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On Recent Post-Apocalyptic Films

Not long ago, someone in an email described called this past winter as having been cruel and cold and hard. It is, surely, only chance that this was a winter of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films. I count three, though I may have missed one or two during my travels: The Road in 2009, and The Book of Eli and Crazies in 2010. Having seen all three of these films in the space of a week, some thoughts occur to me. This rambles, but I am going to post it anyway, as I have other things to do right now…

The first is that none of these post-apocalyptic futures chill me as much as what I think may have been the best short story in Bruce Sterling’s Visionary in Residence collection — “Message Found in a Bottle,” I think the story is called — wherein a climate scientist gives a brief look at what life is like after the Earth’s climate tanks, by way of a note accompanying issues of Nature that he’s sealed in a watertight tank and sunk into a Scottish Loch for future generations to find… because he and his friends, living in the ruins of a library, are burning books for heat and he wants science to survive just so that maybe, possibly, someday someone can use it better than we have.

Nature commissioned the piece, but didn’t publish the story, mind. It’s very dark. And chilling in a way. And it really beats most of the post-apocalyptic fare of recent months, which are about zombies (how 1950s) and nuclear war (how 1960s/70s) and about the Bible (er, need I comment on that one?).

First, I think Crazies should be set aside as something more apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic. It has the usual zombie movie tropes, with the one variation: the cause of the psychotic zombification is known, and is linked to a government conspiracy (to contain a bioweapon that turns people into unthinking killers), and the zombies are not undead. (They’re just uninteresting.) Crazies, flatly put, was just a waste of electricity. I found nothing particularly interesting or rewarding about it. Frankly, it makes me wish I’d seen Zombieland instead. (Not that that’s playing in cinemas here… for some reason, it seems not to have been released here in Korea, but one has one’s ways of circumnavigating the philistinism of the culture police and distribution companies here in Korea.)

Having said that, I am not going to proceed simply to praise The Book of Eli or The Road. Both films have their flaws, in my opinion, though they are both a little more more profound with The Book of Eli. But it’s worth noting how both films depict the end of the world — or, in any case, the end of our world — in very similar ways.

In the end, both of the films fell flat for me, I think for the same reasons: they felt like they were only pretending to be post-apocalyptic films. The Road is about something else, something I’m not quite sure I can say without reading the Cormac McCarthy book again, and probably reading some of his other work too. It seems to me that basically it’s about asking the same question that cowboy stories ask: what happens when human nature is unbridled by civilization? “Humans go feral” is the predominant answer, while “Some humans carry a small crucible of civilization within themselves” is another answer.

Assuming the ending of The Road really is happy — assuming the boy doesn’t get eaten a few hours after the moment where what narrative we receive ends — it’s apparently some kind of triumph of human nature in the face of horror, of a collapsed civilization, in the wilderness. But then, I wonder how this “Wild West” vision compares to reality. When civilizations do collapse, do people really go feral? It seems to me even in the old West, most people seemed much more likely to carry that crucible, however damaged or veiled. I don’t know much about the old West, but it’s my impression it’s much harder to make humanity truly go feral than we seem to think.

The Book of Eli, on the other hand, is more transparently some kind of Christian narrative, about the virtue of going by faith, about the importance of the Bible (and, yes, thanks to the Gary Oldman character, its misuses, though it’s far too binary in distinguishing “good” uses of the Bible from “bad” ones).

There’s some discussion of the film by its directors at i09 that’s worth noting, precisely because I think they give us the rope we need to hang the film. They say very little that is coherent in terms of defending the idea that it is the Bible, and not, say, a basic book of survival techniques or science, that would be crucial to rebuilding civilization. They wave their hands in the air and suggest that we have souls that need feeding, and that this may be more important than keeping those ostensible souls tied to our bodies with, say, water we can drink without risk of dying.

The great tragedy, really, is that both sides seem to agree. You’d think a sensible Christian like Eli would agree that what’s really needed is to rebuild civilization so that other blind people don’t need to be slaves or die unable to defend themselves from rampaging marauders. But he’s a religious fanatic (if, mind, a relatively amoral one at moments — but aren’t they all?). Meanwhile, Oldman’s character is just plain deluded in thinking that he needs the Bible. He apparently has never heard of Joseph Smith. If he just wanted a Bible as a kind textually devised machinery of social control, he could write one himself, like they did back in the good old days.

