This is how the world ends: zombies, asteroids, plagues, nuclear war, a very big unseen planet knocking into us, more zombies, the fist of the mighty g-d, an ambiguous fade-out, sucked into a black hole. And so on. Society loves the idea of doomsday perhaps even more than it fears it, and culture’s produced enough films and sold enough tickets to bear that out.
This weekend the Doomsday Film Festival, now in its third year, takes over 92 Y Tribeca in New York with movies ranging from the vastly underappreciated Last Night to, naturally, Dr. Strangelove to Colossus: the Forbin Project, after which I’m moderating a panel discussion between journalist Maggie Jackson, critic Joshua Rothkopf, author Jason Zinoman, roboticist Chris Bregler, and AI pioneer Roger Schank. Find the full schedule here.
This week I emailed with fest co-founder Andrew Miller:
What makes a doomsday film?
Essentially any film that envisions the complete annihilation of the human race. Our motto is "empty streets, blood-red skies and total social breakdown" and we've used that as a kind of checklist to make sure we're not venturing into dystopia territory—which would (and should!) really be its own film festival.
Are there movies out there that might have some doomsday scenario that might not fit the genre?
Most occult movies, they're apocalyptic in theory, but for whatever reason The Omen and Rosemary's Baby don't seem to belong. Even though they posit that Antichrist is going to lead us to some kind of End Times or at least make us really uncomfortable. Not to mention half the action-adventure genre, most anything where our dogged hero rescues us from a vaguely villainous plot to "take over the world," from 007 to GI Joe to basically every single movie Jerry Bruckheimer has produced in the last ten years, with or without Nicolas Cage.
Was there an inciting incident that made you think “there is a need for this?”
The realization that no one else was doing it. Just seemed odd, since the general public’s obsession with the End of Days is nothing new. Especially so in 2009, the first year of the fest. That was the year The Road, Book of Eli, 9, Zombieland, and 2012 all came out within weeks of one another. Also Swine Flu had just hit, we were still feeling the aftershocks of economic apocalypse, not to mention the Tsunami in Samoa. I mean, doomsday was everywhere back then.
Though of course nothing's changed. This past year it's been a bit more sobering & real — outside of the prospect of a Rapture, every day there seems to be a new uprising, not to mention the devastating tragedy in Japan. So it seems like there's a need for this festival more and more every year, ominously enough. Which is where the festival's symposium aspect comes into play, to get to the heart of not only our doomsday obsession, but to figure out how doomed we may actually be.
Have you connected with many, eh, doomsday enthusiasts through the fest?
Strangely there haven't been too many nutjobs showing up. One attendee was oddly enthusiastic in discussing the prospect at of poisoning the world's population. The word "cleansing" kept coming up. I really should have got his name.
What doomsday hasn’t been covered in film? What is the strangest omission to you?
Outside of weirdly abstract ones like vacuum metastability and casuality collapse, I'd say the strangest omission has been economic doomsday, though I imagine that might change soon. There's this economic disaster film Rollover by Alan Pakula from '81, which ends with what a complete breakdown of the financial system would really look like. It was a total bomb and to my knowledge that was the last of the economic apocalypse genre. Maybe because it's too real.
What doomsday does film dote on too much?
Zombies, no question. Nothing against them of course, some of the closest ones to my heart are zombie flicks, Return of the Living Dead especially. But I think we've seen Romero's tried and true formula recycled so much at this point that the only way for it to become fresh is to maybe take a break and rediscover it. Of course, most the general public couldn't disagree with me more, since word on the street is zombies are the new vampires. And I must admit, the first episode of The Walking Dead was kind of bitchin’.
If you were to guess, what do you think people think about more: the likelihood of their imminent death or global apocalypse? I ask because sometimes I think it’s the latter.
I'd say global apocalypse since it's less abstract. And it can be kind of comforting in its own way, since I think there's a part of us that feels like we deserve it. Not to mention if you imagine that you'll be the one who survives, there's prospect of getting rid of all the boring people in the world. I think deep down people just want to get back to basics, which the post-apocalyptic world would definitely afford.
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