IN THE PAST YEAR, doomsday has made it to theaters in The Happening (M. Night Shyamalan's thriller about flora silently springing poison on human minds), Wall-E (Pixar's vision of earth as a corporatized, garbage-blighted dystopia), and Blindness (based on José Saramago's novel about an ocular plague). In December we saw a remake of the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which aliens, led by Keanu Reeves, warn of environmental destruction (it was nuclear in the original). And we're awaiting release of The Road, an adaptation of the 2006 Cormac McCarthy novel in which the forces that have wiped out civilization are never namedan ambiguity that lets your subconscious play Choose Your Own Cataclysm.
Of course, spectacles about the end of life as we know it are nothing new. In 1938, Orson Welles's radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds freaked out an audience worn down by the Depression and uneasy about the possibility of war. In the Atomic Age, viewers saw their anxieties reflected in thoughtful schlock like Them! while such early-seventies flicks as The Poseidon Adventure and Airport channeled Vietnam-era angst into tales of localized disaster. The villains change, but the story remains the same.
The differences this time around may be that we're all feeling particularly vulnerableand that the villains seem to be coming at us from so many fronts. After the safe and prosperous nineties, when Roland Emmerich's Independence Day played as nothing more meaningful than a gung-ho special-effects demo, we settled into a sense of relative security. But now our nerves are strained by economic meltdown. And health-care costs. And climate change. Just four years ago, seeing Tom Cruise and his kids run from aliens in the War of the Worlds remake was entertainingly spooky. But with the Dow Jones depleted and unemployment soaring, watching Viggo Mortensen and his onscreen son wander an empty American landscape in The Road hits closer to home. Even Keanu might seem prophetic as an interstellar eco-activist, a circumstance indeed worthy of a whoa.
The truth is that in these troubled times, a big-screen apocalypse could be just what you need. The genre's endurance is a testament to its skill at purging anxieties, andwitness the pluckiness of Wall-E's robot herosuch films regularly pay tribute to resilience, promising that civilization will soldier on through just about anything. This is Hollywood, where hope (unlike, say, your 401(k) earnings) is never lost.