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Rob Edelman: Apocalypse Then and Now

The apocalypse is upon us. And no, cinematically-speaking, I am not referring to a remake or re-release of Francis Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW.

Three very different new films feature scenarios that portray a nation, or a planet, that is in the throes of its demise. One spotlights the kind of terrorism that is too-often in the news these days. WHITE HOUSE DOWN is an action-thriller in which armed paramilitary invaders commandeer the White House. The President, who is played by Jamie Foxx, is obviously modeled after Barack Obama. The hero, a Capitol Hill cop and Afghanistan war vet, is played by Channing Tatum: one action movie star who actually knows how to act.

In WORLD WAR Z, nature is the villain as some sort of virus is transforming earthlings into zombies. So ex-United Nations investigator Brad Pitt, who has retired to live the good life with his family, must separate himself from his loved ones, return to action, and figure out what is going on before the entire world is destroyed.

Finally, in THE EAST, corporate corruption is the heavy. Here, Brit Marling plays an investigator employed by a private firm that services multi-national corporations. She infiltrates a gang of anarchists who scorn the rampant power of these corporations and execute covert attacks against them.

These three films also vary in quality, with THE EAST by far the best of the lot, followed by WORLD WAR Z-- with WHITE HOUSE DOWN placing a distant third. But if you take any of them seriously, and if you see them as reflections of our times, well, the message you come away with is that we all are doomed. The cause may be rampant terrorism, nature run amok, shameless corporate malfeasance, or any combination of the above. But what is clear is that our civilization is heading in a downward spiral.

While this is a frightening thought, let me put it into historical perspective. Back in the 1950s, the world was reeling from the impact of the atom bomb blasts over Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. At this time, science fiction films became popular. If you look at the plots of many of these films, you’ll note that the conditions that are bringing about doom for humankind are the outgrowths of genetics gone haywire as the result of atom bomb blasts.

Granted, these films generally were low-budget affairs. They primarily were made for pre-teen and teen audiences, and they existed mainly as entertainment. Still, at their core, they deal with very serious themes and issues-- and the very real fear that nuclear power just may unleash untold horrors on humankind.

These horrors are reflected in the titles of 1950ssci-fi films: THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON; THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS; ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS; ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES. You have THE ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN, and then there is THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. The latter film, released in 1957, is a classic of the era. It opens with a perfectly ordinary married couple on vacation. The husband is accidentally sprinkled with what might be described as atomic dust. He then finds himself growing smaller... and smaller... and smaller, to the point where an otherwise furry, cuddly house cat becomes a deadly menace.

Then there is the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which dates from 1955 and has been remade several times since. In WORLD WAR Z, earthlings are being transformed into zombies. Here, they are becoming soulless, emotionless clones that are being spawned from alien “pods.” In both films, no one knows how to stop the pandemic.

Films like THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS were made almost six decades ago and, despite their dire subject matter, we still are here. One only hopes that, the scenarios of WHITE HOUSE DOWN, WORLD WAR Z, and THE EAST aside, this will remain the case decades into the future.

For they are, after all, only movies...

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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