Post and Courier
September 23, 2014

Flirting with disaster: Does all that movie destruction reflect very real fears?

Posted: 04/20/2014 12:01 a.m.
Updated: 04/20/2014 04:02 p.m.


By Adam Parker

If you've been to the movies lately, surely you've noticed all the havoc. It begins with the previews, and continues during the feature film if you're there to watch "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" or "Noah" or "Divergent."

Or if you've recently seen "Pompeii" or "Robocop," or if you recall some of last year's hits, such as "The Hunger Games" or "World War Z" or "Iron Man III" or "Elysium" or "Oblivion."

And then there are the trailers for this summer's would-be blockbusters: the new Spider-Man movie, the new Johnny Depp movie "Transcendence," the new X-Men movie, "Edge of Tomorrow," "Snowpiercer," "Transformers: Age of Extinction," the second "Planet of the Apes" and, of course, "Godzilla."

The common denominator of destruction is more widely employed than ever.

Dystopia and decimation surely are not new to visual entertainment; I grew up fascinated by the old Japanese version of "Godzilla," for example. And sci-fi or superhero epics are hardly a recent phenomenon. But you have to admit that we are living in times that tend to emphasize not just adventure, but the drama of annihilation.

There are several reasons, including commercial concerns and technological advances that make intensified special effects possible. But I propose something else is at work here. Hollywood, it seems to me, is tapping into very real fears, exploiting audiences' preoccupations with actual bad news that just keeps piling up.

Not only do mass shootings continue to be a problem, but sea levels are rising, poverty and disease threaten whole populations, roiling war and revolt are upsetting parts of the world, famine and flood are increasing threats and, well, I won't go on. You get the point.

Climate change perhaps is the big one. It does threaten to make those dystopian landscapes we look at with such fascination inside the movie house very real. On March 31, the latest warnings were sounded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations group that publishes occasional updates on climate science.

The IPCC didn't mince words. In a press release accompanying the report, it stated: "The effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans. The world, in many cases, is ill-prepared for risks from a changing climate."

And we better hurry up and adapt, the report states, first by reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, then by protecting ourselves against natural disaster: more intense heat waves, cold snaps, floods, storms and dry spells, agricultural impacts, human health crises, drinking water shortages and more.

"With high levels of warming that result from continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions, risks will be challenging to manage, and even serious, sustained investments in adaptation will face limits," said Chris Field, co-chairman of the IPCC's Working Group II. "The report concludes that people, societies, and ecosystems are vulnerable around the world, but with different vulnerability in different places. Climate change often interacts with other stresses to increase risk."

Those other stresses include poor building construction, high-density population, inadequate infrastructure and emergency response systems, ill-health and medicine shortages, war and conflict and forced migration, to name a few.

Speaking of stress, the last generation or two born in the U.S. will be the first in decades to earn less than their parents. Income disparities and wealth concentration is threatening well-being and challenging social networks and government programs meant to provide a safety net.

Antibiotics are much less effective because of bacterial resistance, and pharmaceutical companies are not developing a new generation of such drugs for lack of sufficient financial incentive. So increases in life-threatening disease, among relatively well-to-do populations, seem likely.

Profound demographic shifts are undermining long-held cultural and social assumptions, adding significantly to the unease many Americans are feeling. Whites will be a minority in another couple of decades; the nature and means of employment has changed, radically in some cases; and the middle class, so carefully constructed after World War II, is now subject to erosion by economic forces.

And it surely doesn't help sooth our anxieties when we discover that, on top of all this, our government is spying on us (a concern reflected in the latest "Captain America").

For these reasons, and others I could cite, moviegoers are rightfully concerned about the future. We've got good reason to worry. In some ways, the world really is falling down around us. Perhaps by watching action-adventure films in which fictional heroes must grapple with catastrophe, we are able to project our fears onto the screen, to relieve ourselves of our own anxieties, at least for a couple of hours.

This is not the first time global disaster (or the threat of it) has exacerbated mass disquietude. World War I upended established ideas about social and political forces, prompting artists to pursue radical transformations that reflected acute unease informed, in part, by brutal violence and a new world order.

After World War II, the nuclear arms race terrified millions of people suddenly subjected to bomb drills and forced to confront the real possibility of a post-apocalyptic society, with its savage hoards of survivalists competing for radioactive scraps.

This, too, became manifest in art, which in turn added fuel to the fire already burning in the imagination.

Now it's climate change. This time it's different, though. Wars, no matter how tragic or terrible, end. Nuclear weapons can be destroyed, or at least stored unused forever. Global warming, instead, is inexorable. It has been set in motion by the industrial revolution and it has reached its tipping point.

Even if we do the only thing that would work - quickly get all industrialized countries to cooperatively transform the global fossil fuel economy into a global clean energy economy - we are facing imminent and unavoidable threats.

So no wonder people are nervous. No wonder we're fighting one another. No wonder we are so divided, so fearful. We are afraid we can lose everything. All it would take is a well-aimed cyclone or locust invasion and we could be done for.

Am I being too alarmist? Hollywood certainly doesn't think so.

In the upcoming "Transcendence," Johnny Depp's character, a scientist, is neutralized, but not before his brain's functions are uploaded to an artificial intelligence computer system. This gives him near-infinite power, which he might choose to use well or might choose to use badly, with catastrophic implications.

In "Noah" and "Pompeii," viewers are taken back to a time when either God or his creation grew weary of all those hangers-on, deciding to obliterate them in all-engulfing water or super-heated ash and fire.

In the future that is "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," humans cede control of the big rock to their fellow primates.

And in the "Godzilla" update, a giant radioactive monster emerges from the ocean and threatens to send mankind back to the Stone Age.

Perhaps we are apt to consume these high-budget adventure movies not because they are opportunities to lose oneself in fantastical landscapes and outlandish spectacle, but because they are, more and more, hitting close to home.



Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.