December 21, 2012. The end of the world. You've heard chatter about this date for a couple of years now, likely in the form of vociferous warnings from the itinerant madman who is just articulate enough to make you think on the subject. Surely, you don't subscribe to the philosophy, but that doesn't quell your fascination. It's hard not to take interest. Way back when, a group of Mayans proclaimed the 21st day of December in our very own Christian calendar's year of 2012 to be the onset of the apocalypse. Or at least, some time since the Mayans made their proclamation of whatever date it'd be to kick off a good old-fashioned Armageddon, modern scientists miscalculated that prediction to land on Dec. 21.
There are a slew of divergent accounts flying around — the world will end next month; the world won't end next month, but the world as we know it will; nothing will happen next month, but on a separate date allotted by the Mayans, or Nostradamus, or Miss Cleo, or your friend Brian; and then, as the majority of the free world probably thinks, the world isn't really going to end. Not for a long while. Not until the sun does its whole implosion shtick, which shouldn't even take place until humans are long dead from whatever would have happened to us in Wall-E were not for the heroism of Wall-E. It doesn't matter to which category you belong — in one way or another, the apocalypse-to-be has cemented a presence in your life.
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Even if you don't actually buy the hype, you might be on board with the fantasy. As one individual adamantly awaiting Dec. 21 told Hollywood.com, "It's not so much that I believe something is going to happen as it is that I hope something happens." Ever since the theories broke, this 24-year-old man has been loading up on all the relevant pop culture he can take in, from Doomsday Preppers to Zombieland.
The phenomenon is unavoidable. This year, in keeping with the popularity of the trend, has instilled within its pop culture output countless pieces of apocalyptic fiction and non-fiction. In the realm of film, we've seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and The Cabin in the Woods touch on the Judgment Day theme; these are just the literal incarnations — The Hunger Games, The Divide, Underworld: Awakening, Resident Evil: Retribution, and several others incorporate the ideas of a post-apocalyptic, marginally inhabitable world with which the human race is left.
Announcements of further examples yet to take form have been plentiful in 2012: a film adaptation of the zombie novel World War Z, the Tom Cruise action/sci-fi All You Need Is Kill, Seth Rogen's long-gestating comedy The End of the World (formerly, The Apocalypse, and before that Jay and Seth vs. The Apocalypse — based on Rogen and Jay Baruchel's eponymous short film), and Drew Barrymore's directorial project The End are among the forthcoming additions to the genre.
And then, of course, we have television, both scripted (The Walking Dead, Falling Skies, this year's newcomer Revolution... even an episode of Parks and Recreation) and unscripted (the aforementioned Doomsday Preppers) alike. We have literature — among the entries of this category are Veronica Roth's Insurgent, Lois Lowry's Son, and, notably, two novels published in 2012 that actually have the word "apocalypse" in their titles: Dean Koontz's Odd Apocalypse and Charles Stross' The Apocalypse Codex (interestingly, both are new additions to standing series by the authors, and neither literally tackles the idea of the apocalypse). And this is still a classic:
In short, a whole lot of fiction about the world ending... or at least going to hell in a hand basket. The theme weighs heavy on the artists of today, pervading blockbusters and small personal projects alike. Our minds are adhered to the idea that our world probably isn't but at the very least could be coming to an end soon. We might not be drinking the Kool-Aid, but we're considering the terms — "What if the world were coming to an end?" we ask silently, after mocking those who validate theories of Mayan predictions. There are many followup questions entertained by curious inquirers, as exhibited by the variety of fiction spawned on the topic. And it's these questions that make the theme so fascinating to us.
What Sort of End or New World Could We Face?
Although a good deal of the films and literature of the genre borrows from established or traditional end-of-the-world scenarios (i.e., asteroids, zombie outbreaks, oppressive regimes), some choose to sway — Cloud Atlas, Revolution, the upcoming All You Need Is Kill — allowing for writers and viewers to engage in one of the most boundless dances with creativity possible. The forces to end the world are, ostensibly, otherworldly. They can be anything. Imagination knows no limits here. It is for this reason that the phenomenon of developing and watching new ways for the planet Earth to meet its end is so intriguing to the hungrily expansive brain of mankind.
How Might I Fare in This New World?
