Tag Archives: Spielberg

The Future Killers

The Future Killers

The-End-of-the-World-as-we-know-it Show - coming to a planet near you

According to the many news stories and articles about Climate Chaos, the future, it seems, has already happened. The carbon in the air will increase by so much, sea levels will rise by this amount, so many species will become extinct, so many hectares of rainforest will be razed to the ground, the Arctic ice-shelf will melt and major cities will be inundated. You can almost hear the doom-mongerers rubbing their hands in glee. Just like in one of those 1950s Sci-Fi movies, which echoed humanities nuclear night terrors, the boffins declare: ‘…climate change is a threat to civilisation as we know it*.’

Something can be learned from those wonderfully garish retro warnings ‘from the future’ – they confirmed a generation’s worst nightmares, but also sold popcorn and made your date hold onto you tighter. Scary movies got you laid. And somehow the human race continued. The world didn’t end, only the Cold War.

Yet in the cold light of our 21st Century dawn, it is undeniable that ‘something is rotten in the State of Denmark’. As McKibben said in Ecologist (Feb ’07): ‘The Something Bad is here’. Reality has become a Spielberg movie. Are we going to procrastinate like the fatally-flawed Prince Hamlet, until the polar bears become extinct – white-furred Ophelias, floating away, drowned in the ice-melt, no place like home?

Are we going to give up? Or are we going to do something about it?

Denial is not a river in Egypt

ignoring the problem won't make it go away...

The publication of the 700 page Stern Report on October 30 2006 stated the cold facts: ‘Business as usual is the economics of genocide.’ It hit the fat cats where it hurt, in their pockets. Basically, it makes quite clear denial is not an option. Stick your head in the sand and it’ll cost more in the long-run. Industry has to act. Going green is now di rigeur – greenwash is this economic cycle’s en vogue colour. Anyone in the market-place with products or services to hawk is now bending over backwards to be seen as green, even if it’s cosmetic green spin. Slap a worthy Fairtrade or Soil Association seal of approval on it and it’ll sell – consumerism with a conscience. Carry on shopping without the world stopping. But a more worrying trend has been noted by George Monbiot, in his Guardian column (30 Oct. ‘06) says: ‘There is one position even more morally culpable than denial. That is to accept that it’s happening and that its results will be catastrophic, but to fail to take the measures needed to prevent it.’  The denialists have become nihilists. Before it was ‘Climate Change is natural – it’s not me, guv,’; to ‘Climate Change is happening, it is my fault – but we’re doomed anyway, so I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing until it all goes tits up’. This is a kind of suicide that dooms us all – eco-cultural suicide bombing in the form of a 4wheel drive and a short-haul habit.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

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… Well, we’ve discovered it’ll only take six degrees in the rise of the Global Average Temperature to fry the planet (as recorded in the IPCC report). So perhaps the actual day ‘the Earth caught fire’ could be recorded as being 2 February 2007 – when Climate Chaos became ‘official’, and the denialists had to finally concede that ‘human activity is the probable cause’ of Global Warming. The 2001 IPCC Report was humanity’s yellow card, the latest one is the red.

Six Degrees to Devastation

Most accept that a two degree rise in the Global Average Temperature is now inevitable –  and at only 2.4° ‘coral reefs [become] almost extinct’ and a ‘third of all species on the planet face extinction’. But that’s the ‘best case scenario’. According to the IPCC 2007 report, the ‘worst case scenario’ is a global average temperature rise of +6.4°: Most of Life is Exterminated – it would be hard to imagine a worse case scenario:

‘…methane fireballs tear across the sky… Deserts extend almost to the Arctic… “Hypercanes” … circumnavigate the globe, causing flash floods which strip the land of soil. Humanity reduced to a few survivors eking out a living in polar refugees. Most of life has been snuffed out, as temperatures rise higher than for millions of years. (The Independent, 3 Feb. ‘07)

Basically, it seems, humanity is toast. Some would say we had it coming. Tell that to the billions of frightened people out there, to the mothers and babies, to the children staring accusingly at us, the future-killers, from behind their mothers’ skirts. It’s hard being smug when confronted with innocent blood on your hands – a Herod-like Climate Massacre. Don’t drive off in your Chelsea Tractor, looking the other way. No amount of soap will wash your Pilate hands clean.

