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Where Are All the Films About Economic Apocalypse?

By Sam McPheeters

This being the debut of my new film column, it seems apt to take stock of the decade in progress. Is there a cinema of the 2010s yet? This time 30 years ago, the cinema of the 80s—flying cars and neon squiggles and hauntingly horny sax solos—had already established itself as an aesthetic. But the 70s and 90s didn't exactly hit their filmic strides until middecade, and the 60s "New Hollywood" period didn't get going until very late in the decade. Of course, our own period has an unfair disadvantage, the financial crisis having kicked off in 2008. If the decade started 16 months early, we're already halfway in at this point. 

So far, the Great Recession has brought us muscles—heaps of them. There are the majestic biceps of Thor, the weaponized pecs of James Bond 6.0, the beef Prometheus of Captain America. Having set out to dwarf Vin Diesel in Fast Five, the Rock now resembles a zoo animal. "Puking from exhaustion" is part of any modern A-lister's fitness regimen. But it's all in the service of a greater good: making downsized American males feel better about their diminished fiscal standing. It's no coincidence that Taylor Lautner transformed himself into a colossal ab right after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. 

None of this is particularly original. A similar meatfest went down in the 1980s. In both decades, fictional men grew brawnier at the precise moment that real men grew more emasculated—then by the threat of nuclear annihilation, now by 9 percent unemployment and metrosexual fashions. Every decade grapples with its terrors (flappers, Nazis, commies, hippies, underwear bombers) with all kinds of concealed imagery. Our current decade is no exception. Covert imagery, however, is usually balanced by overt imagery. Reagan-era filmmakers addressed nuclear terror with lots of sneaky symbolism, but they also produced The Day After, Miracle Mile, and The Terminator. The war on terror took countless sly jabs at post-9/11 fears, but it also tackled those fears head on with World Trade Center, Rendition, and Children Of Men. So where are all the present-day films about economic apocalypse? The Company Men? Margin Call??

If such a movie seems undoable, I direct your attention to Neal Israel's Americathon.

In this 1979 version of 1998, the world has run out of oil, Americans live in their abandoned cars, and John Ritter is president. The United States is broke. Unless the treasury can come up with $400 million, a Native American billionaire will foreclose on the entire country. In desperation, the president holds a massive telethon, hosted by Harvey Korman. It's a recession-driven 70s fantasy (jogging suits are in vogue) addressing timeless themes of scarcity and perseverance. Yet this film stands alone, the sole title in any video store's Financial Armageddon section.

It's a deeply nutty film. The president lives in a run-down SoCal condo and lusts after a Vietnamese new-wave pop star. The telethon intersects with a crazy ensemble of Carter-era talent: Meatloaf, Fred Willard, and Peter Riegert, fresh from Animal House. Dorothy Stratten, Elvis Costello, and Jay Leno have cameos. George Carlin narrates. Plus, the soundtrack is by the Beach Boys and Eddie Money. 

That the movie failed to win cult status is one of those unsolvable mysteries of mass taste. Maybe the public viewed Ritter (then only two years into Three's Company) as too kitschy. Certainly director Neal Israel isn't remembered for his filmic oeuvre. If he can take credit for Bachelor Party, he must also accept blame for The Brady Bunch in the White House. He currently directs Disney's Dog With A Blog. Besides the words I'm writing right now, Americathon hasn't really made a dent on American culture. 

Why hasn't anyone remade Americathon? The very economics of Hollywood risk aversion—the same managerial cowardice that recently re-reintroduced us to Oz, the Smurfs, and the Lone Ranger—would seem to make the math irresistible. It's just sitting in the Warner Brothers vaults. 

Hey, Weinsteins! Don't like the goofy tone of the 1979 version? Fine: Dark Knight that shit. Americathon: The Brokening. I'm talking about full-frontal fiscal collapse, people huddled under their upside down aboveground swimming pools, using the last of their cash for toilet paper and boiling leather wallets for soup. How about The Road as a road comedy? Maybe the Rock could drop 200 pounds and finally snatch up that elusive Oscar?

Seriously, Hollywood: get on it. Consumer confidence is up, and jobless benefit claims are down. Americathon: The Bettering just doesn't have the same ring to it.

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