Category Archives: Film

Post-apocalyptic films: From Escape from New York to Twelve Monkeys and beyond

As I have mentioned in connection with the likes of Nosferatu (1922), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), elements of apocalypticism (often, though not always, without an explicit role for “God”) are widespread within modern popular culture in the West (see the other posts in my Religion and Popular Culture category). In some cases, a filmmaker’s focus is on elaborating one specific apocalyptic idea, such as the Antichrist, whose story is told in a new way in films like the Omen series. In other cases, there is a convergence of a number of apocalyptic ideas and assumptions. Numerous films have been created with a focus on the apocalypse as the end or potential end of all human civilization, including Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998), which both viewed meteorites (rather than the previously “popular” nuclear bomb) as the final destructive weapon. A subgenre within these is the post-apocalyptic film.

Post-apocalyptic films are set after the end, or near-end. The apocalypse–the final intervention of some destructive power–has already taken place, and we, as viewers, witness the survivors in a horrible wasteland. Escape from New York (1981) is a good example. Twelve Monkeys is another.

The premise of the plot of Twelve Monkeys (1995) is an apocalyptic viral attack which wipes out the majority of humanity. Bruce Willis’s character, a convict, exists in the post-apocalyptic world (in 2035), where the precious (or not-so-precious) few survivors (1%) live a surreal existence underground. Oddball scientists are hard at work in this underworld seeking to reverse the apocalyptic clock. So Bruce Willis’s character, among others, is chosen to go back in time to find a way to stop the viral attack that decimated the population. The scientists have (mistaken) hints that a group known as the Army of Twelve Monkeys (which is led by Brad Pitt’s character) caused the massive slaughter. After showing up in several other time periods, Bruce Willis’s character finally arrives in the right time (1997) and place. But we the viewers, along with Willis and others, learn too late that it was not the Army of Twelve Monkeys but a disturbed red-headed man that released the virus and needed to be stopped. Perhaps the next time back crisis could be averted.

There is an online, academic article that deals with Twelve Monkeys alongside Waterworld: Conrad Ostwalt, “Visions of the End. Secular Apocalypse in Recent Hollywood Film,” Journal of Religion and Film 2 (1998).

What better time is there to post this than after watching Live Free or Die Hard (2007), in which Bruce Willis averts an attempt to bring on the apocalypse (“fire sale”: “everything must go”), at least in United States of America (which is the world from the perspective of this and other Hollywood films).

Spoofing the apocalypse, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (End 1.8)

One of the more interesting and entertaining films with apocalyptic themes is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) (trailer here, official Kubrick site here, clips further below). The story goes that a psychotic general, Jack D. Ripper, has gone beyond his powers to initiate American planes dropping a nuclear bomb on a Russian city. Ripper’s psychosis manifests itself as a belief in a communist conspiracy to contaminate the bodily fluids of Americans through the fluoridation of water.

The meek and mild American president, who is played by Peter Sellers, then meets with the high command in the war room of the Pentagon in the hopes of recalling the plane–to no avail. Humourous phone-conversations between the American president and the Russian Premiere follow. One of the most hilarious episodes here is when the president stops an American general and a Soviet ambassador from fighting, saying something to the effect that “We can’t have fighting in the war-room”. Soon we hear that the American bomb is the least of their worries, since the Russians have developed a “doomsday machine” that will wipe out all living humans and animals in the event of an American strike. The end is near!

Slim Pickens rides the bomb

Photo: Slim Pickens excitedly rides the nuclear bomb, cowboy- (or is it phallic-)style, that sets in motion the end.

Now there is a surprising twist as one among the Pentagon high-command comes forward: the wheelchair bound Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers, and he’s hilarious). It becomes clear that this former German assistant of Hitler, now working for the Americans, had planned (“I have a plan!”) the entire scheme in the hopes of establishing a new superior race of people living, at first, far underground in the deepest mine-shafts. Strangelove’s arm has a mind of its own as it repeatedly attempts to give the “heil!” gesture; this hits its climax in one of the final lines of the film as Strangelove miraculously stands up from the wheelchair and shouts, “Mein Führer, I can walk!”. Immediately the viewer witnesses the apocalypse as innumerable nuclear bombs explode to the tune of “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…” Overall, the film is a spoof not only of Cold War politics but also of the genre of apocalyptic films which see nuclear war as the final apocalyptic battle.

