Feel-Good Movies About the End of the (Natural) World?

by Anil Narine
21 January 2016

Human annihilation was on offer at the cinema throughout the summer and fall of 2015. As in previous years, such as the 1998 “asteroid summer” (Armageddon, Deep Impact), many recent Hollywood films have found success dramatizing the threat of our extinction.  New sequels to The Terminator, Mad Max, Jurassic Park and The Avengers have reached massive audiences, each by dramatizing threats to our survival in very different ways.

These films capitalize on the drama of humans struggling against a ravaged environment. Alan Taylor’s Terminator: Genisys, the well-received fifth installment of the time-bending saga that pits a hopeful present against a grim post-apocalyptic future, pays homage to James Cameron’s 1984 hit. As Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) and the familiar T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) struggle to avert a nuclear war, we are offered glimpses of this ruined future where the remaining humans hide amid the rubble of their once-green world.  With its politically charged imagery of polygamous oil barons and ecological traumas, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has generated perhaps the most debate of any major US release this year. Nearly every human, animal and plant is already dead and fossilizing in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland where a younger character in the film, Nux (Nicolas Hoult), inspects a tree like it’s an alien object. The sparse population of survivors in Mad Max fight over rationed water and fuel whilst searching for a patch of earth where humans might grow food. Furiosa (Charlize Theron) emerges as a rare hero from the sustained epic battle by diverting a massive automotive entourage off course in order to save a group of pregnant captives, causing a car chase that takes on the proportions of Homer’s The Odyssey.  Faced with the standard set by Steven Spielberg, Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World may have stumbled by depicting a comparatively weak female protagonist, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who opts to wear high heels while running for her life from the dinosaurs.  But the film succeeds in once again examining the ethics of genetic engineering.  The director models the film after the very theme park it depicts, gleefully confronting weary viewers of the over-franchised franchise with something bigger and scarier than anything previously contained within the park’s electric fences.  And even in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, “earth hangs in the balance,” since Ultron—a mysterious villain forged by the information age—is intent on obliterating humanity.  In the context of impending catastrophe, the role of the superheroes is interesting. Their strengths highlight our weaknesses. In the midst of the mayhem of this baffling, seemingly anti-intellectual film, we as viewers may find ourselves pondering something a little deeper: our fragility and the precariousness of the earth.

Why do we tell ourselves such stories? Why do we enjoy them?  Media theorists from the psychoanalytic tradition, on the one hand, and the cognitive tradition, on the other, have posited a variety of theories. One is that we like to be scared while knowing we are safe in the cinema or at home. This experience enables us to engage our fears, deepen our understanding of them, and feel relief afterward.  A second theory is that we like to identify with the strong heroes: Sarah Connor or Mad Max are our ego ideals.  They do battle with evil in a satisfying way that allows our egos to take pleasure in their supremacy.  A third, quite thin theory suggests that dating couples like to be scared, particularly by horror, as a way of performing traditional gender roles (the male viewer attempts to suppress his fear to impress the female viewer, who works to exhibit her fear). And a fourth theory proposes that we subconsciously find “cognitive maps” in unsettling films, which allow us to worry about and ponder solutions to real-world issues that may be depicted only obliquely or metaphorically on screen.

Fredric Jameson outlined the latter theory in his book The Geo-political Aesthetic (1992), which suggested that the 1970s spy thriller enabled viewers to interrogate their own positions as political subjects, and to map the real political conspiracies of that era.  Jameson also conducted the most famous analysis of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, in which he foregrounds the film’s potent allegorical role in addressing 1970s fears of violence, invasion and the return of the repressed.  In our own age of ecological anxiety, it could be possible to deploy Jameson’s theory broadly, to suggest that contemporary speculative-apocalyptic cinema may be inadvertently able to map a complex global economic system of ecological exploitation. In this way, these fantastical film scenarios can be seen to depict sobering suggestions about the real world.

In the original Jurassic Park, as the security systems are sabotaged and break down, and prehistoric beasts begin to run wild, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) stubbornly asserts that getting his computers back online will enable his team to regain control over his park.  Representing a sober, scientific point of view, Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) has by this point noted a range of problems with the park’s logic.  Why do the animals get sick?  Why are Cretaceous, Jurassic and modern plant species growing side by side?  Why is park security centralized in one fallible computer?  In this climactic scene, as Hammond continues to deny the park’s failure by suggesting that tourists will still attend in droves to be thrilled by his “illusion,” Sattler finally bellows: “You never had control! That’s the illusion!  Such a statement is of course targeted not simply at one capitalist theme park entrepreneur, but at capitalism itself, forcing us as viewers to consider whether certain things (like life forms) should not exist in a commodity form.

