Until the end of the world

Fin de siècle fears in history and popular culture

by Adrienne Redd adredd@journalist.com

The stars of all the galaxies everywhere will expire and with them our dying sun will flame out, searing planet earth to an uninhabitable cinder. Though it would appear utterly dark, the universe will no longer contain any human eyes to see it.

But astrophysicists don’t predict that end of the universe and of the earth with it for another 10 trillion years or so.

The end of the millennium on the Roman calendar, is coming at the end of this year, prompting religious prognostication and fin de siècle hysteria, but this is not the first time the western world has seen millennial fever. At the end of the 10th century there were plagues and fires and disasters. Some devout, literal-minded Christians believed the events of the Book of Revelations were imminent and that the second coming would take place in the year 1000. According to Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, in the mid nineteenth century, many historians, led by Jules Michelet, drew a dramatic picture of mass apocalyptic expectations climaxing in the year 1000. For Michelet, this eschatological fervor aroused hope in the oppressed and terror in the oppressors and catalyzed the political transformations of eleventh-century France.

The approach of the year 2000 is interesting in that it will be the first time in history that something substantive will happen when the calendar year becomes a round number. That something is the so-called millennial bug. Because of memory limitations, the first programmers and their successors expressed dates in two digits, not four, creating the problem that a representation of 2000 as "00" makes it a date that precedes all the 70-something, 80-something and 90-something dates, etc. of the twentieth century, in computers in which the problem has not been corrected. According to Ed Yourdon, http://www.yourdon.com/ author of Time Bomb 2000, the computer industry will spend at between $300 and 600 billion over the last five hundred days before January 1, 2000 in an attempt to avoid this problem and other experts warn that this estimate is too low. Yourdon’s book is written not for programmers, who are already sifting through thousands of lines of code for embedded dates, it is for the layperson who may wake up on January 1, 2000 to find that there is no telephone service, no electricity and that, in fact, nothing dependent on a microchip works, not the car, not the thermostat, not the cell phone. Supposedly, the Amish will have the last laugh.

As with anything that is a small part material reality but predominantly anticipation and perception, the reactions run the gamut from vaguely uneasy indifference and ignorance to expectations of "the end of the world as we know it" or TEOTWAWKI, an acronym popping up in some Y2K circles. Political writer Declan McCullagh suggests the pronunciation tee-OH-twah-kee, but as ultimate a state as TEOTWAWKI might seem to be, both religious scholars and popular culture have anticipated it for a thousand years or more. Just one case in point is the R.E.M. song by the same name http://www.retroweb.com/remlyrics/lyrics_EndOfTheWorld.html.

Of course, the end of history has also been postulated by postmodernists, but like other apprehensions of doom, that idea has much deeper roots. For example, The Anabaptists, who originated as an extreme Protestant reform movement of the 16th century did not aim to steer the course of the medieval Catholic church, in part, because they were confident that they were living at the end of history.

While no proven success story for year 2000 can be told until after the nines all turn to zeroes, the drama of the round number year is entirely arbitrary outside of this computer problem. Though watches may stop, human time is not coming to its final chapter.

Similarly, while Christian Europe awaited the end of the world in the 990s, the rest of the world, including the Chinese, Muslims and Jews, used other systems to mark time and did not share such apprehensions. But today, like 1000 years ago, people were nonetheless full of ignorant fear. The internet abounds with sites devoted to the enumeration of signs that the end of the world is near. These signs include violence, famines, earthquakes, witchcraft, war, impending economic crisis, comets and the mark of the beast, which one site absurdly asserts is analogous with the Uniform Price Code (UPC). One does not need to be a scholar of history to believe that although we now have mass communication which broadcasts both news of and dramatization of violence as entertainment, the violence of people against people is no worse in this century than any other.

Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of the United States and a historian noted for trying to set the record straight (if only to support a leftist agenda.) He comments, "I would guess that signs of the end of the world are nothing new. As for violence, it is true that the traditional culture always romanticizes the past, and that one instance of this is an exaggeration of the difference in degree of violence in this century and in previous centuries. The Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China is said to have taken fifty million lives, equivalent to World War II. Older wars, like the War of the Roses, have absolute numbers smaller than the ones in this century, but relative to population some of those wars the Thirty Years War for instance in the early 17th century was enormously bloody in relation to population."

In addition to cries of the total breakdown of human civility and civilization as signs of the end, there are also anticipations of so-called acts of God (supposedly, to some points of view, like those that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone (sulfur)). Popular culture also recently reminded us of the flood myth with an awful and heavy-handed television adaptation of the story of Noah and the ark aired in May 1999.

Coinciding with apprehensions about the year 2000, there has recently been speculation of an asteroid capable of destroying planet earth or making it uninhabitable. Though this obviously has nothing to do with the changing of the nines to zeroes, it fits the nervous zeitgeist. Such a catastrophe filtered through astronomical know-how also fits the countdown motif of space travel and in turn has been used by Biblical prognosticators.

