Hollywood Prepares A Flood Of Postapocalyptic Movies & Television Shows
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HOLLYWOOD DESTROYS THE WORLD
By John Jurgensen and Jamin Brophy-Warren
Wall Street Journal
July 31, 2009
The new wave of disaster movies and TV shows isn¹t about staving off the
apocalypse. It¹s what happens afterwards that counts. Viggo Mortensen versus
Director Roland Emmerich has nearly destroyed the world three times already.
This time, he means to finish the job.
In his next movie, ³2012,² which comes out in November, the earth will rip
apart, fulfilling an ancient prophecy. The director previously leveled
civilization with an alien attack in the 1996 movie ³Independence Day,²
unleashed Godzilla a couple years later and orchestrated a climate disaster
in 2004¹s ³The Day After Tomorrow.² His new film, he says, reflects a darker
world view. ³I¹m really very pessimistic these days,² he says.
A flood of postapocalyptic stories is now headed toward movie theaters and
TV screens: Expect to see characters fending off cannibals, picking up
day-to-day survival techniques and struggling to maintain their humanity
amid the ruins. Previous waves of pop-culture disaster, from the Atomic Age
paranoia of ³War of the Worlds² to Watergate-era flicks such as ³The
Towering Inferno,² have depicted calamity in stunning detail. Many of the
new projects, however, actually skip the spectacle of doomsday. Instead,
they¹re more fixed on what goes down in the aftermath.
In ³The Book of Eli,² a movie scheduled for January, Denzel Washington plays
the fierce protector of a book that holds the key to mankind¹s redemption in
an American wasteland created by a war 30 years earlier. ³Day One,² a series
coming to NBC in March, follows a handful of neighbors trying to survive and
understand a calamity that erased the world¹s infrastructure. ³The Colony,²
now airing on Discovery Channel, is a reality show set in an imagined
end-times period in which contestants hunt for food, water and shelter after
a presumed disaster.
No humans at all survive in the blighted world of ³9,² an animated film
produced by Tim Burton in which mechanical dolls learn from the mistakes of
their extinct creators (release date: 09/09/2009). Strong buzz has been
building since last year for ³The Road,² this October¹s film adaptation of
Cormac McCarthy¹s best-selling novel, about a boy and his father trudging
through the scorched remnants of an unspecified cataclysm.
Most of the storytellers say they are reacting to anxiety over real threats
in uncertain times: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, two U.S.
wars abroad, multiple pandemics, a global financial crisis and new attention
to environmental perils. ³The Road² even weaves in footage shot during
recent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, into its scenes of destruction.
³For me, I feel like I live in an apocalyptic world with global warfare, a
recession, and resource scarcity,² says Jesse Alexander, writer and
executive producer of NBC¹s ³Day One.²
Studios have scored with the formula before. In 1981, when fear of nuclear
war predominated, the post-holocaust action movie ³The Road Warrior² became
a hit and made Mel Gibson a star. The run-up to the millennium saw a boomlet
of effects-driven disaster epics, including ³Armageddon² and ³Deep Impact.²
³Independence Day² was the highest-grossing movie of 1996, taking in $300
million in the U.S.
The escapism factor, always a driver at the box office, plays a role in the
latest post-disaster trend, says Rob Kutner, a writer for ³The Tonight Show
with Conan O¹Brien² and author of the satirical ³Apocalypse How: Turn the
End-Times into the Best of Times!² published last year. ³People are less
concerned about their house being foreclosed when it¹s being taken over by
Some are taking a lighter approach to calamity. Seth Rogen, star of ³The
40-Year-Old Virgin² and ³Knocked Up,² is developing a feature film based on
a parody trailer he co-starred in entitled ³Jay and Seth vs. the
Apocalypse.² In the short, two roommates bicker about whether to venture
into the wasteland outside their ruined bachelor pad. In ³Zombieland,² a
movie opening in October, actor Woody Harrelson plays a zombie killer named
Tallahassee, one of the last survivors in a future overrun by the undead.
