bunkers.
It’s just another night at the movies.
City of Ember
Saoirse Ronan, Harry Treadway, Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Toby Jones, Lucinda Dryzek
(Fox; US theatrical: 10 Oct 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 10 Oct 2008 (General release); 2008)
Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver
(Walt Disney Pictures; US theatrical: 27 Jun 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 18 Jul 2008 (General release); 2008)
Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller
(Paramount; US theatrical: 18 Jan 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 1 Feb 2008 (General release); 2008)
The Katrina documentary “Trouble the Water,” the viral-outbreak drama “Blindness” (opening Friday) and the subterranean fantasy “City of Ember” (Oct. 10) are the latest in a cresting wave of mass-disaster flicks.
Apocalyptic visions on the silver screen date back to silent classics like the sci-fi “Metropolis” and the historical epic “Intolerance.” In the 1950s, after the Holocaust and the hydrogen bomb made annihilation tangible, apocalyptic movies became a psychic safety valve, an apparatus for processing our collective anxieties. Body snatchers symbolized suburban conformity. Martians meant communist infiltrators. Godzilla was the fallout from nuclear weapons.
In the skeptical ‘60s, Charlton Heston embodied American values under siege in the doomsday movies “Soylent Green,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Omega Man.”
The latter film was remade last year as “I Am Legend.” But the latest spate of apocalyptic movies seems to have begun a few years earlier, coinciding with the new millennium. Although the Y2K bug and Bible-based prophecies came and went, the shock of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 suggested that there was indeed a new world order. Political unrest, infectious disease or climatic anomalies in one part of the world could affect us all.
Consider this partial list of apocalyptic or dystopian movies that were made after 9-11:
* “28 Days Later” (2003): Virus turns humans into ravenous cannibals.
* “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004): Coastal cities are devastated by a changing climate.
* “War of the Worlds” (2005): New York is ground zero for an alien invasion.
* “Children of Men” (2006): The human race loses its ability to reproduce.
* “Cloverfield” (2008): A beast of unknown origin levels Manhattan.
* “The Happening” (2008): Ordinary Americans driven to suicide.
* “WALL-E” (2008): Humans flee their world of garbage and grow obese from inactivity.
Like “WALL-E,” “City of Ember” is a family film. It imagines a future where an unspecified calamity has forced the human race to move to a city underground. When the massive generator that supplies the city with light starts to falter, an ordinary girl (Saorise Ronan) discovers her capacity for heroism.
Director Gil Kenan, who was in St. Louis last week on a promotional tour, says that it’s futile to shield children from serious issues in a changing world. When Kenan was a child in Tel Aviv, during the Cold War era of “War Games” and “Red Dawn,” he was acutely aware of the nuclear threat. “I thought my role was to be the child who witnessed the mushroom cloud, even if I couldn’t understand what triggered it,” Kenan said.
As in “City of Ember,” the calamitous event in “Blindness” is never explained. In an unnamed city, thousands of people suddenly go blind. Herded into a prison and left to fend for themselves, they develop a savage social order that recalls “The Lord of the Flies.”
Writer and co-star Don McKellar, who adapted “Blindness” from a novel by Jose Saramago, said in a recent phone interview that he instinctively responded to the apocalyptic overtones in the book.
“The end of the world was a recurring nightmare from my youth,” he said. “I addressed it comically in a film I directed called ‘Last Night.’ Now those feelings are coming back in a bigger and darker way. We’re seeing that things we once took for granted as permanent are actually fragile, like the stock market.”
McKellar feels that Hurricane Katrina, which happened while he was developing “Blindness,” was a watershed event in the collective American consciousness. “Americans were shocked to learn that the government wasn’t there for them,” McKellar said. “What happened in the Superdome is not far from what happens in ‘Blindness.’”
Yet McKellar didn’t want to endorse a pessimistic worldview.
“Before Cormac McCarthy published ‘The Road,’ my agent sent me the galleys and asked me if I’d be interested in making a movie out of it. I said no. I didn’t want to do a film about a nuclear wasteland full of cannibals.
“There’s a cynicism in some films today that I find too arch. I don’t think I’m being a Pollyanna to say that in a crisis there are people who respond heroically. People surprise us with their courage and their capacity to do good. In ‘Blindness,’ the hero is a woman (Julianne Moore) who is not bred to be a leader, yet she makes it her responsibility to take care of other people.”
Likewise, in “City of Ember,” an unlikely heroine embodies a message of hope. “The girl lives in darkness,” Kenan said, “but she is striving upward, toward the light.
“The point of an apocalyptic film isn’t just to scare or depress us. It’s to hold up a mirror and say ‘This is what could happen if we’re not mindful of the good.’ “