This is the End (again): the New Apocalyptic Sublime
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
‘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
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.
Palely, Morton D, The Apocalyptic Sublime, (Yale 1986)
Heath & Boreham, Introducing Romanticism, Icon 2002