After the End

Decaying ruins consumed by vegetation, buckling roads littered with broken-down cars, bomb-blasted wastelands under a polluted sky – remnants of a once thriving technological civilization, now monuments to that civilization’s downfall. These images are becoming all too familiar in today’s society, not because they are the scenes we see when we look out our windows, but because they are the scenes that we see when we turn on our television sets, or go to the movies. These are the scenes of a post-apocalyptic world, one that was ravaged by some cataclysmic event that shattered our current society and rendered all technological advances obsolete. It’s a setting that many science-fiction fans are familiar with, but thanks to Hollywood and media moguls, the post-apocalyptic setting is one with which all are becoming acquainted.

While I still think it’s important for everyone to pick up a good book and read for fun, I also appreciate the role movies and television have to play as works of art and commentaries on society. Movies and Television shows are more sensitive to the whims and wants of society as a whole, and as such, reflect our current society’s beliefs and values more quickly and transparently than literature. It’s because of this that I believe this visual medium has some worth when talking about the “big questions.” Of course, the silver screen and glass box are also filled with junk that turns our brains into goo, so it’s important to keep reading, because books are less likely to turn you into a drooling couch potato, but I guess some people like that feeling. Anyway, I follow a lot of the latest movie and television buzz that floats around on the interwebs, and I’ve noticed a particular trend: the rise of science-fiction movies, particularly, that of the post-apocalyptic flavor.

Just this past week, two trailers have been released which take place in an Earth unfamiliar to us. The movie Oblivion, starring Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, is about one man who patrols a now desolate and war-torn Earth and his journey as he questions everything he once knew. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie, After Earth, features Will and Jaden Smith as father and son who have crash-landed on a hostile planet filled with deadly creatures. And unlike previous Shyamalan movies, the twist in the plot is already known – the hostile planet is Earth, or Earth years after the humans left – and the movie actually looks somewhat promising. If you add on the latest trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, then that’s three trailers that have been released regarding some “end-of-the-world” situation or setting, all in one week. I could name countless other examples of movies, and even television shows that also dwell within post-apocalyptic Earth that have appeared within the last year or two. Just think about all the zombie movies and television shows out there now.

Of course, humanity has always had a fascination with the end of the world. It’s not just because it’s December 2012. All stories, from folklore and legends, have always dealt with sweeping events that determine the fate of the world. Additionally, a friend showed me a list of every single date that has been predicted to be the end of the world, and that list is long. Human history is just as concerned with how things will end as how things begin. So really, this trend has been going on since humans started to think, “what next?”

But the main difference, I think, with our typical myths about world-defining events, is that lately, our stories aren’t concerned with just the fact that the world will end and everything that we knew will be destroyed, but are concerned with the realm of “what happens after the world is destroyed, what happens after WWIII, after the alien invasion?” Where history talked about the apocalypse, we now talk about post-apocalypse. Where previous stories talk about the end, current society is concerned with “after the end.”

It’s an interesting concept, “after the end,” it’s a concept that believes in the immortality of all things (in some way or another). “The Ends” don’t exist in stories anymore. To borrow a quote from one of my favorite webcomics, “There is no end, there’s just the point where storytellers stop talking.” There’s always something more. But I think lately, we’ve been thinking that  “Sure, that big event happened, but now what?” Perhaps our obsession with this scenario is our subconscious surrender to the inevitability of our current downward state of environmental preservation. Despite our realization that pollution and environmental forces are changing rapidly, globally, we have done very little to combat this issue. Perhaps we are accepting the possible fact that we won’t fix the issue, and our world is doomed, so now let’s start thinking about how to survive afterwards. Or perhaps our obsession with “after the end” is the start of people becoming aware and acknowledging the consequences of our actions, that all things have effects, and what is the effect of our actions?

