The End of the Fu**in World: History of Disaster Films


2020 feels like Armageddon, and the whole Internet has been joking about it since the beginning of March. The coronavirus pandemic and international conflicts, celebrity deaths and uprisings – it feels as if the planet will overthrow at one point.

For some reason, the end of the world was an attractive topic at all times when it was foretold. Long ago John the Apostle predicted the Apocalypse. However, in his concept it should have been a global cleanup from sins. But the sacred meaning was lost. The motif of Armageddon has acquired dozens of interpretations in culture since 100 AD. Some disaster movies reflect the aggravation of the political situation, while, on the contrary, become a psychological relief.

In the modern sense the Apocalypse is associated with the fall of a meteorite which has been allegedly bequeathed by the Mayan civilization, a planetary-scale disaster caused by a volcano eruption, and even with the invasion of aliens. All of this isn't as realistic as it used to be, for example, ten years ago. But once the Apocalypse has been a very realistic threat for the whole world. Almost every disaster film has hidden symbolism that became a mirror of that time.

by Naya Guseva


30-40s: World War II
In the first half of the twentieth century war was the main menace that could destroy a huge number of people and the world's peace for many years. The omen of the Second World War was the 1936 film
The Shape of Things to Come directed by William Cameron Menzies from a screenplay by H. G Wells. The science fiction writer was involved in the creation of the picture - he approved the cast and the composer Arthur Bliss, came up with the sets and costumes, controlled the shooting process almost completely. The film is mostly about the post-apocalyptic future of the Earth, but it also shows a 30-year war during which cities are destroyed by bombing, thousands of people die from gas attacks and an unknown virus nicknamed "walking fever" appears. The Shape of Things to Come became an important precedent in cinema. For the first time the problem of the end of civilization was subjected to serious philosophical consideration. The film polemizes with the Metropolis (1927) previously released in Germany, but Wells planned to contrast his own project with the German dystopian drama:
Immediately after the WWII the world was frightened by the phantom of the Third World War – this period was called the Cold War. The global confrontation between the USSR and the United States lasted from the mid-40's to the early 90's. The countries did not resort to military action, but the nuclear menace kept the entire world at bay. In 1962, the Caribbean crisis erupted in Cuba and became the peak of a tense political and diplomatic situation.

In 1951, Robert Wise released the film The Day the Earth Stood Still based on the short story «Farewell to the Master» by Harry Bates. In 1952, just a year after its premiere, the film won the Golden Globe Award for "Best film promoting world understanding." It shows the threat from extraterrestrials who actually came with a nice request – to unite with other civilizations. The meaning of the film is as straightforward as possible: either people reconcile with each other, or the entire humanity is destroyed. And at the time of the film's release both outcomes seemed most likely.

Ten years later the Val Guest's film with a quite similar title The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) was released. It does not show the confrontation between the United States and the USSR, but it tells us about the simultaneous nuclear tests as a result of which the Earth begins to spin in a different direction and approaches the Sun.
In contrast to Menzies' realistic painting, 1927's Metropolisis a science-fiction utopia, the peak of German film expressionism and one of Adolf Hitler's favorite films. In Metropolis there's a city divided into two parts – Paradise with its luxurious life and Hell which is an underground industrial home of workers. The silent film, though in hyperbolized fiction, is about the struggle and reconciliation of the two classes; the film is linked with further historical events.
Nonsense like the one we see in Fritz Lang's Metropolis should be put out of our mind forever. We must do the exact opposite"
50s-70s: The Cold War and nuclear weapons
The theme of nuclear war does not disappear after the Caribbean crisis. In 1964 two films devoted to the world threat were released all at once. These are Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe and Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In the Fail-Safe we see a more noble behavior of the leaders than it actually was: by mistake, the control center of a squadron of American bombers destroys Moscow, despite the attempts to prevent it from both sides. But the capital cannot be saved, and the US President orders the destruction of New York to convince the Soviets of a fatal mistake.