³Zombieland² director Ruben Fleischer says there¹s room for everyone¹s view
of society¹s afterlife: ³Roland [Emmerich] can have the megadisaster. The
Road¹ can be the most brutal. And ours is fun times in the post apocalypse.
Let¹s look for Twinkies and shoot zombies!²
The storyline of what happens after an inevitable disaster permeates nearly
all the new projects, in contrast to movies like ³Armageddon,² which showed
humanity warding off an impending threat. The Lionsgate film studio recently
acquired rights to ³The Hunger Games,² a young-adult novel set in a ruined
The flash-forward motif launched a surprise best seller two years ago in
Alan Weisman¹s book ³The World Without Us,² which took a scientific approach
to explaining how the framework of civilization would decompose as nature
took back its turf after humans disappeared. The book is in development as
both a fictional feature from Twentieth Century Fox and a documentary film.
In the book, Mr. Weisman presented an optimistic view of what a world
without humans would look like. ³Maybe we¹re in danger, but the world itself
is not in danger,² he says. ³In fact the world itself recovers rather
In the film version of ³The Road,² as in the novel, the apocalypse that
blackened the landscape and set the narrative in motion isn¹t described.
Director John Hillcoat says he pressed author Cormac McCarthy for an answer
about what happened. Mr. McCarthy ³said it didn¹t matter whether it was
nuclear war or mini volcanoes or a comet,² Mr. Hillcoat says. What mattered
was the backdrop for the intimate relationship between a father and son.
Though the calamity remained ambiguous, the filmmakers used real disaster
footage to render their setting. A panoramic scene in the movie includes the
improbable sight of ships marooned on a highway. The image was shot in New
Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit, captured on 70mm IMAX film
by a crew that had been in the area to shoot a documentary about the bayou.
Rather than use computers to create massive smoke plumes, the filmmakers
patched in news footage of the billows that erupted from the World Trade
Center as it burned. Other images came from Mount St. Helens and volcanic
devastation in the Philippines. The collage technique was both allegorical
and practical (and helped keep the budget to a lean $20 million), despite
the fact that most viewers won¹t recognize the source material. ³Our logic
is if you¹re within that place, whether it¹s Katrina or the Twin Towers, it
would be the same as a global apocalypse to you,² Mr. Hillcoat says.
Much of the acting (by Viggo Mortensen as the father and 13-year-old Kodi
Smit-McPhee as his son) was shot in the Pittsburgh area in winter, when
trees were bare and skies dark. Location scouts targeted remnants of the
region¹s faded industries, including terrain scarred by coal mining and an
eight-mile length of highway that had been closed since 1969.
To see how life after the apocalypse might actually play out, the Discovery
Channel decided to launch a human experiment. ³The Colony² was filmed over
10 weeks in an abandoned Los Angeles warehouse with 10 participants with a
variety of backgrounds attempting to emulate a life without electricity,
running water or communication with the outside world. They must create
their own power generators and fend off marauders who try to steal their
supplies. Unlike other reality shows, there are no prize money, contests or
votes for which contestants can stay.
Discovery recruited experts like Adam Montella, a private homeland security
adviser who¹s worked on disaster sites after Hurricane Hugo and the Oklahoma
City bombings. ³Most of the country didn¹t experience Katrina or 9/11, but
they did virtually on television,² Mr. Montella says. ³There¹s nothing
different about the disaster that caused the colony to come together and
another incident which most people can¹t fathom.²
For his animated film ³9,² Shane Acker imagined a postapocalyptic landscape
of grotesque beauty, marked by a burning cathedral, swaying dead grasses and
drifting ashes that resemble snow. ³The sunsets in this toxic environment
are gorgeous,² Mr. Acker says.
He embarked on the film in 2005 as the Iraq conflict was dominating the
news. ³I was constantly being bombarded with images of the war and questions
about our motivation for being there,² Mr. Acker says.
