Roll credits? The truth behind cinematic apocalypses (and how much we should worry about them)
We’re all going to die! Or at least that’s what the movies keep telling us. Be it by global warming or Mayan prophecy, we’ve been shown again and again that the end is near. Could filmmakers be on to something? We surveyed the field of doomsaying documentaries and apocalyptic fantasies, then asked some experts how much we should worry. You’ll be relieved and terrified at what we discovered.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Apocalypse, how? Essentially a traveling doomsday carnival/slideshow ring-mastered by former Vice President Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth is a powerful piece of propaganda for the possibility of widespread climate change brought about by global warming. Unless something is done to halt the spread of this crisis—which Gore argues is largely man-made—any number of catastrophes, from increased cancer rates to massive flooding to animal extinctions and unstoppable famine, will befall the planet.
What might save us: Though many experts—and his own presentation—suggest that a lot of the damage has already been done, Gore is surprisingly optimistic. If people pay attention to his studies and elect leaders who take climate change seriously, he says, humanity’s generous, innovative nature will set things right. Although right-wingers often call Gore a profiteer for investing a lot of cash in alternative-energy companies, he calls it putting his money where his mouth is, and it at least suggests that he thinks the problem is addressable.
Expert opinion: Alaskan author Charles Wohlforth won an L.A. Times Book Prize for his excellent book The Whale And The Supercomputer, an on-the-ground look at the realities of climate change in the far northern parts of the world; he’ll follow it up in June with The Fate Of Nature: Rediscovering Our Ability To Rescue The Earth. “Overall, the basic message [of An Inconvenient Truth] is correct,” he says. While some inaccuracies opened it up to criticism, “The total prediction is easy: Physics tells us the world must warm with additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that the amount of carbon dioxide will directly affect the amount of warming, and many of the consequences of that warming are obvious, such as glacial melting. While one can argue with certain details, that primary message is irrefutable.” As for the outlook, Wohlforth predicts a middle ground between Gore’s worst-case scenario and his optimistic predictions of change: “As costly consequences of climate change increase, we will use more alternative energy and innovation, but it won’t be nearly as fast as it should be, and major disruptions will occur. Our children will live in a significantly different world.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: The question isn’t whether global climate change will wreak havoc on the globe; the question is how much havoc, and who will bear the brunt of it. “The extinction of the human species is very unlikely due to climate change,” says Wohlforth, “except maybe as a secondary effect—for example, if climate changes cause a massive war or epidemic. Poor people will suffer horribly, as they already do, through famine and displacement. The rich will spend their money to stay comfortable. If the sea level threatens Manhattan, they’ll just build a wall around it. But in Bangladesh, people will have to move if the water level rises, and where would millions or billions of refugees go?”
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Apocalypse, how? Unfettered global warming ushers in a new Ice Age. A paradox, you say? As hunky paleoclimatologist Dennis Quaid theorizes, the melting of the polar ice caps will decrease the ocean’s temperatures and therefore disrupt and eventually shut down the North Atlantic current, which distributes warm air throughout the hemisphere. And what do you know, that’s exactly what ends up happening in Roland Emmerich’s 2004 catastroflick—though not in the “maybe in a hundred years, maybe in a thousand” that Quaid noncommittally projects, but rather in a matter of days. Shortly after the major cities of the world are assailed by CGI tornadoes, hailstorms, and tidal waves, the leftover pixels are flash-frozen by a fast-moving wall of sub-zero air, leaving Jake Gyllenhaal and a few other survivors to burn books in order to stay warm and create heavy-handed metaphor.
What might save us: Illegally and ironically fleeing to the warmer climes of Mexico. (Better hope Arizona never completes that danged border fence.) Those of us stranded in the ice-encrusted New York Public Library like Gyllenhaal better hope our hunky paleoclimatologist dads have set out on snowshoes to rescue us and the great books of the Western Canon from certain doom. Otherwise, pray that Encino Man proves just as prophetic.
Expert opinion: Weather shift is already occurring, says Research Marine Physicist Tim Barnett of the Scripps Institution Of Oceanography at USCD, who points to changing meteorological patterns in the Southwest United States in the past 30 to 40 years and decreasing water levels in the hydroelectricity-generating Colorado river system, which he says will be “a disaster zone, sooner rather than later.” But the insta-Ice Age depicted in The Day After Tomorrow is pure Hollywood: “It’s a basic law of physics,” Barnett explains. “As you increase pressure on a gas, it warms up. That cold air, by the time it got down to the surface, would be way warmer than what they’re talking about. To maintain that kind of a gradient, where guys freeze to death in about a second… that temperature contrast could not be maintained in the atmosphere.”