Lumet represented the world situation in all seriousness, whereas Kubrick made an anti-militaristic satire on the arms race. It was based on Peter George's Thriller «Red alert» first published in 1958 which reflects the tense situation in fear of a nuclear Apocalypse. However, the source was reinterpreted, and the movie turned out to be a dark comedy in which an anticommunist American general begins a nuclear attack on the USSR. If the ending is optimistic and the leaders come to world cooperation in the book, Kubrick's end of the film shows the beginning of a nuclear war. By the way, documentary footage of the tests of the Trinity nuclear bomb, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and several military operations have been used for the plausibility in the final.
Everyone understands that the end is inevitable, and most of all is understood by journalists who expose scandals and intrigues and try to catch everything before the collision. Perhaps this is the "revelation" that John the Apostle was talking about long before the events of the twentieth century.
80-90's: Chernobyl disaster
In the year of the disaster Konstantin Lopushansky shot his first full-length film Letters of a dead man (1987). Since the director was a follower of Andrei Tarkovsky and participated in the Stalker (1979) shootings and the script for the film was written by Boris Strugatsky, the picture turned out to be joyless and saturated with despair. Because of the nuclear explosion at the American military base, cities were wiped off the map and the atmosphere was filled with radioactive ash. The main character professor Larsen played by Roland Bykov tries to find out what happened and rescue those who can still be saved. Undoubtedly, due to the coincidence of the picture release with the Chernobyl disaster, the film caused incredible resonance, and the main character was perceived as an academician Sakharov. Arkady Strugatsky later called the picture "a clever and cruel drama about people in a situation where humanity must use all its forces to eliminate."

For Lopushansky this tape was not the last apocalyptic one. In 1989 the fantastic film Museum Visitor was released, combining art-house and social drama. As a result of an environmental disaster, which is a direct reference to the Chernobyl tragedy, people disappear from the Earth almost completely. A religious parable about the search for meaning, sacrifice and fanaticism – this is how the film was described by critics. Lopushansky himself said that the picture shows the logical conclusion of consumer relations between a man and nature – the main character atoning for the entire humanity. In order to convey the full horror of what happened more than a thousand mentally ill people participated in the extra.
As the Cold war was coming to an end, an environmental collapse of unprecedented scale was approaching. On April 26, 1986 an accident happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The reactor was completely destroyed, and radioactive substances were released into the environment in huge quantities. The nearby city Pripyat is still an exclusion zone where living is prohibited due to the risk of radiation exposure.
Along with the twentieth century, the comprehensive fear of nuclear war ends, too. It is replaced with more fantastic reasons for the end of the world. The Mayans left us one of the most famous predictions of Armageddon, making December 21, 2012 the last date in their calendar. As soon as the adepts of the New Age who believe in the special wisdom and spirituality of an ancient civilization made an affirmative fact out of the eschatological mistake, the global hysteria began. Even though scientists immediately denied the claims about the impending Apocalypse, the mechanism was already started, and the whole world was waiting for the End.

There was a huge number of films about deadly meteorites flying to Earth: The 12 Disasters of Christmas (2012), The End of the World (2013), 2012 (2009) and many others. In 1998 Michael Bay released the film about a huge asteroid that is capable of annihilating everything – Armageddon is still one of the most popular pictures about the end of the world. The huge asteroid is to demolish all forms of life on earth – even bacteria will not survive. The film was produced by the golden cast: the script was written by JJ Abrams, the main roles were played by Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler and the soundtrack was written by Aerosmith band leader Steve Tyler. However, Bruce Willis received Golden Raspberry for this role as the worst actor. Despite the heroic plot and large-scale idea, the film received negative reviews from critics and aroused the anger of physicists who found disregard of the elementary laws of physics in the movie.
90-00s: asteroids, viruses and aliens
Later the fantastic phenomenon was theoretically explained by infection, and now doctors even consider mutated flu or rabies as possible causes of the zombie virus. Despite the fact that the living dead are still considered fictional creatures, the fear of a zombie Apocalypse is firmly ingrained in the culture. In 1968 George Romero made the classic horror film Night of the Living Dead which began the popularization of zombies. From this picture the concept of the revived dead is also changing – now these creatures are not just zombified people obeying someone's orders, but corpses that can physically function while having no mind. Romero was inspired by Richard Matson's novel «I am Legend» where the main character was almost the only survivor in a land invaded by vampires. In 2007 Francis Lawrence released a film adaptation of the novel with the same name. In that story a miraculous cure for cancer found by scientists turns out to be a virus that later infects almost the entire population of the planet. As a result, zombies take over the world, and the main character's task is to deliver the serum to the survivors. After this movie Will Smith became a savior in people's minds.

