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Apocalypses Now

Hollywood action movies need to get over the end of the world


So who is green-lighting these end-of-the-world movies that just keep coming—Oblivion, After Earth, Star Trek Into Darkness, Olympus Has Fallen, White House Down, World War Z, Pacific Rim? Is it the triumvirate of David Stockman, Paul Krugman, and Kim Jong-un? I grant that Armageddon has been a recurring theme on screen. It goes back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), where the wipe-out is in sight. It flared up again in the era of nuclear weapon testing, with On the Beach, Fail Safe, Dr Strangelove, and those inventive sci-fi pictures of the ’50s like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. More recently we had Independence Day and 2012. But those were spirited youthful adventures, with actors, situations, talk, and humor (as well as special effects). Even in the run-up to 2000, the end of the world was as much a commercial opportunity as a source of dread. So the incorrigible Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Transformers) became the director of choice for big bangers, rather as Danny Boyle got to do the opening for the Olympics.

In the latest wave of terminal trash, the actors are yielding to special effects and combat in line with the rigid training of video-game protocol. Sooner or later Morgan Freeman is there as the woeful presidential figure in a Washington that is the object of national contempt.

Now, the world may end with a bang or a whimper, and some of us find the latter more frightening than Michael Bay’s cabinet of exploding wonders. The real terror has been in Margin Call, Amour (the end of life as it will affect everyone), and films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice or Ingmar Bergman’s Shame. Put those four together, and they probably cost $15 million, or just over 10 percent of the budget of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, an unashamed development of those video combat games (with an unreliable president played by England’s Jonathan Pryce—it’s a movie where London is erased as an example, and those scenes are always cool).

Is it stuffy to be weary of such good, clean, cool, killing fun? But you can see the way the green-lighters are thinking. Who really wants to sit still for two hours of terminal old age, financial disintegration, irrevocable climatic shift, or even the poverty, miseducation, crumbling infrastructure, unemployment, and hopelessness in … well you can guess Russia, if you like, but why not start with the U.S.A, unless you believe these goon pictures are an important part of the “resurgent American economy,” a concept that Mr. Stockman has just about demolished for at least the next few months?

Sooner or later, these doomsday films, and many others, like the Iron Man franchise, close in on their true selling point: the way they remind audiences (and not always the young ones) of the link between their fantasy actions and the trigger system on their Xbox. I realize that can seem a forlorn remark in the rapid history of America’s shame over Newtown. Assault weapons are now safe; multi-bullet magazines, too; background checks—maybe, but paperwork has always been an American myth honored in the breach. The inability of the nation to organize its shame is almost as damning as the 154 bullets Adam Lanza fired in five minutes.

The real issue at Newtown, Aurora, and Columbine had nothing to do with the principles of firearms in self-defense, or in crime. The core of the matter is the proximity of young disturbed minds and triggers. Why are those minds disturbed? Could it be the failures in education, the poverty, the hopelessness, and the dislocation between those things and the unceasing cultural roar that says, we can shoot ‘em, we can win, our power will settle the mission? Even the alleged complexity of Zero Dark Thirty eventually yielded to the fallacy that shooting solves these problems.

Not every film critic or citizen will thank me for saying these things. But it has been my principle in thinking about film that there are necessary links between the culture of the screen and the way people behave. So, the violence in so many of our films, the search for victory on the eve of destruction (but in all the wrong battles), is as deep-seated as it is devastating. The imaginative liberty in firing off guns, and in keeping firing, has unhinged us. Anyone raised outside the U.S. feels that is true, and yet most of us have come to America for “liberty.” You’ve heard these figures, but in 2008 there were 42 gun-related deaths in the United Kingdom (population about 60 million). In the U.S., in 2010, there were over 8,000. That’s not the fault of the Second Amendment (cryptic and unhelpful as it is), it’s the culture of shooting—which is not the same as having guns, but which is drummed into us on so many of the screens we watch.

Some strong defenders of the Second Amendment are also of the view that being gay is unnatural, unhealthy, against God, and a danger to the morals of the nation. I think they’re wrong, and I believe that the process of cultural education over this issue in the last twenty years is one of our better achievements. But even if those opposed to gay life are wrong, their argument assumes that private behavior does have an effect on the cultural mainstream. Why not? If we learned to kiss at the movies, if our parents’ generation got the smoking habit there, and if so many were influenced by Hollywood’s notion of virtue and romance, then isn’t it just as possible that shooting has passed into our nervous system as light bounces off the screen?

There is some evidence that the world could end soon—in which case that topic deserves respect, level heads, and dedicated repair and reform. Then I think of the Die Hard films, revived this year with moderate success at the box office. The critic David Edelstein recently suggested that the Die Hard franchise was a model for the lone American standing up to the system. Well, yes. But “die hard” is a bleak war cry. Dying is hard already, but it is shared as almost nothing else is now. “Die hard” is a cry of defiance and self-destruction, as well as a description of a mind that will not change.

Die Hard means Bruce Willis, but I don’t mean to pile the blame on him. He has often been a very inventive actor (Nobody’s Fool, Pulp Fiction, Billy Bathgate, The Sixth Sense, Moonrise Kingdom). Still, in the last year he has spearheaded G.I Joe: Retaliation and the fifth of the Die Hard pictures. He is 58 now, his pictures have grossed about $3 billion domestically, and he has never seen a minute of real combat. (It is the career pattern of another great star, John Wayne.) Is it time for him to reconcile himself to that gulf, and for us to judge that “die hard” is not a fit motto for America?