To celebrate “Rapture Day 2011” on Saturday May 21, 2011, the day evangelist Harold Camping has predicted for Judgment Day using his proprietary bible calendar calculations, lets take a look at some end-of-the-world movies and maybe a little bit about what I think makes a good disaster or post-apocalyptic movie. I am by no means creating a comprehensive list of this type of movie or even a catalog of the best.
The tribulations on Saturday are supposed to start with an earthquake; which brings to mind the 1974 movie “Earthquake” (in Sensurround) that I saw in the theaters the day it came out. The story is classic disaster movie; something happens as the act one climax (this time an earthquake) and all of the character threads introduced then have to deal with the disaster until a final conflict that ends the movie. Other classics of the genre like “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” also follow this format and as a youth I enjoyed them. More modern fare that also follows this format is less appealing to me.
The modern disaster film is symbolized for me by the trilogy of disaster from director Roland Emmerich involving “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” and “2012.” There are lots of other films involving tornadoes, volcanoes and asteroids (oh, my) but I’ve seen all three of these and very few of the others so I feel more confident comparing them to the classic disaster movies.
First off, I liked “Independence Day.” When Stephen Spielberg remade “War of the Worlds” into a disappointing, disjointed and annoyingly contrived and trite movie, I wondered why the film was even made when “Independence Day” was an enjoyable updating of the major theme of alien invasion. (This may be a spoiler but I’m going to say it anyway.) In both movies the aliens are defeated by small things like viruses; “War of the Worlds” by biological life already on the planet and “Independence Day” by a computer virus uploaded in a comically unlikely scenario to the alien mother-ship. But even with its flaws, I liked the movie. The character story lines were well developed and played out in a satisfying way, for a summer blockbuster.
I liked “The Day After Tomorrow” less and even John Cusack couldn’t save the laughable “2012.” The only explanation I found that adequately made up for the wacky happenings in 2012 was that the movie was actually a variant on “The Matrix” and John Cusack’s character was manipulating the world in a Neo like fashion. He was “The One” but didn’t know it and the world was trying to kill him and failing in the process and spending the sleeping human batteries like a defense department contractor to do it. No wonder the Matrix computers went to a system of agents after that.
All of this gets to the nature of a disaster film, and to get back to the “Rapture Day” theme this counts as a disaster for everyone not entirely sure of their place on the heavenly gravy train. A disaster film is about how people deal with the pivotal event. Something is happening and the characters can’t control it but they can react to it and deal with it in an interesting character-driven way. How does this tie into the rapture? I would posit that there are four types of people to consider in this disaster scenario: the true believers confident they will be drawn to the bosom of God, the unbelievers and skeptics who will do nothing to ensure salvation and actively watch as the appointed hour passes, the religious who feel the prediction is probably wrong but may do a “soul check” anyway just in case, and the people who are freaking out because they don’t know if they are going to heaven or skewered on the anti-Christ’s stake during Armageddon. I’m not concerning myself with anyone who has no knowledge of Christianity and apocalyptic eschatology.
The most likely scenario is that nothing will happen and three of the four groups will come up with their own explanations for the lack of mayhem. The fourth group will probably have some tragic cases where the freaking out about the possibility of rapture will cause them to harm self or others.
In the event that there is actually a rapture on Saturday May 21, 2011, I’m probably in for an interesting seven years; as are you in that you are most likely reading this after “Rapture Day 2011.” And it is this transition from reacting to an event to enduring its aftermath that marks the dividing line between the disaster film and the post-apocalyptic film.
In movies from “A Boy and His Dog” to “The Road,” or even “The Book of Eli” the story takes place after the disaster. The disaster is no longer a driving part of the plot but a part of the setting. The plot must then emerge from the new normal in the aftermath. Whether this is a road-trip search through “Zombieland” for the last box of Twinkies or the search for a safe place to build a new life, the plot comes from the twisted version of what reality has become in the wake of the disaster.
This kind of story can be more of a parable and more reflective of the time in which it was made. The science fiction classic “Silent Running” from 1972 is a different kind of post-apocalyptic tale. In a world of ecological ruin, space greenhouses host earth biodiversity until the planet can sustain life again. Bruce Dern’s character Freeman Lowell rebels to save a pod of forest after the project is terminated and all of the plant life ordered destroyed.
One of my favorite post-apocalyptic films is “A Boy and His Dog.” A very young Don Johnson plays Vic who struggles through a post-nuclear wasteland with his telepathic dog, Blood. His story becomes compelling when he gets everything he’s ever wanted but realizes the price is way too high. Jason Robards plays a great movie villain. The parable involves the conflict between the freedom and struggle living outside of the mainstream versus the comforts and restrictions of submitting to what society calls normal.
Another one I really like is the original “Planet of the Apes.” The first film in this series is more of a crypto-post-apocalyptic film masquerading as an adventure on an alien world until the now iconic ending. The second through fifth movies play up both the post-apocalyptic and the path to the creation of the planet seen in the first movie. I probably like the movies better than I should having strong memories of watching them on late-night television (CBS, I think) as a youngster.
So in any post-rapture looting make sure and stock up on disaster and post-apocalyptic films. They’ll keep you company during the times of tribulation that lay ahead.