According to commercial Hollywood, the future's going to blow. Take a peek inside any blockbuster set in the future and humanity's prospects look dire. Where sci-fi once thrilled audiences with predictions of upcoming dystopias and high-tech paradises in equal measure, fantasy's sparkling utopias have all but faded from the silver screen. Today's films presume an audience's compliance with an almost nihilistic school of thought. Hollywood hardly needs to explain why things in the future are going to suck—they assume that you, dear viewer, already agree that this is how things will be. And it's not pretty.
Tom Cruise hovered above a long-since abandoned earth, desperately searching for life in Oblivion. Will and Jaden Smith did quite the same in After Earth. Brad Pitt battled a zombie apocalypse in World War Z. Simon Pegg, as well as Seth Rogan and the Apatow boys, mused about the end of days with The World's End and This Is the End, respectively. The teenage experience is contextualized with post-apocalyptic gloom in both The Hunger Games and Divergent series. Edge Of Tomorrow muses on the futile cyclicality of wartime. The latest entry in the Transformers franchise acknowledges the damage caused by chapters past, placing the world in techno-phobic ruin. And when Superman saved Metropolis in Man of Steel, it's safe to say that the city looked worse for wear. Somehow, even acts of heroics cause a bit of disaster. Moreover? Every single one of these films was released within the last five years.
"Ever since the atom bomb in WWII, which propagated images of death and destruction around the world, people have been more capable of imagining what an apocalypse looks like and how it may affect them," film critic Rumsey Taylor told VICE. "So their fear or cynicism is motivated by these images of death."
Taylor, who curated a month-long online collection of film essays on the topic of apocalypse for Not Coming to a Theatre Near You, doesn't see much of a difference between today's doomsday blockbusters and those of yesteryear, except for a modern preoccupation with environmental disasters.
The form may have gotten a facelift, but the function remains the same. If Hollywood is to be believed, things are getting worse and worse. Climate change deniers can keep it up, but if movie profits are indicative of anything (the last five years have tracked as the highest profits in industry history), it's that everybody is sort of into the idea that we're wrecking the planet beyond repair.
"If a film shows us a good outcome, we're going to be bored," explains cultural theorist Judy Berland. "Films use our anxieties as an anchor." Berland, a Professor of Humanities at York University, is one of only three North American representatives for the Association of Cultural Studies' international board (both a mouthful and a big deal). Throughout her career, she's written often about the relationship between the human body and the culture's obsession with the possibilities of science.
"It all comes back to our feelings on science," Berland says. "We're slowly learning that science is actually sort of powerless to fix the things that have already gone wrong. All the amazing things that we hoped science would come up with have caused their own set of problems that science itself isn't able to solve. So that creates a sense of powerlessness."
Berland isn't scapegoating; the boundless potential of science remains the connective tissue between the industrial and the information age. In The Choice: Evolution of Extinction? systems theorist Ervin Lazlo once described an idealized future that was largely the result of science achieving the full potential of human imagination. From the smashing of the atom, the sudden abundance of cheap energy, and the pill's ability to limit population growth, to the development of automated technologies to do our dirty work and the power of television to provide education in every home, the human experience would, at the turn of the century, be a new dawn "hallmarked by humanism, solidarity, and well-being for everyone."
We feel ambivalent about technology, because there are forces stronger than science now.
To put it mildly, this isn't quite what went down. Instead, the endless possibilities of technology created their own set of problems that machines were no longer in a position to mediate.
"I think we feel ambivalent about technology, because there are forces stronger than science now," Berland says, "and that didn't use to be the case. Science was always in this position of complete narrative authority in the 20th century."
Since the birth of science-fiction film, somewhere between John B. Blystone's 1924 The Last Man on Earth and Fritz Lang's 1926 Metropolis, the future has served as fertile soil for both micro and macro conflict. So the idea of "narrative authority" gets at something slightly less abstract than a simple fear of technology.
Susan Sontag once wrote that sci-fi films were "concerned with the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc." Fair enough. But where last century's disaster films presented destruction as sex and the apocalypse as orgasm, many of today's films depict the gruesome future with banal indifference. Why this apathy toward doomsday?
"There is just a lot of rage right now," says Berland. "Economically, you have this really small number of people being incredibly rich, and then millions of people that have lost everything. And nobody is being held accountable. So there has got to be a lot of rage out there. There are feelings of ambivalence, powerlessness, rage."
