The End of the World and Other Entertainments

EndOfTheWorldby Jon N. Hall    4/16/14
Folks have always been fascinated by the End of the World. Christianity addresses this little problem in Book of Revelation, where we read about the Beast of the Apocalypse, the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, the Whore of Babylon, the Seven Seals, and such. However, after those dread revelations, the faithful are assured of happier times.

But for those who believe that may all be myth, there is a host of other apocalypses that lie in wait. These other endings for life on Earth can be grimmer than those found in religion, for there is little chance of happiness afterward. But, happily, they’ve inspired entire genres of popular entertainments in film, fiction, and even comic books. These genres have been lumped together with the term “post-apocalyptic.”

Science says Earth will someday end when our Sun gets hotter. Science fiction has responded to that eventuality with a bunch of stories about leaving the solar system before we’re fried. My favorite of these is Arthur C. Clarke’s 1986 novel The Songs of Distant Earth. Clarke wrote three treatments of this story, starting with a short story, and then a super-short movie synopsis, and then the novel. Songs was supposedly Clarke’s personal favorite of his novels. Clarke’s 1946 short story “Rescue Party” (anthologized here, which includes the shortest version of Songs) also dealt with a dying Sun. It’s also a terrific story, but Songs is more “realistic.”

Any number of apocalypses could befall our species between now and the end of the Sun. Earth could again be hit by a killer asteroid. But films like Armageddon and Deep Impact aren’t really post-apocalyptic; I’d lump them into the “apocalypse-averted” genre. For apocalypse to be averted, we need a hero who sacrifices himself for the continuation of the species, some noble guy like Robert Duvall or Bruce Willis. (One of my favorite Willis flicks is 12 Monkeys, which is, ta da, post-apocalyptic.)

Since the advent of the atom bomb in 1945, folks have come to realize that we ourselves could be the agent of our end, through nuclear war, nuclear winter, fallout. The post-nuclear-holocaust is a genre all to itself. Many are familiar with it from George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy. The second of those films, Road Warrior (1981), begins with a marvelous narrated montage which distills what the post-nuclear-holocaust genre should be about. But often, as is the case with Miller’s trilogy, the genre descends into biker gangs on the prowl for a “tank of juice,” i.e. gasoline. Such films can be a lot of fun but can’t be taken as serious treatments on life after the end of civilization.

One thing that could cause a post-nuclear-holocaust scenario is electromagnetic pulse. With an EMP attack, America’s cities are left standing, but our electric grid and all our electronics are fried, and we’re knocked back into the early 19th BoyAndHisDogCentury. (An EMP attack is one of my pet fears, especially when I observe our dysfunctional government stewing over such vital matters as gay marriage.) In his 2009 novel One Second After, William R. Forstchen limns out an America hit by an EMP attack.

One of my favorite post-apocalyptic flicks is The Postman (1997), directed by Kevin Costner. It was adapted from the 1985 novel by David Brin. The novel is a good read and I recommend it, but I think the film improves on it with judicious cuts. Brin addresses the differences between his novel and the film in this excellent video in which he also dilates on the post-apocalyptic genre in general. (Another reason the film is more powerful than the novel is James Newton Howard’s musical score. Howard also wrote another wonderful score for the apocalypse-averted film Signs.)

Costner, Howard, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, put their own stamp on Brin’s novel. To scrounge up a free meal, the title character, a drifter, travels about the American West passing himself off as a postman for the Restored United States. But his scam becomes real when folks believe him and form a postal service. His love interest (Olivia Williams) tells the Postman: “You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket.”

The bad guy in Postman (played with relish by Will Patton) is General Bethlehem, a particularly nasty feudal warlord who despises the idea of a Restored United States and tries to destroy the newly-constituted post office and its beloved leader, the Postman. During their fight near the end of the flick, Bethlehem says to the Postman:

I study people.
I know your problem.
Do you know why you can’t fight?
Because you have nothing to fight for.
You don’t care about anything.
You don’t value anything.
You don’t believe in anything.
That’s what makes me better.

The Postman responds: “I believe in the United States.” Costner’s film is an unabashed love letter to America; it wears its heart on its sleeve. (Watch this terrific trailer.)

For the true post-apocalyptic to work, there needs to be survivors. With some scenarios, such as with The Postman, there’s the possibility of rebuilding civilization (once you subdue the feudal warlords who’ve filled the power vacuum). Earth can also repair itself; the Postman tells survivors that the birds are migrating again and the rains are back. But in some post-apocalyptic yarns, survivors are doomed, Earth can no longer heal itself nor support life, it’s just a matter of time before everyone is dead. This is the truly tragic post-apocalyptic scenario, because it means that survivors must ponder what once was and can no longer be. They’ve ruined everything, and must live out their remaining time in horror and shame. The champ of this variety of post-apocalyptic is surely Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road. The 2009 film adaptation was a noble effort, but it can’t compare with the book, which, although unrelievedly grim, is quite spiritual. The Road is a cautionary tale, and may be McCarthy’s most important novel.

