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.