Tag Archives: Blade Runner

The Alien DJ

Dodgy Space Themes album

A crime to art, music and science fiction, but this dodgy 1978 album got me hooked.

Is it me or am I the only one who finds it hard to separate Sci-Fi from soundtrack? It is almost impossible to think of the opening credits of Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope without the adrenalin-surge of John Williams’ classic theme-tune blasted out to the backstory disappearing to its vanishing point (or Darth Vader and his stormtroopers without the Imperial march); the shock and awe of the apocalyptic opening of Blade Runner without the vertiginous electronica of Vangelis; and the opening of Kubrick/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have the same sturm-und-drang impact with Richard Strauss’s ‘sunrise’ from Also sprach Zarathustra.

Growing up a Sci-Fi addict (thanks to Lucas’ gateway drug that made me watch anything with Special FX in however risible, and it often was) I received my ‘hit’ often via the opening credits and theme tune of classic TV shows such as Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, Dr Who, Blake’s Seven, Star Trek, and The Prisoner. 

And as an adult connoisseur of big screen Fantastika, I often find myself enthralled as much by the soaring soundtracks as much as the visuals – as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Brazil, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, The Matrix, Sunshine, Interstellar, Arrival, Blade Runner: 2049 to name but a few.  

So it is no surprise to discover that during the writing of my novels I often have an ‘unofficial soundtrack’ running in the back of my mind. Perhaps this is why I need to write in silence, as I need to be able to tune into this internal symphony – the mood and movement that underscores the scene or chapter I am writing. Sometimes actual music is cited in the prose. In my science fiction thriller, Black Box, the protagonist listens to Chinese death metal while out on the ice, conducting one of his endless routine maintenance circuits of the vast ice-shelf he is tasked to transport to the ends of the galaxy. Back in his tugship, out of his suit, Lake relaxes to Hendrix while shooting up an artificial opiate he has managed to synthesise. Other settings required different tracks, evoking a different ambience – very few of these are explicit, but they nuanced my depiction of each, through diction, description, and pacing – the micro-choices that create tone.

If, in some fortunate future, my novel gets turned into a movie – which since it was first conceived as one, would be a satisfying full circle – then I hope the director will choose one of the fine composers out there (Hans Zimmer, for instance!) to score it rather than opt for the populist ‘mix-tape’ approach, which worked for The Martian and Guardians of the Galaxy — initially, a refreshingly iconoclastic contra-tonal device, but one that’s become something of a cliché, a lazy form of film-making (like the cheesy pop song montage sequence of the 80s it emulates) that does a disservice to the craft of the film composer, the under-rated geniuses of modern cinema, for it is they who translate the music of the spheres into reality.

Black Box has been adapted into an audio drama by the amazing podcast team at Alternative Stories. The first three pilot episodes are due to be launched 20th November, 27th November, & 4th December. FFI: https://alternativestories.com/

Play It Again: Blade Runner 2049




Eco-SF or Sucking it Dry? Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve, 2017

A Review


I went to see this film with great anticipation, and a little anxiety, for the original (Blade Runner, Scott, 1982) has a kind of ‘sacred’ status to me, having been such a massively influential experience when I snuck in to see it at the cinema aged 12. Having watched in many times since (and listened to the Vangelis soundtrack on a kind of loop throughout my teenage years) it has grafted itself onto my consciousness until it has become almost part of my identity – a constructed memory, imported into my mind. Take it away, and would I still be the same person? I was hoping the long-time-coming sequel by the Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, (who had impressed me and the critics with Arrival) wasn’t going to steal my dreams, as so often happens when films are remade or rebooted. Hollywood, intellectually bankrupt these days, it seems, has turned to remaking its own successes –safe bets in hard times, feeding on people’s craving for the comfort drug of the past, nostalgia. The present is dysfunctional, the future unbearable, so only the past remains in which to seek shelter – even when that past is a hauntingly bleak vision of a dystopian future. Rewatching Scott’s masterpiece it strikes me how much of it is about the past – people living in the ghosts of cities amid the wreckage of their lives, clinging onto precious shards of memory; the Marlowe-esque presence of Deckard (even sans voice-over Bogie’s spectre informs his performance); the retro hairstyled ‘ice-maiden’ (Rachael the replicant); the multi-cultural melange that could be out of Casablanca, Edward James Olmos’ Gaff with his city-speak a kind of one-man version of that city; the haunted city of shadows like an echo of post-war Vienna from The Third Man; the double-coding of the Tyrell Corporation’s pyramid-like HQ and the classical grandeur of the executive level; the art-deco/neo-Fascist Union Station police station; and of course the crumbling elegance of The Bradbury.