Smoke and Mirrors

Things are not what they seem

Although George W finally conceded there may be something in the ‘Smoking Exhaust’ theory, his doomed administration came up with a typically dumb-ass solution: let’s build solar mirrors to reflect all of those nasty sunbeams. Then we won’t have to curb our carbon habit. The Dubya solution to the Greenhouse Effect – paint the panes of glass silver. Never mind the tomatoes. Another solution is to scatter microscopic sulphate droplets into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption – coming soon to a sky near year: Nuclear Winter: the Final Solution from the Carbon Nazis. The IPCC said such ideas were ‘speculative, uncosted and with potential unknown side-effects’ (The Guardian, 27 Jan. ‘07). It seems they just don’t get it in their reductionist Lego version of reality, playing with life’s building blocks: tamper with one thing and you entertain the possibility of affecting everything else. Haven’t they heard of the Butterfly Effect? Ol’ ‘happy goat’ Dubya sneezes and the world catches cold. Beyond that, it seems just another ludicrous ‘Star Wars’ propaganda ploy. The Sovs fell for that one – will we fall for ‘Space Mirrors’ – beaming atcha from ‘Moonlanding Studios’?

The Biodiversity of Culture

Saving the planet means also saving the texture of life (as celebrated in books like Common Ground’s England-in-Particular, Clifford and King, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006). We can’t all be eco-warriors. We should do what we’re best at to prevent cultural mass extinction. Otherwise, what are we fighting to preserve? A planet without human biodiversity?

It may seem redundant or indulgent now to do anything other than join Greenpeace and throw ourselves in the sea in front of whaling vessels and oil tankers, but however inspiring and awareness-raising such direct action is, we can’t all be so intrepid. Some-one has to keep society going – otherwise there won’t be any ‘civilisation’ to save.

So carry on writing poetry, painting, making music, making love, singing in a choir, supporting the school-play or local theatre, creating ‘meaningless acts of art’, morris-dancing, even stamp collecting – for it is the minutiae of life that things are at their most intense. Like the countless bug specialists, fungi specialists, lichen specialists, etc, if we don’t have those with expert knowledge and, yes, even amateur enthusiasm, for such things, then such precious detail will slip through the net.

And if we don’t care, then who will?

Like the Australian Aborigines, each with their Dreamtime animal they and there tribe are responsible for, we are all stewards of the planet, of its exquisite detail. It is a big place, and the level of complexity and abundance is overwhelming, but if we all focus in on one or two things, then we can pretty much just about cover everything. Everyone has their anorak. Perhaps the geek shall inherit the Earth. Super-Anorak may save the day, but of course we have to be holistic – look over our parapet, the ghetto of our particular specialism. Join the dots. See the bigger picture. It’s all about Paying Attention – perhaps that’s what we are here for. Humans are proud to think of themselves as the only (apparently) self-conscious beings on this planet, but perhaps we are here to be conscious of the Earth – and its conscience.

The Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Light


The 1951 SF film When Worlds Collide (a new Spielberg-produced version was released in 2008, merrily cashing in on ‘apocalypse fever’) foreshadowed the Ark mentality worryingly prevalent in contemporary Space scientist circles – who seem to be looking ‘anywhere but here’ to save humanity. This Noah attitude – ‘God’s given us the nod and the wink, so let’s get out of here’ – is perhaps the result of Western Christian hard-wiring: we’re brainwashed from our first day at our State-funded ‘Faith School’ that the End is Nigh, and only the Chosen Few will be saved, whether in an Infidel-free Paradise or WASP Heaven. It’s giving up the ghost. It’s pie-in-the-sky. Salvation is elsewhere, God is elsewhere – the grass is greener on Uranus. And the huge waste of resources, and vast amounts of pollution caused by phallic-symbol rockets going up into Space, penetrating, in a puny way, its ineffable Mystery, doesn’t exactly help things. It’s not re-arranging the deck-chairs on a White Star Liner, it’s dynamiting the hull, puncturing all the life-jackets and hogging all the life-boats. It would be Douglas-Adams-funny, if it wasn’t so deadly serious. The Vogon fleet is on its way, and they are practising their poetry.