As for the asteroid, the facts are that some astronomers predict a one in 1,000 chance of an asteroid capable of destroying civilization colliding with the earth at 6:30pm GMT Thursday October 26, 2028. At one mile long, the XF11 asteroid is about a sixth of the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, but if it does hit, the effects would likely be catastrophic on a global scale, throwing up dust that could darken the sky for months thus killing the earth’s plant life. Other astronomers say that the asteroid is more likely to overshoot by a distance of 30,000 miles – an eighth of the distance to the moon. Though much smaller and less destructive, there are also predictions that meteor showers may disrupt satellites in November 1999.

This confluence of popular imagery and fear is then picked up in popular culture, such as Independence Day, summer of 1997’s end-of-the-world blockbuster in which the scientist shows the president the countdown on his laptop computer.

Of course, the space teams ultimately succeed and blow up the asteroid headed for earth in both 1998 summer films, Armageddon and Deep Impact (and Godzilla is ultimately defeated in that more fantastical film), but what both films reflect about end-of-the-world attitudes is elucidating.

Armageddon, by far the inferior of the two films is adolescent and overtly anti-intellectual, a sort of Space Balls meets Fail Safe, in which the bumbling Russian cosmonaut provide comic relief and the creators of the film evidently felt the audience needed a play-by-play from the command center to keep the events in space straight.

Decades before we were so close to the end of the millenium, the twentieth century produced numerous popular culture works depicting the end of the world, sometimes picking up on the horrific beauty of seeing it all blow up. There are too many end-of-the world films and other popular culture works to comprehensively analyze what they says about public attitudes here but Amanda Loos has produced an impressive guide to The Crises and the Films: A Guide to Millennial Cinema http://www.mille.org/crisesandfilm.html. A comparison is worth making, however, between the fact the horror and violence are tacit in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove http://www.ravecentral.com/drstrangelove.html from 1964. In the film, no member of the general public has any chance to react to the enormity of the destruction of all life on earth and in spite of the comic broadness of the film the dread is somehow both ever-present, a scrim through we view all action and yet barely acknowledged. One small nod is that General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the clown of the film, tells his girlfriend to say her prayers before she goes to sleep.

Another revealing difference between older nuclear destruction films and the rash of late 1990s end-of-the-world films is that the older films place the blame squarely on society, or the military, or scientists, whereas the more recent films are more bluntly ignorant and religious in tone. Destruction comes from beyond our ability to control it and we are nearly powerless and certainly not responsible for the imminent end.

Dr. Strangelove (one of three roles played by Peter Sellers), with his strangely uncontrollable arm is a metaphor for society. At first we think the gloved arm is prosthetic, but if it were, it would not rebel against Strangelove and attack him. The disorder arises from a neurological (i.e. an organic) condition or his own madness. In other words, the fault lies not in the technological capability of destroying the earth, but in the human or organic weakness. Society thinks it can control the military (which in turn wields the destructive technology), just as Strangelove thinks he can control his maverick right arm. If one want to go further with the analysis, it is not Strangelove’s left arm (traditionally symbolic of evil and irrationality) that is uncontrollable, but his right arm, symbolic of skill, rationality and mainstream impulses. Dr. Strangelove may not be a religious film, but it is a moral film, perhaps calling us to better reign in the military-industrial complex.

Interestingly, in spite of the Biblical title and lip service paid to prayers and thanks to God, Armageddon is actually an anti-religious movie. When the public realizes an asteroid the size of Texas is headed for earth, the president announces that humanity now has the technology to stop the end of the world (even if God wills it.) The veteran oil driller, Harry Stamper, (played by Bruce Willis), whose help is needed to insert a nuclear warhead into the asteroid asks the NASA engineer to give his crew 10 hours break from their rushed and intensive flight training to "remember why the world is worth saving." And the crew spends what may be their last hours in earthy pursuits – drinking, fooling around and visiting family. One roughneck, as they are called, borrows $100,000 and spends it on strippers. The young couple providing the movie’s romantic interest lies necking in a field of wild flowers before the young man must join the flight. They ponder how many other people are doing what they are doing and decide that "millions better be, or the world isn’t worth saving." No one goes to a place of worship. The implication is that sensual and material things are what make life good.

Another strong indication of this defiance or denial of God’s goodness or power is what the main character says during a tussle over the orders from the president to detonate the nuclear bomb before the 800-foot hole into the asteroid is finished. Stamper says, "Why are you listening to someone who is 100,000 miles away? We’re right here." When someone appeals for God’s help, the quip from Stamper that "We’re close enough. He just might hear you," also conveys a sense that the "someone 100,000 miles away" is a symbol of God and not capable of hearing-- or helping.

Deep Impact is both a culturally Christian and Western-centric film, thematically emphasizing self-sacrifice, closure and respect for authority (as embodied in the harsh but just national guard enforcing the edict that 200,000 preselected scientists, officials, artists and other elites and 800,000 randomly-selected under 50-year olds fill the limestone caves of Missouri in order to re-people America and preserve "our way of life."