Blade Runner 2049 takes this idea and runs with it. Set 30 years after the events of the original, Ryan Gosling’s replicant blade runner ‘K’ spends a lot of the time wandering around vast old ruins, working out which memories are real, which are fabricated, echoing what it feels like to return to the cinema 35 years after seeing the first film (that Ur-cinema itself an art-deco ghost). As soon as the opening shots appeared – an extreme close-up of an eye cutting to a vast iris-shaped solar farm extending to a field of them extending into the haze – underpinned by the pulsating electronic  Wallfisch/Zimmer soundtrack I knew I was in safe hands. Rather than try to replicate (excuse the pun) the classic ‘apocalyptic sublime’ of the original – the Hades landscape of an environmental disaster zone Los Angeles 2019, which had such a deep impact on an impressionable 12 year old, Villeneuve drew upon a scene cut from the original screenplay for Hampton Fancher (then called ‘Dangerous Days’). With Fancher back on board as the writer, the scene (which was going to be the opening of Blade Runner) consolidates the sense of a movie haunting itself. This time it is K in the role of ‘Rick’ (Gosling a chip off the old block, like a younger Harrison Ford). The twist is that K is ‘outed’ pretty much straight away, dispensing with the existential question of the original – in which it is implied Deckard himself is a replicant (as the unicorn dream/unicorm origami implies); and the fact of Deckard’s continued existence evaporates any doubts about his flesh-and-blood credentials. According to recent interviews, Ford said he always played Deckard as a human; it was Scott who wanted him to be a replicant. So, in a way, both possibilities exist in the original – giving it the Buddhist koan resonance. Here, the paradox is retired. And yet the film is still a masterful meditation on the nature of reality (trademark Philip K Dick territory); on metaphysical concerns (which have often haunted Scott’s work) around origins, around creators and their creations. It is a poem of light and dark. Set after ‘the Blackout’, an event that crashed and wiped the world’s computers, this Los  Angeles is less ‘neon’ than the original – in the original light intersected every scene, moved about it, was an active presence. 2049, masterfully lit by Roger Deakin, is darker – despite it having several day scenes (Blade Runner was largely filmed at night because of the restriction of a filming on a Hollywood backlot – it was one of Scott’s tricks to make up for a lack of budget). The sky is a perpetual sepia haze. America has become a denuded wasteland, has become Mars (and The Martian Chronicles goes full circle). Shadows, rather than night, dominate each scene, threatening to engulf it entire. Deakin lights each set piece like Caravaggio, deploying that master’s trademark chiaroscuro. And in the visual illusions he plays upon our eyes, he homages another master, De Chirico. ‘The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’ is a frequent visual reference; in the giant figures through which K walks, ‘Melancholia’; and in the Piranesian architecture, a homage to the original. Villeneuve , to his credit, eschews CGI for model and matte shots – giving the whole thing a suitably old school ‘analogue’ feel.  The magisterial pace of the film some may find ‘slow’ but I found it a refreshing contrast to the attention-deficit teenage-screen-tested biff-bang-pow of most mainstream movies these days. This is an elegant spinner of a movie – gliding along in a dream-like fashion. It lacks the adrenalin-pumping edge of the original, which simultaneously managed to achieve a metaphysical register in a fraction of the time. Scott’s visions was the blueprint, and this works to that, extending it but not necessarily adding to it. Nothing is taken away – it is a towering tribute to the original – but nothing is really added either. In many ways, we didn’t ‘need’ this film – but that’s where we’re at. As PKD would say, ‘we can remember it for you, wholesale’. Nevertheless, it a well-acted, well-scripted, well-made film. This is a journeyman work of a director who I suspect is going to keep astounding us for, hopefully, years to come.

