Thinking about the similarities between the 2018 movies featured on IMDb list, what stands out, aside from the overall prevalence of violence and horror? Apocalypse is clearly the theme that runs through the most acclaimed movies of the year.
What makes the secular apocalypse so trendy? Could the mounting popularity of the apocalyptic genre in the 2000s be rationalized as an expression of political and social anxieties, such as environmental problems, world peace insecurity, terrorism etc.? However important, these explanations overlook the cultural factors that may explain the fixation on apocalypse of the millions of readers and viewers.
Today’s apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genre most often has no connection with the biblical themes of redemption, which have nourished apocalyptic thinking for thousands of years (1). Recent movies featuring secular apocalypse fall into three categories that may be called the classic version, the 2000s version, and the transitional one.
The classic version emerged as early as Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man (1826). This secular apocalypse describes the world stricken by plague that annihilates humankind. The last man, Lionel, is shown wondering alone across the desolate continents of Europe and Africa. Differently from Le Dernier Homme (The Last Man) by Jean-Batiste Cousin de Grainville published in 1805, from which Mary Shelley likely takes her title, and equally different from the conversation of souls about the end of Earth in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), Shelley’s apocalypse is a secular event, which is not caused by God’s wrath and which is unrelated to any Christian dogmas. The Last Man’s focus is on its human protagonist dealing in various ways with the natural disaster and presents humanity’s end as the ultimate catastrophe. Since Shelley’s novel, the classic version envisions the apocalypse as a human tragedy. The destruction of humankind is depicted as the ultimate catastrophe, which must be avoided, so the point of the apocalyptic genre is to guard humanity against any horrible unforeseen mischance that may be fatal to the species. Humanism and human exceptionalism are the most important features of this version.
In 2018, this classic model is followed in several movies. For example, Maze Runner: The Death Cure (Wes Ball), which shows Earth’s population devastated by the human-invented Flare virus, which turns people into blood-thirsty zombies, who are battled by a group of young people, trying to rescue the world. In the classic version, the apocalypse is often averted by human heroism, as it is the case in the famous movie Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay) when a collision between Earth and an asteroid is prevented by the self-sacrifice of an astronaut. In 2018, this theme is continued in the latest version of Mission Impossible: Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie), where a hero prevents a nuclear disaster, and in Pacific Rim (Guillerno del Toro), where a team of youngsters stop the Precursors, the aliens, from annihilating life on Earth by toxic gas in their attempt to colonize the planet. Mortal Engines (Christian Rivers) also depicts upcoming apocalypse caused by London, a giant destructive city-machine that is consuming all the resources of a dying world (likely a metaphor of urban civilization eliminating the rural way of life.)
In the transitional version, secular apocalypse is still considered an ultimate tragedy, but the protagonists of these movies are no longer people. They may be nonhuman superheroes possessing magical powers like in the Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird), in which the world is rescued by Elastigirl, and in Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) where the universe is saved by superheroes fighting against Thanos, whose name suggests commonalities with the ancient Greek god of death, Thanatos. In the transitional version, people are often presented as vile characters. For example, in Aquaman (James Wan), Arthur, a future half-human ruler of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, fights other supernatural creatures in his struggle to save his own kingdom and the planet. Arthur’s main nemesis is a human pirate, David.
The second installment of the Fantastic Beasts, The Crimes of Grindelwald (David Yates, 2018), which followed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), is the best example of the transitional version. It shows the world where all-mighty witches and wizards decide in their battles the destiny of humanity and the world. People, who are called pejoratively “No-Maj” or “Muggles,” are presented as mostly vile, unpleasant, or annoying, as obstacles to be overcome: wizards prefer “obliviating” people’s memories of these events, which may make “No-Maj” less easily controllable. There is also a mention of the war that contemptible humans led against wizards in the past, so wizards have good reasons to treat them as Untermensch and to keep them in check. Humans are bystanders, unaware of the approaching apocalypse that mounts on the horizon and that only wizards can prevent. The main protagonist of the movie is a wizard, Newt Scamander, who looks like a man but is a nonhuman: he is the member of another species. His magical powers are innate, and he classifies humans together with other beasts in his textbook in JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001). Debasing people and promoting the fascination with death are important messages of this movie as well as of the rest of the Harry Potter franchise, as I argue in my book The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture.
The 2000s version of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genre, that dates back to the late 1990s –early 2000s, differs from the classic and the transitional ones in two important respects. First, its idealized protagonists are murderous nonhumans, and, second, the apocalypse ending the human race is no longer viewed as an existential catastrophe. For example, in Annihilation (Alex Garland), two biologists, Lena and Kane, are survivors of an expedition into an anomalous electromagnetic field called the Shimmer, where people mutate into different species, acquiring qualities of animals and plants. The story ends when Lena, who originally tries to fight the Shimmer to preserve human civilization, concludes that the Shimmer’s original objective was not to destroy the Earth but to created new life forms. The film closes with Lena and Kane embracing each other and the fact that they are nonhumans populating bodies of Lena and Kane, and that their mission is to continue conquering Earth for their (non-human) kind.
