We’re pretty fucked, and we know it.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about the grim economic and political situation in which our generation has found itself. If the present is indeed a culmination of the trends of the last two decades, then it would seem to be no mere coincidence that our era has witnessed a phenomenal rise across all forms of media in the formerly obscure subgenres of nihilism, post-apocalypticism and dystopian fiction. And even less surprising is how avidly our generation has consumed the stuff.
We were born into upheaval and collapse. We were raised during the height of the Cold War, and were toddlers when the Soviet Union disintegrated and Germany reunited. For those of us raised in the United States, then came the boom years of the Clinton era. Even to our less-than-fully-conscious minds, things seemed to be going pretty well. At least one, if not both our parents (or all four) had a job. We were safe from scary things like that Gorbyshave man, and this fantastic new thing called AOL was making our lives really interesting.
But as they say, “the night is darkest before dawn”—and, perhaps by the same token, the day is brightest at sunset. The unbelievable trauma that the destruction of the World Trade Center and the E-Ring of the Pentagon wrought on my nation was unparalleled in living memory. For our generation, it defined the beginning of our maturity, including attention to politics and global affairs.
Suddenly, threats were everywhere. Sleeper cells here, anthrax in the mail there, poisoning the water supply everywhere. Death could strike without notice at any spot around the world.
Explanations for apocalyptic fixation abound. The entire theme of Scientific American’s September 2010 issue was in fact, “The End,” and variously suggested science, human vanity and fear of our own mortality as the culprits behind our “eternal fascinations.”
Visions of annihilation were hardly absent from theaters before September 11. As far back as the disintegration of Los Angeles City Hall in 1953’s War of the Worlds, Hollywood has enjoyed blowing up the buildings and monuments we well know. But the scale of this destruction has increased: By the 1990s, Independence Day (notably, the first PG-13 movie I saw in a theater) was like a cinematic Frommer’s Guide to World Destruction. Aliens destroyed landmarks such as the Empire State Building, White House and Los Angeles Library Tower.
Godzilla, another Roland Emmerich demolition orgy, saw the massive lizard waltz through midtown Manhattan, laying waste to the Metlife Building and Madison Square Garden among many, many others. Of course, a good portion of that damage was accidental – the big guy’s tail had a mind of its own.
New York City, that defining American city, has been destroyed onscreen a thousand times over. Since even the nineteenth century, its destruction has sparked the cinematic imagination. Directors often alter original settings of a story to New York, like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which as a novel is set in Los Angeles. In the film adaptation, Will Smith inhabits a deserted New York City; the better to show off Manhattan in all its uninhabited glory.
If the 1990s were all about decadent, pretty Los Angeles, then the 2000s belonged to declined, gritty New York. Our generation projected all its globalized fears and anxieties onto this urban canvas. Cloverfield follows a group of hipsters as they attempt to escape Manhattan, and a terrifying monstrosity within its confines. Youth figures again when, in The Day After Tomorrow, a band of precocious high schoolers must burn books for warmth in the New York Public Library after global warming speeds up local cooling.
Even during earlier boom years, we were raised on a steady diet of destruction. And, while I’m pretty sure apocalyptic visions never figured heavily in children’s literature, the movies we saw were chilling enough. But it was after September 11 that our film, fiction, video games, and other media all took on more ominous overtones than ever before. Whereas the 1990s had focused on the swift obliteration of societies, the 2000s – with that obliteration now fulfilled in reality– moved towards a focus on dystopian systems, and the ensuing degradation of the world we live in. The disaster movies of the 1990s – Armageddon, Deep Impact, Volcano, Dante’s Peak, and even those of less total devastation, like Daylight or Escape from L.A.– all represented the specter of annihilation as denoting a clear break from previous societal trends.
One day, you’re in the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles. The next, you’re on a severed island of ex-convicts. Washington, D.C. is vaporized in an instant by the alien ships in Independence Day, and, in response, we nuke Houston ourselves. The aftermath is all about surviving in the new world, of making the best of a grim situation (after, of course defeating the invading aliens/asteroids/monsters). Our collective need to adapt to a radically new situation sprung from our unconscious to become a definitive new cinematic motif.
Hints of a threat of death at the hands of the new Islamist terrorism emerged in films of the late 1990s; particularly in a startlingly prescient The Siege, which portrays a series of bombings in Lower Manhattan that lead to a declaration of martial law. Brooklyn is sealed off from the rest of the city, with all males of Arab descent rounded up and placed in detention camps: See video here.
As Denzel Washington asks, what if what the terrorists want is for us to overreact? To put soldiers on the street? The Siege, remarkable for its prescience, was released in 1998.