And compare Armageddon with Deep Impact in which the president assures the nation, that "God hears our prayers, even if the answer is ‘no.’" In Deep Impact, the space ship sent to blow up the asteroid is called Messiah. In Armageddon, the shuttles are Freedom and Independence.

Deep Impact also contains a slightly more serious catalog of what really matters, as indicated by what characters focus on when the end is near and people take with them into the limestone caves intended to preserve one million members of humanity. This fin de siècle urge to sum up the best of the century was termed "listomania" by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in an article wrote in August 1998 for the Wall Street Journal, in which he criticizes the criteria for choosing the greatest novels in English, the best films, etc.

À propos of what is ultimately important, both films deal with a stormy father-daughter relationship. In Armageddon, the father, Stamper, stays behind on the asteroid to manually detonate the warhead, tacitly giving his son-in-law to be his previously withheld approval. In Deep Impact, the daughter, a newscaster, gives her spot in the sanctuary caves to a co-worker with a child and instead stands on the beach to greet the giant tidal wave and to die with her arms around her previously estranged father.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the darkest apocalyptic films and yet it’s a comedy. Like Walter Miller’s science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Kubrick’s masterpiece is steeped in dark absurdity. What the characters focus on (the purity of bodily fluids or the mineshaft gap) is ridiculous to the point of sickness and the end of the world is not fully appreciated or acknowledged by anyone. With a sick twist on T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, the world in Dr. Strangelove ends not primarily with a bang, but with a wild, hoarse laugh (that of Major T. J. "King" Kong, played by Slim Pickens) and with a series of mushroom cloud explosions presented almost as a ballet by the director.

Like Dr. Strangelove, earlier apocalyptic films, like On the Beach and Failsafe and the more recent made-for-television film, Testament showed nuclear holocaust making the earth wretchedly unlivable. But as Norman Mailer pointed out in an essay in Advertisements for Myself, there is also a certain perverse comfort in contemplating the end of the world. We won’t actually have to fix any of the social, environmental and political problems we have created if we blow everything up instead.

Another spin on this is the self-indulgently naïve idea of the nobility of dying young offered up in the Broadway musical, Rent and the bohemian attitude that one needs only for the moment, "There is only here; there is only now. There's only us; there's only this". If one stretches this a bit further. This is a set of attitudes that might be quite at home in Southern California. Notably, the production companies that created such films as Deep Impact are West-Coast based and it’s no surprise that the older cities of the east coast are the ones drowned and shattered by a 3,500-foot high tidal wave moving at the speed of sound. After all, Los Angeles can never be the dominant American city until New York is reduced to rubble.

The totally illogical and loose end-riddled X-Files: fight the future, features another possible end of the world via ancient extraterrestrials who existed on earth long before the evolution of humans, but who gestate in humans, not unlike the Ridley Scott’s aliens, but less believable. The film fits in nicely with the paranoia of imminent rapture because the ultimate takeover of the earth is being shepherded along by a secret circle of powerful men who plan on handing over the earth, although what their reward will be for destroying humanity is unclear.

Blade, a vampire movie based on a comic book, shares with X-Files, the motif of a secret and elite circle of conspirators who plan to destroy mankind. (Interestingly, Blade can also be seen as an extended metaphor for the drug trade, with corrupt police working side-by-side with drug dealers against the rest of humanity. As in the film, Deep Impact, a central character skirts the line of good and evil.) Notably, the theme of a cadre of conspirators removes responsibility from society as a whole as do the films where earth’s destruction may ensue from an act of God or nature.

As people around the world wait to see what will actually happen on January 1 of next year and, in some case, as they work to be prepared, they have found themselves unexpectedly building community connections. Eric Utne, founder of the Utne Reader says, "As we prepare for Y2K, something surprising and quite wonderful is going to happen. We're going to get to know our neighbors."

So, we may note that one of the more positive aspects of the end-of-the-world films, such as Deep Impact, Armageddon, X-files and Independence Day is that they seem to indicate a more evident global consciousness, even if it is an America-centric global consciousness. At the end of Deep Impact, the camera pans over the great cities as if to say, here’s Paris and the Arc d’Triomphe; here’s New York; here’s Tokyo and here are sight bytes of the other, more primitive cultures: here are some Beduins, etc. The massiveness of the destructive phenomena of these films seem to say: We are all part of the world and must live or die together. Even if the lights go out for a while in the first days of the New Year, the world is really going to end anytime soon and maybe that global unity isn’t such a bad thing with which to begin the new millenium.

Adrienne Redd has written about film, theater, music, the visual arts, politics, popular culture and the environment for 15 years. She lectures on film and leads a monthly film discussion for the County Theater in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. She is writing a book about American political activists, working on a documentary on the same topic and pursuing graduate work in sociology at Temple University in Philadelphia.