Survival stories — everyday men and women battling zombies, aliens, monsters of the tangible and intangible varieties. Everything from the gritty likes of The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead to the fun-filled Resident Evil and Underworld, and even The Watch, meet this description. The belief that we, too, can be superheroes and saviors. That when our humdrum lifestyles come to an end, it will be our quirks, our longstanding divergence from social norms, that keep us at the top of the food chain after the shift. This fantasy, that of proving ourselves worthwhile, of proving our ways better suited for a better world, is what intrigues and entices us about this style of apocalyptic fiction.
What Would I Do If the World Was Ending?
This is the sweeter and more introverted variety. From this question comes the romantic dramedy Seeking a Friend, Barrymore's developing The End (another recent example can be found in 2011's Melancholia). What can we finally say or do that we've never had the motivation, or the courage, to before? What secrets will we divulge, and to whom? What kind of people will we reveal ourselves to be when there's no longer a reason to mask the truth? It is this fantasy of uncovering our most protected ideas and desires, to opening up about whatever loves and dreams we cherish with such terror, that intrigues us about this slant on the genre.
Of course, one can meet these fantasies within other themes of fiction, but never with quite the same stakes. When the world is on its way out, it's not just you that is in danger, not just your town that you're fighting for, not just your goodbyes that matter. The universality of an entire human race taking its bow is what infuses the idea with so much power and emotional density; the lack of hospice anywhere on the planet is what makes a post-Armageddon world so horrifying and the actions of its denizens so desperate.
As such, questions stand for the future: What trend can follow in the shadow of the apocalyptic fixation? How are we ever going to "top" this theme — won't smaller-scale dangers pale in comparison for those who have hitched their wagons so vivaciously to this pattern?
Now, a simple answer to this question is that the apocalyptic trend could, feasibly, continue on indefinitely. Man can continuously invent new ways to wipe out his brethren and new, interesting mentalities on the world thereafter (or the one we know in the moments preceding ultimate demise)? But odds are that people will eventually begin to bore of the idea. And although we don't boast the precognitive brilliance of the Mayans, we can confidently predict a kickoff date for that that boredom: Dec. 22, 2012.
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Once the "threat" (however farfetched it may be) is gone, so will be the thrill. So will be the fascination with seeing others — people like us — undertake the scenario. We fall in love with characters and stories to which we can relate — the apocalypse is a fantasy, sure, but it's one that has become a real and present element of our culture. Whether we believe in it or not, we feel it everywhere. The presence of the idea is what drives our lust for these movies, shows, and books. And once we're free of this ghost — a fun specter that haunts many of us only during boring commutes when we fantasize about battling our way through the wastelands that will befall our home cities — we will indeed be free of our fascination with its connotations. Once Dec. 21, 2012 is no longer threatening us, we will no longer feel the need to tell it, "Oh yeah? Well, here's how this would play out for me!" And yes, we all talk like the Little Rascals.
But on the other hand, without the company of this ghost, we're bound to find a void. As the aforementioned commenter (who asked to remain nameless — survivalists like him tend to prefer life under the radar) suggests, on some level, many of us want to believe that something Earth-shattering (literally or otherwise) will happen. We want to embrace the possibility of fantastical escapism in our actual lives, no matter how morbid it may be. And why? So we can conjure up our own theories on how it might all go down. So we can debate with friends who would be best at escaping certain doom. So we can finally tell that special someone how we feel, finally shoot for the dreams we've always set aside, finally be that person that this world — the world we really hope is on its way out — hasn't let us be. And right up until Dec. 21, we'll play around with these thoughts. And who knows? Maybe the Mayans will have something in store for 2013, and we can do the whole thing all over again. And if not, people will have to seek a new outlet for our frustrations. We'll find something — it might be a bummer at first, but it's not the end of... never mind.
[Photo Credit: Screen Gems]
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When jailed petty thief Cosimo (Luis Guzman) is given the recipe for a heist so perfect it's practically a masterpiece--or in his specific street lingo a "Bellini"--his long-suffering girl Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson) sends the word out to all the seedy characters and petty huslers in Collinwood a working-class neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side: Cosimo needs a "Mullinski " or fall guy to take the prison rap for him so he can pull the safecracking job. However five potential Mullinskis--cocky prizefighter Pero (Sam Rockwell) broke single dad Riley (William H Macy) slick and streetwise Leon (Isaiah Washington) handsome gigolo Basil (Andrew Davoli) and over-the-hill thief Toto (Michael Jeter)--decide to pull off the Bellini themselves. If only they were as smart as they were desperate for cash.
