Apocalypse Whenever

This is another in an ongoing series of posts by members of Dialogue’s Editorial Board. Eric Samuelsen is Associate Professor of Theatre and Media Arts at BYU, and Dialogue’s Film and Theater Editor.

In Sunday school last Sunday, the lesson was about the apocalypse, the End of Days. It’s always a depressing lesson for me, because i don’t want to be around for the End of Days. I don’t want anything to do with the Apocalypse. I think it sounds terrifying–death and horror and disease and war. As Mormons, I don’t think we can even take comfort in the ‘neener neener neener, I’m getting raptured and you’re not’ vibe apparently some evangelicals take comfort in, because we don’t believe in the Rapture, unless we do.

But The Great Satan, Hollywood, apparently likes the Apocalypse a lot, I guess because movies showing the End of Days make money. I don’t actually know that apocalyptic movies make money, but i suspect they must because a) they mostly suck, and b) they keep getting made. The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Happening, Knowing–all about the end of the world, all starring reasonably big name actors, and all showing lots of death and carnage, often in voluptuous detail. How are we supposed to feel when we see images of miliions of people dying? Are we supposed to shrug and say ‘ah, it’s just CGI’, maybe marvel a bit about how cool CGI can look. And what about me? One might think that I would be particularly vulnerable to movies about death, because I’ve been really sick and death is close to my thoughts. And yet, my reaction to all three of these movies was to get the giggles. I thought they were funny.

The Day the Earth Stood Still was the best of the three, in part because it has Keanu Reeves, in part because it has Kathy Bates and John Cleese, and in part because the protagonist, Jennifer Connelly, can actually do something to stop the end of the world. In the Happening, poor Mark Wahlberg spends most of the movie wandering around pointlessly, because the Angel of Death, played in this case by grass (I’m not kidding: Grass. Lawn. Vegetation), basically kills everyone who’s not a movie star. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel, who star in The Happening, don’t do anything differently from what all the other characters do in the movie; they survive because . . . they’re Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Or something. M. Night Shyamalan has made a very strange little movie here, sort of hopeless and horrifying, a movie where the Apocalypse involves mass suicide. We’re not killed by nuclear weapons or global warming or pandemic, we just all find horrid ways to off ourselves. At times, it’s close to unwatchable, but it packs a wallop. But it’s unsettling and unsatisfying, because the characters–who stand in for us–can’t do anything to stop it, and we don’t like that. Generally, dramatically, we root for volitional protagonists, characters who actively pursue an objective. In The Happening, no one does, because they can’t–your lawn is out to get you. This is also why I hate the Apocalypse, of course–i can’t do anything to stop it. Hate that.

But in The Day The Earth Stood Still, Jennifer Connelly actually can try to talk the Angel of Death out of killing everyone, with help from John Cleese. And that makes her a more volitional, and therefore more appealing protagonist. Plus, the Angel of Death is played by Keanu Reeves, and I love Keanu Reeves. He’s a strange actor, with limited range, but I, alone among essentially everyone I know, think he’s terrific, especially playing an alien with super powers, a part he was born to play. It’s like answering The Rapture by saying “it doesn’t matter if I’ve been saved or not, it doesn’t matter if I’ve accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, because i do other good things, I have other good qualities.’ And God–or Klaatu–accepts that argument and lets us live. Much more satisfying, perhaps not as convincing.

Knowing splits the difference. Nicolas Cage plays a physicist who finds a list of numbers that’s been locked in a time capsule for 50 years; as he looks at the numbers, he realizes that they correspond to the times, casualties and exact locations of a whole bunch of disasters. The final three series of numbers predict disasters that haven’t happened yet, and so Cage tries to prevent them, and can’t. The third set of numbers end, not with a number of casualties, but with the letters EE. Everyone else. Meanwhile, his son is seeing and hearing weird angel-like space aliens. Anyway, the first half of the movie works fine, in a ‘da Vinci Code/National Treasure sort of way; our hero’s trying to solve a puzzle, and then he’s trying to do something about it. Works great. Then the last third of the movie, it goes completely off the rails, dramatically. SPOILER ALERT: Turns out the aliens are going to save Cage’s 10 year old son and a cute female friend of his, and not Cage or the girl’s Mom. They’re going to save a few children, and allow solar flares to kill everyone else on earth. The last images of the movie involve an almost pornographic fascination with death and destruction–we get to see Manhattan get clobbered, for example. Then we see a wheat field, with cute wittle bunny wabbits, and Cage’s son and female friend gamboling. Then, just in case we missed the Adam/Eve symbolism, we see . . . ta da! . . . The Tree of Life! Yea! That’s supposed to be a happy ending. And it sort of is–the two kids really do sort of get raptured, though they’re raptured into a space ship by space aliens, and not into the sky, by Jesus. So i guess it’s sort of a movie for evangelicals. Except it’s such a strange mix of elements–the happy ending, the macabre fascination with mass death. Cage himself has a reconciliation scene with his minister father, and they die hugging, saying ‘this isn’t the end.’ But what does that mean?