Undoubtedly, Genesis: The Fall of Eden (Freddie Hutton-Mills, Bart Ruspoli) offers the best example of the 2000s version. In this film, set in the aftermath of a chemical apocalypse unleashed by the Confederation of Eastern States against the US, a small group of Earth survivors lives in a subterranean refuge called Eden. Their concentration-camp like society is governed by a cynical President and his two aides. A biologist, Dr. Eve Gabriel, works on the project A.B.E.L. and creates a humanoid, a groundbreaking A.I. that may be used to reach out to potential survivors and resources. A.B.E.L. initially shows compassion to people and adheres to high moral standards, until he gets to Babel, an abandoned experimental site, and finds out that biologists conducted experiments on animals. This is a turning point in A.B.E.L.’s attitudes to people, and so it is supposed to be for the audience. Having killed one of the survivors in self-defense, A.B.E.L. tells Eve who finds out that she is also a humanoid: “I have only seen mankind destroy, never create. To me, I see no logical reason to preserve their existence.” And when she reproaches him: “I did not program you to kill people, A.B.E.L.,” he responds: “You programed me to protect and serve, so that mankind could develop. Now I believe the development has come to its natural end. It’s time to pick a side: it’s either them, a corrupted, weak, barbaric race of men, or us.”
To confirm his opinion, people at Eden are shown brutally murdering each other, and burning the President alive. Eve knows that Eden’s chemical security is compromised, and that all its people are going to die. One of the soldiers asks her to go back and help rescue humans but she responds: “No, we have different purpose, you and I,” and threatens to kill a soldier if he returns to capture her. The audience is invited to sympathize with Eve and A.B.E.L., these extremely handsome protagonists. The last humans we see – Alexa and Frost – a couple that survives Eden and is hoping to find a new home, pronounce the words that sound like the last words of humanity with little hope for its future, notwithstanding its superficial optimism that sounds as ironic as the movie’s Biblical allusions: “…the human spirit never dies, and as long as there will be spirit, there will be hope. We have started the process of rebuilding and we need spirit to face one day those who have done us wrong and give us hope for a new life, a new beginning.” In the finale, Eve creates multiple humanoids and A.B.E.L. articulates his judgement: “The human race served its purpose and we must serve ours.” Humanity is doomed for good – this is one of the possible interpretations of apocalypse in this movie.
The evolution of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic genre from the classic version into the 2000s version is also illustrated by the development of the Planet of the Apes. The franchise metamorphosed from a warning of the nuclear apocalypse horrors that may lead to the destruction of the human race and civilization in original Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner) to the reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, dir. Rupert Wyatt), which radically changed the human-centered apocalyptic paradigm. The focus of attention in the newest blockbuster is no longer the human race. The main protagonist is an intelligent ape, Caesar, who becomes a leader of his species. The movie tells a story of the development of a new species, that rises to vanquish humanity once and for all (hence, the movie’s title). Humans are consistently portrayed as disgusting and cruel, and these portrayals put the viewer on the chimps’ side. The same attitude to humanity prevailed in the two sequels – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014, Matt Reeves) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017, Matt Reeves). The annihilation of humanity does moral justice; it is not the ultimate catastrophe, but the exciting new beginning of a morally superior nonhuman civilization.
The apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies and fiction of the past decade persistently describe the extinction of the human race, often in favor of some other intelligent species, as the natural course of events. I interpret this evolution of the genre as an indication of the changing attitudes to people. For example, Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail), a “Christmas zombie musical” is advertised as “the most entertaining show ever.” The excesses of graphic violence directed against characters who look like ordinary people but are declared to be zombies, including a particularly disturbing scene of two girls killing an elderly woman, raises the question concerning the changes in the perceived value of human life – rather than the traditional interpretation of the zombie apocalypse as an expression of a revolutionary protest against capitalist exploitation, inequality, American imperialism etc.
A radical manifestation of the ultimate death of humanity, the 2000s version of apocalypse drives the popularity of this bestselling entertainment because it voices the growing contempt for humanity, reconsiders the place of humans in the spectrum of species, and rejects human exceptionalism.
 Peter Yoonsuk Paik, From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
 On the changing attitudes to people in popular culture see: Dina Khapaeva, The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture (University of Michigan Press, 2017); “When People Become Food”
Dina Khapaeva is professor of Russian at the School of Modern Languages, Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research and teaching interests lie on the intersection of cultural studies, memory studies, medievalism, history of emotions, and death studies. Her most recent book, The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture (University of Michigan Press, 2017), compares the ways of engaging with death and representations of violent death in Russian and American popular culture.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr, 1artgrafx