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A Brief History of the Cinematic Apocalypse

Ticket sales don’t lie: we love to watch the world burn, but movies about our demise say more about our present than about our future

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When the original Mad Max hit theaters in 1979, it felt like a new kind of action movie. Set in the parched and lawless Australian outback in the not-so-distant future, when feral gangs of scavenger bikers terrorize the populace, George Miller’s Molotov cocktail of demolition-derby mayhem and bleak vigilante violence put such a fresh spin on the decades-old end-of-the-world scenario that it was easy to overlook just how perfectly timed it actually was.

Although the particulars of the social breakdown in Miller’s film are left vague, it’s clear that Max’s world has turned into a wasteland because of a fuel shortage. Thirty-five years ago, the subtext would have been obvious to everyone in the theater. The U.S. and other countries were held in the viselike grip of an OPEC embargo in 1973 and, later in the decade, paralyzed by an energy crisis. Oil prices skyrocketed, and spontaneous acts of violence broke out in gas-station lines that stretched for blocks. Here was the psychic topsoil where doomsday visions not only took root but blossomed and thrived.

Apocalyptic narratives have been with us since the dawn of cinema — even before the birth of talking pictures. One of the earliest was 1916’s aptly titled The End of the World. This Danish film depicts a daisy chain of natural disasters and riots after a rogue comet passes too close to Earth. This wasn’t some fantastical confection conjured up from Copenhagen ether. The film was a response to the panic that had erupted six years earlier when Halley’s Comet brushed past the planet. The End of the World became a box office hit — early evidence that filmgoers would flock to see what scared the hell out of them.

In the century since, hundreds of films have charted the destruction of our planet. Like a Rorschach test, what these movies say about us and our collective fears is open to limitless interpretation. Although often set in a distant future, these spectacles tend to address the subconscious demons we’re grappling with right now. Cataclysmic bogeymen may swirl around our fears of nuclear Armageddon, alien invasion, biblical prophecy, runaway technology, overpopulation, zombie plagues, and even cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers (1984’s C.H.U.D.). But regardless of what form these apocalyptic movies take, the end of the world as we know it has never been far from our thoughts.

By the 1930s, two decades after The End of the World, Hollywood had established itself as a dream factory, cranking out sugarplum visions of glamour and escapism. But it could manufacture nightmares, too, in films like 1933’s earthquake-and-flood epic Deluge. Then, in the 1940s, cinematic doomsday metaphors gave way to the real-world terrors of World War II and the Holocaust, and apocalyptic movies took a holiday. Newsreels proved harrowing enough.

We tend to think of the 1950s as an idyll of Eisenhower-era optimism, but the decade marked the first golden age of apocalypse cinema. The atomic bomb, the Cold War arms race, and the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik all burrowed into our fever dreams. Nothing seemed certain anymore except, perhaps, uncertainty. The decade kicked off with 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, a pacifist parable about a space alien who lands in Washington, D.C., with a chilling ultimatum for humankind: Pursue peace or the earth gets blasted to smithereens. Darker waters lay ahead with 1953’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, 1956’s McCarthyism allegory Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and 1959’s On the Beach, a doom-drenched Gregory Peck drama about the aftermath of nuclear war. Darker still was 1954’s Godzilla, a monster movie born in Tokyo that became a haunting reminder of the possible price of leveling two Japanese cities to radioactive dust.

If the arsenal of threats to the American way of life remained abstract in the ’50s, by the ’60s they became terrifyingly concrete: the Cuban Missile Crisis; the metastasizing war in Vietnam; and the indelible peal of gunshots at Dealey Plaza, the Ambassador Hotel in L.A., and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. All this social chaos found its place on screen, dressed up in DEFCON-level dread and sci-fi drag. In 1964, just two years after JFK and Khrushchev squared off in their annihilation chess match off the coast of Cuba, Sidney Lumet directed Fail-Safe, a somber and screw-tightening war-room procedural about an accidental nuclear warhead attack on Moscow. Earlier that year, Stanley Kubrick imagined a similar scenario filtered through bruise-black humor in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. These movies made their duck-and-cover points differently, but they delivered the same warning: The world’s gone mad.

Four years later Hollywood offered a different message with 1968’s Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead. Apes features perhaps the genre’s best sting-in-the-tail finale and its most iconic image — the Statue of Liberty in ruins — but it’s George A. Romero’s low-budget chiller that’s surprisingly had the longest shadow as a metaphorical game changer, shoehorning in everything from civil rights to the carnage in Vietnam between volleys of gut-munching gore. The only question left hanging in the air: After you’ve seen a sweet-faced little girl turn into a zombie and eat her father, where do you go next?

Charlton Heston, at least, seemed just the man to answer the question. He skipped the last three increasingly cheesy Apes sequels and busied himself instead with a pair of postapocalyptic popcorn flicks: 1971’s The Omega Man and 1973’s Soylent Green. The causes of disaster in these films were ostensibly biological warfare and overpopulation and pollution, but the real theme was paranoia. Suddenly, authority figures and ”the experts” weren’t to be trusted — a mood that would find its apotheosis in the Watergate cover-up. This was the apocalypse tailor-made for the age of Woodward and Bernstein.

By the ’80s, the end of the world no longer seemed to be something that was merely happening to us, but something caused by us. Our films forced us to look in the mirror. In 1981’s Escape From New York, Manhattan has been transformed into a maximum-security prison — a hellhole that anyone who lived in the crime-and graffiti-plagued city at the time would have recognized. In 1984’s The Terminator, the future is a badlands overrun by sentient killing machines resulting from humanity’s technological hubris. The film’s director, James Cameron, was telling us: We have no one to blame but ourselves.

The ’90s took familiar apocalyptic tropes and supersized them in juggernauts such as 1995’s Waterworld, 1996’s Independence Day, and 1998’s Deep Impact. It wasn’t until the approach of the millennium that we got our first brave-new-world dystopia: 1999’s The Matrix. In the decade leading up to the Wachowskis’ film, the Internet had fundamentally altered the way we live, communicate, and conduct business. Y2K hysteria was in the air as we struggled to make sense of a revolution that had happened so quickly and totally that most of us didn’t quite understand it beyond the vague notion that it had something to do with ones and zeros. The Matrix sensed these anxieties like a dowsing rod. The arrival of Keanu Reeves’ digital messiah, Neo, kicked off the second golden age of apocalypse cinema — an uneasy era of existential shock and awe.

In the 15 years between The Matrix and the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road, Hollywood has produced more than 85 apocalyptic films. Perhaps that number isn’t all that surprising considering that in the aftermath of 9/11, we were all looking for comfort and catharsis in the dark of the multiplex, where even the bleakest movies tend to end on a note of hope.

Today, our grim fascination with our own extinction seems to have shifted to tales about global warming and ecological catastrophe. As scientists sound ever-more-urgent alarms about climate change and the shrinking polar ice caps, filmmakers have scrambled to read both the headlines and the psychological tea leaves in an attempt to reflect those anxieties back to us. Regardless of whether these films come packaged as razzle-dazzle disaster porn (2004’s The Day After Tomorrow), sobering documentaries (2006’s An Inconvenient Truth), animated kiddie flicks (2008’s WALL?E), or trippy action spectacles like this summer’s Snowpiercer, the message is the same: We’ve seen the cause of our ultimate demise…and it is us. What could be more apocalyptic than that?