MindFood: Disaster Cinema 2013!

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The world is ending. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but you’ve got about 11 months left to live before some unseen hand extends through the cosmos and crushes planet Earth like a balled-up piece of paper. Or maybe our pale blue dot in space will stay intact, but life will be blotted out by the onset of a sudden thundersnowpocalypse. Or better yet, maybe the weather will be 70 degrees with clear blue skies, but the looming econopocalypse drives us to World War III and we send ourselves back to the Stone Age.

2012Whatever the case, we’re boned as a species. According to filmmakers, at least.

Cinema has been obsessed with the end of the world for quite some time, so this is nothing new, but the volume of movies about the apocalypse has been skyrocketing ahead of the dreaded year 2012. It’s not just Hollywood, either. Sundance this year was marked by a number of films from out of the blue that are about the end of days. We’re surrounded by an unprecedented level of mythic fear-mongering in both our news and entertainment that people are starting to see ordinary events — birds and fish dying en masse, snowstorms and deadly flooding all over the globe, a black president — as signs that Roland Emmerich’s wet dream is coming true. It isn’t, of course. At least I don’t think it is. (Hey, I’m not a scientist!)

But either way, let’s play a hypothetical game.

For decades, Hollywood has been able to get away with dark days on the horizon, but lately we’ve been running out of them. After Y2K, all we had left was the favorite year of the Mayans. But let’s say we do make it through to 2012 without Rapture or Ragnarok; what’s next? What will movies tell us to be afraid of once that’s over? (Note: Is the world supposed to end at the arrival of 2012 or after the end of 2012? I assume the latter.) If the apocalypse is a no-show, what are we to fear in apocalyptic movies? I’m guessing three things…

Cosmic Events, Solar Flares or Near-Earth Objects

Once an arbitrary year has been eclipsed, we’re going to have to turn to what we can actually see and measure to find an extinction threat. That being the case, there’s no better place to look than the sky. Solar flares are a bit of an unpredictable wild card (scientists often can observe patterns building toward a large one, but unless you own telecom satellites, it’s really not much of a concern), but near-Earth objects can certainly be used to give people goosebumps. On Feb. 1, 2019, the asteroid (89959) 2002 NT7 will have a one-in-a-million chance of hitting Earth, but unfortunately for Hollywood screenwriters, that’s our best bet for a world-ender in the near future. There is, however, an asteroid over half-a-mile in diameter that has a 1-in-300 chance of pimp-smacking Earth, but that won’t happen until 2880 — so who cares, right?

A Viral Epidemic

Maybe I’m just paranoid because I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction about historical disease outbreaks lately (I highly recommend The Ghost Map [cholera] and The Demon in the Freezer [smallpox] if you’re of similar interests), but it’s certainly possible that a well-timed, global epidemic could bring civilization to its humble knees. With the way the world is interconnected today, all it would take is the mutation (be it by nature or bioengineering) of a particularly lethal virus and a flight attendant and … blammo, we’re in the middle of Outbreak, only we’re a lot less likely to have Dustin Hoffman save the day.

And considering Stephen King’s The Stand was just announced for a big-budget big-screen adaptation, I’d say there’s a strong chance that rival studios will want to get in on the epidemic game as well.

Global Warming

The Day After TomorrowYeah, The Day After Tomorrow already went ape all over the idea of a massive, global-warming-induced storm, but until the entire world experiences perfect harmony with the elements (and that’s just not going to happen), every weather anomaly great or small is going to be chocked up to Al Gore’s nemesis. But since Roland Emmerich has already made the definitive global-warming disaster movie, I suspect no one else is going to bother attempting the same. Instead we’ll see a number of movies about the side effects of global warming, most likely focusing on dire problems caused by agricultural-based economies all over the world that are dying out or drying up because of severe weather changes.

Now, of course there’s still going to be a ton of movies about alien invasions and robotic uprisings, but those are all so outlandish (except for death by robots; we all know that’s just inevitable) that they don’t really play into the state of fear like any of the three broad threats above. So don’t worry, apocalypse lovers: Just because 2012 will go by faster than you know, doesn’t mean Hollywood is going to stop killing off civilization — it’ll just have to shift back to specific threats instead of specific deadlines.