Even 2002’s The Sum of All Fears had been written and mostly shot before September 11, 2001. Originally, the terrorists in its plot who detonate a nuclear weapon in Baltimore were meant to be Arab pan-nationalists. But director Phil Robinson thought that the very idea of Arab terrorists had possibly become a cliché. (Clichéd before it was even a reality: that sounds like our generation, for whom, once ten people like a phenomenon, it has already “sold out” and gone mainstream.) Immediately after September 11, Hollywood responded with a slew of movies involving Arabs, Muslim terrorism, the Iraq War and Afghanistan—but the popularity of this genre waned (not that it ever really caught on) in favor of a strange kind of escapist fare.
We truly embraced the zombie apocalypse. 28 Days Later, released in 2002, single-handedly revived the undead genre. The film upended classic tropes like the slow, shuffling zombie movements (Christian Thorne wrote a remarkably detailed analysis on why fast zombies change everything), and appended zombie lore with more “scientific” explanations as to their existence (the “Rage Virus”). 28 Days spawned its own sequel, inspired the remake of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, inspired George Romero to film three more ___ of the Dead movies and saw Robert Rodriguez and Simon Pegg offering their own take on the zombie phenomenon. Showing that the trend had leapt from entertainment to the academy, Daniel Drezner used the zombie wave as a metaphor for the varying schools of international relations theory. Further into the realm of contemporary reality, disaster risk assessment became an increasingly lucrative industry.
True, our parents had their own impressions of nuclear holocaust. But even in genre classics like The Day After, their apocalypse was portrayed as a passive experience. During the Cold War, annihilation was either going to come from an exchange of nuclear ICBMs, or not at all. Characters were focused on catastrophic circumstances that had to be dealt with, coped with, and managed.
But in our time, death and the end of everything can come from anywhere. Even the few nuclear apocalypses portrayed in popular entertainment during the 2000s were nonspecific as to where precisely from whence the implicated nuclear weapons originated (an uncertainty that is, in fact, part of the plot line of Jericho). Our generation’s vision of apocalypse is maximalist, but it at least grants us a degree of agency. Both the original recession-era Dawn of the Dead and its remake were indictments of rampant, mindless consumerism. The films are set in a suburban shopping mall, where the undead congregate in an imitation of the only remembered vestige of their human lives: shopping. It’s not subtle, but it’s a message to which we millennials are particularly receptive.
Other zombie fiction has been no less allegorical (if less overt). 28 Days Later evolves from a straightforward, last-man-standing scenario into a psychological thriller by its end, exploring the civil-military relationship and the baser instincts of man. The Craig Dilouie novel Tooth and Nail describes an army unit recalled to New York to defend a hospital from zombie hordes, echoing concerns of American military overstretch. Paul Anderson’s film adaption of Resident Evil calls out the corporate pharmaceutical industry. A number of zombie movies begin with a montage of news clips outlining the total breakdown of world society. The fake news reports are all too familiar: See video here.
But at least we know what we’ll do. Who of our generation hasn’t at some point compiled their own “zombie preparedness plan,” at least in passing? Beginning in 2005, we logged onto Urban Dead, a free multi-player web game based on survival scenarios in a presumptive zombie apocalypse. Clearly, the zombie genre reveals our generation’s deep anxieties of civil unrest and fears about a full-on societal unraveling.
Our zombie plans double as those to be used in case of mass uprising: Stockpile some guns and ammunition, find a safe cabin in the mountains, keep a huge reserve of canned goods there. This method works for zombies, starving radiation-ravaged nomads, or jackbooted government thugs—all of which have weighed heavily on our minds heavily in the decade since 9/11.
We’ve put a lot of thought into our contingency plans. Some might say too much, writes Gary Brecher, the “War Nerd”:
It usually comes down to gun talk. That really makes me laugh. As if small arms would get you through the end of the world … Being tough, being armed to the teeth and ready to kick ass, that wouldn’t save you either if it all came down. It’d come down to dull stuff that nobody wants to think about, like organization. That’s what really hits me about these survival fantasies: it’s always about holing up in your house with guns and ammo and years of video-game wet dreams bouncing around in your head.The most interesting – and disturbing – question this discourse raises, is whether this eventuality is something we actually want. As Max Brooks, author of zombie novel World War Z, mused: “I don't know what's scarier; the fact that zombies could rise or the fact there are actually people out there that can't wait for it to happen. So they can just start loading up with guns and get on their motorcycles.” What happens when, in the face of an existential zombie threat, the government declares martial law in the interest of national security?
Recent years have seen renewed interest in dystopian fiction. Even Philip Roth delved into the genre in 2003 with The Plot Against America, an alternate history retelling of how Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh won the presidency in 1940 and promptly began to enact a uniquely American version of the Final Solution. As a response to the PATRIOT Act and various other rollbacks of civil liberties under the Bush Administration, the scenario is a bit heavy-handed. Yet Roth’s novel is very much in keeping with our cynicism and contempt for political developments in the last decade.