A couple of recent movies posit the actual end of mankind — and all in one fell swoop. So it wouldn’t be right to call them post-apocalyptic; I’d say these two films fall into the “End of the World” genre. (A lad’s got to keep his genres straight.) 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) is depressing (and earnest). But Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) is basically a comedy, but with some poignant, tender moments thrown in. It’s pretty damn witty, and was written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. The flick begins with this radio message:

Once again, if you’re just tuning in, the C.S.A. space shuttle Deliverance has been destroyed. The final mission to save mankind has failed. The seventy mile wide asteroid known commonly as Matilda is set to collide with Earth in exactly three weeks time, and we’ll be bringing you up-to-the-minute coverage of our countdown to the ‘End of Days’, along with *all* your classic rock favorites. This is Q107.2.

What’s interesting about the genuine End of the World genre, and the challenge it poses for the creative types who tackle it, is not only the question of how folks handle their own end when they know the moment of it, but how they handle the certain knowledge that everything is ending. Folks usually accept their own deaths with dignity. But the death of all humankind, the death of all we’ve suffered and worked for, the death of the future, it’s a lot to expect folks to handle with aplomb. Yet, that’s Man’s future — we’re doomed.

Knowing that you’re going to die at dawn is mentally clarifying, but knowing that everyone is going to die with you presents a larger problem for the writer. What do people do with their last moments? After her comedic turn, Ms. Scafaria provides a touching answer.

The End of the World isn’t what it used to be, but then…what is?
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Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (2179 views)

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15 Responses to The End of the World and Other Entertainments

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    In many ways the post-apocalyptic genre (particularly post-nuclear war) started with Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon. He mentioned in his introduction that he wrote because, discussing the subject with a businessman, he noted that the latter commented on what a depression it would cause — and suspected that he didn’t realize just how big a depression it would be. Especially haunting is the scene in which they catch a radio broadcast of the new President (formerly the Secretary of HEW) announces a list of Contaminated Zones (such as the New England states and the state of Florida — a very meaningful list for a bunch of Floridians, most of them transplanted Yankees).

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Someone compiled a 25 Best Post-Apocalyptic Movies of All Time list. On it are some notables including:

    + The Omega Man
    + Planet of the Apes
    + Reign of Fire (a mediocre popcornalyptic film, but you do get to see the snot beat out of Christian Bale)
    + A Boy and His Dog (see it once…that will be quite enough)

    I’ve got Twelve Monkeys on Blu Ray, so that tells you what I think about it. Many on that list I haven’t seen but sound intriguing such as 1959’s On the Beach with Gregory Peck. [After WWIII only Australia is left, but their survivors contemplate suicide to avoid suffering from the coming radiation sickness.]

    By the way, I’ve never seen Costner in Waterworld. I’ve heard it’s not that great. And I’ll take your word that The Road has a good novel because I thought it was a stinker of a movie.

    Another Best-of list adds a few more notables:

    + Wall-E (this is what they will be playing in Hell 24/7 if there is a hell….I can still hear that obnoxiously infantile droid saying “Wall-E”)
    + Children of Men (an okay movie, and a must-see for Clive fans…or perhaps Michael Caine fans….there’s enough star power there to drag you through the mediocrity)
    + The Matrix (I hadn’t really thought of this as post-apocalyptic, but I suppose it is)
    + Movies such as “Logan’s Run” and “Equilibrium” I tend to think of as dystopias. But I suppose there’s a post-apocalyptic element to them.

    My all-time favorite would be either “Omega Man” (skip the POS ‘I Am Legend’) or “The Planet of the Apes” which is more of a post-ape-alyptic film.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I would probably agree with you, though The Omega Man and Planet of the Apes (and most of its sequels) are the only ones you mention that I’ve seen. But they’re both very good movies (and not just because I’m a Heston fan).

    • Rosalys says:

      I liked Wall-E!

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Earth could again be hit by a killer asteroid.

    It’s a sobering thought that at least two or three major extinctions were caused by comets or asteroids. That it could happen tomorrow would seem to be a direct refutation of the idea that man has been carefully shepherded here on this planet by a Creator who made this world just for him. But what would we think (if there was anyone left to think) if another end-of-Cretaceous asteroid hit the earth?

    Civilizations come and go. There are civilization-wide apocalypses as well, and it’s quite possible that Obama and the Left are one of these. Certainly there is a slow-motion Muslim apocalypse occurring in Europe.

    The “end of the world is nigh” is also a psychological phenomenon. It’s the ultimate “You’ll get yours” statement. That is, we might be getting away with all kinds of nasty things now (gay marriage, abortion, Married with Children), but it will catch up to us in the end. There will be Judgment.

    Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows? But certainly the sun is set to burn itself out in about 4 billion years where it will first expand and incinerate the earth. That’s what I would call “fundamental transformation.”

