The Politics of Apocalyptic Cinema: Embracing Hope in Hopeless Scenarios

Apocalypse is derived from the Greek, meaning “revelation.” Indeed, it is within the Apocalyptic narrative that audiences are provided with a revelation as to the nature of mankind when all appears lost.

It’s important to examine how they differ because these stories, perhaps more than any other, reflect the values of our culture and--since Andrew Breitbart taught us that politics is downstream from culture--how it reflects the political environment.

I see are two distinct categories of Apocalyptic Popular Culture: revelatory drama that affirms our humanity, and that which leaves us in despair. When I was younger, the latter held a great deal of interest for me. It seemed oh-so-individualistic to side with the narrative that demonstrated that life had no meaning. Age and wisdom has provided their own revelations, including that I was a foolish youth.

These thoughts came to me as I watched The Walking Dead. Each week I wondered what possible future the characters of this show could have. What could they possibly look forward to? With society torn asunder, and death literally walking down every road, in every forest, and hiding in every house, there existed neither dreams nor aspirations. The tiniest pleasures of life had been obliterated. What existed from moment to moment were simplistic ternary states: life, death, or zombification. One would think that the show’s characters, with whom we obviously identify, hopelessness and despair would be eternal companions. 

And yet, while they continually struggle under their burden, something else shines through. 

Most apocalyptic scenarios offer some hint of salvation--a cure for the virus, a sanctuary, a spiritual ascendency--yet The Walking Dead appears to offer no such relief. Idyllic oases are corrupted: Herschel’s farm is inevitably overrun, Woodbury is governed by a psychopath, a prison’s security itself becomes a prison, and Rick’s hometown becomes a booby-trap-laden madman’s retreat. Time and again, however, the show provides the viewer hope in the form of the characters’ internal set of values and morals.

As Rick says in the third season’s penultimate episode, they are what is good in the world. The characters retain their humanity, and in some cases, elevate themselves beyond what they were before. This is perhaps best embodied by crossbow-toting redneck Daryl, who has repeatedly suppressed his baser instincts for greater good.

The Peabody Award-winning series Battlestar: Galactica required both humans and Cylons, following the Cylons devastating apocalyptic surprise attack, to self-transcend in order to reach the sanctuary called Earth. Across four seasons, the show consistently demonstrated that, amidst struggles that allegorically reflect our contemporary troubles, mankind found a way to press onwards towards salvation. Despite near-civil war with the Pegasus crew, a disastrous colonization of New Caprica, mutinies, strikes, and relentless pursuit by the Cylons, humanity soldiers on. In Galactica, faith is ever-present, both for the polytheistic humans and monotheistic Cylons. In Galactica’s universe, we discover the mystical is always present. Both species are guided by angels and prophetic scripture, eventually leading to a cessation of hostilities and the birth of the human race here on Earth as we know it.  The Apocalypse is indeed a revelation.

It is not surprising that television should provide viewers with hope. How else would viewers have the courage to return each week? I know I return to The Walking Dead hoping our characters will find some physical salvation beyond their internal ones, which comes at a consistently heavy price. With Galactica, Earth’s existence was always a question. What intrigued were the glimmers of hope amidst the internal battles of both humans and Cylons, false sanctuaries and expressions of despair along the way. 

Movies have no such requirements. They can leave audiences alone in the dark, figuratively and literally, as best exemplified in the execrable adaptation of the over-praised Cormac McCarthy novel, The Road. The audience is treated to the depths of human depravity, utter hopelessness and monumental despair. We never believe for a moment that the coast will prove to be a sanctuary for the Father and Son. The Father dies, and the Son joins another family. This is somehow meant as an expression of meager hope for the audience, when all it does is to literally give the Devil his due--to leave us in despair. I wanted every character in that movie to die to relieve both their suffering, and my own. Mind you, suffering is tolerable.  Pointless suffering is not. The former is the meat of drama, for as heroes suffer, it makes their ultimate redemption or salvation all the sweeter. 

No Country for Old Men is not an Apocalyptic drama in the strictest sense, yet it presents a world of vast dessicated landscapes, of strangely underpopulated towns, and of a “new kind of evil.” Death stalks everyone even tangentially associated with the drug money, even the innocent Carla Jean. In the face of this unrelenting evil, genre conventions usually dictate a bloody showdown in which the forces of Justice usually prevail (albeit sometimes via a noble sacrifice). Instead, Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell tells his Uncle that God never came into his life, and that he’s retiring because he can’t face what the world is now bringing him. His solution is, essentially, to run away and join the spirit of his father, who will welcome him in death. 

The most successful piece of cinema in this genre, and thus all the more difficult to digest, is David Fincher’s best film, Se7en. At first glance, it is easy to dismiss this work as nihilistic and embracing of depravity. On the contrary, repeated viewings demonstrates it successfully walks a very fine line. Although not a literal Apocalyptic narrative, the film is cloaked by a darkness that could only exist in the days preceding the end of civilization. The unnamed city is consistently soaked with torrential downpours.  Darius Khondji’s masterful cinematography paints the city in eternal gloominess and heavy shadows.  Characters are frequently shot from below, and from oblique angles, placing them in unsettling abstract space, reflecting their own turmoil. Every location feels decrepit and decaying. Mills’ and Somerset’s apartments are tiny little boxes beset by noise. John Doe’s serial killings linked to the seven deadly sins are masterpieces of Grand Guignol. Somerset cannot wait to retire, saying almost the exact words of Sheriff Bell. He all but says this city is Hell, with no redeeming value. It is Somerset who is on the edge of despair.

And yet, Mills fights to get assigned here. He does so because he believes he can do some good. That he can push back against the forces of darkness. More importantly, he will push back. The bar scene is critical to understanding the characters, and the film.

Even though John Doe brings down Mills, it is Somerset who experiences revelation.  His voiceover at the film’s conclusion is, “Ernest Hemingway wrote, ‘the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part’”

It’s not what we would love to hear at the end of this nightmare, but it’s enough. The eternally cynical, despairing Somerset, is moved off the edge of the abyss. He tells his lieutenant, “I’ll be around.” The world may still be an awful place, but it is worth fighting for.

And thus we find ourselves at the nexus of popular culture and politics. If you don’t pay attention to this film--especially the bar scene--you’ll miss what Andrew Breitbart was all about, particularly in the age of President Barack Obama. Politics is downstream from culture, my friends. Will you embrace the despair of No Country for Old Men and The Road, or the difficult roads of Walking Dead, Galactica, and Se7en?


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