Kevan Manwaring 17 Oct. 17




Another Earth

One Night in Bangkok

Metropolis Now - Bangkok skyline from Sofitel, courtesy of Melissa

Between the 3-16 February I went to Thailand to run a writing class for Skyros – although forging their reputation on the eponymous island in the Aegean, they now run their famous holistic holidays in exotic locations around the world. When offered the opportunity to run my ‘Life:Fiction’ course on Koh Samed, in the Gulf of Thailand, I leapt at the chance. Although it was the middle of term time and clashed with St Valentine’s (which required some careful negotations!) it was one of those ‘Calls to Adventure’ that you only get once-in-a-lifetime, and so I embarked upon my Hero’s Journey. Whenever I go on long trips the words of Cavafy’s immortal poem always come to mind: ‘As you set out for Ithaka, hope you’re road be a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery…’ Well, it was certainly a long road … ! It was a bum-numbing fifteen hour flight to Bangkok (with a nightmarish transfer in Mumbai in the middle of the night – after nine hours in the air, Indian bureacracy is not what you need in the middle of the night…). Flying cattle-class on ‘Jet Airways India’ (Fly-Lo airlines came to mind, from ‘Come Fly With Me’) didn’t enhance my sense of well-being – but when being sucked through the sky at 500 miles an hour in a cramped metal tube, breathing recycled air and watching recycled movies, little might.
Arriving in Bangkok in the early hours, spaced out and sore, the plush comforts of the Sofitel on Silom Road helped the process of compensation – once I had got there. First there was a high-speed taxi ride along the flyover passed the biggest billboards in the world blocking out the sky. My affable taxi driver drove like the stunt-driver protagonist of Drive – the slick and ultra-violent inflight movie I watched on the way over, worryingly within reach of any youngster via their personal touch-screen TV. The skyscrapers soared above the slums of this massive city – one emblazoned with the legend ‘BMW is joy’ – each one seemingly outdoing the next in architectural extravagance or folly, while monorails threaded through them and tiny tuk tuks and street stalls co-existed at their feet, ants in a rainforest of giant hardwoods, like something out of Bladerunner or Brazil. The concierge took my bag up to my room on the 14th floor, which afforded vertiginous views over this South East Asian metropolis – the air con hit me like a wet towel. Snowy sheets on an emperor-sized bed pulled, like a White Hole. I succumbed to its point of singularity – Z-land. About eight hours later I awoke, somewhat groggily, having slept through most of the day. I showered and dressed, making my way to the 36th floor for the Skyros welcome meeting. Here I met fellow tutors and participants. We arranged to go for a meal together – one had been conveniently arranged at a tourist honeypot. Together, about a dozen of us hit the dirty noisy streets – in such of sustenance. As we dined we were treated to Thai dancing, courtesy to a couple of colourfully dressed ladyboys, with immaculate make-up and thick hairy legs! There followed some comic stick-dancing and a gamelan-style orchestra which some clearly experienced as a form of torture. All the performers looked deeply bored – like neurotic animals in a zoo. I hoped to experience something more authentic when we escaped Bangkok, but the sordid delights of Patpong awaited us. Our guides took us there and left us to – to find whatever ‘floated our boat’ presumably. Well, a couple of cans of beer from the 7-Eleven was all my jetlagged party animal could cope with. I took these back to the hotel and flopped out, watching the hilarious Fantastic Mr Fox – tickled to see Bath’s Little Theatre in the set at one point! Within the last 24 hours I had watched 3 and half movies – even for a movie buff like me, a bit of a binge. This perhaps enhanced my impression of the trip so far as being cinematic and surreal, (indeed, Ballardesque) from the Heathrow airport (trying to sleep in Costa coffee at 4am…) to the hotel – everything glamorously shallow – digitised surfaces, plasma facades, moving adverts, massive billboards, tablets and smartphones. Everyone sucking from the virtual teat, as though we don’t exist if we’re not online, without the world’s trivia at our fingertips. Facebook voyeurs. Wikipaedophiles.
It was with a sigh of relief we escaped Bangkok the next morning, taking a couple of vehicles to the coast – and then a boat over to the island paradise of Koh Samed.
Would the two and a half days of travelling be worth it?
Watch this space!

This is the End (again)

This is the End (again): the New Apocalyptic Sublime

Kevan Manwaring

The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853

The destruction of Vulcan? No, The Great Day of his Wrath, by John Martin, c. 1853

From the scenes of planetary cataclysm in the latest Star Trek revamp to the Coppola’s napalm-reeking Apocalypse Now, Hollywood has revelled in the aesthetic of beautiful destruction. And with the long-delayed released of Cormac Mccarthy’s wrist-slitter The Road finally hitting the screens later this year, the latest in a string of post 9/11 gloomfests, Doomsday never seems more popular. The media whips up fear about the New Bad: another pandemic to push ink. Yet concerns about plagues and famines, about geopolitical and religious tensions are nothing new. A spin-off of the Romantic art movement became known as the Apocalyptic Sublime, and in the dramatic paintings of Biblical catastrophe by John Martin we see precursors of today’s big screen Armageddons. Put on your Kilgore shades and don your darkest clothes as we wander through cinema’s gallery of the end of the world.

