It seems that the Mayans got it wrong. The end of the human civilization, portrayed with such gusto by Roland Emmerich in 2012 (2009), did not happen after all. So if you looked forward to “finding out the truth” and experience that “the end is just the beginning” as widely advertised by the film, you are most probably disappointed. The clock chimed midnight on December 21 and… nope, nothing. That giant wave that washes clean the face of the earth, sweeping away a poor Tibetan monk with it, remains a product of imagination, a fiction. And, in your heart of hearts, aren’t you happy about it? After all, humanity has striven towards modern comforts for ages and now that we are able to touch complete happiness with our fingertips, it really feels odd to pay money in order to watch our achievements being obliterated.
The sight of destruction gives a jolt to our mostly prosaic experience, no arguing about that. But on this grand scale? There would probably not be enough Earth-like planets to go around if all of the Hollywood global catastrophe scenarios were implemented. Deadly viruses, collisions with asteroids, hurricanes, alien invasions and even a new ice age – thanks to the lively imagination of film creators our good old Mother Earth has been destroyed again and again (or almost destroyed if Bruce Willis happens to be around). And we enjoy it every time. So that megatsunami demolishing the world is not even unique. It’s just that “2012” sounds so much more immediate than some abstract “day after tomorrow.”
The catastrophe genre had to evolve. The exploding cars and shaking skyscrapers were no longer enough to impress upon us, as viewers, the fragility of our existence. Just as the Western society is moving towards magnification in every aspect of its organization (larger cars, larger meals, larger product packaging) the cinema, being a social product, has to follow. This process of enlargement is taking place not only in the physical space of the cinema, with bigger screens and more spacious cinema theatres. It happens also within the film. So if you are showing us a disaster, make it spectacular and if you are showing us demolition, make it global. And there can only be one satisfying result of all the commotion: the ultimate downfall of humankind. If there ever was a name for this kind of cinema it would be “eschatological,” that is “telling of the end.”
In contrast to reality, the Armageddon of humanity on film can be savored time after time, following different scenarios, sometimes in 3D, in theatre or at home, as a special edition or in a director’s cut. We really should be proud of the civilization that is capable of commercializing its own doom. But the end-of-the-world cinema is using borrowed vocabulary. “Eschatological, “Apocalypse”, “Armageddon”? Doesn’t it all sound Greek to you? Well, it is. It is odd how a document of faith, written 2000 years ago may still have such profound influence on us. The Book of Revelation, the last book in the Bible, tells of the final battle between good and evil and has been a source of inspiration, guidance and wisdom for many. It has also been a major reference in the cultural world.
Considering the passage of time and a certain liberalism in interpreting the Revelation it is no wonder that sometimes we got the Greek wrong. “Armageddon” is not some vague concept of a global deathblow but a city where the final battle takes place. And “Apocalypse” came to mean “global catastrophe” or “destruction,” rather than the original meaning of “revelation.” In a biblical sense, then, apocalypse is a vision where the world is characterized through symbols, fantastic creatures and mysterious sayings. By and by the word evolved and came to mean not only spiritual revelation but also a kind of a profound physical experience, a breach in the smooth operation of the world, a chasm in reality, a time of cataclysm and uncertainty – a supreme moment. Ancient Greeks called it kairos.
Cinema thrives on kairos. That is where the good drama is, where feelings are watered with tears and heartbeat increases. Think about all the ruins, wreckage, desolation and extinction. You probably can’t wait to see it. Dystopia is therefore essential to eschatological cinema; the two cannot exist without each other. Only imagine watching a two-hour long sugary show of happiness and utopia. You would die of boredom.
No wonder then that apocalypse, in its modern meaning, brings profits. How come then that Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003) became one of his least commercially successful films? Being used to Hollywood blockbusters where destruction is glossed over and made almost beautiful, it is difficult to take delight in the cruel, barren world of Time of the Wolf. Haneke’s film is many things, but it is definitely not esthetically pleasing. Rather, dystopia is expressed not so much in the environment as in the relationship between individuals and groups. The severe disaster that hit the planet is never told of directly. The survivors throng the few remaining habitable places, unable to come to terms with each other, trying to build up a bearable existence on the ruins of the once so familiar world. Time of the Wolf plunges you into the universe of disintegrated social order and primordial evil of incest and murder. Haneke presents us with an alternative version of “the end of the world” that is both disturbing and confusing. Some themes remind us too much of reality: overpopulation and migration, cruelty and death. Not exactly a beautiful kind of dystopia and, sadly, one that is the more likely to happen.