Barnett also calls the cinematic tidal wave that drowns New York City in the film “hokey,” but says the basic premise is valid: “I wonder where all that water came from, because it didn’t go out first, really. On the other hand, the concept is true: The sea level will rise dramatically, and some of it could be pretty abrupt. If you dropped a big chunk of Greenland or Antarctica into the ocean, things could happen pretty quickly.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Freak tornadoes and instant freeze won’t ultimately do us in, but rather the stress placed on society and resources as weather shifts displace chunks of the world’s population—”death by a thousand cuts,” as Barnett says. “Toward the end of the movie, where Mexico opens its arms to all the climate refugees in North America—that is almost certainly going to happen,” he says. “Even now, India’s built fences around Bangladesh so that the Bangladesh folks can’t get over to India. That’s a nation that’s really right at sea level, so any change, even a foot or two of change of sea level is going to cause huge displacements there.” And while the film’s timetable of a matter of hours is greatly exaggerated, the one Barnett proposes doesn’t offer much comfort: “Decades, probably. We might have two left.”
Apocalypse, how? As laid out in Irena Salina’s alarming documentary, the combination of an exploding population and industrial pollution has made fresh drinking water one of the world’s most valuable commodities. It’s guzzled for pennies in wealthy nations, but scarce in developing countries, where waterborne illnesses are the leading cause of death. As demand for this essential component of life becomes greater, some say that water may replace oil as the cause of armed conflict around the globe. Some say it already has.
What might save us: The simple answer is the same as for any kind of conservation: Use less and treat what we have better. Approaches vary wildly, from calculating the “virtual water” used in manufacturing—700 gallons in a hamburger, more than 100,000 gallons for the average car—to raising the prices Westerners pay for the stuff, thus encouraging some liquid belt-tightening. It wouldn’t hurt to stop drinking the bottled stuff, which is sometimes less sanitary than ordinary tap water.
Expert opinion: Steven Solomon, the author of Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power, And Civilization, calls the global water shortage “the greatest crisis most Americans have never heard of.” He argues that the rise and fall of major societies, from ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire, has often hinged on access to water. “Unless they have control of their water, they won’t long endure,” he says. In the modern world, the water crisis in Yemen has helped turn the country into a failed state and terrorist haven, and water shortages have only inflamed the already bitter conflict between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan. Solomon says the situation bears out former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who contends that “the next war will be fought over water, not politics.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Depends on who “us” means. Countries in favorable climates and those with enough money to keep their populations well-lubricated are in no immediate danger. But Fred Pearce, author of When The Rivers Run Dry, says the situation is already close to a breaking point in many parts of the world. India’s population, he points out, has doubled as a result of the agricultural advances of the last half-century, but now the country is draining its reserves. “That can’t go on,” Pearce says. “The water will literally run out, and India could go back to what it was in the 1960s—a country doomed to recurrent famines.” At the moment, he says, “We are mining our most precious asset.”
Apocalypse, how? According to former L.A. cop/freelance journalist/conspiracy nut Michael Ruppert, we have already passed the point of “peak oil”—the moment when the maximum output of oil-producing mechanisms has been reached. With oil supplies thus on their way to complete depletion, and no serious, wide-ranging alternative-energy strategies in place, Ruppert predicts a total collapse of industrial society, with governments unable to control their people, widespread wars, violence over dwindling energy supplies, rioting, looting, murder, arson, vast population displacements, and quite possibly dogs and cats living together.
What might save us: If Ruppert is to be believed—and Collapse director Chris Smith is a tad cagey on that question—pretty much nothing is going to save us at this point. A combination of greed, ignorance, and denial has doomed us to spend the rest of our days reenacting scenes from The Road Warrior.