JJ Abrams 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise dwells lovingly on intergalactic carnage – notably the ‘controversial’ destruction of Spock’s home planet Vulcan, although a planet named after a Roman god of fire was perhaps doomed, like the unlucky member of the away team in the red shirt: you just know they’re going to get it. But the apocalyptic aesthetic the special FX maestros were conjuring up on the big screen with state of the art technology – the planet’s surface breaking up in cataclysmic upheaval – is in fact nothing new.

The Apocalyptic Sublime, a sub-genre of the Romantic art movement academic Morton D Palely defined in his eponymous book (Yale 1986) emerged out of the Romantic Movement, directly as a result of political and religious tensions and scare-mongering that took place throughout the period stretching from the French Revolution of 1789 to the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Between these paradigm-shift poles, when old certainties were being challenged, art began to mirror both the zeitgeist of Terror and the ever-deepening wonder of the universe.

The sense of the sublime (the “exalted”, the “awe-inspiring”) was increasingly used to bridge the gap between the limited human faculties of understanding and the unimaginable infinity of the physical universe’ [Introducing Romanticism, p19]

Man was being overwhelmed by the infinite complexity of nature. Poets like John Keats decided to accept the limit of human consciousness, in what he called negative capability, but to scientists of the day, such fathomless enquiry gave them night terrors. The light of reason only served to illuminate the extent of the endless darkness. Sir Humphrey Davy, scientist, expressed this frustration:

Though we can perceive, develop, and even produce by means of our instruments of experiment, an almost infinite variety of minute phaenomena,yet we are incapable of determining general laws by which they are governed; and in attempting to define them, we are lost in obscure though sublime imaginings concerning unknown agencies.

‘Obscure though sublime imaginings concerning unknown agencies…’ This seems to sum up much of the art of the Apocalyptic Sublime – from the painting of the 18th Century to the cinema of the Twenty First. A sense that not only are ‘there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in most people’s philosophies’, but forces, vast and inconceivable, could sweep us away at any moment. Since the invention of the A-Bomb this has been a reality. The events of September 11th 2001 presented the world with a living image of the Lightning-struck Tower from the tarot. Nothing was certain, nothing was sacred, nowhere was safe.

Romantic artists, notably John Martin (1789-1854), captured dramatic scenes of the end of the world in his large paintings. Romantic writers also dwelled on this e.g. Mary Shelley’s lesser known sci-fi novel, The Last Man (1826). This trope, the last man on earth, offers cinematic opportunities for eerily abandoned urban centres. There is something both chilling and sublimely beautiful about such empty vistas – after fears of baby boom-fuelled fears of over-population, the image of a post-Malthusian world is strangely comforting. Richard Matheson’s 1954 sci-fi novel I Am Legend was first made into The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price; then The Omega Man with gun-toting, Charlton Heston in 1971, before being remade in the big budget Will Smith vehicle in 2007, which created, at huge expense, the memorable image of the ‘concrete jungle’ of New York reclaimed by nature – escaped gazelles and lions gambolling gamely along the overgrown avenues, pursued by man the predator, who himself has become ‘food’ to CGI-zombies.

Scenes of urban devastation in films, (eg Saving Private Ryan; The Pianist) echo the Romantic penchant for ruins. Painters loved them. Poets loitered around in them. They symbolised something about the impermanence of life, the folly of man’s vaulting ambition. This was captured most memorably by Shelley in his poem ‘Ozymandias’, inspired by the temples dedicated to Ramses II he had beheld: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land/Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies…’ This foregrounding of scale, to emphasise insignificance – life on an ungovernable scale – is captured also in the nightmarish city-scapes of Piranesi, whose hellish visions of dungeon-like metropolises were brought to life on the silver screen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927); Things to Come (1936), and on to Blade Runner, Brazil, Minority Report, etc. Gormenghastian edifices which baffle the human inside an endless maze. Films with giant starships (2001: a space odyssey; Alien; Event Horizon; Sunshine) offer the same aesthetic in space. The human animal trapped within an artificial world. In an increasingly urbanised and over-populated world, this became increasingly the reality for many.