And, well, the twist. It’s so silly. Seriously dumb. Show me one blind person who can go bowhunting, unassisted, and hit at cat at twenty or thirty meters, and I might buy it. I don’t mean blind archery, which of course exists, as does archery for the visually impaired, but unassisted blind bowhunting of wild animals. Show me a blind martial artist who can take out — not kill, just defend himself or herself — against a group of three or five people without being pulled to the ground. The “twist” is unearned, because Eli does things I simply don’t believe blind people can do. And I’m not being ignorant. I’ve worked and socialized with blind and visually impaired people, and even dated one for a while. I know what I’m talking about here.

Oh, and: if there’s a nuclear war — which it seems to me is what’s implied by all that ash in the first scene of The Book of Eli — then iPods ain’t gonna be working. To be frank, even without a nuclear war, iPods simply aren’t gonna survive long enough for people who weren’t alive before the Catastrophe to ever experience them, probably not even as kids let alone as young adults. Product placement may be lucrative, but it’s plain bad when it makes your film stupid.

If I had to choose between The Book of Eli and The Road, I’m afraid I would have to choose the latter, simply because it doesn’t quite treat the audience as stupid the way The Book of Eli does; it doesn’t pander to handwavey religionism (even if you’re not a believer, as the directors love to note, ignoring the fact that the narrative is, for the nonreligious, wholly incoherent and blithering). There are certainly places where The Road doesn’t live up to the (imperfect, but well-written) novel upon which it is based, but at least it is faithful to the existential desert of meaninglessness that is the fallen world, and to the way people either find meaning, or fall apart, mostly based on their own strength and qualities, on the decisions they make, on what they choose to love and what they choose to let go — and not on the basis of “faith” in some way that can be boiled down and externalized in the form of a religion or a book.

But really, personally, neither of these is the post-apocalyptic film we deserve and need right now: it seems somewhat baffling to me that we haven’t seen a major global-warming-based apocalypse movie from the West in so very long. Ecocatastrophe, sure: 2012 did that, albeit badly, just as a few other films (the Korean flick Haeundae, for example, or the Japanese film I’d guess was released in English Japan Sinks, based on an older Japanese SF novel — I never saw the latter, mind, but it was ecocatastrophe). But climate change catastrophe? It’s been ages.

So how about it? When will we get a really horrifying vision of global warming as a great devastator? Not some random Mayan calendar crap. Not some Mad Max roleplaying junk. Not some paean to the Bible.

A film that hammers home that this climate change stuff really could be the end of us. Not just a reason to emigrate to Mexico or Thailand or India — as in The Day After Tomorrow — but the end of humanity. A film that uses that conceit to motivate its characters, and get audiences thinking about whether, maybe, just maybe, even the off-chance might be worth us paying a little attention to what the scientific community’s saying about climate change?

All those Hollywood execs and directors driving those Priuses (well, who were driving them until the scandal) would, you’d think, have realized that people would be way more worried about global warming if we gave them a movie about just how badly it could screw things up.

The Day After Tomorrow, as problematic as it was, at least was a climate change apocalypse — at least it was very vaguely pointing in a direction like where we ought to be, er, worrying most energetically, though I think it could have been done much better. But I’m more concerned that it’s been six long years since we’ve seen anything like a serious try at another global warming apocalypse on the big screen, while in the space of only a few months we have two Cold War-styled, strongly-implied nuke-out visions in one winter? It looks like a regression to me, I have to confess: I don’t think someone can claim to have seriously imagined the near (say, century-range) future without taking climate into account. Jetse de Vries argued that the lack of optimism in SF is due to laziness, but it seems to me even the dystopias in our cinematic SF are fundamentally lazy.

And, hey, I thought Hollywood loved making feature films out of novels after their authors were dead. So why hasn’t someone made a film of John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up?

(Or is it, as many people have suggested, so much like our real world now to be all that SFnal anymore? I haven’t yet read it, I’ll confess… but it’s on my list of books I hope to get to this year.)

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