The end shouldn’t be the beginning

[19 November 2009]

By Robert W. Butler

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Apparently few things are as entertaining as watching the Earth shake itself to pieces.

What other conclusion can we draw from the $65 million Americans shelled out last weekend to see Roland Emmerich’s “2012”?

In that movie Mother Nature does a job on humanity and just about everything else on the planet. When the lights come back on only a few hundred thousand of us have survived the destruction to repopulate the place.

Of course, the fact that some of the characters are still standing means that “2012” isn’t a true end-of-the-world movie. According to “2012,” life goes on even after the Big One.

That’s an important component of the film’s success — it allows us to revel in mass destruction and the deaths of millions but leaves us with enough hope that we stumble into the daylight believing that mankind can start over again.

Many years ago I covered a local “Star Trek” convention. This was in the early ‘70s, when the original series had been off the air for only a few years.

I asked one of the organizers to explain the mania around a show that didn’t draw enough viewers to last beyond three seasons.

He mentioned handsome actors in tight-fitting uniforms and the allure of even cheesy special effects. But then he said something I’ve never forgotten: “‘Star Trek’ convinces us that we have a future, that we won’t blow ourselves up after all.”

That’s a key point. We humans want to believe that we’ll endure. When a movie dangles that idea in front of us, we’re only too happy to bite.

That’s one reason for the success of the “Terminator” franchise, which predicts that our machines will turn on us and attempt to exterminate us. And yet we’ll battle back and eventually win.

Maybe I’m a happy pessimist, but my favorite end-of-the-world movies lack that escape hatch.

In 1959’s “On the Beach,” survivors of a nuclear war gather in Australia and await the arrival of the radiation clouds that will seal everyone’s fate. Suicide pills are handed out.

In 1988’s “Miracle Mile,” an accidentally intercepted phone call from a missile silo convinces a man (Anthony Edwards) that World War III has broken out. It ends with a nuclear blast and the two main characters crashing in a helicopter in L.A.‘s LaBrea Tar Pits. Perhaps their preserved remains will be discovered by sentient beings eons from now.

Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) wipes out mankind as well, but with a satiric glee that makes you think we probably deserve the nuclear disaster we’ve created.

And Zack Snyder’s 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” offers no reassurance that any human will survive the rampaging zombies.

Here’s my thought: If you’re going to give us the end of the world, give us the end of the world. Otherwise it’s like killing off your hero and then providing an epilogue with him flapping among the clouds with a harp.

I suspect I’m in the minority on this, which is why I’ll be fascinated to find out how audiences react to “The Road” when it opens Wednesday.

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel, “The Road” may be the grimmest end-of-the-world movie ever. An unnamed disaster nearly a decade earlier has left Earth cold and gray. No plants have survived, and most of the remaining humans get along by munching on one another.

A starving father (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son wander through a perpetual winter seeking ... what? Is there a light at the end of this tunnel?

McCarthy’s novel was a beautiful yet painful experience. So is the film. Like the best of the end-of-the-world movies, it’s not interested in giving a false sense of hope. Instead its subject is what we do with the time we have left.

That’s a universal theme.

After all, you don’t need a worldwide disaster to recognize that every human life eventually becomes an end-of-the-world story. Nobody gets out alive; what matters is what you do while you’re still kicking.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/116541-the-end-shouldnt-be-the-beginning/