Apocalyptic Films as a Window into our Collective Soul

utopiadystopiaEarlier this week, I posted a list of films that I am eager to see over the coming few months.  But what I didn’t note, at the time of my original posting, however, is a trend that I spotted as I was busy compiling the list.  In a Western world that is largely built upon the cultural foundations of the Enlightenment Project – in world that purports to believe in the essential goodness of humanity and its inevitable progress towards a technologically fueled utopian future – why are so many of our films and movies apocalyptic and/or dystopian tales of a future gone horribly wrong? 

Take a look back at the list I put together.  By my count, at least 13 of the 29 films I profiled contain strong apocalyptic overtones. While some opt to focus on overt acts of terrorism as the central threat to humanity, others envision a future in which governments have fully devolved into nothing more than coercive political machines that protect the elite even as they openly oppress the masses.   The question is: why do we – the children of the Enlightenment – see the future in such bleak terms?

Consider, if you will, the words of Immanuel Kant, one of the more influential philosophers of the Modern Age.  When faced with the question, “What is the Enlightenment?” Kant replied as follows:

“[The] Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” [1]

In other words, the Enlightenment was a whole new way of envisioning humanity, founded upon a central belief that we could “dare to be wise.” [2]  Whereas in the past, we were held back by external authorities, humanity had emerged into a new era – a new collective state of being – in which we could freely apply our wisdom and reason to solving the problems of the world.  We were now at the center of determining what was right and what was wrong; and if we applied ourselves appropriately, we could fashion a whole new way of living – a whole new world that was free from the infighting, the disease, and the rampant despair of the Middle Ages.

The culmination of this thinking, of course, was the birth of the American nation upon the bedrock of a rational democracy.  As all men were seen as being “created equal,” the early Americans thought that they all had a right to pursue “life, liberty” and even “happiness” as they best saw fit.  But 250 years later, where has all this ideological wordplay led us to?  On a popular level, most Americans and Western Europeans still subscribe to the idea that humanity is essentially “good” at the core of its being.  What’s more, studies also suggest that the vast majority of Westerners still have a strong sense of personal autonomy as they greatly value an individual’s “right to choose.”

So again, the question: if people see themselves as essentially “good” and they have the power to choose as they so desire, then why do they collectively see the future in such stark, hopeless terms?  Why are we all seemingly poised on the edges of our seats, looking into the future with so much trepidation and such a strong sense of alienation?

Could it be that after centuries of mythologizing the nature of the human heart, the Enlightenment Project has actually run up against the one immovable object that it can’t reason its way around?  Could it be that the brute force of history has finally, and at last, betrayed the Enlightenment’s claims to truth?  And could it be that we are finally coming around to the idea that we’re not nearly so “good” as we like to think that we are?

While such a cultural shift is certainly possible, I don’t suspect that we are witnessing any such sea-change in our cultural psyche.  And here’s why.

While almost half of the movies I am discussing feature some strong apocalyptic and dystopian themes, most (if not all) of them have positioned a hero at the center of the film – a hero that will presumably overcome the darkness in the end.  And what’s really interesting to note about that feature is that as you look back at the history of the most well-known and generally admired films of this genre, almost all of them follow the same pattern.  That is to say, as you look at the history of apocalyptic/dystopian films, very few have the courage of their convictions to actually follow through on the vision that they they are exploring.  It’s almost as if the writers and directors are publicly trying to wrestle down their own internal sense of cognitive dissonance.  On the one hand, they can’t deny the momentum of history and the vortex of violence that seems to engulf even the noblest of our collective efforts.  And yet, at the same time, they don’t want to capitulate to the realities around them because any such move would force them to walk through one of the only two doors remaining.  Either they become fully Nietzschian and simply embrace the heart’s wickedness or, they finally admit that the human heart is fatally flawed and in need of redemption from a source external to itself.

In either case, both doors lead to a catastrophic disruption of our cultural narrative and force us to ask questions that are profoundly uncomfortable.  And so, as a culture, rather than trying to resolve the tension, we simply spin stories that betray our deepest insecurities, even as we hope against hope that the Enlightenment can still be true.

[1]Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?” (or, “Answering the Question: What is the Enlightenment”) is the well-known essay written by Immanuel Kant in 1784..

[2] Sapere aude – “dare to be wise” – was rapidly endorsed as a motto of sorts for the entire Enlightenment Project; and it remains to this day a central feature of its thinking.

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