Expert opinion: Chip Haynes, a Florida journalist whose book Peak Of The Devil: 100 Questions (And Answers) About Peak Oil will be released in June, says part of the problem is that no one really has enough information to make a sound judgment about peak oil. It’s a theory, he says, that can be applied to “entire oil fields, any oil-producing country, and the entire world, if we could get accurate data. That we can’t is why the ‘when’ is all so iffy. We know oil will peak, or may have peaked; we just won’t know when it did until long after it does.” As to exactly how bad things will get? Well, we don’t know that either: “The worst-case scenario is we all die. Best case? We never notice that the oil went away. Obviously, neither of those scenarios is all that likely.” Whatever the case, nobody’s getting off the hook: “The consequences of peak oil,” says Haynes, “will impact every aspect of our lives and change how we do everything. No one’s going to totally dodge this one, so it does tend to hold your attention. Sort of like a train wreck coming right at you, real slow.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: In Ruppert’s opinion, we’re all sunk, and our best hope is either some kind of violent revolution or just stockpiling canned foods and hiding in the abandoned warehouse where they filmed Collapse. Haynes is a tad cheerier in his outlook, insofar as he doesn’t seem to think we’ll all be eating each other for dinner by this time in 2020, but he’s definitely of the opinion that no one will get out of peak oil unscathed. “The end of the 21st century is going to look a lot like the end of the 19th,” he speculates, “but with better health care and stronger child-labor laws, if we’re lucky. Think of this as a play: The first act is where we are now. Plenty of oil, good times all around, free wi-fi—go team. The second act is going to be the toughie: the transition from plenty of oil to not much oil at all. This is where all the changes occur, all of the drama and trauma. How much drama and trauma? No idea.” Still, he advises readers to follow his lead and invest in a good bicycle.
Apocalypse, how? Let’s talk plague! But a very specific kind of plague—one that spreads through language, and turns all those infected into enraged, hyper-violent fiends. Words themselves shift in meaning, and the wrong word choice sets an infected person off on a rampage. Pretty perilous, no?
What might save us: In the movie, a Canadian talk-radio host played by Stephen McHattie tries to pass along news to help the populace get through the crisis, but his arrogance—and his love of his own voice—only makes matters worse. Eventually, he’s reduced to crude forms of communication: hand gestures and pidgin versions of foreign languages.
Expert opinion: Jason Mittell, an associate professor in Middlebury College’s Film & Media Culture department, says that corrupted language would “create a lot of short-term chaos,” adding “certainly there have been instances like that, where a total misreading of something causes behavior to go awry.” But Mittell could see humanity recovering. “If you’re blind, you can learn to read and learn to drive. It’s just a matter of letting your other senses take over. I think the same would be true for the loss of language. Pictorial communication, body language, and gesture… human communication transcends language. Now if there were trigger words that would turn people into bloodthirsty monsters, obviously that’s a different story.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: The analogy of talk-radio listeners to bloodthirsty monsters in Pontypool is wholly intentional, as is the idea that when language gets debased—when discourse gets reduced to catchphrases, and boldfaced lies are spouted as home-truths—society as a whole is endangered. Then again, the mass media has been around for a long time, and has been accused of destructive rabble-rousing for more than a century. Yet somehow, we continue to adapt and move on.
NORMAL DEATH PLAGUE
Outbreak (1995), 12 Monkeys (1995)
Apocalypse, how? The deadly Motaba virus—forecast calls for a 100 percent chance of internal organs melting into goo—is contained in Africa, and the Western world breathes a heavy sigh of relief. That is, until a monkey, immune to the virus itself, is smuggled to the U.S. and spreads the infection. Then, perhaps driven by Americans’ love of breathing, the virus mutates to become airborne. That’s Outbreak, by the way; meanwhile, in 12 Monkeys, an odorless, colorless gas virus is manufactured by a virology lab and released into the world by a rogue employee. Five billion people die, and the remaining population moves underground to wear silver swim caps with Bruce Willis.
What might save us: Track down the original monkey to study its viral immunity before any mutation. Or, to take it one baby step further, travel back in time and head the infection off at the pass by attempting to shoot the spreader in an airport. Also: Always wash your hands.
