Twenty-eighteen felt like a turning point in how Hollywood movies talk about the apocalypse. It went from being a what-if or a cautionary tale to all but an inevitability. The only question was how, as filmmakers scrambled to create fresh takes on the end of the world. But whereas once they might have focused on nuclear warfare, terrorism, or self-aware computers, this year they returned again and again to global environmental collapse, demonstrating the degree to which our culture is finally coming to grips with the problems before us. Treating environmental apocalypse presumptuously – as a plot point, to draw the kids into the multiplex – may be the best evidence we are starting to treat it seriously.
Warning: Major spoilers and despoiling ahead.
Hollywood didn’t discover the environmental apocalypse in 2018, of course. It has long been a staple in representing the future, and in doing so has called attention to contemporary concerns – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The 1968 Planet of the Apes is a pointed critique of humans’ treatment of the planet long before its devastating conclusion. Robert Altman’s 1979 Quintet uses the quasi-mainstream theory of global cooling as a means of introducing the story it really wants to tell, of Paul Newman playing a board game. (But why do you need an ice age for that? As a Canadian, I could have told Altman that all you need is winter.) 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow and 2009’s 2012 are, as their titles suggest, ripped-from-the-headlines expressions of “early” climate change fears, worried much more about their opening weekend box-office earnings than that their imagining of the future would immediately look outdated.
But 2018 felt different, because resignation about an environmental apocalypse was everywhere, and in some of the biggest movies of the year. Consider Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which ends with this voiceover by Jeff Goldblum’s scientist:
How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must a point be made? We’re causing our own extinction. Too many red lines have been crossed. … We convince ourselves that sudden change, is something that happens outside the normal order of things, like a car crash. Or that it’s beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We don’t conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as woven into the very fabric of existence. Yet, I can assure you, it most assuredly is. And it’s happening now. …
He is talking about the genetic engineering of dinosaurs, of course, but it is a speech built on a foundation of existing, real world environmental change. That makes for not just timely but also efficient storytelling: the filmmakers can be confident the audience will meet the speech halfway. But Goldblum does not, cannot go full-apocalypse, because a central problem with the apocalyptic narrative is that it doesn’t lend itself well to sequels. So he must end, “Humans and dinosaurs are now going to be forced to co-exist.” Red lines have been crossed, but life will go on.
Or will it? With apologies to Black Panther, the year’s defining blockbuster was Avengers: Infinity War, which starred everybody, including Black Panther. The movie’s antagonist is Thanos, whose heart’s desire is to wipe out half of the living beings in the universe; he’s been practicing on planets. But his actions are not made out of malice, but out of a concern about overpopulation: he is a Malthusian (mal-Thanosian?). “It’s a simple calculus,” he growls. “This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” (In similar fashion, Mission Impossible: Fallout’s villain wants to poison South Asia’s water supply as a means of wiping out one-third of the earth’s population to create a better future for those who survive: “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” That the suffering will be borne entirely by South Asians goes unremarked.)
Thanos boasts about past successes: “Going to bed hungry, scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I’m the one who stopped that. Do you know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.” The most unsettling thing about Infinity War is that although Thanos faces the entire Marvel universe, no one makes an effective argument against such thinking. In fact, because he faces the entire Marvel universe essentially alone, because his philosophy is better articulated than any other, and because his plan means that he has no way of knowing whether he himself will survive, Thanos ends up seeming less a villain than an antihero, and many moviegoers walked away convinced he had a point. The “Thanos was right” meme bloomed. Infinity War brought a semi-apocalypse to the screen, but 2019’s Avengers: Endgame will give the moviemakers a chance to reverse it – and to make a stronger case that the underlying global (universal?) environmental issue is overconsumption or resource distribution rather than overpopulation.
Environmental themes also ran deep in two major “family in peril” apocalypse movies. A Quiet Place does not deal with environmental threat per se: it’s a classic creature feature, in which humans are terrorized by monsters that can hear the smallest sounds they make. But the protagonist family, headed by Emily Blunt and her real-life Jim-from-the-Office, lead such a resourceful, successful way of life that the movie reads as a crash course in maintaining an American-style domestic existence post-apocalypse. You will need to live in the country, own guns, pickle, grow lots of corn, and use lots of felt (produced from, what, …corn? laryngectomied sheep?). You will not rely on government or even expect to trade with neighbours, who you will never see. A Quiet Place has been rightly criticized as a right-wing, red-state paranoid fantasy. And yet the movie’s most lasting line – Blunt saying to Jim-from-the-Office, of their children, “Who are we if we can’t protect them? Who are we?” – reads to me as a clear expression of concern about our environmental crisis: what are we doing if we are not giving our children a future? Surely there’s not that great a fear of Syrian refugees and MS-13 in upstate New York, right? Right?
But the loopiest environmental apocalypse movie of the year is Netflix’s just-released Bird Box. Humans, including Sandra Bullock, are terrorized by …something that, if you look at it, makes you commit suicide. In the book on which the movie is based, the somethings are explicitly creatures, but the film never states this outright or shows them. Instead we get vague shadows and rustling wind. On the one hand, the characters are alarmingly resigned to the apocalypse. As soon as the peril arises they begin to say, and I quote, “It’s an end game, man,” “The end of us,” “The world’s ending, baby,” “The world is ending,” “The end of the world makes us do things,” and, most tellingly, “All of us, collectively, are making the end of the world … great again! Yeah!” On the other hand, they spend the movie wandering around blindfolded, heads down, trying to avoid seeing the end’s cause. In 2018, it is almost impossible not to interpret Bird Box as a metaphor for the reality of climate change and its denial. Looking the future full in the face will make you want to kill yourself, so you need to develop workarounds if you’re going to move forward. (The movie cheats in having a small subset of humanity that likes the vision and forces others to look at it. These presumably represent geoengineers or FoxNews.)
But what about the children? Bird Box’s opening scene is a flashforward of Bullock warning her two five-year-old children about the somethings. Since the audience feels relatively confident the movie will not end with two five-year-olds killing themselves, we watch to see how she will bring them to safety – in effect, how she will either defeat climate change or learn to live with it. The family does find safety at movie’s end, of course, but their means of existence seems completely unearned and unsupportable (and, he thinks cynically, may involve eating blind people). More interesting is Bullock’s realization that saving the children means giving them a life worth living, which means giving them hope, which means …telling them an exaggeratedly uplifting version of an already uplifting story. That’s Hollywood, I guess.
These stories about tomorrow are stories about today. Twenty-nineteen and beyond will bring fresh environmental apocalypses to the screen because humans are worried about our future, and are trying to envision it and how best to respond to it, even if we have difficulty looking at that future full in the face. Happy 2019, and here’s to watching such movies with our grandkids.
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