In a way, the last third of this movie feels like someone found a sucky early draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and decided to film it. My wife and I got the giggles ten minutes before it ended, and decided afterwards that we’d enjoyed it more than almost anything else we’d seen lately. We’ve seen a whole lot of terrific movies lately, because i’ve been sick and Netflix has been my salvation. So after The Reader, and Frost/Nixon, and Defiance, and Gran Torino, and The Changeling, it was fun to see a really bad piece of Hollywood crap. But it’s interesting how the Apocalypse seems to be selling all of a sudden. Is it a sudden interest, by Hollywood, in what those folks in flyover states might actually believe in? is is new Age meeting Christian evangelism meeting, i don’t know, Scientology? Is is politics? (it can’t really be a reaction to Obama, can it? Too soon, much too soon, it takes years to baste these turkeys.) But it’s made for some interesting, if not actually good, movies.


  1. I know this isn’t the point of your post, but your teacher didn’t have to dwell on the distressing apocalypse. The lesson title was “Looking Forth for the Great Day of the Lord to Come”– when I taught it, I emphasized the good things that are signs of the approaching end, the triumph of the Second Coming, the making right all wrongs, the joy of the Millennium, all legitimate parts of the gospel.

    Even though that wouldn’t sell in Hollywood, it should have sold in your Sunday School class.

  2. Molly Bennion says:

    Delightful. And thanks for giving me such strong license to skip this one and know only the sublime Patricia Neal’s version.
    Why the apocalypse? Don’t know the psychological issues of the audience, but Hollywood is, as always, just looking to give theater-goers the destructive flash they bought last time and will likely buy again. It’s a business. The apocalypse is just too much the natural solution.
    For a nice contrast in theaters now, check out Every Little Step and Summer Hours.

  3. Kristine says:

    Ardis–I wish we could clone you so you could teach Sunday School in more places at once. Or maybe we’ll have Sunday School by teleconference eventually :)

  4. I’m just bumbed they’re making a movie of The Road rather than of Dies the Fire.

    If it weren’t for having kids, I think I’d be game for trying to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world. Maybe after a few years I’d have a Book of Mormon six-pack and those wicked pecs.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, the track record of humanity at predicting how scripturally-predicted events will unfold is so bad that the apocalypse doesn’t worry me much. I think about the best way for the Lord to come as a “thief in the night” is for him to show up when we all still think things are dandy but he doesn’t. So don’t think you’re going to be getting out of that 3-year cell phone contract, because your carrier will probably still be in business after the ash settles.

  5. I’d teleconference for Ardis’ Sunday School lesson.

    I think doom and gloom movies have always been a draw- for the same reason people like horror movies. They’re just getting bigger and flashier.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Owen, I’d agree, except that The Road was scary as all hell.

    The part of the apocalypse lesson that really took the wind out of my sails was a quote recommended by the manual itself, quoting Gordon B. Hinckley: “How do you prepare for the Second Coming? Well, you just do not worry about it.” If that quote doesn’t make the whole lesson just a big wet fart!

  7. That Hinckley! What a party-pooper! [N.B., my metaphor should not be mixed with Steve’s]

    I suspect the recent surge in availability of relatively-cheap-yet-still-spectacular visual effects is a factor, as is the abundance of possible escapist adventures in an eschatological setting.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    Ben’s right — we just like to see stuff getting blown up. Pick your disaster scenario, we love to see it.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    I just think the end of days is in the collective unconscious. At some point, the unintended consequences of the poor to middlin choices of x billion people become impossible to cap or control. People sense that.

    I say, bring it on. ~

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    Also, the Road is not only one of the most frightening, but also most heartbreaking and, finally, hopeful books I’ve ever read. In those ways, much like the real deal, I suspect.

    Esquire has already called the movie ‘the most important film of the year.’



  11. I just finished a really fun apocalypse book the other day: “Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch” by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I find it very hard to take The End Times seriously now. It was a delightful book.

  12. I agree, Ann. Good Omens is a hilarious take on the end of the world. I highly recommend it.

  13. I love the book “I Am Legend.” Deep Impact had a more realistic take on an apocalyptic event, though the movie was generally boring.

    I’d love to see a Mormon themed film or story of how the Second Coming should look like. It’s not going to be like the Rapturists’ version.

  14. Do you think some of those people will be surprised at just UNLIKE the “Left Behind” series it will?

  15. …at just HOW UNLIKE…


  16. I’d love to see a Mormon themed film or story of how the Second Coming should look like.

    Sons of Provo was the end of the world as I knew it.

  17. If I understand things correctly, we believe in a second coming rapture and the evangelicals believe in a pre-second coming rapture.

  18. Thomas Parkin says:

    Sign of the Times Alert!:

    Moon turning to blood.
    Starts falling from sky.
    Beer sales in Logan now legal on Sundays, locals make for bomb shelters.

  19. Steve G. says:

    I wonder if our collective fascination with the apocolypse has always been present in humanity’s zeitgeist or if it is a recent phenomenon.

    If its a recent phenomenon, could there have been a earth preparation class in premortality which burned the idea of apocolypse into our spiritual memory?

