Why Do We Love Apocalyptic Movies? The Two Basic Rules That Make Them So Addictive

Mass annihilation is depressing, sure. But stories about it force us to imagine large-scale rebirth—and what kind of people we want to become.
Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton plays Minister Mason in Snowpiercer. Photo courtesy of RADiUS-TWC.

There is a moment in the film Snowpiercer when the leader of a revolutionary uprising, Curtis, comes face to face with the man he must overthrow, Wilford. Great consequences hang in the balance of this meeting: Human extinction is possible; so is maintaining, in the name of survival, an unjust social structure dependent on slavery and violence.

After two violent but breathtaking hours of fever-pitch cinema, the two men quietly stand across a wooden table in front of a droning silver engine discussing the future of life on Earth. The frozen remains of an uninhabitable planet pass by through the windows.

I cannot get enough of the end of the world. Stories about the collapse of civilization and order—apocalyptic stories—endlessly seduce me. And I am not alone.

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Last year’s most popular film was the dystopian The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The most watched show in cable history is another post-apocalyptic favorite, The Walking Dead. It seems that we love to see our world destroyed.

The Walking Dead posterWhat’s more, we find our fondness for destruction in pop culture reflected in our 24-hour news cycle. That, coupled with the relentless updates of Twitter and the Huffington Post, have provided an instant fear-of-collapse impulse to feed apocalyptic visions. Disappearing airliners and and biological robots carry with them the uneasiness of possible dystopian futures.

The end is coming, it would seem, from any number of causes. Zombies. Viral outbreaks. Science run amok. Or, as in Snowpiercer, climate change and the failure of human technology. Our screens and pages are filled with similar apocalyptic scenarios, and we find them hidden too in our culture and politics and media.

But every era feels as though the end is nigh. Why should ours be any different?

The rules of the apocalypse

Snowpiercer—a nightmarish sci-fi film set entirely on a train circulating a frozen Earth incapable of supporting life—is only the latest in a long list of apocalyptic stories I love: novels like The Road and The Hunger Games; comics like Kingdom Come and Y: The Last Man; television series like Battlestar Galactica, which is probably my favorite.

There are two fundamental rules that make these tales so seductive.

First, the end of civilization and humanity is always forthcoming. The world is on the brink of collapse. Leaders push nations toward disaster. Power is hoarded; profit-oriented decisions threaten the world (Aliens); governments crumble.

Science takes and unexpected turn; technology rages out of control (The Terminator). At any given point in any given time, these destabilizing forces threaten to push us off the ledge. On top of our political demise, the biblical End Times are regularly predicted by preachers and cult leaders (HBO’s new series, The Leftovers) and anyone else who wants to play the guessing game. Dates are chosen, preparations are made, and evangelizing occurs. The end is always nigh.

The second rule is this: The end never actually comes. The world never ends, even in the stories. Millions (billions, even) die, as is required in any apocalyptic tale, but some live. The difficulty of life after catastrophe is portrayed in all its trials and horrors, but humanity goes on. The virus spreads, but the immune person is found and the anti-virus is developed in time (World War Z, Contagion). A new planet is found (Battlestar Galactica), and a new hope arises. The world keeps spinning, and people, however few, are still in it.

There are some exceptions. Dr. Strangelove embraces the bomb’s total annihilative capacity. I Am Legend (the book) breaks the post-apocalyptic rules. But for the most part, we can rest assured that humanity will survive whatever apocalypse may come.

The train at the end of the world

Snowpiercer sits comfortably within these rules. In the film—which is directed by the South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong and adapted from the French graphic novel, Transperceneige—humanity hangs by a thread after a last-ditch effort to counter the effects of climate change (though geoengineering fails catastrophically). The earth is now in a new ice age, one so severe that life is impossible on the planet’s surface. The world has become as silent and barren as an alien landscape. Billions of lives are lost.

Yet humanity has not fully perished. Technology has failed to save the planet, but it has saved remnants of life who are carried on an ever-running, nuclear-powered, mile-long train called the Snowpiercer. The Snowpiercer runs on a 24,000-mile circuit covering earth’s frozen continents. One round-trip equals one year; it has made 18 trips.

"These stories let us imagine being suddenly forced out of our comfort zone and into something far more heroic."

Inside the tin-can cars of the Snowpiercer, a new and brutal society has formed. The front end of the train houses the wealthy elite, who dine on steaks and have entire cars dedicated to spas, dance clubs, beauty salons, and even a colorful kindergarten class taught by a young teacher who is pregnant and all smiles. She leads the kids in songs that are at once uplifting and horrible. “What happens if the engine stops?” she sings in an upbeat tempo. “We all freeze and die!” respond the children, unaware of the horrible realities underway just a few cars behind them.

