Thursday, February 7, 2013

Armageddon It: 7 Films on the End of the World

Recently, I wrote a similar post about songs which address the topic of the end times. In this particular entry I will explore movies that do the same. However, the approach that I will be taking in this case will be slightly different. Instead of focusing on the various attitudes that surround such apocalyptic events, here I will focus more on how those catastrophic events offer insight into those aspects of human existence that are often overlooked or neglected because we presume that they will always be there (like our family). Thus, what we find in this type of cinema is just the opposite of our every day life: a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, and in which that which was presumed is taken away entirely. Yet my intention is not to focus on the misery of these circumstances so much as to observe how these films in various ways show us what is ultimately at the heart of man.

7. Batman Begins

One might not necessarily think of Batman Begins as an end-of-the-world type film, but there are elements in it that are incredibly apocalyptic- if not Biblical in proportion. Gotham City is in essence a sort of futuristic version of every big city. Gotham embodies all of the glamour and wickedness that seems to accompany the reality of city life. Indeed, so bad has it gotten in this mythical city that it has practically become overrun with thugs, and no one has the will or courage to do anything about it. Even law enforcement has turned traitor and made a deal with the criminals. Probably the most interesting aspect of this scenario is not that there is some guy named Batman that wants to stop this, but that Batman- in stopping this- also has to stop another enemy. Ra's al Ghul is a mysterious figure who is part of what is called the League of Shadows. And what this so called "League" wishes to do is to demolish the city. Why? Because the city has grown too wicked to be saved, and so he and his organization feel as if the only solution is to raze it to the ground by inflicting chaos upon it. What is so fascinating about this scenario is that usually in such movies when an enemy wants to destroy something, he wants to do so for his own wicked purposes (whatever those may be), but in this story he wants to do so for the purposes of justice. I have never thought of Satan as just, but I suppose there is a kind of Satanic justice which is completely devoid of any mercy. This type of person (or spirit) never wants to loan you anything, but is always there to collect on your debts. In light of this, Batman Begins is like a combination of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, combined with the angel of death scenario in the book of Exodus. And Ra's al Ghul is nothing if not an "angel of death", all too ready to deliver his own brand of indiscriminate justice without any regard for saving anyone or anything in the city. Batman, on the other hand, is the primary intercessor for Gotham (which sounds a little like Sodom), the one standing between a fiery form of justice and a city fallen into disrepute. Thus, not only is it necessary for him to hold off this apocalyptic angel of death, but also to help return the city to order. He's not exactly Abram, but he does try to hold in tension two competing virtues, namely mercy and justice.                       

6. Signs

The genius of this film is ironically the same thing that annoyed many viewers. At first blush, the movie seems to be about some sort of cosmic battle between aliens and humans, but in the end it really isn't about that at all. In fact, what seems to be the central plot is really ancillary to the larger point. I call this "genius" because it would have been all too easy to make it strictly about fighting aliens and saving the planet, but what the director did instead is something far more thought provoking. The aliens do make a brief appearance, and using shadows and reflections the director does manage to give them a menacing quality, but the truth is the extra-terrestrials are an afterthought. And the reason they are an afterthought has to do with the fact that it is the end of the world. What difference does it make what is bringing everything to an end? Death is death, whatever the catalyst/vehicle. Thus, surrounded by all of the high drama, the movie carefully interweaves another plot line, namely what do the characters believe about God. The father, who is played by Mel Gibson, is an Anglican priest who has lost his faith, but when confronted with these catastrophic events is forced to reconsider his position. The point is it is easy to be an atheist in theory, or when emotional luxury and/or affluence afford it. It is quite another thing to be one when the finality of death confronts you. The movie presents a kind of Pascal's Wager of sorts, for the father (Mel Gibson) asks rather pointedly whether his kid brother is the kind of person that sees "signs", or whether he is the type of person that believes "no one is looking out for them." Perhaps it is not the most noble reason to consider these matters, but regardless, it is the only thing that really matters in light of the circumstances. By taking everything away from the actors and the audience, all that is inessential passes away, and all that has ever mattered takes center stage.