As soon as a disaster scenario can no longer be perceived as a kind of an eschatological fairy-tale we shudder and withdraw. But whether pleasant or repellent, the visualization of the ultimate end spellbinds us. Even little Ivan in Andrey Tarkovky’s first film, though surrounded by the horrors of war and death, is excited over Albrecht Dürer’s print of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Isn’t he scary?” Ivan says thrilled, pointing to one of the figures in the German trophy book, oblivious for a moment that what that horseman symbolizes is exactly what he sees everyday in his war-ridden homeland.
Dürer was a kind of Emmerich of the 15th century. He published a series of woodcuts titled Apocalypse with Pictures in 1498 and immediately received European recognition. His artistic work was well-timed since the Europeans expected the end of the world in 1500 and Dürer’s woodcuts showed them a glimpse of what it might look like. The four horsemen, that Ivan studies so intently, are usually interpreted as Conquest, War, Famine and Death. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that they are mentioned first in the Book of Revelation.
War, Conquest and Famine sometimes appear as guest stars in eschatological films but the main role is certainly played by Death. Individuals, populations or the entire humankind cannot escape it, especially when apocalyptic destruction is in progress. It seems that seeing death occur on the screen over and over again and imagining the human race become extinct is a way for us to come to terms with our own mortality. Zygmunt Bauman sagaciously remarked that we have lost the oral traditions and ancestor worship that in ancient times were the sources of comprehending and accepting death. We need another way of delving into the scary phenomenon of every being’s inevitable demise. According to Bauman, reality shows with their “eliminations” are the rehearsals of death masked as social exclusion. Add to this the repetitive occurrence of death in cinema and you have the modern stand-ins for our ancestors’ lore. Bauman calls reality shows “the moral tales of our time” and one can draw the parallel further to include film. After all, where else do we get insights in how other people act, what they think or feel in different situations? Among other things, the easiness with which people disappear, either from the next episode of Project Runway (2004-) or from the face of the earth in, say, Independence Day (1996) habituates us to the thought of dying in the world where longing for everlasting youth and beauty rejects the finality of death. The repetitiveness of loss of life in visual entertainment numbs the uneasy feelings connected to the idea, makes the horseman Death appear common and trite.
Having mentioned reality shows and television, a remark is in place regarding the recent attempts to bring the two together with cinema. Consider the sequence at the end of 2012 when John Cusack’s character works heroically on dislodging the impact driver from the ark’s hydraulics system as it stops the gates from closing. The security monitors allow those on board the ark to follow our hero in his quest to save humanity, in other words them, and, dutifully, they draw breath anxiously or jubilate triumphantly depending on the protagonist’s progress. Well, what are they if not a TV-audience of a full-blooded reality show? Thus, television and cinema have a chance of coming together, paradoxically merging their two respective dominant features, proximity and escapism.
In a way, the ark of 2012 re-lives the horrors of Titanic – not the real ship of 1912, but rather the pre-democratic Titanic (1997) of James Cameron. The luxurious upper-class-ruled society that depends on the tucked away working class is out on the stormy sea of change in the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the struggle to uphold its function it crashes ingloriously against the historical imperative, the iceberg in the film, and sinks, giving place to a new social order where not only can women such as Kate Winslet’s Rose choose what to become and whom to marry, but also is the former elite replaced by the middle-class bourgeoisie.
The seas are rough for the ark in 2012 as well and since ultimate apocalypse needs a really large scale, the iceberg is played by Mount Everest itself. Only the representatives of the modern society are somewhat more resourceful or well-organized or just lucky. The human race in 2012 promptly escapes its doom and re-emerges after the climactic resolution as a better and braver species. We are told in the last scene that the new humankind, emblematized by the seven-year-old Lily Curtis, does not need nappies any more. Well, that is certainly good news.
Times have changed since the Book of Revelation. In some respects, we have created a fairer and safer society than those existing several thousand years ago. But just like them we seek to visualize the moment of kairos that seems to have otherwise deserted our existence. Walter Benjamin said that in former days, the human race was “an object of contemplation for Olympian gods” but now it is abandoned to itself. This newly-won freedom gives rise to self-scrutiny and consequently self-alienation of such a degree that, in Benjamin’s words, we experience even our own destruction as an esthetic pleasure of the first order.
A final quotation by Bauman illuminates the paradox of the end-of-the-world films: “the one and only thing we can’t and never will be able to visualize is a world that does not contain us visualizing it.” Thus, eschatological cinema is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, since it tries to show us a time where there is no “us” to experience it. Happy ending is a must for a dystopic tale, for who would otherwise enjoy that fresh new world after a global disaster (or make a movie about it)? The Mayans simply had to be wrong, or there would be no 2012. The ultimate end is just a fantasy, but one that we obviously cannot live without. A fantasy that we most probably will never tire of.
Anna Carius wrote her Master’s thesis on Werner Herzog’s Kaspar Hauser. She is now pursuing her interest in “eschatological cinema.”
Read also: Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, “Embracing the Apocalypse: A World Without People”