Apocalypse, Now: What Are Filmmakers Trying To Tell Us?

By Oliver Skinner | The Lost Boys November 13, 2011 at 10:06AM

I've noticed a grim trend in the films that make up 2011's prime. Coinciding with Lars von Trier's latest masterwork Melancholia colliding with US theatres, I thought I'd examine cinema's recent multitude of prophetic visions and what might be in store, if art reflects life, for this lonely planet.
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I've noticed a grim trend in the films that make up 2011's prime. Coinciding with Lars von Trier's latest masterwork Melancholia colliding with US theatres, I thought I'd examine cinema's recent multitude of prophetic visions and what might be in store, if art reflects life, for this lonely planet.

"Life is only on Earth. And not for long..." says the destroyed face of Kirsten Dunst's depressive character in what is this year's definitive end-of-the-world movie. Melancholia is an elaborate build-up of blazen gold handheld images, nihilistic inevitabilities, and omnipresent from the film's jaw-dropping opening sequence, an underscore of complete and total doom. The film has two parts: the first depicting the failure of human relationships, and the second the grandiose but much-too-similar failure of planetary, cosmic, universal relationships. From the beginning the audience is made aware of Earth's destruction through impact with a Planet X: the big, blue Melancholia. Trier tells us that no matter what happens in-between, in the end we all die. And he is not the only filmmaker to forebode that fate of recent.

The apocalypse has been portrayed several times this year. Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, follows a man whose dreams of an immense, all-destroying natural disaster take a toll on his family and community. The film leaves us with an ambiguity as to whether the storm is a reality or a result of Shannon's schizophrenia. There's Béla Tarr's deeply affecting The Turin Horse, which is set against a barren landscape backdrop with the haunting sound of a blowing gale, that according to Tarr, is slowly destroying the world. We have Steven Soderbergh's all-star casted Contagion, about the human race and world governments facing the threat of global wipeout from a deadly virus. Abel Ferrara released his first feature in four years, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, which concerns an ultimate end of Biblical proportions. Legendary Terrence Malick's game-changing prayer that is The Tree of Life, containing as many interpretations as shots of the Sun, is believed by some to portray the birth, and death, of our universe.

So what are these filmmakers trying to tell us?

"The Turin Horse"
The Cinema Guild. "The Turin Horse"

We are all familiar with the Mayan Calendar December 21st, 2012 theory. And while it could very well merely exist as an internet phenomenon for conspiracy theorist potheads, I'd say that on a worldwide scale, the possibility of an End is much more present and relevant now than it ever has been before.

2011 has also seen its fair share of ruminations on the subject of death. Masters Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog focused on this entirely in their highly-spiritual pieces Restless and Into the Abyss, respectively. In Oslo, August 31st, Joachim Trier (Lars von Trier's cousin), tells the story of the last day alive for a young drug addicted prophet, or anti-propehet. Cinema has also seen an overwhelming amount of films with cosmic imagery: The Tree of Life's heart-wrenching creation sequence, Mike Cahill's blonde astrophysics student staring off our planet's twin in Another Earth, the lunar battles in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and of course, Melancholia's unidentified turquoise sphere emerging from behind the Sun to Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde.

What is it about the modern age that breeds such worry, or perhaps even yearning, for this fantastic end of life?

Interestingly enough, each Soderbergh, Tarr, and Van Sant are retiring from their filmmaking careers with these swan songs into oblivion (although to be fair, Gus Van Sant will likely return to the film medium after some time spent focusing on his painting). Malick and Herzog however, seem to be accelerating their pace like never before, as if the end were really nigh: both have about 4 new films planned to be release in the next 3 or so years.

Percy Bysshe Shelley said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." Now in acknowledging filmmakers as the prevailing poets of our time, I can't help but wonder if this overwhelm of apocalyptic theme can't mean something about the attitude of contemporary man and woman. Has technological advance given way to lack of meaning and spurred sprawling existential crises wherein we can't help but turn our heads to the sky and look for purpose in the floating marble planets so vast and knowing compared to the destruction here on Earth that we're contributing to ourselves? Is the boredom of daily routine vehemently increasing to a point where we maybe can't help but fantasize catastrophe? These are some of our smartest artists of the present and they seem to believe there's validity in the theory that our Kali Yuga is reaching its end.

Either way, as I continue to observe these fictionalized disasters from my red fabric cinema seat, I will continue to wonder in these directorial visions and trust these filmmakers to guide us, until the end of time.

"The Tree of Life."
Fox Searchlight "The Tree of Life."

This article is related to: Oliver Skinner