I, for one, am more interested with the feeling of nostalgia that post-apocalyptic settings bring forth. The images of once familiar places – buildings, monuments, cities – now collapsed, ruined, decayed, immediately fills us with a sense of longing for the times when those places were at the height of their splendor, while filling us with a sense of pain, regret, or guiltiness, for knowing that we were somewhat responsible for their downfall. But it’s not just the pain that nostalgia brings, it’s also those romantic notions of beauty in the decay (at least, to me). As you watch the landscapes in the trailers and movies, you notice that there’s a strange beauty to the setting. A beauty that results not because of the always-consuming power of nature, but of the consumer power of an altered nature. Yes, the ruins are covered with vegetation, but the landscape is forever changed because of those ruins. It’s something both new, and old, that fills us with both positive and negative emotions, that combine and form a different kind of beauty. I don’t know about others, but I find that kind of landscape almost alluring, in a possibly dangerous sense. It could be because we’ve started to romanticize post-apocalyptic Earth, or maybe it stems from our inner desire to leave a mark on this world after we leave. It may be a sense of satisfaction knowing that even when humanity itself is no longer on Earth, we have still found some way to be a part of it, to influence it in the form of altered landscapes. Usually, these settings are places of doom and gloom, of depression, but lately, there seems to be more of a calm, if not tranquil side to these settings. In a way it’s about rebirth, how even after the most traumatic, earth-shattering events, something new can emerge. The story goes on.

It’s also in these stories where we see the many “true” faces of humanity. We see the scavengers, the raiders, the protectors, the law-enforcers, the loners. In this setting, we understand who are true friends are and where our loyalties lie. It can be a very dark time. In a post-apocalyptic setting, all the illusions and distractions of today’s society are gone, and we have returned to our primitive selves, doing all we can just to survive, and yet we have the knowledge of a time where things were exponentially better, and worse. It is the ultimate test of human nature, will we revert back to a dog-eat-dog world, where the strong prey on the weak? Or will we try to reshape our societal structure? Or will we be able to just leave? Perhaps deep down, I (and maybe others) actually feel a longing for such a period of time. I once said it takes a huge event to shake us and call us into action, perhaps today’s media is us daydreaming about such an event.

Honestly, I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, I just wanted to point out a trend and take it down random thought paths. I’m not even sure if any of this made sense. I could probably keep talking aimlessly about my thoughts and eventually end up in a different subject matter altogether. There’s no way I can draw a conclusion out of this mess of ranting, but I hope it got anyone reading this thinking. There’s definitely things that can be said of our current obsession with the post-apocalyptic, I just don’t know what. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts, so feel free to comment. I’ll probably end up writing more of these random musings in the future.

But for now, I think I should pick up a book.

EDIT: I found this neat site, “The World Without Us,” which features a timeline listing how long the remnants of human civilization will last.

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2 thoughts on “After the End

  1. Really interesting thoughts. My comments will be a bit of a ramble as well. There is definitely a perceptible uptick in interest for post-apocalyptic futures in popular media over the last little while. I think it’s due to a combination of things. First, dystopias are much easier to sell and depict in an interesting fashion than utopias. But why is mainstream society more willing to consume them now than say… the 50’s? I think it may be because our society lacks a unifying and optimistic vision for the future. Instead, we reminisced about the good old days. Why? Because there is an implicit admission that modern civilization has peaked and is on the decline. Economic meltdowns, corporate greed, constant stress, intractable environmental problems – we are bombarded with these things on a daily basis. Post-apocalyptic tales get a lot more traction in this type of world.

    I have to wonder – do you know of any post-post apocalyptic stories out there? Ones where people have rebuilt societies and civilizations but then experiences nostalgia over the ruins of our current world? I see the zombies and the cannibals, but rarely the resilient communities that go on to build a better new world.

    • That’s a good question. All the stories I can think of are still set in the early aftermaths of the apocalyptic event. There are small towns and tribes that have formed, but nothing that really resembles a resilient community that could be compared with what we have now. Off the top of my head, I suppose you could think of the post-apocalyptic future story of Cloud Atlas as one (although there are both high-tech humans and cannibals). All the stories I can think of still have some typical ‘evil’ like cannibals, or mutated monsters of some sort.

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