I have been watching a lot of (post-) apocalypse movies and television shows. I watch them because I find them both comforting and terrifying. Comforting because I know that our world has not actually devolved into killing one another for food or shelter. And terrifying because I see the seeds of each of the world-ending moments in my life.
Given that I am drawn to these pieces of media, I thought it might be useful to enumerate them and dig into why I find them so resonant. So, in no particular order, here are the shows and movies I’ve been watching that feature an end to the world as we know it:
- Invasion – While this one is technically about an alien invasion that brings about the apocalypse, I found that the human elements of the story (children trying to survive on their own, a soldier trying to get back home, a family just trying to survive in the face of something they don’t understand) connected deeply. Just because the world is ending doesn’t mean that we instantly become better (or much worse) people. We will still be selfish and contemplative and loving and desperate. My takeaway: I’m trying to hold on to our humanity in a moment that feels totally out of control (i.e., do we live in a democracy?).
- Station Eleven – After a deadly pandemic wipes out most of the planet’s population, a group of actors and musicians live the very small, dangerous, and intimate life of traveling performers. Also, there is a quasi-magical story book that has morphed into a prophecy for those who were born after the pandemic. While our pandemic is far more “slow rolling,” the way that society breaks down in this show points toward what is possible when the whole world shrinks into a single quarantined apartment or a few people that survived a tragedy. My takeaway: The world is always dangerous and people will create a story to help them survive. It doesn’t really matter what the story is, so long as people can hold on to it. And that is both devastating and beautiful.
- Y: The Last Man – When a sudden and unforeseen illness kills all of the men on the earth with a Y chromosome (except one, of course), the world is run by what is left of the government (the women who were in the line of succession, etc.). It is a story about how a seemingly ordinary man has to embrace (or run away from) the label of “savior of the world.” All of the women are reminded of what they have lost (and what they have gained) whenever they look around and only see themselves reflected back. My takeaway: The world order can and will be turned on its head. The real question is, what will we do once that happens? Will we stubbornly cling to what was, or will we embrace reality to create what will be?
- Finch – The earth now has a bunch of holes in its ozone layer, without which the sun becomes a fiery death ball. Finch (Tom Hanks) is trying to keep his dog safe, even as he dies from radiation exposure. To ensure the safety of his canine companion, Finch creates a sentient robot that is capable of learning and complex thought. In the end, it is more of a coming of age story for both Finch and the Robot (who chooses the name Jeff mid-film). Jeff is incredibly human in his mistakes, and the empathy I felt for him was unexpected in its depth. My takeaway: The (my) world is ending, whether slow or fast. What art am I going to make (or what legacy am I going to leave) before that happens?
Now, if I were a more topical writer, I would include Don’t Look Up in this list, but I am still trying to work out my feelings on that one. And, as the apocalypse really only happens in the last few minutes of the film, it really is a story about living in the time just before the world ends and not during or after. And for whatever reason, I feel more drawn to the aftermath, to “picking up the pieces.”
Because in some ways, it feels as though the world has already ended and we just haven’t recognized it yet. In some ways I see these stories not as foretelling the future, but as a reflection of the present. They are not warnings, but rather variations on the theme of our current reality. And when you look at them that way, they are the only stories worth paying attention to.
They are stories of survival, and right now, I am trying to survive.