Expert opinion: Steven Valeika is an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University Of Georgia, where he sits on the ominously named “Faculty Of Infectious Diseases” as its resident expert on animal-to-human disease transmission. He points out that even though monkeys make for easy sickness scapegoats—their DNA is so similar to ours—they’re less likely to be carriers than dogs, chickens, or other animals we see/eat all the time. (“When was the last time you had any meaningful contact with a monkey?” he asks, also rather ominously.) But even then, he adds, it’s unlikely the disease—or any disease, even one theoretically created in a lab—will spread, due to simple logistics. “Infections want you to be alive and coughing, defecating on people, as long as possible,” he says. “A high-mortality, rapidly spreading disease like Ebola kills off people susceptible to infection, and it runs out of people to infect.” Thus tamer diseases like the flu transmit quickly, but harsher ones fail to pick up steam. Still, Valeika sees sickness as a staple of Hollywood for years to come, largely because it plays on our deepest fears. “Infectious disease is so terrifying because you’re not in control of it,” he points out. “Heart disease and cancer kill more, but it’s [perceived as] our fault if we get them. With an outbreak, it’s just shitty luck you’re sitting next to the person on the plane who starts coughing up blood.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: “It’s incredibly unlikely, but according to quantum physics, given enough time, everything that can happen, will happen,” Valeika says. He adds that you can pretty much discount the mad-scientist theory: “It’s way more likely that a disease will spread from an animal. In the last 20 years, there have been 50 brand-new infections known to science, 80 percent of which transmitted from animals to people.” But while some were truly scary, like SARS, most weren’t, and infections remained contained. And should one burst through, Valeika thinks the media might help stave off a larger problem, albeit accidentally. “The media went overboard with the swine flu, but a lot might have been averted because the media went overboard,” he claims. “It’s hysterical, but effective.” Trademark that, Fox News.
MAYAN DOOM PROPHECY
Apocalypse, how? In 2009, it’s discovered that the Earth’s core is heating up rapidly from solar flares, and the very crust of the planet is going to crumble until the entire human population is set adrift or torched by more-than-plane-grounding volcanic ash. (Strangely, AT&T’s service will get marginally better.) And it all goes down in 2012. December 21, 2012, to be exact. Just as the ancient Mayans predicted.
What might save us: Nothing. Well, if you’re among the world’s 400,000 foremost minds and snootiest elites, you’re granted access to one of four massive arks hidden in the Himalayas. Otherwise, you can either cough up one billion Euros—even with apocalypse pending, the dollar is weak—or, like John Cusack, hijack a plane to Yellowstone, where a crazy man left a map detailing the arks’ location.
Expert opinion: First things first: Uh, no. “The Maya time concept is cyclical, and cycle endings are about transformation and renewal,” says John Major Jenkins, who has devoted his life to studying Mayan cosmology and philosophy, including reconstructing what the Mayans believed about 2012. (He’s also appeared in numerous documentaries on the subject, and written several books.) “The idea of an apocalyptic doomsday comes from the linear time concept of Western Judeo-Christianity. As such, to equate doomsday with 2012 is a weird and wildly flawed projection of the assumptions of one tradition onto another, as wrong as showing Shiva holding a Bible.” Jenkins says the Mayans chose 2012 because of what’s known as the Galactic Alignment, or “the alignment of the December solstice sun with the dark rift in the Milky Way,” as Jenkins describes it. The Mayans clearly had an advanced understanding of astronomy, and even based a creation myth on this distant time in the far-flung future when this fascinatingly wrong film was released. “It basically makes the Maya the scapegoat for our own culture’s nihilistic doomsday fetish,” Jenkins adds. Sounds like Roland Emmerich all the way.
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Zero. No percent. “The most likely and visible widespread thing happening in 2012 will be more of Carnival 2012: more stupidity and misinformation, bad reporting, and Hollywood schlock,” Jenkins says. “And if there’s any doubt that the scenario will turn out that way, the media and the press will make it so. 2012? Cue the laugh track.” Go about your daily lives, people.
The Core (2003)
Apocalypse, how? The liquid outer core of the Earth has stopped spinning, throwing off the electromagnetic field. Horrors follow: Space shuttles fall from the sky. People with pacemakers drop dead. Birds start crashing into things. The Coliseum crumbles in a storm. The Golden Gate Bridge melts. And if Drs. Aaron Eckhart and Stanley Tucci are to be believed, it’s only going to get worse. If the field continues to disintegrate, “microwave radiation will literally cook our planet.”
What might save us: A ragtag crew of nerds and adventurers that includes Eckhart, Tucci, Hilary Swank, and DJ Qualls must plunge into the Earth’s core to set off some nuclear charges that will keep the core spinning.
Expert opinion: “If for some completely unimaginable region the core stopped, which is not remotely possible either as a man-made or natural event, the magnetic field would not totally break down in a year,” assures geologist David B. Williams, author of such books as Stories In Stone and The Street-Smart Naturalist. (His work can be found at storiesinstone.info.) “The earth’s magnetic field has naturally reversed itself numerous times in the planet’s deep past, with nothing more evident in the geologic record than changes visible only with a microscope. And such a reversal takes hundreds of thousands of years.”
