Doomsday Genre Is Thriving in Cinema and on Cable TV

Is climate apocalypse ready for primetime?

In 2004, civilization came to an icy end in The Day After Tomorrow. The big-budget disaster flick (it cost $125 million to make) was directed by a Hollywood director who had a string of blockbuster hits. It featured several well-known actors and introduced the scary concept of abrupt climate change to large, captive audiences. The movie was heavily promoted. Global warming had finally penetrated popular culture, it seemed.

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As it turned out, The Day After Tomorrow was a critical flop (there, was, however, much debate on its plausibility) but still grossed half a billion dollars worldwide. At the time, I saw the movie at a screening before its release, and interviewed a few climate experts and media scholars for an article in Audubon magazine. Here was my conclusion:

The mere fact that Hollywood is trying to parlay anxiety into profits may be proof enough that the issue [climate change] has entered the consciousness of mainstream society. “This movie seems to be coming at a time of rising concern about global warming,” says Martin Kaplan, a media analyst at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication. “All movies are products of their time. This one plays into our jitters.”

Well, those jitters ebbed not long after An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar for best documentary of 2006. Two years after that, the likelihood of a global meltdown suddenly seemed all too real — but it was economic in nature, and that gave an awful lot of people a very real case of the jitters. It also made them pay much more attention to their wallets than to the climate.

But after flirting with (and surviving) a near financial collapse, our collective attention is turning once again to weather — and, by extension, to climate change. It started a year ago, and has continued (at least in the U.S.) all the way through an unseasonably warm winter and a freakish March heat wave in parts of the country. What to make of this is another matter, though some are chalking it up to global warming.

This renewed focus on weather comes just as scientists are issuing fresh warnings of irreversible climate change. (Readers with a vague feeling of déjà vu should see here and here.) Several years ago, a good many thought it still possible to head off this collision course with rising greenhouses, but those prospects crashed in Copenhagen and Washington, D.C. Now the shale gas revolution threatens to extinguish whatever flickering hopes might have remained.

Coincidentally or not, all this dispiriting news on the climate front in recent years has dovetailed with a new doomsday zeitgeist in cinema and literature. Last week, two movies about the end of the world hit theaters. One — The Hunger Gamesbroke box office records. For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games is based on the wildly popular young adult trilogy. (Slate recently explored the trending theme of environmental catastrophe in teen fiction.) Numerous commentators have noted the climate change subtext to The Hunger Games.

The other movie that opened last Friday — 4:44 Last Day on Earth — has a more overt climate doom theme. The premise is aptly described in this USA Today Review:

Set almost entirely in a New York apartment, [Last Day on] Earth posits that the ozone is evaporating faster than anyone imagined. And at 4:44 a.m. (Eastern Time) the planet will go up in a cloud of dust. Dafoe plays Cisco, an actor who shares his hipster home with his painter girlfriend Skye (Leigh).

Yes, those are their near-techno names, part of [director Abel] Ferrara’s screed against modernity’s march. Characters argue over cellphones, bicker on Skype and nearly whale on each other with laptops.

Intrigued, I recently watched the movie in a Manhattan theater, then tweeted it as “Last Tango in Paris meets the apocalypse.”

As the USA Today reviewer wrote, Ferrara “doesn’t give his protagonists room to do much beyond have arguments and sex (though the intimacy is shot well).”

And when the main characters are not having sex or arguing, the we-brought-the-end-of-the-world-on-ourselves message is conveyed in didactic fashion. One commentator notes:

Ferrara, in part, wants his film to be a warning, a call to action aimed at mankind to help our deteriorating planet. The TV in Cisco and Skye’s apartment acts as the director’s voice, serving up a constant stream of “we warned you” interviews from the likes of the Dalai Lama and even Mr. [Al] Gore himself.

When it comes to movies about climate change, it seems that the choice is between disaster porn, which is what some critics labeled The Day After Tomorrow, and soft porn, which is what Last Day on Earth serves up between guilt-tripping admonishments.

Meanwhile, the National Geographic channel has a new dystopian show called “Doomsday Preppers,” which “explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it.” I once thought that the most ardent believers in an imminent apocalypse were conspiracy types, the rapture crowd , and the flakiest new agers,  But when doomsday gets its own cable TV show from an illustrious media brand, you have to wonder: What, indeed, is the world coming to?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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3 Responses to Doomsday Genre Is Thriving in Cinema and on Cable TV

  1. Dean says:

    While most everybody should have some preparation for surviving without modern conveniences in case disaster strikes, the irony of civilization collapse is that as Rome didn’t fall in a day, or a decade, neither would our civilization. Even if the worst expectations about AGW came true, the decline (as opposed to collapse) would take a century or two at least. These things look a lot faster when you read about their history (like Rome) than when you’re living them. People hoarding food now for AGW or currency collapse or population growth would be long gone before they would truly need all that canned food. And based on the description of 4:44 Last Day, it doesn’t sound like the worst scenario anyway.

    Now if the zombies take over the world, that’s another story . . .

  2. keith Kloor says:

    Dean,

    Excellent points. There is a tendency to crunch up the time scale–not just for events that happened in the past, but also for the issues of our day.

    Incidentally, on a lighter (but related) note, I just came across this CCN article today on Doomsday dating sites:
    http://money.cnn.com/2012/03/29/pf/doomsday-dating/index.htm

    I suppose it doesn’t hurt to find your soul mate before the apocalypse arrives. :)

  3. 2210: The Collapse? is a wonderful documentary last year from the National Geographic Channel

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHufiHAbfD4&feature=share

    2210: The Collapse? – National Geographic Channel

    “In the year 2210, scientists uncover the ruins of a great civilization, they piece together a story of collapse about what on Earth happened to us.”

    “In the year 2210, scientists uncover the ruins of a great civilization – so powerful one could argue it dwarfed anything that came before it. Sifting through the wreckage of cities overtaken by the desert and swallowed up by the sea, they piece together a remarkable story of collapse – the story of what on Earth happened to us.”