  20. I had a humanities professor who said that the times never change. Athens had a few days warning when the Persians landed, for example. A walled city might be besieged by an invading army with no warning.

    Instant calamity and destruction have been with us forever. So, I guess, our preoccupation with immediate collective death is not without foundation.

  21. I like the part in The Stand where they have the electricity come on and rebuilt society.

  22. Oh I just finished re-reading The Stand a few weeks ago. What a fun book that is!

  23. Joseph’s whole “gathering in of Zion” was about the anticipated Second Coming. Pre-1840’s American landscape was full of prophesy about the End of Days.

  24. Seriously, Dies the Fire had me giggling from about page 10. I’m supposed to believe that renaissance fair reenactors and medieval role players are best prepared to rule the post-apocalyptic world? The Road was much better, albeit horribly depressing.

  25. I don’t want anything to do with the apocalypse, but I like to read books and watch movies about it. Just like I like to read books and watch movies about serial killers, even though in real life I want nothing to do with serial killers.

  26. standingbehindmadhousewife says:

    Too late…. muwahahah!

  27. 3 Hulking Nephites says:

    Step away, punk.

  28. re: 22 Agreed, The Stand is one of the best stories in this genre. It’s been all downhill since then for Stephen King, imo.

    Have you guys seen the trailer for this year’s big end-of-days flick which will be released this fall?

  29. Mike, I saw that the other day, and it was strangely captivating. Watching so many landmarks destroyed is hypnotic, probably because one doesn’t expect such massive things to ever change. The crack in the Sistine Chapel ceiling was chilling. Unfortunately, I have my doubts concerning Emmerich’s usual weak spots of plot, characterization, etc.

    I admit I really enjoyed “Titan A.E.” In how many films is the earth destroyed in the first ten minutes?

  30. saintalbatross says:

    Chance that the world will end in 2012: @.1%
    Chance that the movie 2012 will be mind numbingly stupid: 100% ~

  31. I have apocalyptic dreams all the time. It’s kind of weird how often. Sometimes it’s asteroid impact, sometimes it’s alien invasion. Occasionally it’s worldwide plague. Sometimes it’s a nearby supernova sending enough radiation our way to sterilize the Earth. Other times mishaps with the moon or really powerful solar flares do it. It’s nearly always some external astronomical phenomenon, but every now and then it’s all-out nuclear war. A lot of times my personal demise in these apocalypses comes from a huge tsunami, which would have to be darn big considering I’m hundreds of miles from the coast. Maybe this is what comes from being aware of the universe outside our tiny planet. Or from understanding just how small it is compared to the cosmos. Or maybe it’s a result of my disaster preparedness mindset, though I sort of think it’s the other way around, actually. I remember dreams like this since I was a teenager, and I only really got into disaster preparedness in the last decade or so.

    Maybe it’s just from studying paleontology and realizing how many species go extinct in the great cataclysms like the Permian extinction or the K-T boundary.

    But the stereotypical disaster story is pretty dull, I think. I don’t know why. Lucifer’s Hammer was kind of interesting, I guess. Also, I like Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero cd. I suppose at any time there have been no dearth of prophets who cry that the apocalypse is nigh. We all know that it’s a possibility at any point. I still think it’s not inevitable, and we should be working as hard as we can to prevent it.

  32. LOL! Those Mayans! They’re such kidders!

  33. Paul Swenson says:

    It strikes me after reading your exchange of comments
    and personal points of view about the end of days that you may be interested in my poem, now almost four years old.
    Thanks for the stimulating discussion.

    Paul Swenson


    Do we still believe in the Apocalypse?
    Not a laugh to think, that on a quiet
    autumn afternoon, between lethargic sips
    of decaf latté, fire may fall from heaven.
    Surreal and showy, to assume that as a gloss
    on prophecy, Zion’s gutters soon will flow
    with blood, instead of mountain water.
    Who are the sufferers along the road?
    Seen with naked eye, it’s tricky to dismiss
    anachronistic images—dark horse,
    pale rider (shock to see, since bridle
    trail’s engorged to interstate). Can we fail
    to notice that a yellow dog cannot
    be found to wag its tail?

    In blessed sunlight of the New Millennium,
    disciples of the fateful age engage
    our dread to catalog calamities in store,
    enumerate the coming dead. Close
    the shutters, stay indoors, but don’t expect
    protection from foreboding in your dreams,
    or from scenes of carnage on the TV screen.
    What can it mean to worship a forgiving
    God? When Jesus walked, and spoke
    to sinners, prostitutes, the lame—
    He promised mercy to the merciful,
    the same to those who mourn, the meek,
    the poor in spirit, pure in heart. He said
    that those who seek, shall find.

    We may awkwardly recall
    (yet fail to recognize) the jealous
    God of wrath, who trod a bitter
    winepress of destruction of the wicked
    in the testament of old. We’re told
    the Deity who authored slaughter
    of whole cities (not a pretty sight),
    became the Shepherd of One Fold.
    And if He comes again at end of days
    (thief in the night), some say that we
    should see his crimson raiment
    of the wine vat as symbol of his majesty.
    Not me. I claim the gospel of Saint John,
    whose Lord is one of grace, and mystery.

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