11/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

2009, Apocalypse Now

With everyone focused on the tiniest green shoots of economic recovery, on health care or on why it is not okay to shout 'liar' at the president, few people have had time to keep up with events in the natural world. And yet this is the year -2009- when climate change has begun to show us what 'ugly' really means.

  1. Arctic ice has disappeared at such a phenomenal rate that not only are polar bears endangered, but Alaskan walruses are now grounded on the state's northwest coast. The next step will be their death.
  2. Methane seeps in northern lakes are bubbling this intensive greenhouse gas into earth's atmosphere since permafrost no longer traps it on the bottom of Arctic lakes.
  3. California is simultaneously in flame and suffering its third year of drought. Both events are states-of-emergency, but there are no federal funds in sight so the Golden State walks the knife-edge of an economic and environmental abyss. Lack of water has already decimated agriculture in the Imperial Valley.
  4. This year, too, the ocean is warmer and more acidic so fish stocks have declined radically. Greenland's Helheim glaciers have reached a top speed of 30 meters per year and raising sea levels well beyond the IPCC's predictions.
  5. In British Columbia, salmon runs have shrunk to nothing and this has impacted the grizzly population. Grizzlies rely on fall's salmon feast to hyperphaginate (pig out) in order to pack on pounds of fat before they retire for the winter. This fall there are fewer bears, and many fewer cubs. Even less of these will survive the winter hibernation.

Of hibernating bears, native people along this coast say, "they dream the world into being." Of course this sounds fanciful, but I don't know how I feel about living in a world without grizzly bears or their dreams. They are amazing survivors and have been on the run, adapting to new surroundings squeezing themselves northward, since the early years of the nineteenth century when they were chased out of America's high plains. Canadians welcomed them ungraciously as we once also welcomed Sitting Bull.

This fall, I believe that in the backs of people's minds there is a growing fear that we -- North America, the world -- are approaching some cataclysm. I write about the human migrations that will result from future environmental collapse of our continent in my forthcoming book, North American Ark, but most people, I believe, already share a vague sense of some overwhelming danger that hovers slightly beyond the horizon.

Hollywood is responding to this fear. The fall of 2009 sees the return of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic films in a very big way. The last time Hollywood leaned into this genre occurred following the Soviet Union's test of a nuclear weapon in the summer of 1949.

Early in 1951, The Day The Earth Stood Still scared the bejesus out of American filmgoers. Then, throughout the fifties, a few other movies addressed the problem of nuclear destruction directly while horror films raised similar problems in the themes of alien invasions or human mutations derived from uncontrolled radioactivity. The movies I like best from that period document how the fear of a nuclear apocalypse had taken up a menacing position at the back of America's psyche. I heartily recommend Captive Women (1952); The Day the World Ended (1953); and On the Beach (1959).

Fifty years later, an unprecedented bumper crop for end-of-the-world movies is pressing itself onto the movie-going public, and I find myself thinking 'I know why.' The Copenhagen conference is billed as humanity's last chance to reverse climate change, but many fear we have already reached a global tipping point. Our films reflect this.

Even if you don't count Wall-E (2008), there's 9 currently in release; 2012 (to be released on Nov. 13) and The Road (to be released on Nov. 25) "9," produced by Tim Burton, is the full length realization of a short student film by Shane Acker that's still available on YouTube.

It's visually stunning and shows the impact that Burton will have on filmmakers of the coming generation. I'm blown away by the visual freshness of this film and hope that Mr. Acker will follow Guillermo Del Toro in making at least one uncompromising and completely original film like Pan's Labyrinth (2002) before moving on to more commercial pursuits like Hellboy II (which I might as well confess I also loved).

2012, a film by Roland Emmerich, another director who won acclaim for a short student film before going on to create Independence Day (1996) and Day After Tomorrow (2004) doesn't promise very much. Emmerich, who turned down the opportunity to make Spiderman in favor of (phleh!) Stargate, claims he makes pure entertainment films which he describes as 'popcorn.' He relies on screen-filling special effects and his scripts are characterized by illogical plots, wooden dialogue, thin characters, and various other recognizable failings of large-budget genre films. Mr. Thumbs, Roger Ebert, compared Emmerich humorously to Ed Wood the inept director of some truly terrible fifties 'B' movies starring Bela Lugosi. (Emmerich, incidentally, retaliated by naming a character 'Ebert" in his awful adaptation of Godzilla (1998)).

The post-apocalyptic movie with the greatest promise this fall is the film version of Cormac McCarthy's excellent book The Road. Because its release date has shifted so frequently The Road has already been reviewed in Esquire by Tom Chiarelli and in the Guardian by Xan Brooks. Chiarelli, who writes nice prose calls it 'The Most Important Movie of the Year.'

More recently, Xan Brooks has called the film version of The Road "haunting, harrowing and powerful. His equally powerful review can be retrieved here.

So, so far I have two dates with my wife this fall: the opening of The Road on November 25; and a talk by David Suzuki about a feature film he was involved with on Dec. 10. The world is still ending, of course, but there's probably just enough time to catch a good flick and that's what I intend to do.

Of course, I'll let you know what I think about both of them. Please let me know what you think about 9 and 2012.