But what about the birds? And the microwaves? “Some birds do navigate by using the earth’s magnetic field, but they also utilize additional navigational clues such as the sun,” says Williams. “Plus they have these nifty things called eyes, which aid them in seeing items such as tourists. They certainly wouldn’t just drop from the sky, unless somehow a stopped core made tourists in London drop even more food on the ground. Microwaves could not melt the Golden Gate Bridge. Pacemakers would be little affected by microwave exposure. And the Coliseum has withstood pillaging by the Pope’s nephew and 2,000 of his best friends, several good-sized earthquakes, and millions of tourists, so I don’t think a little thunderstorm would do much damage.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: None. Put simply, the earth’s core is not going to stop spinning unless the entire science of geology is off-base. The planet might get cooked, but it won’t get cooked because of this.
Left Behind: The Movie (2000), Left Behind II: Tribulation Force (2002), Left Behind: World At War (2005)
Apocalypse, how? Based on the bestselling fiction series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the Left Behind movies reach back to the Bible itself, imagining what would happen if Armageddon came to pass right here and now. True Christians would be called up to heaven. The antichrist would appear, in the form of a deceptively benevolent UN delegate. Armies would rise up against armies, raining nuclear fire. Kirk Cameron would be involved.
What might save us: If you aren’t part of the initial wave of people spirited away, your only hope is to survive the seven years of tribulation. Then you might—might—get to enjoy the second coming of Christ, and a millennium of peace on Earth.
Expert opinion: Dr. Donna Bowman isn’t just an A.V. Club contributor, she’s also a professional theologian. Her advice? Don’t sweat it. “Given that ‘the rapture’ is the product of an interpretation of the Bible that’s only about 100 years old, out of the thousands and thousands of years of interpretations of the Old Testament and New Testament combined, I’d say that we’re in absolutely no danger that the events described by pre-millennial dispensationalism will come to pass.” Bowman goes on to explain that contemporary apocalypticrats have taken pieces of Ezekiel, Revelation, Matthew, Psalms, and the letters of Paul to create a timeline of when the time of tribulation will begin, but even those end-of-the-worlders don’t agree on the specifics of that timeline—like whether the great cull of believers from non-believers described in Left Behind will happen before the tribulation, after, or even in the middle. “The truth is that there is no statement in the Bible that this will happen in the same part of the Bible that mentions the ‘time of trial.’ It’s an invention of modernity.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: We aren’t really worried, but still… Pascal’s Wager, y’know?
Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), We Feed The World (2005), King Corn (2007), Food, Inc. (2009)
Apocalypse, how? Over the past half-decade, arthouses have been packed with documentaries delineating just how messed-up the global food supply has gotten, with impoverished local farmers, ranchers, and fishermen growing crops and raising stock to be shipped far from home—for minimal return—while huge corporations foist processed, chemically tainted, bacteria-ridden, non-nutritious junk on the First World. According to these films, the natural order has been disrupted, and we’re one blight or drought away from a worldwide famine and/or riots in the streets by the have-nots.
What might save us: Nature is awfully resilient; if we can reverse the trends in food production and shift more to local, small-scale suppliers, we might be able to regain the necessary diversity to keep the supply stable and healthy. On the other hand, doing so could be prohibitively expensive. For all the knocks conglomerates take, they do make food cheap and relatively plentiful.
Expert opinion: Cody Hopkins is a farmer and the manager of Conway Locally Grown, a farmers’ market in Central Arkansas, and he says the arguments about the cost of healthy, responsible food-consumption are misleading. He points out that buying good food and cooking it at home is cheaper than eating in restaurants, and adds, “Out of all the industrialized countries in the world, we spend the least amount per capita on food consumption. We don’t spend enough on food, and we’re paying the price, environmentally, socially, and physically. And there are a lot of hidden costs in industrial agriculture that are pushed off on the taxpayer, from cleaning up chemical run-off to paying the health bills for diabetes and other problems that didn’t used to be so prevalent back when we used to eat real food.” The real urgency here though, according to Hopkins, is “the lack of biodiversity” in the current food supply, which relies too much on single strains of certain crops. “If there’s no genetic diversity, if some sort of disease or pest comes along, it could wipe out our whole supply of corn. Or some other crop. All crops these days are raised in a similar manner. And there’s only four or five butchering facilities in the whole United States that handle the majority of the meat that’s processed. When you have a centralized system like that, it’s very vulnerable, because if something goes wrong, it affects so many people.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Hopkins sounds a hopeful note, saying, “We live in the information age, and a lot of things that were easy to slide past the consumer in the past are now out there, and easier to find out about. As the effects of industrialized agriculture become more and more apparent, I think people are maybe changing their actions.” But he adds that we’ve got a long way to go until we have a sustainable agricultural system, and notes that a lot of difficult-to-reverse damage has already been done. “We’re poisoning the soil with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. What do we do when there’s no potable water, and the soil isn’t fit to grow crops?”