5. Apocalypto

Directed by the oft-embattled Mel Gibson, this film addresses the end of the world from the perspective of a particular culture. However, this seemingly strange culture, namely that of the Mayans, does spell out in some sense the recipe for disaster in any culture. In the beginning of the story, we encounter a small tribe which is quite simple, but also quite happy. In fact, it is due in large part to this noble simplicity, and their profound sense of community, that they do begin to thrive as a people. Enter our dear friend irony. As a result of their success, their society becomes more and more advanced, and as their power and influence increases, all the things that brought them their success are slowly abandoned. Soon what you have is a society that is perhaps not exactly like Gotham, but not all that different, either. Observe how impressive monuments seem to be an essential element to the downfall of any great civilization. In the case of the Mayans, their decadence can be seen not just in their monuments to themselves, but also in the values that governed their daily lives. Even their physical appearance becomes more and more ostentatious and decadent as the movie wears. This is demonstrated by the fact that as the civilization progresses, so also the volume of tattoos and piercings. Replacing true creativity and useful innovation, you have crass commercialism; in place of self-sacrifice and the common good, you have vanity and self-centeredness; and in place of a more innocent brand of nature worship, you have the darker demons of human sacrifice. The latter is a true sign of the end for any society and/or civilization. Once a society has decided that it is permissible to sacrifice human beings as a means to preserve their own affluence and youth, you may as well be counting down the days to the end. The beginning of civilization is self-sacrifice, the end is human sacrifice.

4. Children of Men

The only way to recognize just how valuable something is is to take it away permanently, especially something that everybody presumes can't or won't ever be taken away. In Children of Men, what is taken away is humanity's ability to reproduce. Today we presume that we can alter and control life to such an extent that we can practically make it cater to whatever vision we have for our lives. If we want 2.3 children, then 2.3 children it is. If we want only one girl and one boy, then that is exactly what we get. But what about a world for which there is no possibility for any children at all? Such is the world created by the novelist P.D. James; a concept so simple and yet one that few have likely ever considered. Hence, this end of the world scenario comes as a tremendous surprise, for most would expect it to be an epidemic, or an some sort of cataclysmic event, while it is simply the inability to reproduce. The novelist (nor the movie director) ever explains why this has happened in the first place, but it certainly would be an understandable form of justice to take away this power from man considering how egregiously he has abused it. Anyhow, what makes this scenario so powerful is the questions it raises that otherwise would go unaddressed. For example, what would it be like if one hadn't heard a baby cry in eighteen years? It is most ironic that many who have grown to hate that sound, would probably weep for joy were they to hear it in the above situation, and even declare as did  a character in the movie; "Blessed is he who comes..." Children are not only pleasing accessories in some materialistic game of MASH (remember that game?), they are quite literally the Sacrament of tomorrow.

3. I Am Legend

Like the previous film, I Am Legend offers a "what if" scenario, but this time it is not just babies that are being jettisoned, but all human life. The first of two epidemic films on the list, this one imagines the death of the majority of the human population on account of a cure for cancer that has gone terribly wrong. For the majority of the film it appears that the only one who survives this plague is a doctor named Robert Neville. That, however, does not include the so called "dark seekers" who were at one time human, but then became infected by the virus and so became some combination of zombies and vampires (I call them zompires). In essence, Robert Neville has to do all of his work by day because at night these "dark seekers" are roaming around looking for flesh to consume. However interesting that aspect of the movie may be, there is another element of the story which in many ways propels it. Robert Neville is alone, and the only living thing that he is able to interact with is his dog Sam and the various mannequins he interacts with (they aren't living, but he treats them as such). Each day he tries to send a radio signal in the hopes of finding some other living being. What makes the movie particularly fascinating is how it artfully demonstrates the slow mental deterioration of the Neville character. In a most profound way this psychological dilapidation reveals the truth of the Genesis passage; "It is not good for man to be alone." It also is commensurate with the related passage about how God brought man every creature but none was capable of satisfying his real need for companionship. The truth is Sam (his dog) does in a certain sense help to keep him sane, but it is also true that Neville must impute human characteristics to the canine in order for this exercise to work. In some ways, Robert Neville is like a cross between Noah and Job. Like Noah, he is one of the few to survive a catastrophe of cosmic proportion, and likewise feels it his job to restore, and in some sense, reboot humanity. Yet by the same token, he is as well a little like Job in that by suffering such a tremendous calamity he is half-tempted to "curse God and die", or as in this case declare; "There is no God!" In the end, however, as the zompires are closing in, he ultimately chooses to wager in favor of such a Deity, and subsequently finds a way to preserve humanity (he finds an antidote), even while forefeiting his own life in process. This movie is worth seeing if only for its ability to communicate the profound loneliness a man would feel were he to experience such extreme isolation.