The film is produced by director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney both of whom know more than a little about on-screen performance and they've recruited a troupe of top-notch character actors most of whom audiences usually see shining in supporting roles. The film particularly provides a chance for Rockwell who's been turning in a dizzying amount of scene-stealing performances in recent years to step into the spotlight as a leading man and the actor proves worthy of the task. At first seeming the swaggering loudmouth who's too dumb to know he's dumb Rockwell's Pero morphs believably into the movie's main mover and shaker and ultimately a convincing romantic lead (his scenes with a sweetly restrained Jennifer Esposito have both warmth and a hint of sizzle). Among the veterans the always-engaging Macy plays a fresh variation of one his trademark hapless losers on the brink while the vastly underused Jeter brings spark and life to an otherwise woefully underwritten role. Meanwhile the newcomers Washington and Davoli hold their own against the heavyweights and show great promise for roles to come (Gabrielle Union is also potent in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her part). On the flip side Soderbergh stalwart Guzman is as watchable as ever but his role never develops enough--comedically or dramatically--to allow him to give a truly eye-opening performance while recent Emmy-winner Clarkson's considerable talents are wasted in a thankless "girlfriend" part. Ironically the most disappointing performance comes from the flick's biggest name: Clooney who cameos as a tattooed wheelchair-bound safecracker. George is game enough but the script lets him down by giving his seemingly outrageous character very little by way of outrageous dialogue or action.
The up-and-coming writing-directing team of brothers Anthony and Joe Russo prove adroit enough with their visuals and staging. They know enough to get out of their actors' ways and never allow the film's many slapstick moments to hit the audience sledgehammer-hard a la those other brothers the Farrellys. But where the film avoids getting dumb and dumber it also never goes far enough to wring more than polite chuckles out of the comedic set-ups--call them Genteel and Genteeler. Nor do they reach the heights of arty loopiness of that second set of cinematic siblings the Coens. Instead the Russos' film--which borrows liberally from the Italian comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street--is as featherweight as cotton candy: tasty enough while it's in front of you but also instantly forgettable save for the high-quality performances.
Appropriately enough this movie gets its title from the stinking saltwater lake in California's Imperial Valley that used to be a popular recreation spot before irrigation runoff poisoned the waters the fish and the community surrounding it. It's this run-down white-trash desert "destination" that serves as the backdrop for this arty noirish unpleasant film that more than borrows from Memento and Pulp Fiction. Val Kilmer is Danny Parker once a successful jazz trumpeter who wore cool suits and loved his beautiful wife very much. Tragedy strikes when he sees her gunned down in a drug deal and he vows revenge. To that end he adopts a new identity and goes deep--too deep--undercover as an informer for a couple of narcs (Anthony LaPaglia and Doug Hutchison). Danny (now Tom) infiltrates a gang of methamphetamine addicts led by a particularly nasty human specimen known as Pooh-Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio) who has snorted so much crystal he has to wear a plastic nose and reenacts the Kennedy assassination with pigeons just for kicks. In due time Danny completely loses his identity and morphs into Tom becoming into a junkie himself living in a vermin-ridden fleabag apartment and hanging with a bunch of "tweaker" losers like Jimmy "The Fin" (Peter Sarsgaard) while never losing sight of the score he wants to settle.
Val Kilmer's slippery detached demeanor is just what's required as his character fatalistically recounts his sad story via voiceover allowing the viewer to tag along with him as he explores what makes Danny/Tom tick. Kilmer seems to do best with character studies rather than action roles (i.e. his Jim Morrison in The Doors versus his parts in big-budget flops like The Saint and Red Planet). Vincent D'Onofrio almost seems like he's trying to re-create elements of his horribly depraved character in The Cell here. But in that movie it worked; in this one it doesn't. He's too out there for a small-time drug dealer and you're left going "Oh come on already." Oddly frighteningly this is Val Kilmer's movie.
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