Apocalypse Wow! Why Do We Love the End of the World So Damn Much?

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On a scale of one to Mad Max, how prepared are you for the end of the world? Chances are if you're reading this — i.e., you're an American who loves pop culture enough to read analysis and commentary about it — you're as well-prepared for humanity's last hurrah as TV, movies and comics can make you. Truth be told, that's probably not all that prepared — ever seen a scene in an apocalyptic movie where the heroes try to figure out how to purify water, then die from failing? Me, neither — but that's not really the point. The point is, for whatever goddamn reason, we love fiction chronicling arguably the very worst thing that can happen. There's so much of it that the Denver Film Society can program a six-week slate of post-apocalyptic film at the Sie FilmCenter (starting this weekend with a free preview of Mad Max: Fury Road ) featuring six great end-times films (okay, Terminator 2 is more of a pre-end-times film, but still) — and all six could be swapped out for equally great films many times over without even scratching the surface of what's out there. So what is it about the end of the world that holds such fascination for us?

It's got to be death, right? We've all got this innate fear of our own death on some level, and what is the apocalypse but death come for everyone? (Or nearly everyone — you need enough pretty-looking people to populate your movie, after all.) So many themes in film and literature come down to cathartic ways of exploring our worst fears at a safe remove, and the universal dread of our last goodbye has to be the major driver in the appeal of films, books and television about the end of days. And since any dreaded experience is easier to face with a few friends, why not death? If you have to go — and we all do at some point — why not take everyone with you?

On a more local level — meaning the United States — there's always been this strong current of deluded individualism that crops up in our film, literature and politics. My fellow Americans love to believe that if they were just left alone, with no boss or government or whatever to hold them back, they could do everything so much better. You see it in the romanticized tales of the Old West, where flinty-eyed loners head out to the frontier to realize their true selves, unchecked by society. You see it in the utter lunacy and bewildering popularity of Ayn Rand, who insisted that if we were all left alone to do whatever the fuck we wanted with absolutely no checks on our behavior, utopia would spontaneously emerge, fully formed. And you sure as hell see it in most apocalyptic and post apocalyptic movies, where a single man, or maybe a small group of would-be loners, manages to not just survive, but thrive in the new world order of tire fires, roving gangs of mutants and mandatory cannibalism. Hey, if you can't make it in the apocalypse, what kind of hardy self-starter are you?

A third possibility occurs to me that mates the deep-seated fears of the first with the borderline psychotic wish fulfillment of the second into one unholy union I can only characterize as the "I told you so!" hypothesis. See, these apocalyptic entertainments tend to come in waves — you get a bunch of disease films, then a bunch of nuclear war films, and so on — that take turns being the most popular conception of the apocalypse. This allows anyone who believes that the armageddon depicted therein is how we're actually all going to die to revel in a sense of smug, self-defeating satisfaction. The loopy Christians who believe we're all about to get Raptured get to pat themselves on the back and nod to themselves knowingly as Nic Cage gets Left Behind and the eco freaks get to do the same while they suffer through the excesses of Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow. "See!" they say, nodding to themselves as the horror unfolds onscreen, "This is what's going to happen if everyone doesn't start praying/buying recycled toilet paper/whatever." It's a lot easier than actually doing anything to stave off our impending doom, after all.

Or maybe we just like the heightened drama and manageable casts that come with a story set in a world where there's only sixty people left to fight over the last three cold beers left on the planet. I don't know, but if anyone wants to give me a shitload of cash to do some research into it, I'm easily reachable. In the meantime, regardless of why we love them, Hollywood keeps feeding us feel-good movies about really terrible possibilities, and we keep eating them up. So go, enjoy your new Mad Max movie, then enjoy the rest of the films in the series and the roughly 8,000 other fantastic apocalyptic tales out there, at least until the real apocalypse comes and you're too busy trying to learn how to purify water with nothing more than old bedsheet and some good intentions to worry about your entertainment options.

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.

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