There are several ways in which the film spoofs, twists, or inverts key elements in the apocalyptic worldview:

Dualism and the combat: Despite the fact that the viewer of the film, along with several characters, knows that the dualism is a false one, the good old Cold War dualism of righteous America versus evil Russia (which has more recently been replaced by a new, not-so-different opposition) is fundamental to the film. An aim of the film is to deconstruct precisely this simplified political dualism by spoofing it.

Final, cataclysmic intervention of god: Only towards the end of the film do we, as viewers, learn that Dr. Strangelove — the Hitler-loving distorted god of the film — has been instrumental in orchestrating the whole plan to set in motion the destruction of the world as we know it. It is he that has ensured the dropping of the fateful bomb that would bring civilization as we know it to a screeching halt. The mad doctor is behind it all.

Predetermined plan, elimination of the “less than desirable“, and kingdom of bliss for the chosen few: The “godly” Dr. Strangelove has a predetermined plan to create a Bizarro-heaven for the chosen — underground, that is, in the deepest mine-shafts. Seldom has the underworld been the kingdom of god. “Ten females to each male” is Dr. Strangelove’s answer to the eternal bliss of the chosen few. The judgment that will determine who will be saved is based on physical fitness and a list of other supposed superior qualities. They will be destined to repopulate the earth. Strangelove dismisses any suggestion by others that the “survivors” (including himself, of course) may not enjoy the mine-shaft plan as much as he expects. And the American general starts to worry about a “mine-shaft gap” (got to keep ahead of those “commies”).

In many ways, Dr. Strangelove is the apocalyptic film par excellence. The humour helps to lighten the burden of witnessing the end of virtually everything.

You should buy or rent the movie for yourself, but here are several short clips on You Tube:

Saviours or destroyers in space: Modern incarnations of ancient apocalyptic worldviews (End 1.7)

One thing that can be said of the apocalyptic worldview is it is flexible. The notion that we are living in an evil age and that the end is near, when evil will be wiped out by some heaven-sent powers who will destroy the hell-sent powers, has seen many variations. As has the notion that there will be a path of escape or kingdom of God for the righteous. Among the most interesting, and at times disturbing, are those variations where space, sci-fi, and religion meet.

In my post on Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate, I discussed the case of Heaven’s Gate. This group looked forward to the arrival of their saviours, a superior race of aliens who they expected to take them away to live in a blissful kingdom of god, the “Level Above Human”. There I also mentioned a breakthrough in the convergence of apocalyptic expectation and sci-fi which came to heavily influence all subsequent uses of space-races as end-time saviour and/or end-time demonic figures: the 1950s film The Day the Earth Stood Still. I commented that

One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).

Now I have just come across an online doctoral dissertation which explores other ways in which apocalyptic ideas may find a place in outer space.

Ryan Jeffrey McMillen, “Space Rapture: Extraterrestrial Millennialism and the Cultural Construction of Space Colonization.” Doctoral dissertation: University of Texas at Austin, 2004.

Here is the summary of the dissertation:

The dream of space colonization possesses deep roots in the Christian apocalyptic fantasy of the Rapture of the elect to occur prior to the return of Christ. Space colonization, like its predecessor ascension fantasy, the Rapture, has always involved a tension between the liberation of a holy vanguard and the imminent destruction of the Earth. With the rise of modern technology, rocketry and space travel became, for fundamentalist Christians and technological determinists alike, the man-made tools and signs of an imminent apocalypse. In this dissertation, the 1970s space colonization proposal of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill is offered as a case study of these millennial roots of the space-bound dream. O’Neill’s colonies, offered as a way to avoid an irrevocable time of Earthly tribulation, were touted as the means of depopulating the Earth and ending terrestrial conflict. O’Neill’s dreams for rocketry were no different than the dreams of those men who pioneered rocketry before him, although earlier rocketeers and space enthusiasts held more explicitly Christian-inspired apocalyptic beliefs concerning the fate of the Earth and the destiny of humanity.