In the story, which he expanded from his Oscar-nominated short film, nine
doll-like characters fight sentient machines that were invented to wage war
but eventually turned on humans. A scientist modeled on J. Robert
Oppenheimer set loose the machines, but also sparked life in the numbered
doll heroes (including 9, voiced by Elijah Wood).
Even when they tackle serious issues, most of the new disaster movies and TV
shows take pains to avoid moralizing, which can be toxic at the box office.
Issue-oriented films, such as ³In the Valley of Elah,² starring Tommy Lee
Jones, and Tom Cruise¹s ³Lions For Lambs,² have tended to fare poorly with
audiences. ³2012² may be an outlet for Mr. Emmerich¹s own pessimism about
the state of the world, but the director also calls it a ³popcorn movie.²
The arms race in digital effects has contributed to the ratcheting up of
apocalyptic scenarios. Roger Smith, an executive editor at the research firm
Global Media Intelligence and a former film executive who oversaw
³Terminator 2,² calls this competition ³the film version of the Cuban
Missile Crisis -- we have to get the edge of extinction each time.²
13 APOCALYPTIC VISIONS
By Jamin Brophy-Warren
1) Things to Come (1936): Written by H.G. Wells, this speculative tale,
whose plot follows 100 years of future history, follows a society torn apart
by war. Many of the battles in the movie presaged those of World War II,
which was just on the horizon.
2) When Worlds Collide (1951): Based on the 1932 sci-fi novel by Philip
Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer, the film won an Academy Award for its special
effects depicting the outcome of a rogue planet¹s collision with the Earth.
³The Mummy² director Stephen Sommers will helm the 2010 remake.
3) War of the Worlds (1953): Martian invaders are the centerpiece of this
film based on the H.G. Wells novel. Orson Welles narrated a radio version in
1938; Tom Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg¹s 2005 film remake.
4) On the Beach (1959): Written during the chill of the Cold War, Nevil
Shute¹s novel about the aftermath of World War III was adapted for film and
starred Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire.
5) Planet of the Apes (1968): Charlton Heston faces off against a
civilization in which apes enslave men; a scene in front of the Statue of
Liberty¹s head became one of sci-fi¹s biggest shockers. The movie inspired
four movie sequels and a widely-panned 2001 remake.
6) The Omega Man (1971): Chased by nocturnal, blood-drinking mutants, Mr.
Heston once again struggles to survive in a bleak new world ravaged by
biological warfare. The story originated from the Richard Matheson novel ³I
Am Legend,² which was also the title used for the blockbuster 2007 remake
starring Will Smith.
7) Mad Max (1979): This dystopian film tracked a policeman (played by Mel
Gibson) avenging the death of his family. The movie¹s vistas of dusty
highways and ruined automobiles were much-copied by other filmmakers.
8) The Terminator (1984): The film, about rebel robots who launch a war on
humans, started a franchise that has run for more than two decades so far,
and helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger¹s career as an action star.
9) Armageddon (1998): Director Michael Bay¹s film was emblematic of the
disaster movie craze of the late 1990s that included other asteroid films
such as ³Deep Impact² and a spate of nature-related ones including ³Twister²
10) The Matrix (1999): What if the world as we know it ended and nobody
noticed? This thriller from the Wachowski Brothers portrays a future in
which evil machines keep humans pacified by immersing them in a computer
simulation that mimics everyday reality. Keanu Reeves plays Neo, far left,
the hero who discovers the truth, and helps to save mankind from illusion.
11) 28 Days Later (2002): Science and horror meet in this Danny
Boyle-directed movie in which an experimental virus creates fast-moving
zombies who chase victims through the English countryside.
12) Idiocracy (2007): ³Office Space² director Mike Judge¹s satirical take on
a future dominated and decimated by rampant stupidity. The film flopped but
lives on as a cult favorite.
13. Wall-E (2008): The apocalypse through the eyes of Pixar, this film about
a world abandoned by humans and buried with trash introduced the title
character, a doe-eyed, garbage-collecting robot. He unwittingly discovers
plant life, spurring man¹s return to his home planet.
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Published by David Sunfellow
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