The 1970s saw a whole swathe of gloomy Sci-Fi movies mirroring contemporary concerns about over-population, pollution, congestion, etc: Soylent Green, Silent Running, The Cars that Ate Paris, Mad Max, THX1138. The world had ‘gone wrong’ somehow. Environmental issues were starting to drip-feed into popular culture, although it would be a decade or more before such concerns were seen as more than the fears of a few green Lefties and the chronic fantasies of sci-fi writers.

Ridley Scott’s first film The Duelists (1977) captured memorably the stark aesthetic of Europe rendered by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Scott’s later films, especially Blade Runner (1982) brought the Apocalyptic Sublime into the cyberpunk era. The opening shot of the tech-noir classic, of a smog-darkened Los Angeles, illuminated by spouts of infernal flame seemed chilling when first it was seen on the big screen, yet a decade later similar images of burning oil wells were being beamed back from the first Gulf War.

Flame seems to be a common image of apocalypse, perhaps not surprising after two millennia of hellfire and brimstone. What preachers brought to life by the power of the spoken word, churches and abbeys did through imagery. Aesthetically, cinema – with its moving stained glass, rows of seats and hushed reverence – provides the modern experience of the medieval cathedral and the nearest many of us get to a collective religious experience. The effect can be terrifying and awe-inspiring. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1978) itself a reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, cited as being the first modern novel of the Twentieth Century, began the main narrative of the film in a plume of napalm to the lugubrious incantations of Jim Morrison.

The apocalyptic warnings of the 1950s, a culture having atomic kittens, seem to have come true, but in a way unforeseen by Beatnik Cassandras. The classic British doom-movie, Val Guest’s intensely atmospheric 1961 film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, appears, in hindsight, to be the most on the money, and was eerily echoed in real newspaper headlines when both the Stern Report came out (‘The Day That Changed the Climate’, The Independent, 31 October 2006) and then the IPCC report (‘Final Warning’, front page of The Independent, 3 February 2007):  life mirroring art mirroring life – because the film is set and filmed in actual Fleet Street offices… In it, the Earth is jolted eleven degrees off-kilter by Russian and American nuclear testing – ‘Cold War’ brinkmanship ironically causing the planet to heat up. Now we are told the world is only six degrees away from devastation – and the thermometer is rising.

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942

Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942

‘Europe After The Rain’ by Max Ernst  (1942)

Flood is equally likely to bring about apocalypse. Richard Jeffries, prescient Victorian post-apocalyptic parable, After London, or Wild England (1885) depicts a future primitive scenario of a flooded England reduced to a feudal Mediaeval state, where animals have turned feral and roam the overgrown landscape. Later artists continued this tradition into the Twentieth Century; such as Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rains, which Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) emulated, albeit in a far from subtle way…The poster of that old fashioned ‘disaster’ movie, masquerading as an eco-fable, was of an inundated Statue of Liberty. Ever since the classic ending of the original adaptation of Monkey Planet, The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968) with spaceman/caveman Charlton Heston striking the sand in despair at the Ozymandian Statue of Liberty, half-buried in the sand, has this icon of American been used as a visual metaphor for ‘democracy’ (read Western Civilisation/humanity) under siege, as in the post-humous Kubrick project AI (Spielberg 2001). Here, it was preserved in the ice. In Cloverfield, the whole head was blasted across the screens, landing in front of a shell-shocked twenty-somethings. In the adaptation of The Road, it is a beached oil tanker, like a great white whale, which provides a stark short-hand for apocalypse, the Moby Dick of Peak Oil which man, Ahab-like has hunted down to the bitter end, at the cost of everything he holds dear. His doom, it seems, is to be tied to it as it goes under. In this vision of a burnt America, (the cause of the catastrophe is not elucidated in the book – as though Mccarthy is saying ‘take your pick’), ‘The fragility of everything is revealed at last.’

The late, great, master doomster JG Ballard used his own childhood experiences in the decaying splendour of the Post-colonial Far East to shape his dystopian vision of the future in his quartet of environmental disaster novels, The Wind from Nowhere (1961); The Drowned World (1962); The Drought (1965); The Crystal World (1966). His later novels explored a similar aesthetic of entropy and ennui. So far, only his memoirs, Empire of the Sun and his ‘auto-erotica’ cult novel Crash have been translated significantly onto the big screen – by Spielberg and Cronenberg respectively. It would be good to see a version of The Drowned World, but perhaps life has overtaken art.

