A new ice age within a week? ‘Master of disaster’ Roland Emmerich arranges it. In 2004, he directed the only disaster film that deals directly with the climate crisis: The Day After Tomorrow. The demise there is just a little less bang boom than the nuclear holocaust of The Day After from 1986 that his movie title winks at. But it doesn’t matter much: scientist Jack Hall (Randy Quaid) has only just expressed his suspicion that the warm Gulf Stream is coming to a halt because of the melting polar caps or supertornadoes are destroying Los Angeles, a tsunami washes over Manhattan and deadly snow cyclones are driving Americans over as climate refugees. the Mexican border. In the finale, the president, a Dick Cheney-esque creature of ‘Big Oil’, confesses in a speech that he is wrong.
A bit of moviegoer has seen humanity perish countless times over the past quarter century; by alien, zombie or tsunami, virus, fungus or drought. In post-apocalyptic movies, the heroes survive on the crumbs of our present abundance in a world turned hostile. In apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic visions, nature sometimes takes revenge for our wrongdoing. In The Happening (2008) grass and shrubbery secrete a nerve agent that drives people to suicide, in eco-science fiction as Avatar, Insterstellar or After Earth an entire planet conspires against humans, being an annoying type of skin fungus.
The Eye Film Museum will explore the coming months under the motto Cinema Ecologica the relationship between man and nature in four film cycles. After films about drowned worlds, November will be about natural lyricism and January about half a century of cinematographic environmental catastrophes. In 1972 the Club of Rome published its influential study Limits to growth, which pictured us a bleak future of overpopulation, pollution, global warming and dwindling resources. In the same 1970s, the disaster film emerged.
Soylent Green (1973) Photo MGM Studios/Getty Images
Movies provide catharsis. They evoke fears, let us experience them in a safe, warm cinema and thus temporarily drive them out. They are usually not directly about what fears us; that would be too confronting. In the 1950s and 1960s, fear of communism and nuclear weapons translated into B movies about alien invasion, deadly radiation, and radioactive Godzillas. In the 1970s, a single sf movie depicted as Soylent Green (1973) the gloomy visions of the Club of Rome – cannibalism on an industrial scale solves the overpopulation there. Much more popular were disaster films where government, business and technology fail and good citizens have to cope with a burning skyscraper (The Towering Inferno), tilting cruise boat (The Poseidon Adventure) or collapsing dam (earthquake).
We are now used to much more massive destruction. Philosopher and ‘catastrophe thinker’ Lisa Doeland will light the film in January at the Eye Film Museum 28 Days Later in which a coma patient awakens in a deserted London: a design virus has turned the British into bloodthirsty half-dead. The ‘zombie calypse’ took place very abruptly, and that is exactly what Doeland has against the apocalyptic film genre. Target country: „The focus on the fast and abrupt obscures to some extent slow, lingering processes such as the climate crisis. Something that has been predicted for years is happening. Last summer, news went from forest fire to flood to drought and cyclone. Enough writing on the wall, but we’re still waiting for the final revelation that the end has really arrived. It’s never spectacular enough.”
The focus on the abrupt obscures slow processes such as the climate crisis.
Lisa Doeland Philosopher
Because we have become accustomed to large-scale destruction. After the first wave of disaster films, a second wave followed in the mid-1990s, fueled mainly by digital trickery, or CGI. The destruction of tornado or alien invasion (Twister, Independence Day, 1996), volcano (Dante’s Peak, Vulcano, 1997) or meteor impact (Armageddon, Deep Impact, 1998) was portrayed realistically, as popcorn entertainment. As usual, this spectacle was accompanied by heroic sacrifices, budding love and group formation. There was a short break around the slightly too real disaster film 9/11, but around 2003 the cinematic devastation continued even more starkly and on a larger scale.
The long-standing popularity of apocalyptic films may have been a response to feelings of doom from 9/11 and the anticipated clash of civilizations and renewed environmental awareness after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Al Gores documentary An Inconvenient Truth attracted unprecedented numbers of visitors in 2006, while in feature films man perished to monsters slumbering under the earth’s crust (War of the Worlds, Cloverfield), epidemics (Blindness, Contagion) or cosmic hazards (The Core, Melancholia, Knowing).
At the same time, the zombie grew into the horror icon of the 21st century. He does not kill on a small scale, like the vampire or serial killer, but brings a total social implosion. The apocalyptic craze raged in literature too: think of The Road by Cormack McCarthy, impressively filmed in 2009 with Viggo Mortsenen.
Orgy of destruction
That orgy of destruction reached a climax that was as delirious as it was absurd in Hollywood in 2009 in Roland Emmerichs 2012, in which the Earth’s crust shifts, Los Angeles is thrown into the sea and tsunamis that wash miles high over the Himalayas. After that, disaster films began to decline: thanks to cheaper CGI, they are now more likely to come from China, Korea or even Norway. In Hollywood, superheroes and villains have been wreaking havoc and rescue for a decade. The apocalyptic Geostorm, in which weather satellites that are supposed to contain the climate crisis turn against humans, was not a success in 2017. ‘Master of disaster’ Roland Emmerich can try one more time next year with moonfall, in which the moon hits the earth on a collision course.
Catastrophe philosopher Lisa Doeland is not sorry about it; she suspects that apocalyptic films promote apathy and paralysis. In particular, they scare us about the end of unbridled consumption. The fear image is the looted supermarket; after that there is nothing. Studies show that apocalyptic films and reading material are in great demand with people who are eagerly looking forward to the end of time. In the US, which has a strong apocalyptic tradition, survivalists, doomsday preppers and the ‘peak oil‘-movement the genre. They identify with the Cassandras, the omnipresent prophets of doom who often become heroes in apocalyptic films.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Broadly speaking, according to Doeland, apocalyptic films advertise destruction in a sense: it is a reactionary genre. Apocalypse means revelation or unveiling: the final battle where the pagans still, but too late, realize that the Christians were right. The old order fails, the cards are reshuffled, and underdogs start with a clean slate in the new paradise on Earth. The film genre allows viewers to fantasize that they are among the chosen ones. Lisa Doeland: “A very attractive fantasy, although the reality is that the rich will sit out the Apocalypse in a bunker or New Zealand.”
If there is still something to be saved, it is always through technology. Science discovers the serum, builds a bunker or designs a spaceship in which man flees the irrevocably polluted earth – see Wall-E or Interstellar. A disastrous vision, Doeland believes: “Colossal disasters call for great solutions, so you end up in such an Elon Musk argument: the future lies in space. I once spoke to an astronaut, Jeff Hoffman, who was in space five times. With each spacewalk, he realized again how utterly hostile and inhospitable it is to any form of life there.”
Targeted solution: embrace the doom-mongering. Just set the hand of the Doomsday Clock that scientists have been crawling to twelve for a long time in twelve hours. Her favorite environmental film is How to Let Go of the World and Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change from 2016, where creator Josh Fox is initially overwhelmed by the irreversibility of the climate catastrophe, and then goes for small-scale.
Doeland: “After all, it is already five past twelve, the Apocalypse is completely around us: the extinction of insects, melting ice caps, deforestation, desertification, shrinking biodiversity, acidification of the oceans. Instead of saving the whole world in Hollywood style, maybe we should think about the things we can still save.”
All in all, Doeland is more into post-apocalyptic films like water world or Mad Max, where long after the world disaster, eco-warriors compete among the ruins against the rotten remnants of the old, patriarchal order that wants to maintain the status quo. Doeland: “These films are usually much more progressive.”
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 7, 2021