Between Venus and Mars

As Adams said, space is big. Very big. It’s a lonely universe out there, as far as we know. We live on the ‘third rock from the sun’, luckily. Our number came up in the ‘Thunderball’ of Creation. An incredible chain of ‘happy accidents’ led to life on Earth being here. We haven’t found any anywhere else, yet – however high the possibility. In an infinite universe all things are possible. But until we find other life-sustaining planets, planets with the essential criteria for life (water being the main one) we live on a knife’s edge: ‘On dead planet’s such as Venus and Mars, CO2 makes up most of the atmosphere, and it would do so here if living things and Earth’s processes did not keep it within bounds’, (Flannery, The Weather Makers, p5) but this delicate balance is in danger of becoming undone by Man’s carbon habit. It seems we need to find a balance between these two extremes: we need compassion and focussed energy, the feminine and the masculine to solve this fix we’re in: a chymical wedding on a grand scale. It is telling that men are obsessed about going to Mars, on a symbolic level. Venus is too hot and toxic of course, but no one talks of missions to the planet of love – it’s what the world needs now, as the song goes, let’s face it, not more aggressive energy.

War of the Worlds

No One Would Believe...

In the face of over-whelming evidence that we have doomed our planet, that positively negative feedback loops are already kicking in, which will spiral out of control even if we do curtail our Carbon-habit, it is all too easy, and perhaps understandable to give up, to think: ‘Ah, sod it – the planet is screwed anyway. Party on, dude!’ But this is not only a risible Clarksonesque attitude (what will the boys with toys do when the oil runs out?) but pathetically defeatist: Texan sandsuckers and their ilk are the true ‘surrender monkeys’!

The other extreme can be found in the New Age movement, where people under pyramidal frames chanting from their yoni chakras await the Mayan apocalypse in 2012: the next millennial enema. ‘It’s all part of the big plan, man. Karmic – like African famine; those AIDs babies. Just ride it out. And buy some decent shades for the end-of-the-world show, as you chase eclipses around the planet, farting greenhouse gases.’

An analogy: imagine if planet Earth was invaded by a belligerent form of extra-terrestrial (bug-eyed aliens with laser beams!). Okay, not an original concept: HG Wells did a pretty good job. But let’s pretend it actually happens. They land; they fry the welcoming committee, consisting of the Dalai Lama, Hilary Clinton, Prince Charles, Robbie Williams and Jordan. Then they start razing cities with their death-ray. The lucky ones make it to the hills, or go underground. Survivalist fantasy time – your chance to grow a beard, wear army fatigues, eat cold beans out of tin, drive a land-rover at high-speed through empty shopping malls, and wield a shotgun like an iron dick. Would you go to them waving a white flag made from your Save the Whale T-shirt, as they strut across the burning fields, like giant angle-poise lamps with bunsen burner eyes, and say: ‘I surrender?’ Only to be turned into fertiliser. Or are you going to fight until the bitter end, until your dying breath? Fight for humanity, for the dream of civilisation, for the achievements of our ancestors, the hope of our children? Are you going to ‘fight them on the beaches’ with everything you’ve got, or are you going to let them win, and watch the whole history of the world go up in flames, and the human race become extinct? I know what I would do, however long I would or wouldn’t survive in such a scenario. In his foreword to Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers (Allen Lane 2005), *Robert Purves, WWF President Australia, says: ‘If we are to win the war on climate change we must all be part of the fight.’

If we fight to preserve from extinction endangered species – because they matter, in terms of the ecosystem they are part of, and because it would be an insult to millions of years to do otherwise (imagine spending a lifetime painting your masterpiece only to have some philistine thug put his DMs through it: now multiply that by many lifetimes, by millennia – are we going to be the thugs of Creation?) – if we agree that all life is sacred, then that includes us. We are part of the biodiversity of this planet and deserve protecting and fighting for as well. Don’t let those ‘alien’ genociders win! Start stock-piling those beans now – maybe not, methane is enough of a problem as it is… Not good in a bunker. Better still, get out of that frigging bunker, and that tyrant-downfall mindset. Do you want to be caught lice-ridden in a rat-hole, when Armageddon comes, by God in his Stars and Stripes boxers, playing Hendrix’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ on his Hummer sound system? Do you want to stand trial with Clarkson and his cohorts for crimes against the planet? And have you last moments videoed on someone’s mobile, as you do the gallows’ twitch?