Apocalypse, how? In his ongoing quest to produce the biggest ’splosion the human retina can conceivably process, director Michael Bay uses the solar system as his backdrop in Armageddon, his doomsday vision of an imminent asteroid strike on Earth. While a terrified, helpless populace prays and waits for the rock to drop, a smaller, advance meteoroid demolishes Paris—a little taste of the kind of apocalypse that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, one that real-life scientists say is entirely likely to happen again.
What might save us: Armed with square jaws, wisecracks, and a few billion dollars’ worth of hastily assembled hardware, heroes Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck lead a band of fellow roustabouts whose oil-rig experience somehow qualifies them for the ultimate demolition job: hopping a shuttle and nuking a Texas-sized chunk of space rock before it can pulverize the planet.
Expert opinion: Unlike some of the more far-fetched, apocalyptic scenarios Hollywood likes to thrill audiences with, the odds are against us on this one. “The earth runs into a hundred tons of debris every day, plus or minus,” says Dr. Phil Plait, a.k.a. The Bad Astronomer, author of Death From The Skies!: The Science Behind The End Of The World as well as Discover Magazine’s popular Bad Astronomy blog. “That’s mostly in the form of dust and the stuff we see as shooting stars. Something big enough to do real damage, like the size of a house, happens every 100 to 500 years.” He’s also worried about the density and interconnectedness of modern civilization, factors that might make us even riper for extinction than the dinosaurs were. “If something a mile across were to hit in the middle of Kansas,” he says, “the immediate effect would be the deaths of millions of people. But within a month or two, there would be global economic collapse. There would be famine. There would be all kinds of problems.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: “It’s just a matter of time,” Plait says. “Apophis is the next big asteroid that’s going to pass close to us. That’s in 2029, and it might hit us in 2036, although the odds are rather low. But right now, if we saw something a mile across headed for us, there isn’t a lot we could do. It’s not like we have a secret shuttle on the pad, like in Armageddon. The best thing we could hope for is launching a big rocket and hitting it.” He’s quick to point out, though, that mankind isn’t exactly stepping up to the plate: “The governments of the world aren’t taking asteroids hugely seriously, and they really should. The technology exists. We could be building rockets right now. It’s mind-numbing that people can spend five times NASA’s budget every year buying cigarettes, but we won’t spend that same amount of money to literally save the earth.”
War Of The Worlds (2005)
Apocalypse, how? Steven Spielberg, the man responsible for such human-meets-alien kumbayas as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, made a cynical about-face when he resurrected the granddaddy of all alien-invasion stories, H.G. Wells’ oft-adapted novel The War Of The Worlds. In his version, alien-operated machines called Tripods rise from underground hidey-holes—where they’ve been buried for millions of years—to vaporize earthlings with death rays, or harvest their tissue to fertilize some kind of extraterrestrial crop.
What might save us: In spite of the U.S military’s best efforts to clobber the murderous Tripods—plus a grenade-lobbing Tom Cruise—the machines’ slimy alien inhabitants are brought down by the hoariest, most anticlimactic deus ex machina in science-fiction history: germs. Malicious cunning and superior firepower are no match for the common cold.
