For the record, let me state at the outset that I am not a doomsday enthusiast who looks with glee upon the destruction of my society or civilization or world. Nevertheless, I find it greatly intriguing that there is so much of a focus in films on what would appear to be apocalyptic scenarios. As a person deeply familiar with anxiety, it is my belief that understanding our creative works, and what we are drawn to make and appreciate of others, helps us understand our own anxieties and what concerns we are wrestling with. As much as we might bury our heads in the sand and pretend that all is well, our anxieties will make themselves known in our lives whether it can be determined by our eating or exercise habits, the movies we watch and the books we read, or what we create.
Over the last few years, and especially this summer, there have been a lot of movies and television shows with apocalyptic themes that have gotten to be very popular and very critically acclaimed. Whether we are talking about “mother” nature getting its revenge on human beings, zombies run amok, or alien invasions that threaten the survival of mankind, people are thinking a lot about the end. A film even became popular that dealt with explicitly biblical themes about the Bible being a powerful book sought after by the unscrupulous in a rundown post-apocalyptic world. Whatever the premise, whether it involves an earth that has grown dangerous and hostile to humans millennia after humans were last there, or whether it involves vapid douchebags among the celebrity population facing the end of days while arguing over their pet pleasures, or robots fighting giant monsters in the Pacific rim, people appear to be increasingly concerned with eschatalogical concerns in fiction.
There is a certain pleasure and comfort to most apocalyptic movies, and that is the triumph of humanity against threats. Most apocalyptic movies end with happy endings because most of the time people (not least the people who make such films) do not want to think of large-scale societal disaster ending tragically. It is one thing to construct a small tragedy on the scale of a family or a horror movie where trouble plagues a town or neighborhood or house and some foolish and naive people end up dead. It is an entirely more gloomy and less pleasant matter to reflect upon the destruction or defeat of humanity, and movies that portray that grim thougth (like Battlefield: Earth) tend not to fare very well. It is far better in the eyes of audiences to reflect on the triumph of the human spirit against seemingly impossible odds than to reflect upon our demise. After all, such movies can pay lip service to the gravity of our fears while providing hope that we might find the answers on our own through our own resources.
There is a danger in this comfort, though, and that is that too great of an estimation of our own resources can lead to a dangerous sense of complacency, a reluctance to face unpleasant realities here and now in the hope that merely ignoring problems will give us greater resources in the future or might lead the problems to become diminished on their own. An awareness of severe problems and a lack of confidence in our ability to deal with such problems now because of our own anxieties leads to a refusal to act at all, and a procrastination that often makes those problems more difficult and more intractable. How to find the courage to act, and the justice to act in ways that are just and fair even in difficult circumstances, is a task that seems beyond our societies at present. That is a strength that we need to find far more than the escapist fantasties we indulge in all too often. Moral courage is vastly more rare than physical courage, though, even if it is more necessary in our times.