The Chinese are getting into the dystopia-as-allegory business, with a recent novel called Shengshi Zhongguo 2013 (rough translation: The Gilded Age: China 2013) proclaiming that China’s recent rise and newfound wealth has come at a terrible price. Reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, “everybody in China seems utterly blissed out, and self-congratulation about China's prosperity is the main pasttime among the elites.” The government has spiked the nation’s water supply with a powerful drug. The Chinese vision of dystopia is more of a creation myth; a warning wrapped inside a parable. But in our dystopias, there’s less a sense of the possible. We may very well be too late.
Despite our rejection of wholesale nihilism, and belief that things will get better, this generation also accepts that things probably won’t (and prepares for the worst). We are eternally hopeful whilst resigned to grim reality. We ask for something more subtle than the typical “Hollywood ending,” instead preferring a tone of quiet, stoic hope tempered with realism. Like the last lines of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, we understand that, while nothing will ever be the same again, there is still good in the world:
On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. '1'McCarthy, born in 1933, was a child of the Great Depression. If today’s Great Recession can inspire from our nascent writers the utter bleakness that is The Road, then apocalyptic fiction might replace the real-life enactment of darker impulses.
Watching the fictitious prosperity of the Bush years evaporate in an orgy of economic decline was not wholly unexpected. If we thought the whole thing was built like a house of cards (I mean, really, we’re just moving money around and it miraculously equals more money?), I’m sure more than some of us took a certain delight in refreshing online charts of the Dow Jones Industrial Average around October of 2008, watching the ups and (mostly) downs of a world gone to hell. It was a roller-coaster ride of destruction, but most importantly, it was real. It was like watching the end times, only it wasn’t on a movie screen or a television. But it wasn’t for another few months that the reality of its meaning hit us: we were really, really screwed.
Disaster begets depression, and with our mood so glum, film has gone full-tilt into blackness. Even movies and franchises that aren’t particularly grim to begin with are getting the “gritty reboot” treatment, adding complexity and darkness to formerly lighthearted fare such as Alice in Wonderland, Batman and Star Trek. Wonderfully executed as some of these movies may be (Christopher Nolan’s new Batman series, with its nihilist terrorist Joker, having won particular critical acclaim), others lack the sheer joy that made them bearable in the first place. Perhaps most tellingly, movies designed for children utilize apocalyptic scenarios, like Disney/Pixar’s Wall•E, about the last robot on earth, doomed to spend its existence cleaning up the trash humanity left behind.
Not only do we have the agency of responding to our apocalypses, we also have the ability to create them in the first place. The Day After Tomorrow and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth highlighted the perils of global climate change, adding that problem to the list of manmade apocalyptic scenarios. It’s a short list: a nuclear exchange, a bioengineered virus, and possibly the sins of mankind. These might be the most terrifying scenarios of all; someone has to be responsible for pushing a button or opening the viral. Even the fictional scenarios – zombies, for instance – are moving towards a scientific justification for their existence, be it a mutation or some sort of new infectious disease. And the fact that a global pandemic of the "zombie virus" or a radically new strain of Ebola could be released by accidentjust seems like a cruel twist of fate.
While we fear a loss of control in the brave new world we face, it’s possible that we’re even more afraid of having that control in the first place. Why else all the rewriting of genre tropes to accommodate explanations? It’s not that audiences have less of an ability to suspend their disbelief; rather, we’re taking ownership of the existential risks to humanity. Perhaps metaphorically this represents a mental “changing of the guard” for our generation – you Boomers and Gen Xers may have createdthis mess, but we’re going to have to live with it, and, by God, fix it if we can. Maybe our fixation on fictional apocalyptic scenarios is an attempt at reassuring ourselves: yes, things could indeed be much, much worse. The fact that in the midst of unprecedented luxury, technology, and relative prosperity, we’re so fixated on worst-case alternatives points to a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the less material aspects of twenty-first century life.
As the recession and economic gloom continues – and possibly worsens– there is a significant risk of permanent pessimism. It’s possible that we use apocalyptic film and literature as a template for what awaits us. Our confidence, our brashness, our sense of superiority (and entitlement) may have led us to believe that some of these stories will come true, but that when they do, we’ll have the wits and the means to overcome. Perhaps we also believe that some of these tales are real to begin with. We’re just preparing for the day when we have to load up the rifles, ammunition, and canned goods onto our motorcycles and drive to our fortified cabin in the mountains. It keeps me up at night.
And I just know that you’ve been thinking about it, too.