The tail end of the train houses the desperate and abused poor. Crammed into their cars like sardines and slotted into beds, the poor are forced to survive on a slippery red protein substance served by armed guards. Thus has life continued for 18 years. The young on the train never knew life on the ground, and many who did try to forget it.

While the story includes deep injustice and inequality, the lines of division are drawn by class alone, not race or nationality. At the film’s apocalyptic center is a small group of men and women facing the moral challenges of confronting their social status.

Climate change is the catalyst for Snowpiercer’s plot; economic inequality is the driver of the revolution it portrays; brutal violence is the manner in which that revolution is carried out. But none of this defines what makes Snowpiercer a powerful apocalyptic story: the universal moral questions of life in extremis being decided by only a few people.

Snowpiercer insists we extend our moral choices to the most severe circumstances: what to do if the fate of the world rests on one decision.

That means asking the moral questions apocalyptic stories require us to ask: if it were us, how would we behave?

The questions keep us returning again and again to the end of the world.

The rebirth that comes afterward

There are all kinds of apocalypse stories in popular culture to indulge our infatuation with the End of the World. Zombie apocalypses have been popular for some time (28 Days Later tops that genre).

But the fashion changes. Rocks from space had a late-90s spike. Bruce Willis (spoiler alert) averted Armageddon, though not before Paris was completely annihilated. Vampires, viral outbreaks, and nuclear meltdowns all rise and fall in our popular portraits of the end. Lately it’s been comedies, with This Is The End’s surprisingly sincere embrace of the biblical end times.

The premise of all of these stories, including Snowpiercer, is that most of humanity has been or will be wiped out and the survival of the rest depends on the choices of a select few. That’s where we start.

Why do we want to consume these stories? Why are we so drawn to stories that start with the deaths of nearly all of humanity and the very real threat of human extinction?

To find out I asked my friend and PhD candidate in literature at the University of Minnesota, Wes Burdine. He studies these things.

He said this:

Apocalyptic narratives play into liberation fantasies. Mass annihilation is depressing, sure, but it’s sure as hell more exciting than the mall and running to the store to get toilet paper.
These stories let us imagine being suddenly forced out of our comfort zone and into something far more heroic. Plus, have you tried to change the world lately? It’s painful and slow or quixotic at best. End-of-the-world narratives allow us to imagine large scale rebirth and play into our utopian desires.

The apocalypse, then, is not about the end. It’s not about those millions of deaths, but about the rebirth that comes afterward. In the Bible, The Second Coming is less about destruction, mass death, and chaos, than about about Christ returning to make good on his word—ushering in the next era.

Strip the biblical part, and you still have something hopeful to hold onto in these stories. Humans are resilient and savvy and damn near impossible to eradicate as long as we choose to be so. Our ingenuity finds a way through even the most catastrophic circumstances. Not only do we rebuild, but we do it better.

Or we can imagine it so, at least. Even in a world as bleak, violent, and despairing as Snowpiercer, the possibility is always there that the world can come back to us.

We gravitate toward stories of the end if only to see whether or not we will survive—and whether it will be with our humanity intact.

The big reveal

The Greek word “apocalypse” means to reveal something that is hidden. This is what the apocalypse is about: revelation. As I was sitting in the theater listening to Curtis admit the terrible things he has done, it occurred to me that the stories I love are not so much apocalyptic as post-apocalyptic.

If the apocalypse is the act of revealing what is hidden, the post-, I think, is the life of the revelation: What we choose to do with it. No matter the horrors let loose upon the world by science or natural disasters or zombies or vampires, the apocalypse always gives way to the post-.

The novelist and playwright Monica Byrne recently gave an interview about her new novel, The Girl in the Road, another science-fiction story set in the future. Of apocalyptic narratives, she said this:

I grew up in the 90s, which, given the approach of millennium’s end, saw its fair share of hysterical prophesying. I remember watching a special on Fox or somesuch about how the U.S. was due to experience a catastrophic earthquake, as predicted by Nostradamus, and of course there was almost an erotic thrill in watching their animation of the Mississippi flooding the entire Midwest. But now it’s 2014. We have had incredible disasters—9/11, Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami—but, we go on. The world goes on. That’s the lesson I’ve grown up with.

This is the big revelation of the apocalypse: The world goes on.

There’s a moment in the end of Snowpiercer when a teenage girl and a small boy are faced with carrying the weight of humanity’s continuation. Both were born on a train that has never stopped and have never encountered life beyond the tin-can confines of their cars. Neither has been responsible for anything beyond their own survival. Civilization has collapsed and the Earth has rejected life for 18 years.

But the second rule is this: The end never actually comes.