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The End of the World: A Cultural Obsession

11/13/2012 03:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 13, 2013

When I was eight I went to a birthday party at a giant arcade. It was the type of place with go-carts and ball pits and pimpled teenagers serving pepperoni pizza. If you've ever stepped foot in a Chuck E. Cheese along some commercial beltway you can relate to the faint air of hopelessness that pervades a place like this. Thankfully, though, my memory of this event focuses on something else: There was this video game, a giant unit with a massive screen display that took up an entire room. A dozen or so players were strapped into consoles designed to simulate the interior of a spaceship. Basically, the point of the game was to shoot down alien spacecraft and protect Earth from total annihilation, or something like that. The storyline wasn't very clear but whoever was playing sucked; they lost, which prompted a short animated segment of the Earth being destroyed in a giant, lavish explosion a la the destruction of Alderaan. As an eight-year-old this was pretty disturbing. It was the first time I ever conceptualized the idea of the apocalypse, the notion that the Earth itself is mortal, and that everything I've ever known and experienced could be obliterated in a mere instant. It's not hard to imagine a Freudian correlation between a child and his or her perception of the planet; after all, what is Earth other than a maternal provider of life? Witnessing its destruction triggered in me a sort of instinctual revulsion: "How can they be so cruel as to show the destruction of my home planet? I'm upset. I want my goodie bag."

But this sensitivity, this fear, it's just fodder for Hollywood. Pop culture has shown us a million ways the world could end. There are slow-moving viral outbreaks, zombie takeovers, nuclear wars and alien invasions and robot mutinies and environmental cataclysms. There's Dr. Strangelove and 12 Monkeys and Dawn of the Dead and Terminator, The Matrix, The Stand, The Road, and so on. But none of these stories deals with the utter catastrophe of planetary annihilation -- that is, the reduction of our planet to a mere cloud of atoms. On the rare occasion that a film, novel, or comic book does depict the incineration of Earth, it occurs within the final moments of the narrative, leaving the audience with fuel for nightmares and morbid reverie -- not to mention a lucrative thirst for serialization. But this doesn't satiate; on the contrary, it mushrooms. There's something so visceral and frightening and seductive about the idea of Earth's destruction that it manifests itself through human art, and it has for millennia. It's distressing, but the allure of this power is frighteningly resilient, and like always is best expressed through humor -- in this case an Onion article:

Despite being constantly tempted by the seductive power of having an apocalyptic arsenal at his fingertips, President Barack Obama somehow made it through another day Tuesday without unlocking the box on his desk that houses "the button" and launching all 5,113 U.S. nuclear warheads.

We are enticed by this notion because it is morbid and spectacular, but also because it is very much within the realm of possibility. The fact is, the most catastrophic scenario of Earth's destruction is also one of the most probable.

In June, Asteroid 2012 LZ1 grazed the Earth (on a cosmic scale: It was roughly 33 million miles out, about 14 times the distance from the Earth to the moon) and sent scientists the world over scurrying to soak up data and determine the extent of the threat. Initially thought to be the size of a city block, researchers eventually determined that it was actually 0.6 miles long at its widest point -- not enough to destroy humanity but perhaps enough to plague civilization for a few generations. This news broke just a few days before NASA announced that a 460-foot asteroid -- 2011 AG5, also initially considered a threat -- will not in fact strike the planet 28 years from now, as originally suspected. Were it to, we could expect an explosion twice as powerful as the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated (the 50-megaton Russian Tsar Bomba). Incidents such as these are not uncommon; tiny, harmless meteors barrage the Earth on a constant basis, and some geologists have even argued that this constant volley of impacts has been a key factor in the evolution of life. In 2000, Discover magazine published a list of the 20 most likely ways the world could end, with a major planetary impact event taking the No. 1 spot. Furthermore, recent translations of ancient Sumerian tablets have even posited that the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by (drum roll please) a half-mile-wide asteroid. Clearly, this fear of celestial bodies permeates civilization more than we thought.

That's not to say I'm worried; in fact, quite the opposite. There simply are no imminent threats to Earth's existence right now, and any long-term prospects are distant enough that we can assume the triumph of some sort of technological solution. But this fixation -- whether expressed through physics, religion, astronomy, or even Hollywood -- is probably a healthy one, at least more so than our obsession with zombies. Our ability to study the cosmos, specifically to observe the celestial patterns of extraterrestrial objects, is a recent phenomenon. Only within that past hundred or so years have we been able to accurately predict the paths of asteroids and comets and the various dangers they pose. This means that for thousands of years we were simply blind to the threat of celestial objects. It's not surprising that ancient descriptions of such unimaginable destruction were interpreted with the only tool of the day: God.

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven; and he overthrew those cities and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities ... [Abraham] looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.

-- Genesis 19:24-28

If it is actually true that the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (if they even existed) were destroyed by an asteroid, then the destruction witnessed surely would have been "god-like." (An ancient Sumerian astronomer described the foreign object as a "white stone bowl approaching.") And this is where our collective, perhaps even repressed, fascination with celestial annihilation comes into play; it's the recognition of mankind's true existential threat: an Enlightenment-era substitution of the fear of God for the fear of nature, of attributing obliteration to physical processes instead of God's wrath, the Nietzschean assertion that "God is dead." It's the darkly human yearning to be alive during the End of Days, to witness that giant wall of fire approaching, and to be vanquished in its passage. It's about the desire to experience the apocalypse within one's lifetime -- a preoccupation that sometimes manifests itself in the form of biblical prophesy (i.e. The Book of Revelations), but, once again, more pleasantly reveals itself in comedy. Here's Patton Oswalt:

That's how I want to die... you will be in the VIP section of eternity... because you'll have died in the Apocalypse. Everyone else in heaven, can you imagine how boring their stories are? "How'd you die, man?" "Bus accident." "How'd you die, man?" "Fire ants." "How'd you die?" And you'll go, "How'd I die? In the motherf**king Apocalypse!"

Unfortunately, this is the same instinct that drives every generation's fear (or celebration) of The End. It's what drives blowhard rabblerousing about Mayan prophecies and planetary realignments. It's what forces the hand of loud men wearing placards and handing out flyers in city squares. It's also what pinged my abyssal fear of extinction when I observed that fiery, albeit animated, destruction of Earth as an eight-year-old at FunWorld in Nashua, New Hampshire. And it's what sells at the box office.

While some apocalyptic films unscrupulously capitalize on fear and ignorance (ehem... Roland Emmerich), others are either delightfully indulgent or philosophically compelling. On the indulgent end there are recent films like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which boasts the kind of premise that makes writers smack their head in frustration because they didn't come up with it themselves. The film holds that Earth is about to be struck by an apocalypse-inducing asteroid, so in the final days Steve Carell bumbles around in search of love, or a friend, or whatever. Then, on the philosophical end there are movies like Melancholia, which has a nearly identical premise (replace asteroid with planet) but is approached from a much more serious angle. In this film, the imminent collision of Earth with another world serves as a beautiful metaphor for depression. But this symbol is as much a stand-in for misery and despair as it is an expression of our carnal lust for a meaningful end. Both films associate imminent death with human misery. Both films ask questions about the purpose of life in its final bow. And both films -- one darkly comic, the other darkly symbolic -- explore elements of indifference (or perhaps even joy) to the idea of Earth's annihilation.

Is it fate? Is it bullshit? Is it entertainment? Likely, in some form, it's all three.