"Any dystopian future is always, in a way, a re-figuration of the present," says Professor Sabrina Ferri. "So a film that depicts a terrible future is also proposing a reflection on certain specific aspects of the present historical moment." Ferri is an assistant professor at the University of Notre Dame, where her interdisciplinary work has often focused on catastrophes and ruin in visual culture. Like Berland, Ferri cites apocalyptic cinema as anything but a recent trend.
"The question is, is the focus on the destruction of civilization or on life after the catastrophe?" she asks. "In a way, one could say that an apocalyptic film places its emphasis on the past. In most cases, what is really at the center of the film is the cause, or the chain of causes that have led to the disaster."
This distinction between apocalypse and post-apocalypse isn't a matter of semantics. "One of the dominant readings of the film medium is as a return of the repressed: the things that have been made unconscious in the culture," Berland says. "It's now easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."
It's an effect that author and cultural theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls "apocolypto," one of the five stages of his theory of Present Shock, in which scale trumps all.
The general notion of apocalypto is that it has become increasingly easier to imagine a zombie apocalypse than it is to imagine the idea of "next week." And this is largely because of a profound disruption in how we understand the world and time itself. According to Rushkoff, our immersion with technology and other online simulacra, coupled with our understanding of narrative in a 24-hour news context, have created a sense that time, as we imagine it, now exists in a perpetual state of linear "happening." There is no future to be imagined because the world—in all its constant accessibility and activity—is always living in now.
These kind of abstract anxieties are, in Rushkoff's opinion, fundamental to the rise of dystopian narratives, because the films themselves largely displace actual threats in favor of a general atmosphere. Movies like 2011's In Time and 2012's Looper feature pronouncedly grim forecasts of the future—but the state of things rarely factor into the films themselves. They're merely decoration for secondary drama.
Somewhere between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, cultural anxieties became more indefinable. Rushkoff cites the current ill-definition of modern enemies to be reflected back to us in the strange air of the films we watch. And that as American wartime evolved past modern warfare into something else entirely, traditional storytelling conflicts took on a different air.
"After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the fall of the Soviet Union. American frontierism was the only thing left," Rushkoff says, his voice taking on the urgency of a history teacher in a room on fire. "The Russians weren't there any more. It wasn't about fighting for freedom. So our big conflicts—the original Us. Vs. Them conflict and all the narratives that go along with it—went away. Now there is no more bad guy out there that we have to beat, so all the moral certainty goes away."
This rationale contextualizes many of the major blockbusters of the last half-decade. The pinnacle of utopian grandeur, Star Trek, got a grim facelift just two years ago. Even Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy often grapples with the anxieties and moral ambiguity of post-9/11 America, if only superficially. It seems that even films set in the present day have taken on a kind of gloom usually reserved for the last days of the party.
It is now easier for us to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
Ferri cites 9/11 as a breaking point in how we perceive cities to react to disaster. She calls the attack an "absolute event," borrowing a term from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, whose own work has often delved into the subject of the hyper-real. "Events such as 9/11 change history and have enormous historical consequences," Ferri says, "but they do not only alter the historical course. Their devastating violence are highly symbolic—they change our imaginary, the way we see the world and the way we think about the world—and fiction is the realm of the symbolic."
The key seems to be rooted in disaster as shorthand. Whereas films about the end of days used to largely be interested in the "how and why" of disaster, modern apocalypse films seem to be interested merely in CliffsNotes—the fastest way to talk about today is to make tomorrow look gnarly.
"There are just so many things that have to get worked out, that if you want to get to the shortest distance between here and the future that we can imagine, the easiest way is to blow the whole thing up," Rushkoff says. "Crash the whole economy; everyone dies of a plague; there is just so much mentally and symbolically that if you're going to do future-casting, you have to abbreviate, since the real future is something we'll only be getting to slowly. You have to do some shorthand."
That shorthand can manifest itself in a million different directions. If film is interested in making the future look bleak, perhaps the disaster that precedes it is about the closest we'll get to a certain kind of new world order.
"How do you combat the ills of the world in a way that doesn't just make people feel more powerless?" asks Berland. "You tell the story about a meteor that is going to come out of the sky. You talk about something that is going to punish everyone equally."