Expert opinion: The subject of hostile aliens was brought up again recently by Stephen Hawking in a Discovery Channel documentary, in which the famed physicist claimed that humans should avoid trying to contact extraterrestrial life, likening such a meeting to the time “Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.” The statement stirred up much controversy within the scientific community, especially at the SETI Institute, the foremost organization searching for traces of extraterrestrial life. “There is a basis for the thought that aliens might be a little on the malevolent side, but it all derives from human behavior. It’s just an extrapolation of what we often do,” says Dr. Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at SETI, as well as the host of the science radio show Are We Alone? and the author of National Geographic’s 2009 book Confessions Of An Alien Hunter: A Scientist’s Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence. As for the notion that highly advanced alien invaders could be defeated by the flu, Shostak doesn’t buy it: “Certain species get certain diseases. It’s all a very finely tuned system. The idea that aliens would get sick from our germs, I have to say, that’s a bit of a stretch.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Besides the fact that it’s flat-out fallacious to think aliens will be evil just because humans generally are, there’s another niggling yet comforting detail to remember: Despite what fringe groups and abduction claimants say, we’ve never actually met aliens. “All of that talk about the interests and motivations of aliens is pure speculation,” Shostak points out. “Our data set for that is minimal, which is to say, nonexistent.” Still, in the event first contact is made in his lifetime, he’s not taking any chances: “If aliens actually landed, I’d head for the hills, too,” he admits. “Who knows? On the other hand, aliens could be missionaries. They could be here to convert people to The Holy Church Of Mars.” One thing is certain, though: In the unlikely event that Earth is invaded by E.T., resistance will indeed be futile. Says Shostak, “If they have the technology to come here and try to take over, it’s going to be Bambi Meets Godzilla. And we’re Bambi.”
The Day After (1983)
Apocalypse, how? ABC dropped a bomb on TV viewers with the horrifying, uncompromising The Day After, Nicholas Meyer’s speculative account of a full-scale nuclear attack on U.S. soil. In the film, escalating tensions between Russia and the United States reach the point where both sides launch ICBMs. Kansas City and the surrounding area fall into a state of chaos as survivors are forced to deal with looting, starvation, radiation sickness, roadside firing squads, societal breakdown, and possibly cannibalism. It’s all the more chilling due to its grim realism—or, as Stephen Furst’s character says, “You think they’re making this up? You think this is The War Of The Worlds or something?”
What might save us: In The Day After’s bleak scenario, there is no savior. Told entirely from the perspective of everyday people kept clueless as to what’s really going on, the film offers no rescue missions, no heroic gestures, no Noah’s Ark. The irradiated survivors can only hope to hang onto their faith, their families, their sanity, and their hair for as long as possible before keeling over in abject agony and getting chucked into a mass grave.
Expert opinion: Ronald DeMeo is a medical doctor and scientist whose company, Radiation Shield Technologies, develops radiation protection materials for NATO, NASA, the U.S. Navy, and many others. He also lectures on the subject of nuclear weapons and threats. According to him, “The threat of ICBMs during the Cold War, that is, of Russia vs. the U.S., has been mitigated by many things, including the economic overlapping of the two countries. That reduces the threat of all-out, state-to-state war, although that’s also the reason we’re having a global economic crisis.” Although The Day After may be outdated in that regard, the film’s severe depiction of radiation sickness and death is more or less accurate. “The immediate effects would be nausea and vomiting, and the delayed effects would be cataracts, reproductive abnormality, and endocrine abnormalities,” he says. “The tissues that are more radiosensitive will be affected first: thyroid, breasts, and eyes. Then the immune system would be hit, and the risk of sterility and cancer would be quite high.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: As DeMeo sees it, the Cold War tension of the age of The Day After has been amply replaced by the specter of terrorism, rogue nations, and lots of loose fissionable material floating around. “The threat of nuclear war is probably lower now than ever,” he says. “That being said, there are now things like the Radiological Dispersion Device, which uses conventional weapons like TNT to disperse radioactive material, and the Improvised Nuclear Device, the suitcase bomb, and so forth. They’re pretty basic and can be done simply, but they don’t have nearly the same destructive capacity as an ICBM. They can take out a whole city and cause a trillion dollars in economic damage, though.” At the same time, there are some new safeguards in place: “If terrorists do manage to gain fissionable material and construct a bomb to deliver to U.S. soil, we have multiple layers of agencies looking for this kind of activity. The terrorists basically have to be right nine times out of nine to make it through, and we only have to get lucky once.”
Children Of Men (2006)
Apocalypse, how? While Alfonso Cuarón’s film adaptation f P.D. James’ dystopic novel about a gradually depopulating Britain never suggests what suddenly created a world where the youngest person is 18 years old and there’s no way to conceive any more children, end-of-the-world super-site Exit Mundi points out that some studies conclude that male fertility is declining fast. (Granted, these studies are decidedly controversial.) But declining isn’t “suddenly stopping,” which is what’s happened in Children Of Men, where the first pregnant woman in almost two decades is treated with almost religious awe.
