Apocalypse 2000? Hollywood Embraces The Second Coming
If you're looking for signs of the end, you don't have to go much farther than your local movie theater or video store. It's not just because -- as every good Fundamentalist and Republican knows -- Hollywood is just another name for Babylon. As the century dwindles away, the commercial potential of Doomsday increases. Far be it for the Dream Factory not to sell tickets to the Greatest Show on Earth, an opportunity that comes only once a millennium.And so the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- Plague, War, Famine, Death -- ride across the big and little screens in incarnations that the Book of Revelation never dreamed of. Plague gallops through the past in Restoration and The Horseman on the Roof and into the present in Outbreak; it mutates into futuristic strains in 12 Monkeys and in screenwriter David Koepp's upcoming debut, The Trigger Effect. War is unleashed from within in Strange Days and Broken Arrow; it descends from without in the upcoming alien invasion of Independence Day and in Tim Burton's new project, Mars Attacks. Famine broods over the deeps of Waterworld; Death is a redeeming angel in Seven. The future, whatever is left of it, offers more of the same, celluloid visions of global catastrophe, including remakes of Planet of the Apes and, the granddaddy of the Second Coming, Godzilla.Although the current vogue of Apocalypse is due in part to the approaching end of the century, it's always had its fascination in cinema. As early as 1910, which was a Halley's comet year, The Comet showed what happens when Earth collides with one. The End of the World, a Danish film made six years later, offered the same story, emphasizing the kinky orgies that precede the big crash. (Comets, by the way, should be a big deal in the coming year; two spectacular ones are expected, and Pat Robertson slams one into this sinful planet in his novel, The End of the Age.) Without a viable Antichrist, however, the Apocalypse is just another special-effects extravaganza. A projection of a period's desired fears and feared desires, the Antichrist takes the shape of whatever anxiety the age nurtures. In the late '20s and '30s, with the specters of fascism, communism and economic collapse stalking the world, epic productions posited a future in which these extremes would polarize and end in an Armageddon of futuristic, purging warfare.Fritz Lang's Metropolis(1926) set the standard. In a superbly set-designed futuristic city, the industrialists browse in paradisial towers while the workers languish in subterranean hells. A prophetess, Maria, urges her fellow workers to be patient and await the "Mediator." A wicked scientist, however, creates a robotic Anti-Maria, who leads the masses to a catastrophe reminiscent of Noah's Flood. A transparent allegory of class conflict demonizing Communist revolutionaries, it was a favorite of Hitler and Goebbels, who had apocalyptic designs of their own.Those designs were uncannily foretold in Things To Come (1936), a sometimes ponderous, sometimes visionary adaptation of H.G. Wells's tendentious book. The film begins with World War II breaking out in 1940, a cataclysm evoked with astonishingly prescient detail. By 1970, "Everytown," the film's allegorical metropolis, is a wasteland run by a thug called the "Boss." To the rescue comes Raymond Massey with his placating "peace gas." Is he the Antichrist bearing an alluring but inhuman future? A harbinger of the thousand-year rule of the righteous predicted in Revelation? Leap ahead to 2036 and the docile Utopia starts to take on the sinister aspects of Wells's The Time Machine (1960).The real-life horrors of war provided the '40s with all the Apocalypse the decade needed. The end of that war and the beginning of the Cold one blessed Hollywood with a host of apocalyptic dreads and preoccupations. Hiroshima and Nagasaki presented images of doom and divine retribution that would appall John of Patmos; the godless tyranny of the Soviet Union sported the marks of the Beast.Like the dragons and angels of Revelation, the demons and saviors of '50s apocalyptic flicks came from the abyss and from the heavens. Unchained by the Lucifer of atomic testing, the Red Dragon emerged from the depths in the form of Godzilla (1956). Like the less daunting dinosaur of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and the giant ants in Them! (1954), the 400-foot-tall ill-tempered saurian represented a return to primordial chaos paradoxically brought on by science's greatest achievement -- the discovery of atomic energy.Such diabolical manifestations called for a messianic counterpart, and one arrived from the skies as Michael Rennie and his robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). An extraterrestrial prophet admonishing mankind against its self-destructive and scientifically overreaching path, Rennie gets crucified for his troubles, is resurrected (shades of E.T.), and leaves with a warning that is one of the most chilling moments in Hollywood cinema.For the most part, though, the heavens offered not redemption but a screen onto which audiences could project their worst fears about the Red Menace. In Invaders from Mars (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the threat posed by the aliens is ideological -- they brand their victims with the mark of the Beast and remake them into their image. In War of the Worlds (1953) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the threat is overt, high-tech combat with the mass destructiveness of nuclear war.Forty years after the height of the Cold War and the heyday of apocalyptic filmmaking, Hollywood confronts the new millennium without an Evil Empire. Instead of two opposed systems poised for the last battle, the world consists of mean and fragmented barbarities fighting savagely over nothing in particular. None has the stature or depth to pretend to be the Beast, Dragon, or Antichrist. As a result, recent scenarios have been forced look inward for their demons.Materialism and technology have long been regarded as roots of human evil -- indeed, most of Revelation is a wearying chronicle of the destruction of earthly treasures and human accomplishments. Beginning with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968) Hollywood has looked on this lust for technological progress and the consequent blurring of the human and inhuman with an ambivalent eye. James Cameron's Terminator series pitches this preoccupation in the most spectacularly apocalyptic terms.Currently, technology gets both trashed and stroked in Broken Arrow, in which John Woo attacks the theme with almost farcical excess, exposing in his villain's fetishistic idolatry of phallic military hardware the macho mentality that causes wars. The title of the film is a clue to the anxiety motivating its villain. John Travolta's renegade Air Force pilot is a ruthless opportunist along the lines of Saddam Hussein, a man embittered about his own perceived emasculation by a superior father figure who's willing to destroy everything in order to gain what he feels is his due. In normal times, such pathological types would be content to be serial killers or real-estate developers. Now, however, with nuclear arms, in the words of one of Broken Arrow's characters, available from any former Soviet republic for the price of a Mercedes, apocalyptic power can be had by all.And the way Woo presents it, such destructiveness is sexy indeed. From the sleek black delta of the stealth bomber to the slick metal shaft of the "broken arrow" itself, he makes nuclear devastation seem like a consumation devoutly to be wished. When one of the big ones does go off, the massive shock waves seem purgative, the expanding crater a newly opening world; and the blast ends with a couple standing by an Eden-like stream, watching butterflies bask in the sunlight.Enveloped by chaos and dread, without the clarity of a guiding ideology or a premonitory enemy, we fall back on irrationality and violence, on the impulse to destroy in order to renew. That is the meaning of Apocalypse: to rend the veil, to destroy the duplicitous Antichrist, the all-powerful Babylon, the seductive Scarlet Whore -- whoever conceals the true and the good. These days that could mean voting for Pat Buchanan, for whom the reigning Babylon is Washington -- an obsession strikingly epitomized in the Independence Day trailer, where a thunderbolt from heaven blows the White House to smithereens. Or it could mean embracing the intolerance of the new Puritans, who see the Scarlet Woman in other people enjoying themselves -- an impulse embodied in the murderous, avenging prophet in Seven.Yet the apocalyptic instinct can also be individual rather than collective, inwardly rejuvenating rather than outwardly corrosive. The most challenging and thoughtful of the doomsday movies -- Seven, Strange Days, 12 Monkeys, Restoration -- parallel a universal crisis with an individual spiritual journey. In his last book, Apocalypse, D.H. Lawrence interpreted Revelation as a pagan initiation into spirituality corrupted by Christian commentators, a process about which William Blake writes, "Then the Last Judgment begins, & its Vision is seen by the imaginative Eye or Every one according to the situation he holds." Whether on the screen or in the events of the day the signs of the end can be read, but the only end we are responsible for is our own.