2. The Stand                           

The Stand (based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King) is not technically a movie in the sense that it was released in the theaters, rather it was a four-part TV mini-series. It certainly was not without its flaws (for example, they ran out of money at the end of filming and the "dramatic" climax is not so dramatic to say the least). Nevertheless, the movie does deliver in numerous ways. The second movie on the list about epidemics, this one involves a terrible strain of influenza which is accidentally released at a government laboratory, leading to the death of everyone in the lab. However, one man escapes with his family and unknowingly spreads it to the outside world, ultimately killing 99% of the worlds population. The power of the opening scenes lies not simply in telling the audience that so many died, but in giving a sense of how it happened by providing the audience with several vignettes. Consequently, the audience then is able to envision similar events on a universal scale. All the while in the background, you hear the eerie yet upbeat ode to the Grim Reaper, ironically titled "Don't Fear the Reaper". This particular song accompanies all of the opening scenes, giving a certain atmospheric momentum to all of these events. What I found most insightful about this scenario (beyond the atmospherics), was who Stephen King chose to represent the forces of good. Far from formidable, his heroes and heroes were the last people you might expect to be charged with winning a cosmic battle. In fact, the leader of the group, charged by God to be their shepherdess, is an elderly black lady named Mother Abigail who is going blind. Needless to to say, her great strength lies not so much in her biceps,  as in her towering faith. Among the group there's also a deaf man named Nick who is an atheist. When told his mission, he explains to Mother Abigail that he does not believe in God, to which she responds with full throated laughter; "That's OK honey because he believes in you..." Whether King was aware of just how Biblical this is I cannot say, but what is true in any case is that the Christian story is nothing if not a catalogue of rejects and nobodies elevated in ways that, considering their circumstances, seem inconceivable. God, it would seem, is most fond of calling the last people you would expect- to accomplish the last task you would expect them to be able accomplish (think Joan of Arc). Perhaps then Harry Houdini is a little more like God than one might suspect. Even the Gospels themselves seem to affirm that this is God's preferred method of bringing about salvation (actually pretty much all of Scripture affirms it); "The last will be first and the first last." If that statement doesn't keep you humble I'm not exactly sure what would. The Stand is like the Lord of the Rings of science fiction, for it possesses not only the urgency and intensity of an apocalyptic story, but it also possesses the keen insight that if you you are going to defeat evil, you might want to send last person that anyone would suspect.

1. The Road

Without question one of the most disturbing films I have ever watched. In most movies which explore apocalyptic themes, there is some degree of consolation, whether be in the companionship, a meal, or the prospect of a commune where there is some semblance of civilization. This movie has none of the above. The Road is to the apocalypse, what the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan is to war, or better yet, what the Exorcist is to possession. In other words, in these films there is no romance associated with death and fear. To the contrary, fear is immediate. One who watches this film is not permitted- with a few exceptions- to enjoy any consolation. This is a movie that will test your faith, your hope, as well as your charity, and reminds you the type of mental and spiritual toughness that would be required to survive in such a world. Yet in some ways the end of history could not have been all that different from the beginning, for in man's historical childhood he must also have been confronted with the question concerning how one truly distinguishes humanity from savagery. Apart from the mysterious cataclysmic events that propels the story (a mystery which makes the story even more believable), at its core this film is simply a story about a father's love for his son; a father who would not have the will to persevere were it not for that love. But in spite of the terrible circumstances (perhaps even because of them), we learn a powerful lesson about what it means to raise a son and teach him what it means to be a man. For me the most poignant moment in the film is when the son asks the father, played by Viggo Mortensen, if they (he and his father) are the good guys or the bad guys? In this particular case, the bad guys are represented by those who eat people to survive, and the good guys are represented by the ones who are willing to starve rather than resort to such a level of human atrocity. It reveals a strangely eucharistic message. The difference between heaven and hell is the difference between those who devour others in order to preserve themselves, and those that allow themselves to be devoured (either symbolically or literally) if only to safeguard those entrusted to their care. Such a message is not for the weak in spirit, and I have to admit that were a similar set of circumstances to befall me, it would only be by the grace of God if I myself did not turn into a mindless flesh eating zombie.               


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