In another instance of art mirroring life, it has just been announced that Will Smith will star in a dramatisation of the notorious 2007 Flood of New Orleans, which scandalised America, playing real-life Katrina hero John Keller. Spike Lee has already chartered this in sober indignation in his documentary on the event, When the Levees Broke (2006), which used news-reel footage and interviews with witnesses.

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, John Martin 1852

Donnie Darko’s (Kelly 2001) quirky Eighties-esque rites-of-passage worked far better than the OTT over-hyped Blair Witch on cocaine, Cloverfield (Reeves 2008). And let’s mercifully forget the uber-expensive flop of Southland Tales (Kelly 2006) – a ‘difficult second album’ scenario for the Darko director, written in $200 million. The studio have decided to go back to their original cash cow, with a sequel, S. Darko (Fisher 2009).

One could argue that these mega-budget movies, and the industry that supports them, is actually contributing to the eco-apocalypse. One of the reasons Daniel Day Lewis was reputedly said tohave given for declining the role of Aragorn in Peter Jackon’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is because of the environmental impact of such cinematic behemoth. He instead chose to deconstruct the environmental agenda in the low-budget Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005) directed by his partner, Rebeca Miller Arthur Miller’s daughter. And in There Will be Blood (2007) based on Sinclair Lewis’ 1920s novel Oil!, he played the oil magnate turned monster, Daniel Plainview. Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic film provided visuals of a burning oil well, echoing the burning of the oil fields in the first Gulf War, which in itself seemed to be referencing Blade Runner…The second in Godfrey Reggio’s art-house Qatsi trilogy Powaqqatsi (1988), from the Hopi, ‘parasitic way of life’, dwelled hypnotically in such scenes.

Of course with the charnel pyres of Foot and Mouth, floods, and the traumatic events of 9/11 played at the time continuously across the world, we had a very real example of the Apocalyptic Sublime – so much so, that for a while Hollywood went (even) softer than usual, (Chicago winning Best Picture in early 2003). Since then it has learnt to cash in on the doom and gloom zeitgeist with films like Right At Your Door (Gorak 2006).

Plagues, pandemics, zombie-inducing viruses, are always good cinematic standbys. In The Andromeda Strain (Wise 1971) a group of scientists investigate a deadly new alien virus before it can spread. This now seems a cosily sedate affair compared to the hyper-kinetic offerings by Boyle and Garland who, in 28 Days Later (2002) cranked up the gore to 11, imagining a Great Britain decimated by a ‘rage virus’, and left to fester and fend for itself. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later (Fresnadillo 2007) shows the Isle of Dogs being carpet-bombed by US occupying forces, alerted to Code Red, in a nod and wink to Coppola’s vision of hell and the very real footage of the Gulf Wars.

Ever since Fat Boy dropped on Hiroshima, the mushroom-cloud of the A-Bomb has become to symbolise a very real apocalypse. A-Bomb beasts became stock-in-trade of low-grade drive-in schlock of the 50s and 60s. Japanese movies especially revelled in noisy battles between garish mutants, men in suits and dodgy models duking it out above mini-cities, Godzilla looming largest of all.  Yet from the 80s onwards, the reality of the Cold War started to appear on the screen in a more ‘realistic’ way. James Cameron, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day featured a famous ‘nuke’ scene emulated in endless substandard films, all starring Nicolas Cage it seems: Next, etc and in Zac Snyder’s Watchmen movie this year.

The Road (2009) starring Viggo Mortensen (dir: John Hillcoat) The Proposition director’s take on Cormac McCarthy’s uber-bleak novel of the same name is still awaiting release – now scheduled for Jan 2010 – was postponed so as not to dampen the feel-good factor in Obama’s America – but also eerily mirrored by the devastating Queensland fires in Australia earlier this year.

Roland Emmerich continues his super-sized assault on planet Earth with his next uber-doom fest 2012, inspired by the Mayan Prophecy – the new source of apocalyptic fever (think Y2K with astronomy…). Yet Emmerich’s big screen armageddons, however spectacular, are ultimately unsatisfying – full of sturm-und-drang, signifying nothing.