In addition to examining O’Neill’s colonial fantasy, this dissertation analyzes the religious and philosophical beliefs of the rocketeers to show how each of them was deeply influenced by apocalypse and Rapture fantasy. While O’Neill’s plan resembled earlier space colonization and Rapture imaginings, it also incorporated the more terrestrially benevolent dreams of the burgeoning environmental movement of the era. In attempting to unite the Space Age with a newly powerful “Earth Age,” O’Neill sought to resurrect the dream of space colonization for a new generation. However, O’Neill failed in this attempt. Instead of seeing humanity’s future in the stars, off of a doomed Earth, many in Western culture began in the late 1960s to imagine human destiny within a long and peaceful future on Earth. This perspective came about, paradoxically, as a result of perhaps the most epochal achievement of the space race: the first photographs of the planet from the distance of the moon (pp. 7-8).

Who said that doctoral studies couldn’t be fun.

The horrifying Nosferatu, personified plague and death (Satan 9)

NosferatuLast night we watched the original 1922 version of Nosferatu, a movie by German film-maker F.W. Murnau (very loosely based on Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula — other online information here). In the film, Nosferatu (the vampire figure) is presented as personified plague and death, as well as the seed of Belial (the seed of Satan). His arrival in Bremen in 1838 signals the onslaught of a terrible plague that leaves behind the mysterious double mark on the neck. One has to remember that, when this first dracula film was made, such things were not widely known (at least in visualized form) and the horror is sometimes lost because we are now so familiar with dracula from his many incarnations. This film’s presentation of evil came to have an important influence on horror-films and on the subsequent portrayal of evil in film generally.

Despite the difficulty in getting oneself away from 21st century special-effects expectations and into the silent-era mode, there were certain points when I experienced a feeling of fascination or terror, which points to the effectiveness of the movie-maker in portraying evil in a frightening, though intriguing, manner that spans across time. Well known is Murnau’s use of shadow. The shadow of the vampire itself possesses the evil powers which can grab hold of you and control your feelings, as when the shadow of Nosferatu’s hand firmly clutches Nina’s heart. (This is the source of the title for the recent “behind-the-scenes” movie remake, The Shadow of the Vampire [2000], with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe).

Shadow of Nosferatu

Two other scenes in the original Nosferatu are especially worth mentioning for how they affected me. I found particularly terrifying the slow and magical rising of Nosferatu from the hull of the ship as he comes to Bremen. Even more evoking of dread is the scene where the star-struck lover Nina, presumably in a dream state, longingly goes to the window to gaze out into the distance, namely to gaze out towards her other lover, Nosferatu the vampire. (This growing love of sorts was reflected earlier in the ambiguity of Nina’s cross-stitch of “Ich liebe dich”, “I love you”, which was seemingly directed to her lover Harker but really, we learn to our dismay, at the horrible Nosferatu who has a strange hold over Nina). Nina’s longing gaze is juxtaposed with Nosferatu’s longing reach for the “beautifully-necked” Nina, as he gazes out of his own window at a distance (not in Nina’s actual eye-sight). Nosferatu’s powers are very much at work from afar, but apparently more so as he comes closer. This horrifying love affair ironically ends in Nosferatu’s destruction. For the destruction of a vampire, we read earlier on in the Book of Vampires (shown on screen), requires that a woman of pure heart, namely Nina, offer herself to the vampire in a night of pleasure. Nosferatu-style pleasure, that is. “The blood!”

Photos (above) from Wikipedia, now in the public domain.

Myths-ploitation film?: Satan, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Hollywood

As Jim Davila points out, there are now plans to make a hollywood film out of John Milton’s 17th century poetic Paradise Lost (book online here). Milton (1608-1674) brings together many of the biblical and post-biblical (including medieval) stories that attached to the figure of Satan or the Devil (on which see my brief comments on a conversation between Hades and Satan here). Regardless of whether this ends up being another myths-ploitation film which does very little justice to its sources (e.g. Troy), at least this will give me more to talk about in connection with modern depictions of personified evil in my “History of Satan” course (though not in time for this Winter term–oh well. As if there wasn’t enough Satan in films already). The Telegraph has a brief article on the plans for the movie here.

There are a few websites devoted to Milton, with the more scholarly one here. Also, for an interesting conference paper which looks at the themes of Paradise Lost in relation to Star Trek, go here (bet you never expected that one).