Since their earliest days, films and television have both terrorised and thrilled audiences with images of disaster, chaos and apocalypse. For the many of us, particularly those who have never lived through a public health crisis of this magnitude, the Covid-19 pandemic seems like an uncanny blurring of reality and fiction.
Pandemic movies have become a reference point for the grim scenes we see unfolding in the news or on our streets. Quarantines, hot zones and doctors in hazmat suits resemble Hollywood thrillers like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) – both of which have gained a new popularity on streaming services as people are asked to stay indoors to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The empty boulevards of quarantine zones in China and Europe resembled the deserted, post-apocalyptic London of 28 Days Later (2002).
Apocalyptic stories have inspired panic buying and paranoid hoarding. This led the Australian police to tell people fighting over toilet paper that it’s “not Mad Max”, referencing the cult sci-fi series.
But, perhaps this can be expected after years of films like The Road (2009) or the zombie TV series The Walking Dead (2010 onwards). These bleak narratives show people turning on each other in a crisis, with survivors fighting for the last scraps of consumer capitalism. They espouse the conservative message that in the apocalypse the real danger is other people, and that to survive, you must aggressively hoard and defend scarce resources.
As Susan Sontag wrote in her influential 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster”, apocalyptic and dystopian stories are metaphors for deeper cultural fears. Film and TV disasters chronicle our deepest anxieties about society, and the profound fear that industrial civilisation is built on an unstable foundation that could crumble at any time. They also reflect the fear that in times of disaster, our political elites will focus more on protecting their power than social wellbeing.
These anxieties can reflect a range of political beliefs. Apocalyptic stories can express reactionary fears about race, gender and class. But equally, they can draw attention to the existing oppressions and inequalities of capitalism and authority.
In the 1990s, feel-good doomsday movies like Independence Day (1996) and Deep Impact (1998) expressed the confident assertion that liberal capitalism would prevail in the face of any adversity – a confidence Covid-19 has quickly unravelled. But in the following decade, 9/11 and the Sars outbreak inspired a global resurgence of darker and more cynical zombie movies.
After the financial crisis, there was a proliferation of young adult dystopias including The Hunger Games series (2012-2015), which focused on teens fighting totalitarian state power in post-apocalyptic settings. More recently, environmental and economic anxieties were reflected in hits like A Quiet Place and Bird Box (both 2018), in which ragged family units attempt to survive a world overrun by monsters. (A real-life disaster has impacted on a filmic dystopia as the release of A Quiet Place Part II has been postponed owing to the Covid-19 crisis.)
There is also a parallel industry of low-budget, endtime films, which are specifically marketed to conservative, Christian audiences. Right-wing flicks – such as the woeful The Reliant (2019), in which the US is attacked by leftist protesters – trade in macho power fantasies and outrageous jingoism.
The possibility of solidarity
Yet, as the cultural theorist Fredric Jameson has argued, catastrophe movies also contain a utopian impulse. Terrifying threats create new bonds of solidarity and force protagonists to adopt alternate visions of society. In the same way that Covid-19 is making us reflect on the failings of our own social models, apocalypse tales cause us to consider collective morality, common humanity and the ethics of crisis.
Many apocalyptic films adopt a firmly anti-establishment, anti-capitalist stance. At their most perceptive, they show how the seeds of catastrophe already exist within the existing power structures.
Perhaps the most culturally influential are the Living Dead films of cult filmmaker George A Romero, which effectively invented the tropes and style of the modern zombie genre. A working-class filmmaker who independently produced classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) on small budgets, Romero shows survivors attempting to weather a global outbreak of the cannibalistic dead returning to life.
But the shuffling hordes of ghouls are not the biggest threat. Rather it’s the survivor’s attachment to racism, consumerism and militarism, along with the incompetence of authority figures, which doom them in the end. In Romero’s darkly satirical works, spaces like malls and military bunkers become “capitalism’s tombs”.
Romero’s films created a template for other politicised disaster movies to show how, in the wake of crisis, the old status quo cannot be restored. In films like 28 Days Later or Children of Men (2006), protagonists in a chaotic world are presented with the choice of siding with corrupt power and its illusory promise of safety, or with forming new bonds of solidarity and caring with others. Despite their dark subject matter, these films offer the hopeful message that cooperation across racial, gender and class lines is what keeps humanity alive.
Beyond mere survival, apocalyptic movies offer the hope that catastrophe can be used to beneficial effect. In the Japanese genre of mecha films, for instance, humans are forced to build giant robots to defend against alien and monster attacks. In these stories, humans must direct collective ingenuity and courage to survive the threat of imminent annihilation. The artistic high point of the genre, the TV and film series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 onwards), recently rereleased on Netflix, is a brooding meditation on self-sacrifice and the resilience of the human spirit in times of crisis.
A more optimistic version of this theme is shown in Pacific Rim (2013). In this sci-fi blockbuster, made by acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, Earth is attacked by massive kaiju (a Japanese term for giant monsters) sent by aliens to exterminate humans before colonisation. As one character notes, capitalism’s destruction of nature has made Earth an attractive environment for them to annex.
The only solution is a desperate multinational effort to defeat the kaiju with mecha robots. Del Toro’s own progressive sentiments are evident throughout the film, which shows a heroic, internationalist portrait of cooperation. As with real-life crises, like Covid-19 or climate change, Pacific Rim argues that global threats require global solutions – along with the rejection of nationalism and chauvinism.
In a climatic scene, British actor Idris Elba (who recently tested positive for the coronavirus) delivers a speech that has a new poignancy in times like these. As humanity seems to be facing its last stand, he announces: “Today … at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there is not a man nor woman in here that shall stand alone. Not today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them! Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!”
Apocalypse and disaster stories offer more than a perverse way to pass the time while self-isolating. At their best, they show us how to emotionally navigate confusing and terrifying events. They also demonstrate that we must reject the false consolation of returning to the way things were. Crisis not only exposes the injustices of the world, but also urges us to imagine a better one.