The end of the world has always been big business. Expect a whole swathe of Mayan apocalypse movies. Mel Gibson has already got in on the act with his kinetic Apocalypto (2006). Even dear old Auntie has shown her black stockings – with the so-so ‘re-imagining’ of Terry Nation’s Survivors and with another remake of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids ‘heavy plant crossing’ its way onto the small screen in 2010.

Earlier this year, unlucky cinema audiences endured the ill-judged remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (Derrickson 2008). It seems Hollywood is caught in its own event horizon, remaking its own remakes, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

It seems the Apocalyptic Sublime is in danger of becoming Apocalyptic Ridiculous. Maybe The League of Gentleman’s big screen disaster, Apocalypse, was closer to the truth. The world won’t end with a bang, it seems, but with a snigger.

But sometimes, the effect can be deadly serious.

The harrowing near-future Britain of Children of Men (Cuarón 2006), based upon PD James novel, depicting a bleak world of mass infertility, ends with a Viagric dose of Christian imagery. Escaping dystopia, refugee camp UK, the black Madonna and child await salvation, Biblically adrift in a small boat, thanks to the sacrifice of the cynical protagonist played by Clive Owen, Theo, an unlikely, but believable reluctant Messiah figure, who dies to save the gurgling bundle that is the future of humanity. Their leap of faith pays off, as the Human Project boat, the Tomorrow, appears out of the Cloud of Unknowing. This device, the sudden unexpected ‘happy ending’, Catholic writer JRR Tolkien termed the Eucatastrophe.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings – notably The Return of the King (Jackson 2004), with its la grande morte climactic plot orgasm at Mount Doom – brought the Apocalyptic Sublime back to the big screen and took it to another level. Here the true poetry and pathos of the apocalypse was finally realised. ‘I am glad to be with you here, Sam, here at the end of all things,’ Frodo says as lava oozes around them. But the eagles come to save the day, plucking the diminutive heroes to safety. The darkest of circumstances are redeemed by an act of grace – which in Tolkien’s Catholic imagination, is Divine.

This is illustrated in Vincent Ward’s visionary posthumous fantasy, What Dreams May Come (1998) (Academy Award winner for Best Special FX). The Robin Williams character has to descend, Orpheus-like, into the lowest part of hell to win back his late wife, who has been consigned there after committing suicide. When it seems all hope is lost, the eucatastrophe occurs, and as the Annabella Sciorra character declares: ‘Sometimes … when you lose, you win.’

Visions of the afterlife – of heaven and hell, paradise and purgatory – have provided movie-makers with inspiration and challenges for decades. There has been early visions of the works of Dante, Milton, the Bible… Although seldom has the technology and vision of those involved been able to do justice to the worlds conjured up by pen and paint, with a handful of exceptions. The sublime staircase sequence in What Dreams May Come was alluding to the famous ‘stairway to heaven’ scene in A Matter of Life and Death (Powell, Pressburger, 1946). In an earlier film, The Navigator: a medieval odyssey (1988), Ward had medieval pilgrims from Northumbria stumble upon an Antipodean Celestial City in the 20th Century, Auckland, NZ. The black comedy In Bruges (McDonagh 2008) despite its down-to-earth tone and bloody violence, ends with a sublime recreation of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It is hard to depict heaven without it seeming anaemic or unintentional comic. No doubt Peter Jackson’s version of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (released December 2009) will take up the challenge with his usual directorial aplomb.

It seems the Apocalyptic Sublime is not going away. In modern cinema it is there to remind us of the frailty of civilisation, the wonder of the world, the folly of humanity … or to sell popcorn.

In Wise’s original, and infinitely superior sci-fi parable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the ‘good alien’, Klaatu’s warns humanity:  “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration…the decision is yours.”

Whether these cinematic visions of doom inspire us to act, change our ways or just change channels, the choice is ours.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) observed that:

When danger and pain press too nearly, they are incapable of any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be and they are delightful, as we every day experience.

Heath and Boreham conclude: ‘Obscurity, vastness and irregularity, whether in mountainous landscapes, Gothic architecture, “romantic” literature or the new structures of industrialisation, gave the individual a “sublime” sense of his own limited capacity, hence his own mortality, and at the same time a vicarious frisson of delight in observing the source of danger from a safe distance.’

From the safe distance of the cinema auditorium modern audiences will (for the foreseeable future at least) continue to watch the end of the world for years to come.

Selected References

Palely, Morton D, The Apocalyptic Sublime, (Yale 1986)

Heath & Boreham, Introducing Romanticism, Icon 2002