Saturday, June 19, 2010

The end draws e'er nigh?

You might have noticed that the film, The Book of Eli, made its way to DVD earlier this week. The Atlantic's Benjamin Mercer offers a review of the film (h/t The Oil Drum) that provides a semi-decent synopsis. He includes a review of the documentary, Collapse, in the process. The latter film focuses on someone who strikes me to be a bit of a crackpot, and more of an alarmist for my personal tastes, but that's just me.

I've been a fan of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of sci-fi films for almost three decades - probably from the moment I set eyes on the original Mad Max film on the television (probably around the time there was hype surrounding Mad Max 2, or what we in the US knew as The Road Warrior). Obviously I'm far from alone, given the popularity of these films in theaters and DVD sales and rentals. There is something in the Zeitgeist of the industrialized and post-industrialized nations that these films tap into: namely a fear of annihilation that has been ever-present since the explosion of the first nuclear bomb.

There are plenty of variations on the origins of civilization's collapse in each of this sub-genre's films or series of films. In the Mad Max series it seems to the result of peak oil followed by nuclear war. In others it's some sort of environmental catastrophe. In still others, the cause seems ambiguous at best, if not outright unknown. Regardless, there is a common thread running through them, which has to do with how we as a species deal with the aftermath of the collapse of civilization. Here one might witness a range of responses from humane to nihilistic. It is quite common to see individuals and communities struggle mightily hang on to remnants of the past or perhaps even attempt to rebuild the past (only this time hoping to get it right). Regardless, some reversion to a primitive existence ends up inevitable. Scavenging, famine, and hostile environmental elements become par for the course. And we see, depending on the film, the best and worst humanity has to offer in the process.

Many of these films draw upon Westerns both in story and style. Either the Mad Max series or The Book of Eli could be viewed as an update and refinement of the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Westerns, with decaying cars, trucks, and motorcycles replacing horses, and perhaps a more impressive array of weaponry for the inevitable fight scenes). There is typically an archetypal hero or savior character, some archetypal villain, along with an array of archetypal mother, trickster, and child characters to round out a story that in many regards is as old as our species. Our hero is typically badly wounded (physically and psychologically) and an important part of the story may include the hero's fall from "grace" and his (or much more rarely her) redemption: again a theme as old as the oral tradition.

I won't spoil The Book of Eli for you, but I will say that in spite of its rather bleak scenario the filmmakers try to leave the audience with a message of hope. That said, it offers a stern warning in common with other post-apocalyptic films: all civilizations inevitably collapse, and typically for the same reasons. Ours too will collapse sooner or later. In our case, we can already see the stress on our society's institutions and infrastructure caused by a combination of increasingly scarce energy resources combined with climate change and population pressures. I seriously doubt I'll live to witness the end of our current civilization (and I'm assuming I still have at least two or three decades left in me), if only because total collapse is a lengthy process. I wouldn't be surprised to find many our institutions increasingly impotent and facets of our infrastructure in a state of permanent decline and disrepair. It's pretty safe to say that we're witnessing the beginnings of that process as of this writing.

What we inherit in the aftermath will depend a great deal on what our shared social values look like. I've been very concerned that the sort of hyperindividualism that characterizes American society is highly toxic and liable to make life after the oil peak considerably more unpleasant than need be. I've advocated for a while now that in order to be better poised for survival we need to embrace once more such concepts as collective action. Perhaps the post-apocalyptic genre can give us some hints as to how these dueling value systems play out. My "reading" of such films is that those characters who operate via a hyperindividualistic "me first" mentality tend to fare poorly whereas those who are capable and willing to band together and share some sacrifices fare relatively better within the bleak scenarios in which they are placed. Even the lone-wolf heroes in these narratives must from time to time look beyond their own immediate needs and wants in order to survive until the next battle.

Okay, those are just a few thoughts for now. This is a theme I want to revisit, as I am currently re-viewing such films as the Mad Max series through fresh eyes - I hadn't watched them in any format (television or VCR) since probably the late 1980s or early 1990s. As an aside, a fourth Mad Max film, tentatively titled Fury Road, is due for possible release sometime next year or 2012.

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