In Alfred Hitchcock's seminal fright flick “The Birds,” there is a scene set in a diner where a gathering of locals is debating recent bird attacks, some with skepticism, some with fear. And on a stool at the far end of the counter, one of the town’s more colorful characters is drinking a bit too early, a bit too much, and he repeatedly interjects the same line, each time with a different inflection: “It’s the end of the world.”
Judging from the slate of movies scheduled this year, perhaps it is.
So what is it with all the end-of-the-world flicks? You know, that dystopian futuristic sub-genre of science fiction that seems to be poised for theater dominance this year, second only to superhero sequels.
It’s true that scary, we’re-all-gonna-die pictures have been trending on and off since the A-bomb scares of the 1950s, but never in such abundance. If you thought 2012 was the year Hollywood was pondering the demise of Planet Earth — with “The Hunger Games,” “Looper,” “Total Recall,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “4:44 Last Day on Earth,” etc. — wait until you see the 2013 slate.
My wife and I went to see Tom Cruise take on a human-unfriendly Earth in "Oblivion,” and before it began we were treated to trailers for Will Smith’s “After Earth,” also about a futuristic Earth hostile to humans; Brad Pitt’s “World War Z,” about a literal zombie apocalypse; and “This Is the End,” with comic actors Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and many others playing themselves at a party in James Franco’s house when all sorts of disasters begin to rain down on Earth.
What a distressing message from Hollywood, that it’s all going to end in a blaze of action-packed glory or in the latter case, a blaze of farcical glory. Although, come to think of it, the thought of decadent movie stars being obliterated in one fell swoop is actually kind of appealing.
In addition to “Oblivion,” 2013 has already given us “Warm Bodies,” a zombie comedy; “The Host,” a futuristic, alien-infested romance; and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” in which London is obliterated.
Coming up, in addition to the aforementioned “After Earth,” “World War Z” and “This Is the End,” are these films that appear to depict in varying degrees rather horrific devastation on our planet — “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Elysium” (Matt Damon, Jodie Foster), “Ender’s Game” (Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, based on Orson Scott Card’s novel), “The Purge” (Ethan Hawke), “Pacific Rim” (Idris Elba), “The World’s End” (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost) and whatever others I may have missed.
Is it some kind of reaction to the economic downturn or the uptick in violence on the 24/7 news cycle or the rise in technological addiction or rude service-industry employees or the embattled health care system or road rage? Who knows? But whatever it is, Hollywood is dealing with it by envisioning a future that appears less than bright.
In truth, however, movies have done that since the earliest end-of-the-world epics dating back to the silent era. A 1916 Danish film titled “The End of the World” depicts a comet that passes by the Earth causing natural disasters to wreak havoc. The 1927 Fritz Lang sci-fi classic “Metropolis” is set during a “1984”-style urban-dystopian future. And then there’s the ultimate biblical disaster story, “Noah’s Ark” (1928), which, in this film alternates with a modern-day World War I allegory.
French filmmaker Abel Gance (famous for his 1927 silent epic “Napoleon”) made his “talkie” debut with “End of the World” (1931), about a comet on a collision course with Earth, focusing on the reactions of people when they learn of impending disaster. And the 1933 film “Deluge” was acclaimed at the time for its special effects of a West Coast earthquake causing a tsunami headed for New York.
But it was during the duck-and-cover years with the low-hanging threat of nuclear annihilation that films went nuts with literal A-bomb destruction or intimidation as well as metaphorical sci-fi alien attacks, beginning in 1951 with “When Worlds Collide” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and continuing through the ’50s with “The War of the Worlds,” “The Day the World Ended,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “1984,” “The World, the Flesh and the Devil” and “On the Beach.”
The 1960s had even more, including “The Time Machine,” “The Day the Earth Caught Fire,” “Panic in Year Zero,” “Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” “Fail-Safe,” “The Last Man on Earth,” “Crack in the World,” “In the Year 2889,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Bed-Sitting Room.”
The trend continued with strength into the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, with more and more of these films emphasizing a post-apocalyptic world that we have come to associate with some of each decade’s biggest hits — the “Planet of the Apes” series, “Logan’s Run,” “Soylent Green,” the “Terminator” films, the “Mad Max” trilogy, “Escape From New York” and its sequel, the “Alien” franchise, “Waterworld,” the “Matrix” trilogy, etc.
But it really kicked in during the early 2000s, and with even greater numbers during the past few years. From zombie films to natural-disaster epics to aliens coming after us to reactions of those informed of impending doom to the planet being completely wiped out except for very few survivors battling some mysterious lurking terror .
Most of these, and certainly the best of these, offer more than mere spectacle — or a fancy, compelling trailer. To give the audience some satisfaction, in the end we need to have a demonstration of the human spirit for survival or a clever way of managing the continued existence of the species under dire circumstances.
Which may explain why “The Hunger Games” is so popular.
And why “Melancholia” is not.