This Island Earth


The future is unwritten. No one can say exactly what is going to happen. Even  Flannery admits ‘…science is about hypotheses, not truths, and no one can absolutely know the future,’ (The Weather Makers, p7). Climate Scientists scry into the swirling orb of their climate models like fortune tellers. I do not doubt for one second the rigour of their prognostications: climate science is what is says on the tin: science, not tea-leaf reading.

And yet why should we have such faith in their ability to predict the future – aren’t Sir David King types the modern equivalent of the augurers, reading entrails in front of the Roman Temple, telling us what we want to know, or what the powers-that-be want us to think? Science is modern magic. We have (mostly) complete faith in it. Until its orthodoxy is over-turned by the next paradigm-shift. Received wisdoms are there to be challenged and, when proven false, destroyed. The Flat Earths of the present become the Spheres of tomorrow. The Reds-under-the-bed prove to be in our head. Martians won’t attack after all – although radio-listeners thought they were going to when Orson Wells broadcast his version of War of the Worlds in the Thirties, causing panic. Not that Climate Chaos isn’t genuine. But a Culture of Fear is intentionally disempowering: frightened people are easier to prey on – to go ‘boo!’ too. They jump when you want them to. Y2K, WMDs, Anthrax in the post, Bird Flu, Swine Flu … the bogeyman keeps coming to get you, but does he ever really arrive? Climate Chaos is a fact that won’t go away – but as with terrorism, caused by individuals, cells or states, if we let them scare us, they have won. Let Climate Chaos paralyse you into inaction – like the sleep-paralysis when you awake in the night because of some ‘bump’, too terrified to move – and it has defeated you.

Always remember: the human creature, with its amazing imagination, its ingenuity, its resourcefulness and adaptability, could quite possibly rise to the occasion. Surprise destiny. Not necessarily with a techno-fix, Branson’s £24m miracle carbon-burner or equivalent (carbon credits are modern day ‘indulgences’ – like medieval pilgrims, we can choose to pay a ‘guilt-tax’ to off-set our carbon-sin – the fact remaining, each flight pumps more CO2 into the air and takes the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Plant more trees, for sure, but better still – don’t make carbon skid-marks in the sky in the first place. Do you really need that last minute cheap flight to Malaga?) but with a shift of attitude. With an act of collective will, anything is possible. If politicians don’t take the initiative (and I don’t mean jetting to some glacier to ‘find out about Climate Change’ in some spurious ‘hug a husky’ publicity stunt) then we will anyway, with or without them. Eventually the general public will be forced to changed, through lack of oil, dry land, clean water – but, of course, sooner is better. Wait until the flood-waters or climate refugees are at your door and it’ll be too late. Don’t wait for fate to come and find you – go out there and face it. Be bold.

The future is a challenge. Let’s rise to it – a human ‘rising tide’, to counter the tide of indifference. This is what we are here for. It’s up to us. No one else.

The future is in our hands. Make it happen, don’t wait for it to happen.

As Gore and others have suggested, this is a moral choice. And Monbiot emphasises this: ‘Climate change is not just a moral question: it is the moral question of the 21st century.’ Whatever decision we make – even no decision is still a decision – will be on our conscience, and will be remembered by future generations. Flannery concludes his influential book with the home truth: ‘We know enough to act wisely’.

Ignorance is not an excuse anymore

To leave you with Klaatu’s warning from The Day the Earth Stood Still (Wise 1951):  “Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration…the decision is yours.”

***

Recommended Viewing:

The Age of Stupid – Franny Armstrong’s film

Home – Yann Arthus Bertrand

The Eleventh Hour – Leonardo di Caprio

An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore

Recommended Reading:

The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins

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