This year, Jurassic World found an immense global audience, first drawing viewers in with the pleasures of looking at the prehistoric monsters then confronting us with similar difficult questions. Is cloning permissible for scientific or health reasons but not to create living attractions?  Have humans achieved a level of scientific sophistication that allows us to control all other life?  Or is such control an illusion, and are we actually much more fragile in our eco-system than we want to admit? The original film concluded with the scientists and the children escaping from the island in a helicopter, but the final frames also revealed a flock of pelicans flying ominously toward the mainland, possibly transporting dinosaur eggs with them. Jurassic Park II and III additionally stoked fears about the global spread of the hostile creatures, and thus fears of our extinction. It is nature itself that escapes from our best technological enclosures, reminding us that we live according to nature’s rhythms and not the reverse.

Nature is seldom kind to the weary travelers in Mad Max, for instance.  Human activities such as fossil fuel consumption and nuclear conflicts may have scorched the earth, but the natural world now offers next to nothing to its sparse human population.  As tribes war over the remaining fuel, a true cinematic rogue, Furiosa, rises to the almost impossible task of enabling humans to survive.  Assisting her when the gratuitously evil oil barons begin their assault, Max (Tom Hardy) emerges as a savior figure who thanklessly works to foster Furiosa’s vision for the survival of the human race.  Along the perilous journey, Furiosa and Max develop a begrudging respect for one another while the pregnant women Furiosa has liberated cooperate and strategize to do battle with the unstoppable henchmen. The world is nearly destroyed, but human ingenuity and communal relations offer a glimmer of hope.  It is clear that fantastical renderings of the end of the world (at least, as we know it) continue to entrance us.   But it is necessary to ask whether we are interested in the destruction of our cities and our ecosystem per se, or rather its aversion—its prevention by an unlikely team of saviors?

Perhaps we seek reassurance about the end of the world. The Sight and Sound film critic Amy Taubin described the 1996 disaster film Independence Day as a feel-good movie about our annihilation.  Although the movie confounded some critics Independence Day was a summer phenomenon and confronted viewers with a paradoxical narrative: it was a heart-warming picture about global destruction.  What made it a feel-good film? Was it simply that it buoyed viewers because its socially and politically diverse ensemble of characters set aside their differences in order to save the world? Perhaps its true appeal is plausible deniability: in Independence Day, humans were not the cause of their own impending destruction. When they come together, they get to feel good about fighting a total other without worrying about what humans have wrought.

What makes the feel-good post-apocalyptic films of 2015 with depictions of the world’s imperiled ecosystems significant then is that, as Jameson says, we want a sort of mental map of the ecologically damaging processes that concern us because we fear their outcomes as a real possibility.  The cinema has long been discussed as a repository of our dreams—a dream factory that early audiences sought out in order to see “the good life.”  But dreams arise from the unconscious, and many dreams are tied to our deepest fears.  Today a pervasive, cross-cultural fear is that our natural world is in a state of crisis.  Those who deny climate change and the dangers of pipelines—and those who have recently minimized the magnitude of oil spills in Vancouver and Santa Barbara—only confirm that they share this fear by virtue of their inability to face it.

In Psychology, denial has another name—disavowal—and it often results from trauma.  A century ago Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer argued that when a painful event happens, the human sensorium can disavow it and bury it.  So when we deny our impact upon the earth, we may be engaging in disavowal.  On the one hand, we know our ecosystem is imperiled and we want to take action to protect the natural world.  On the other hand, we treat the state of the earth as a trauma: something un-acknowledgeable that we work to repress and disavow.

But wait—why would we line up for spectacles about the very doom we hope to avoid or repress?  One additional theory is that the primitive and the sophisticated regions of our brains enjoy battling it out.  Our highly evolved frontal lobes tell us that “it’s just a movie” as our primitive reptilian brain tells us that “we can see the disaster and people in danger so it must be happening.” And this tension supposedly produces pleasure. Thus, expanding upon Jameson’s decidedly non-neurological theory, the suggestion here is that we want to see films about our fears because we want to map in our minds experiences that concern us. We like the feeling of trying to work it out without having to actually work it out.

It is thus the threat of disaster that is our fixation as viewers, not the happy ending. Some apocalyptic films such as Mad Max may even enable us to overcome our disavowal of the real processes most likely to lead to the end of the world: carbon emissions and climate change. Similarly, Jurassic World generates debates about GMOs and commodification.  Terminator: Genisys’s and The Avengers: Age of Ultron’s vision of unchecked nuclear armament and “smart” computers allows viewers to envision the apocalypse not as a Biblical event, but as the outcome of human insularity, fear and tribalism. We like the “end of the natural world” scenario— “The disaster may be coming,” these films tell us. With their art directors and visual effects teams working overtime, they say, “The future may look something like this.” But when you’re in the cinema sometime soon, witnessing the disaster, just try not to feel too good because our work is not over.


Anil Narine is the editor of the recent anthology Eco-Trauma Cinema (Routledge 2014).  

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