07/24/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Apocalypse Now and Then: Four Rules for Watching the World End


The decade leading up to 2000 saw a rash of films about the end of the world. Asteroid was followed by Deep Impact and Armageddon, each premised on a giant rock from outer space ending the human race. Terminator 2 and The Matrix made us fear the machines, while Independence Day and Mars Attacks! had us fighting the aliens. Armageddon included scenes of masses of people on New York City streets, running from some terror behind them, scenes almost identically portrayed in both Godzilla and Independence Day, all released around the same time.

And then came the actual events of September 11, 2001, with televised images of masses of people in New York City running from some terror behind them. And so we changed our perspective on the destruction of cinematic cities. That fact, coupled with the clicking of the calendar into the new millennium without major incident, put the lust for apocalyptic films on a hiatus for a while.

But they're back. In full force. This summer we can watch the world's end in multiple ways. The aliens came in Oblivion. The monsters arise from the depths in the Godzilla-meets-Top Gun flick, Pacific Rim. Natural disasters finish us off (almost) in After Earth, the zombies in World War Z, and This is the End parodies all the possible ends at the same time.

Will there be an end to apocalypse? Or will we keep destroying the world? And why do we keep watching?

Apocalypse, in its strict definition, refers to a genre of literature. It is not the end of the world itself, but entails the narratives and mythologies about the end. It is the Greek word for the Latin term, "revelation," both having to do with an uncovering, bringing something out of hiding. Only certain people -- prophets, priests, and shamans -- have access to the secret, and are charged with revealing it to others. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and St John were proto-filmmakers, creating grand visions of cataclysm. As the religious studies scholar Kelly J. Baker puts it in her excellent e-book The Zombies Are Coming!: "Apocalypticism, its melding of dystopian and utopian impulses, emerges as mechanism both of social vision and critique." The genre of apocalyptic literature is meant to be a warning (change your ways, or this is what will happen to you), or an incentive (here's what we might aspire to), often in the same story.

Taking into account this new round of apocalyptic films, we find so much of the same old same old, but each new revelation shows us something about the cultural moment during which it is produced. With that in mind, here is a list of four rules we can learn from the apocalyptic genre, and our desire to keep coming back to the end.

1. Apocalypse is personal: We are all going to die, with or without a grand catastrophic end.

The mythological stories of apocalypse have us facing the death of the world, which is also a way of relating to our own mortality through a larger story. Just as the Garden of Eden is a creation story relating to each of our lives (we just keep picking that apple even when we know it's not good for us), apocalypse is the story of each of our ends. It is existential literature. And sometimes the grand destruction gives us a noble reason to die, sacrificing for the greater good. We are there with Will Smith/Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise (there's a definite gendered dimension to all this), becoming heroes. It is a way to not go gentle into that good night.

2. Apocalypse is social: We are all going to die, but we won't be alone.

As the writer D.H. Lawrence was dying in the late 1920s, and growing more sick and tired of contemporary civilization by the day, he worked on his last book: an essay on the biblical book of Revelation, entitled Apocalypse. He used it to offer his own revelation, his own prophetic warning about getting it right or else. In some wonderfully poignant phrases, he says:

But the Apocalypse shows, by its very resistance, the things that the human heart secretly yearns after. . . . What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of his "soul." . . . [T]he magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos.

3. Apocalypse is a litmus test: It gauges what we collectively fear.

In the age of the Cold War, we feared the end by nuclear annihilation (for example, On the Beach, 1959; Dr Strangelove, 1964; The Day After, 1983). In the age of HIV, West Nile Virus, and influenza strains, it is the end of the world by contagion (Outbreak, 1995; Contagion, 2002; I am Legend, 2007). With global warming on the scientific radar, we get destruction by natural disaster (A.I., 2001; The Day After Tomorrow, 2004; An Inconvenient Truth, 2006). And there is always room for a few more monsters, whether from under the sea or outer space, ready to doom us all (these are much bigger than, but of the same type as, the one's in our closets).

4. Apocalypse is occasional: It happens now and then.

Prophesies have been made for thousands of years about the end of the world, the grand catastrophe that will bring it all crashing down. And people have heard these stories and feared the impending destruction, believing they would see these things with their own eyes in their own lifetime. Which doesn't mean the prophets were necessarily wrong (though arguably the likes of William Miller and Harold Camping were), but rather that the people who heard the stories have mistook the ending of a world for the end of the world. We keep waiting for the huge spectacle, and miss the worlds that are ending right now, around the planet: we fear the fictitious zombie bite, while actual malaria-ridden mosquito bites kill 1000 African children every day. The end of the world is not once and for all, but recurring.

Ultimately, apocalypse is a kind of mystery, a whodunit with intrinsic rules. It keeps its secrets, revealing them on occasions to select people, but it also promises that the mystery can be solved, the hidden unveiled. Which makes it the perfect fodder for industrial cinema, testing the audience but not too much. But it also makes it the perfect vehicle to connect with those collective events larger than ourselves, whether utopian or dystopian. Which is why we've had apocalypses for so many years, and will continue to have them. Apocalypse now and then.