Apocalypse Now

Lean into it

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

First came COVID-19. I’d never lived during a time of global pandemic before—same goes for pretty much everyone else except a tiny group of centenarians that survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. However, like most people I know, I followed the science, listened to the CDC recommendations, adjusted to employment changes and generally tried to adapt in a way that kept me not only physically healthy, but also mentally and emotionally stable.

Then came an outbreak of a different kind: Widespread social unrest and a prolonged protest movement that was sparked by a series of violent incidents—many of them ending in death—by police against Black people. While the vast majority of the still-ongoing marches, protests and other actions have been well-organized and peaceful, this country’s long history of systemic racism has caused more than just tempers to flare, and when coupled with extreme dispersal measures used by police, rioting was the inevitable result. As that happened, I educated myself further about the ways in which I’m complicit and complacent in our broken system, made donations to organizations on the ground and tried to believe that a more hopeful future would be the result of so much previously pent-up societal pain.

But then the world—at least broad swaths of our part of it anyway—caught fire, millions of acres have already burned in just a few short days and a thick blanket of smoke rolled in. While we are lucky enough—so lucky—to not be in the path of the flames, hazardous air quality has made lives already constrained by COVID-19 even more so. I haven’t left my house in days. Nor have I opened a window because there’s no fresh air to be found. I’ve managed to handle everything 2020 has thrown at us so far, but my well of healthy coping mechanisms is beginning to run dry.

Throughout this strange, hard, bad time in which we all find ourselves, staring at a screen—and not the computer or phone variety—has proven to be an excellent escape and means of distracting my anxious brain. Of late, I’ve mostly sought out entertainment fare—I watched Bill and Ted Face the Music despite never having seen the previous two movies in the trilogy (I didn’t really get the hype, which is what happens when you decide to pick up a story after two-thirds of it has already taken place), I’ve binged episodes of the Simpsons (evergreen cartoon content), I’ve repeatedly watched a supercut of all of Peter Capaldi as Malcom Tucker’s scenes in In the Loop, and I’m currently working my way through all of Danny McBride’s shows.

Then the smoke descended and instead of soothing myself with cheery fare, I’ve made the possibly dubious decision to lean into the End Times vibe outside my window. No, that doesn’t mean I’m headed outside to breathe particulate matter deep into my lungs—I’m an entertainment masochist, not an actual one—but I will be watching movies of the apocalypse until I can see blue sky again.

When it comes to big-budget disaster flicks, no one in Hollywood—or anywhere else, for that matter—does it like Roland Emmerich. Film might be his chosen medium, but the catastrophic end of the world is his art. After teasing us with extraterrestrial exploration in such films as Stargate and Independence Day, and giant lizards in his retooling of Godzilla, Emmerich discovered his disaster niche with 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow and hasn’t looked back. Incidentally, that movie is about how climate change leads to catastrophic worldwide weather shifts (Roland was really ahead of his time here) that wreak complete destruction on the planet, so if that sounds like it hits a little too close to home, perhaps you will be comforted to know that it’s ice, not fire, that brings about the end of the world. It stars my former movie star boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, so it’s got more than just special effects going for it.

The Day After Tomorrow is good and all, but for me, the classic Emmerich End Times flick will always and forever be 2012, a movie that I have watched several times, often goaded into doing so by my friend Brent Cole, whose affection for it far outpaces mine. Is this movie what most people would consider “good?” No. It is not. However, it is a big-budget effects spectacular—and I do mean spectacular—that uses some very dubious science involving a giant solar flare and the Earth’s destabilized crust—with some Mayans thrown in for good measure—to give Roland an excuse to, among other things, collapse Los Angeles into the Pacific Ocean, take out Yellowstone and the surrounding area with a supervolcano eruption, flood various parts of the globe with megatsunamis—you get the picture. All the while, John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, and others try and act their way through a truly terrible script. The apocalypse never seemed less scary.

If the unintentional ridiculousness of the end of the world seen through Emmerich’s lens still hits a little too close to home, perhaps what you really need is a little apocalyptic comedy. Shaun of the Dead is an excellent go-to for that—although technically it’s a zombie movie. And a pub-crawl movie, which isn’t a real genre except in Simon Pegg’s world. For a decent dose of apocalypse humor, press play on This is the End, the 2013 movie that unleashes earthquakes, fires, Biblical plagues and other horrors, presumably on the unsuspecting masses, but specifically on a party at James Franco’s house. The film stars a host of celebrities such as Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Emma Watson, and some truly inspired cameos, as themselves—but only sort of. Things get truly out of hand before it’s all over—and then the Backstreet Boys sing. It’s one wild ride, as the end of the world probably should be.

Lastly, if you truly want to bum yourself out with apocalyptic movies, all roads lead to The Road. Technically, it takes place post-apocalypse, but Cormac McCarthy’s artfully spare novel is depressing in that gorgeously hard way that has made him one of the world’s greatest living authors. The movie, starring Viggo Mortensen, is an excellent adaptation of a difficult novel—which is my way of saying it is hands down the bleakest film I have ever seen. And I have spent two decades working at an arthouse movie theater so I have seen some brutally sad films.

But no matter whether you choose Emmerich or McCarthy or something in between, there’s a little Armageddon out there for everyone.

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