A few years earlier, in 2002, Danny Boyle made the film 28 Days Later which then became a classic of films about the zombie Apocalypse and pushed Matson to adapt the novel. The creators turned to films of the 1970s and books about the post-apocalyptic world. Boyle himself called his film a tribute to the genre of zombie-horrors. In the film the UK is consumed by a pandemic virus that turns people into deadly zombies, and only a few survivors try to save their lives. Danny Boyle rethinks films about the living dead in such a way:
Meteors were not the last threat – suddenly people remembered the good old pandemic and such evil spirits as zombies which had already appeared in the cinema, but gained special popularity only by the beginning of the 21st century. Initially zombies were represented as corpses brisked by sorcery, and the process of resurrection was rooted in religion and mythology.
Now disaster movies are not as popular as they used to be ten years ago. Why watch the end of the world in a movie theater when you can just read the news? The representation of the Apocalypse is now divided into two directions: philosophical and comedic. The first one is Lars von Trier's Melancholy (2011), a film that tells us about the personal Armageddon of the main character which echoes the end of the world on a planetary scale. We see how the whole story ends at the very beginning – the Earth collides with the planet Melancholy. According to the director's idea this title describes the inner state of the heroine which will eventually destroy not just her but the entire humanity.

Comedic approach to the end of the world is more common. Making fun of the universal end helps to treat possible Apocalypse easier – why not laugh when you're at death's door? The actor Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright love to laugh at this most of all: The World's End (2013), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Paul (2011) wouldn't have been created without their contribution. As you might guess, these three comedies are dedicated to the three horsemen of modern culture's Apocalypse – an asteroid, a zombie virus and an alien creature.

Jim Jarmusch's latest film The Dead Don't Die (2019) is somewhere between comedy and philosophy. The main idea of the consumer-zombie is shown in a rather primitive and snobbish way; Jarmusch ridicules the automatism of modernity.
Boyle also changes the concept to "rage virus" which is a characteristic of social aggression we're facing everywhere. That is why the virologists in the film are trying to create a medicine like a sedative. The rage virus also echoes rabies which is transmitted by animals. Animals often suffer from the fact that they are considered to be the cause of emerging viruses. For example, in the Spanish horror REC (2007) a whole building is infected by a dog. Of course, the actual cause turns out to be different, but the motive of the virus that transforms people into incredibly frightening zombies remains unchanged. Due to the fact that the film is a stylized documentary, it is even more unpleasant to watch it. REC seems to be one of the most plausible films about infected people.

This is where we get to aliens that are on the pedestal of science fiction. An allegedly real observation of aliens was documented in Canada in 1935. But the more accessible the Internet and other mass media became, the more claims of the aliens coming there were. However, they were not always depicted as the notorious green men. In Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005) based on the novel of the same name by H. G. Wells aliens are represented as giant machines that destroy everything in their way. The hum of a tripod walking through a dilapidated city has become one of the most famous sounds from horror movies.
"Previous zombie films were products of their own era, the cold war, when society was in constant fear of nuclear war"
Nowadays: satire and reinterpretation
Critics accused the picture of excessive slowness, narrow-minded jokes and the director's self-obsession, but it seems that there is not much to laugh at in the movie.
The Apocalypse held the title of one of the most popular motives in culture ranging from religious predictions to false reports of contact with races from other galaxies. It is likely that there will be several films dedicated to the virus after the COVID-19 commotion. For example, Michael Bay has already decided to produce such a film – the one Screen Actors Guild forbade to act in. In any case the fear of Armageddon is not as strong as it used to be – worse things happen in the real life.
Nonsense like the one we see in Fritz Lang's Metropolis should be put out of our mind forever. We must do the exact opposite"

"Previous zombie films were products of their own era, the cold war, when society was in constant fear of nuclear war"
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