    And breaking out at the post-end side of many of the apocalypses are libertarian paradises (such as they are). There is very little government. Everyone is doing what they want to do. There is little or no government “coercion.” And what actually occurs is what conservatives have said will always occur: You’ll have rule by the most ruthless.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      It wouldn’t be the end of the world and probably not even the end of humanity, but the Yellowstone supervolcano could certainly inflict a great deal of damage on human civilization. Harry Turtledove has written the first 2 books of a series (Supervolcano) on the outcome of such an explosion. A writer at InConJunction a couple of years ago mentioned that he was doing one, set in Iowa because anyone closer wouldn’t survive the explosion.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I remember reading an article about the Yellowstone supervolcano several years ago. My only thought is that it’s too bad it isn’t under the DC corridor.

        And one of the theories of the extinction of the dinosaurs is that the asteroid that created the KT boundary had simply pushed life over the edge, having already been weakened by huge volcanic activity in and around Asia, I believe.

        We saw the power of geological activity with Mt. St. Helens a couple decades ago. I had taken several courses in geology in college before this event, so I knew the potential power and the foolishness of people who wanted to get front row seats to the event. Washington State history is full of these biblical-sized disasters in its geological history.

  4. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “the sun is set to burn itself out in about 4 billion years where it will first expand and incinerate the earth”

    This makes me thing of a joke I heard on the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was the host.

    Two scientists are talking about the universe and the one says,

    “In about 4 billion years the sun will expand and incinerate the earth”

    and the other man starts and asks,

    “when did you say this will happen?”

    the first one replies,

    “in about 4 billion years”

    to which the second one replies, while wiping his brow,

    “Whew, I thought you said 4 million years.”

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

  5. Rosalys says:

    I’m one of those that doesn’t take the Bible to be myth. That being said, I’m a sucker for the dystopian and apocalyptic genre in movies and books.

    I really don’t believe the scenario of On the Beach could ever happen, but I still enjoy watching it from time to time.

    Alas, Babylon is my brother’s favorite book. He loaned it to my son and didn’t get it back (and he kept mentioning it to me!) so I hunted down a copy at Amazon and gave it to him for Christmas.

    The Omega Man and I Am Legend were both remakes of an earlier movie made in the late 50s/early 60s. I can’t remember the name of it but it was offered on TCM and I watched it last year. The evolution of the zombies from movie to movie is interesting. In the first one they are dull, slow moving creatures, easily avoided and pushed out of the way. They become more aggressive and vicious with each successive movie. I think the Charleton Heston version was my favorite.

    One Second After is fantastic! It’s also very believable and therefore frightening! It is a must read!

    And I can’t believe I am admitting to getting hooked on a series of vampire books (because I usually am not a fan of the vampire genre) but it started with listening to the audio version of The Twelve. (I didn’t realize it was vampire-ish when I took it out of the library.) It’s the second in the series so then I had to go get the first volume, The Passage. Now I await the publishing of the third volume coming out later this year. Weird. I must be twisted! But it’s a good read.

    There were a whole bunch of really crappy movies made in the late 50s/early 60s that began with the footage of the atomic bomb going off. Then the lives of the few remaining people left on Earth (all of them Americans!) are briefly chronicled. So-o-o-o bad that they were fun to watch!

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The first movie had Vincent Price in the Neville role (I saw it several years ago), and I think it was called The Last Man on Earth or something similar. The ultimate source is the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson, and the creatures were basically vampires. (Note that in the first movie, as in the book, Neville starts out concerned about the freshness of the garlic he has on his door to prevent them from entering.)

      There are some interesting vampire series out there that don’t necessarily follow the traditions (which often aren’t reflected in the original Dracula — for example, the Count was capable of operating in the daytime, though he had none of his powers then), including the long-time St. German series by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and a more recent one by S. M. Stirling.

      • Rosalys says:

        I guess I can’t tell a vampire from a zombie! I’d better learn or it might get me in trouble one day!

        • Timothy Lane says:

          Well, they’re both undead creatures, so sometimes the difference can be hard to tell. The creatures in The Omega Man don’t behave like vampires (nor are they zombies; they’re diseased); I don’t know about the more recent movie, which I haven’t seen.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            The movie, “I Am Legend,” had your standard (and boring) over-CGI’ed vampires, if I recall. “The Omega Man” had a cult of human mutants, savaged by some biological warfare agent.

            I fairly recently read “I am Legend.” And although it’s certainly readable, it doesn’t always make a hell of a lot of sense. I think the mutants in “Omega Man” are a vast improvement over the vampires in the book. And you have the very interesting added human element of the mutants trying to normalize themselves by demonizing the people who were still healthy. You’d think that Matthias (played by Anthony Zerbe) and his “Family” were all from GLAAD.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              My library includes Heston’s autobiography as well as some sort of diary. This includes his work on The Omega Man. He had been inspired by the book, and was pleased when he checked out the earlier movie and found it was nothing like his own notion.

              Incidentally, note that Jonathan Matthias was a newscaster in the flashback scenes.

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