What might save us: There isn’t really a way to plan for this, but the film suggests we can only be saved by a formerly strident revolutionary whose son’s death has caused him to decline into cynicism about the state of the world. That, or “pull my finger” jokes.
Expert opinion: David Cohen, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and chief of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Chicago Medical Center, thinks it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where something like Children Of Men would actually become reality. In fact, he calls it “essentially impossible,” saying that there’s no real reason to guard against it, since human instinct, like the instinct of all living things, is to reproduce. “One could imagine an infectious worldwide epidemic that might destroy all eggs and sperm, but only as science fiction,” Cohen said. “No microbe has ever been that aggressive, and for the epidemic to last 18 years, you also have to imagine that humans don’t mutate to adapt to the onslaught of the microbe.” Cohen also suggests that such an infectious microbe wouldn’t spread instantly, and there would likely be islands of people who had not been exposed somewhere in the world. “One of the first principles of modern disease control is containment,” Cohen said. Perhaps in the Children Of Men world, Australia is for babies.
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Cohen seems pretty confident, considering that he even has trouble thinking of a fictional scenario where such a thing would even happen, and neither James nor Cuarón has ever suggested that the scenario of the book and movie is anything but a way to talk about other issues that their world and ours have in common. Still, best to be prepared, right? If such a thing happened, the world would panic, Cohen says. “Faced with complete cessation of the species [these characters] would have to implement some fairly controversial and demanding new rules,” he said. That, or just wait around for Clive Owen to deliver a practically Biblical stand-in character to a couple of guys on a boat.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968), Resident Evil (2002), 28 Days Later (2002), Zombieland (2009), etc.
Apocalypse, how? Of all the possible end-of-the-world scenarios on this list, the zombie apocalypse seems the most unlikely, and yet it’s one of the most popular film-apocalypse causes. The idea is that something—in many cases, a mutated or accidentally released biotech experiment—escapes into the world and starts reanimating dead people (and sometimes animals), turning them into barely sentient monsters whose only desires revolve around eating human flesh (particularly braaains) and further spreading whatever virus keeps them going. In virtually all cases of cinematic zombie outbreak, the disease spreads ultra-fast. Most of the population gets ripped apart and eaten, or dies in the violence of the ensuing panic; some of those victims then return as shambling (or sprinting) rotting monstrosities, ready to add to their numbers.
What might save us: Survival in zombie stories is largely a moral proposition: Being stupid, selfish, or hasty kills off people just as surely as those fatal infected bites. Certainly the recent proliferation of zombie survival guides should help keep fatalities down; by now, we should all know to aim for the head, keep up on the cardio, and make sure none of our friends is hiding a bite and waiting to convert and come after us in a moment of weakness. On a species rather than an individual level, however, there isn’t much we can do to avoid the zombie apocalypse other than strictly prohibit scientific experiments that might reanimate dead human flesh, and watch out for falling satellites (Night Of The Living Dead) or rogue comets (Night Of The Comet) that might launch a plague.
Expert opinion: Dr. Scott Eberhardy, a molecular biologist at an East Coast pharmaceutical company, answered our call for a scientist willing to discuss why zombies are implausible: “Life is basically a series of chemical reactions. When those reactions stop, life stops, and it can’t be started again. All cellular functions cease. A virus cannot replicate itself under these conditions, because it depends upon the metabolism of the cell it infects to make more of itself. And even if a virus could somehow ‘jump-start’ a person and bring them back to life, that person could not have the qualities of a zombie. You always see people cutting off a zombie’s limbs, or they just fall off the body, and it keeps going without blood spurting out. In order to keep a zombie moving, fresh nutrients have to be brought to the limbs, and blood is the only way to get them there. The only conceivable way a zombie could exist is if some multicellular scavenger used the dead body as a framework as it was eating/absorbing it and used its own muscles to move the body, giving it the appearance of a dead person walking around. But of course, nothing like that actually exists. Yet. Hmmm… I may have an idea here. I need to get in touch with a producer, or start doing some experiments. Maybe both.”
Likelihood that this will destroy us: Actual reanimated bitey corpses? Pretty unlikely. A bioweapon getting out of a lab and taking out a large number of people? More plausible. Stupidity, selfishness, and haste causing large-scale catastrophe? Sounding much more likely. Maybe—as with so many of the causes of cinematic apocalypses—the issue isn’t what zombies could do to humanity, so much as what all the ills they’re meant to represent are already doing to us.