Last year with Prometheus, Ridley Scott delivered us an epic, ambitious and rambling story about space travellers of the not-so-distant future finding once and for all the origin and meaning of life on our planet. He may have failed to convince audiences around the world that his idea was not an overblown morality tale about the virtues of abortion in extreme circumstances, but by getting the movie made in the first place (at an outlay of around $130m), it was obvious that he had convinced a major Hollywood movie studio that serious science fiction was coming back. Not since the failure of The Matrix sequels in 2003 had Hollywood banked big on serious sci-fi, instead focusing their blockbuster budgets on superhero movies and book spinoffs. Someone in Hollywood changed their mind at the start of this decade however, and suddenly it was ok to spend over $100m on dark, depressing subject matter. Prometheus opened the floodgates, and this year saw six big, expensive, serious science fiction movies released. What is interesting is that all six dealt with basically the same scenario: the end of the world. To be more precise, these six can be divided into two groups: Pacific Rim, World War Z and Man of Steel were about humanity struggling with a force that was destroying the world, while the other three (Oblivion*, Elysium and After Earth) were set after an apocalypse had already occurred. All of these movies cost well over $100m to make, meaning that altogether the Hollywood film industry invested well over $1bn this year in convincing us that the world could end (or be saved) in one way or another. This is a lot of money, and it immediately begs the question: What can Hollywood teach us about the End of the World?
Well, first of all, Hollywood is in California, and California is full of lefty hippies. Therefore it is no surprise that in all six (potential) Armageddon’s, the environment is the major concern. In Elysium, rich people have abandoned the Earth due to pollution, and live in a space station just outside the atmosphere. The Pacific Rim monsters start arriving because the Earth’s atmosphere is suddenly just the right level of polluted to support them. Brad Pitt and Will Smiths son narrate in stoic tones at the start of World War Z and After Earth, respectively, linking the nonsense that is about to follow to pollution from Chinese factories. The plot of Man of Steel has Superman being the only survivor of a planet that collapsed due to overuse of its natural resources. He arrives on Earth, and his presence attracts some of his friends, who want to do the same to Earth. In future movies, I imagine this Superman to act as kind of a conscience of planets in general, warning his weak humans whenever they are overdoing it. Oblivion is a bit of an outlier in my dataset, as civilisation is wiped out by an alien race who actually come to earth to live off its resources. The original story was written before the release of An Inconvenient Truth, therefore these aliens were not aware that stealing the resources of our planet would only be a stopgap solution to their survival at best.
Linked to the realisation of our effect on nature is the uneasy relationship that humanity has with science and technology, and the role these forces will play in our eventual downfall. The Pacific Rim robots are created using as much of the Earth’s resources as are available, to fight monsters that only appear due to over-industrialisation and pollution. In order to fight them, humanity has to engage in the biggest industrial projects of all time, and quickly, and I doubt that environmental emissions treaties were respected. The connected, globalised world is what originally causes the spread of a zombifying virus in World War Z. Man of Steel has guys from a different planet with all the technology and scientific knowledge in the universe, yet they are still assholes. Therefore Superman must use his and the whole worlds human spirit (I know, I know) to defeat them, rather than equalling their scientific prowess.
The three post-apocalyptic movies all have to deal with the fact that even though the world is practically uninhabitable, humanity could possibly still survive and thrive due to technological advancement in space travel and habitation. But could they forget what they have done to poor old Earth? There is a monster in After Earth that follows Will Smith and his son around as kind of a metaphor of this, but other than that, they are doing pretty well off-planet. The rich people in Elysium don’t care what happens on Earth as long as they don’t have to see it, while Tom Cruise as a drone engineer in Oblivion just wants to get off Earth as soon as possible. In both of these cases, they will of course soon be forced to remember what they have left behind. So even in the post-apocalypse, with technology available to find a new place to live and build a new civilisation, it cannot mask the fact that we have destroyed our home.
Leaving the exodus of earth behind and focusing on the subgroup of movies about struggles to save it, there are breadcrumbs left by Hollywood scriptwriters about the best way to save the world. Once the Pacific Rim monsters started appearing out of the Pacific Ocean and attacking every country they cross, the world pooled their resources and (obviously) built giant robots together. In Man of Steel, Zod is attacking America and China at the same time, therefore unified action is necessary. Brad Pitt works for the UN in World War Z, for some reason. A common thread is immediately apparent. Initially there are international diplomacy issues, and in two of the movies, individual countries start building walls in order to isolate themselves from the issue, to no avail. Once a threat is classed to be at a sufficiently apocalyptic level, all national rivalries are left to one side and the nations of the world team up to save it. This is achieved through the sharing of industrial and scientific resources, which together are the fruits of humanity, the totality of what our civilisation has contributed to the world. The pursuit of this advancement may have led to catastrophe, yet it can still be used for good, and possibly an escape from the planet if things don’t end well in the struggle.
So big, corporate American movies are telling us that our negligence of the environment will one day lead to a global catastrophe at best, and the only way to counter it is through sharing of scientific knowledge through international collaboration, possibly through the United Nations? It doesn’t sound like the corporate America we all know and love, but it is after all just lefty, hippy California. And in truth, all these messages have been hidden around explosions, giant robots and Superman. These marketable aspects meant that the six movies I talked about here made nearly $2.5bn at the worldwide box office. While much of this figure is a result of all these movies fooling people into thinking 3D is a worthwhile filmmaking technique and worthy of higher ticket prices, the return on the investment is impressive and conclusive proof that serious sci-fi sells. Science fiction is one of the most under-appreciated genres in both literature and cinema. Think Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Phillip K. Dick, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine, Brazil. Science fiction gives a (screen)writer the power to deal with real, current issues, in familiar settings very similar to our own, albeit taken to extreme levels. If we keep doing this, we could end up with this and so forth. While many may argue that all of it is just explosions in space and excuses to kill monsters, there is nothing wrong with a large audience ($2.5bn worth) of people going home from the cinema every year with a subliminal message in the back of their minds that maybe global warming is real and bad, or that international cooperation may not be treason. To sum it up: it may be nonsense, but it’s not the worst nonsense there could be.