Look, do me a favour. Watch the video above. I know, it’s seven minutes long, and that’s probably about six minutes and thirty seconds longer than you have right now, but watch it.
Not just because it’s me asking (you are on my website and I did make it look nice for you and I don’t ask for much) but because it’s Bill Maher and he’s one of the funniest, most astute people on the planet.
Go on. Watch it. I’ll wait.
Back? Good. You know which part of the video stuck with me? I mean, the whole thing is brilliant; it’s this wonderful, freewheeling monologue that you’re probably going to be quoting bits from to your friends for the rest of the day. But the part that stuck with me is the idea that the apocalypse has become normal.
…You’re confused because you didn’t watch it. Fine. FINE. I’ll summarise.
What Maher says, as he builds his argument against Donald Trump and undecided voters, is that movies are scary good at predicting the future. If you think that’s insane, then ponder his examples. 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted iPads. Star Trek predicted flip phones. Mad Max? Climate change. Minority Report had augmented reality right out front. The United States had a black president in movies and TV long before Barack Obama came along, and Steven Seagal and Denzel Washington were fighting off terrorist incidents on US soil a decade or two before Al Qaeda.
Movies are good at this shit. I don’t exactly know why; it’s got nothing to do with filmmakers or producers being particularly smart or clairvoyant. But for whatever reason, there’s a lot of evidence that these people know what they’re talking about.
You know what they’re predicting now? Assuming you didn’t watch the video, I’ll give you a clue. Hunger Games. Divergent. The Giver. V For Vendetta. Maze Runner. Matrix. Interstellar. What do all of these movies have in common?
No, not Jennifer Lawrence. I know she’s in just about everything. Come on. Stay focused. Eyes on me.
What they have in common is the end of the world as we know it. There have been a lot – a lot – of movies in the past decade which have explored what happens when everything goes kablooie.
Now, I’m not saying that everything is, in fact, going to go kablooie. I’m not advocating a run for the bomb shelters just yet. But it comes down to two things: not only are we living in a time when it seems more things could end our way of life than at any other time in history, but that we are totally cool with that and ready for life in the apocalyptic wasteland.
Let me break that down real quick.
I don’t believe you can argue that there is more that threatens us as a species than any other time in our history, with the exception of when we first evolved and were living in a world where everything was bigger and hungrier than us. Oh, and that time when a comet reduced the global human population to a few thousand individuals, but I think we can call that one outlier.
Humanity in 2016 has to deal with combinations of the following:
- Encroaching and unstoppable climate change, nuclear weapons.
- Innumerable splinter terrorist groups with a fervent desire to kill as many people as possible.
- Home-made gene splicing that could quite conceivably create a killer plague.
- Earthquake fault zones around the world that are a few hundred thousand years overdue for their next big shrug.
- Killer meteorites that could strike us at any moment.
- Computer systems that could conceivably become self-aware and decide that we were a wild inconvenience.
- The continued presence of Lil Yachty, who, I’m sure we can agree, is a threat to us all.
Now understand me. I’m not saying that any of this is certain to happen (well, except for the climate change, which is already well underway). Humans might be amazingly self-destructive, but we’re also pretty smart when we have to be. We could probably deal with a lot of the things on that list. My point is that it’s a very long list. We live in an exceedingly dangerous era, and it’s starting to be reflected in the movies we watch.
That’s point one. Point two startled me when I first realised it. In the parlance of clickbait, you won’t believe what happens next.
We have become very, very comfortable with the idea of the destruction of the planet.
You can see this in the type of stories we produce and consume, and how we respond to the idea of a complete, world ending event.we don’t dwell on it. We don’t ponder the immediate consequences of, say, a home-made ebola analogue ripping through civilisation. Or at least, not the immediate ones. Yeah, yeah, whatever, apocalypse, bring on the guns and the explosions and hot chicks with warpaint. We are only interested in what comes after.
Part of that, I like to think, is because we all have a hope that our species would carry on in some form. I think it goes deeper than that. I think that we have come to look on apocalypse not as an ending, but as a new beginning. The destruction of everything we hold dear is not something to be feared. Or at least, not for us: we are the stars of our own stories, and we will not only survive, but find love and triumph over evil in a world that we can remake.
And why not? Isn’t it easier to do that then imagine just how shitty, nasty and dirty the end of the world and the breakdown of society is likely to be? A nuclear explosion isn’t, in itself, inherently interesting. It’s a big bang that serves as a catalyst for other stories.
I had this brought home to me by my wife in a rather hair raising way. After she watched the video, and we got talking about it, she pointed out that I’d done exactly that in my own books. It was true: in my Outer Earth trilogy, the action takes place on a space station orbiting a planet destroyed by a brutal one-two punch of nuclear war and climate change. Our planet, or what’s left of it, is a backdrop. It’s a scene setter. That’s all.
I destroyed the planet, and didn’t give it more than five seconds’ thought.
Again: I can’t stress enough that I’m not trying to be paranoid here. There is no grand conspiracy among writers and filmmakers to prepare us for our inevitable apocalypse. The thing everybody forgets about conspiracies is that the larger they are, the more impossible they are to stay, well, a conspiracy.
What I’m saying is that all of this reflects a shift in how we view the world. We’ve become so used to being threatened, by everything, all the time, that it barely raises an eyebrow anymore.
And what you forget about world-ending catastrophes is this: if a bug that our bodies can’t defend themselves from wipes out 99.5% of the population, then you, me, your best mate, your mom, your boyfriend, your boss, every single person you know or have ever known is likely to be in that 99.5%. You aren’t going to be the hero. You aren’t going to lead a charge into a brave new world. You’re going to die. You’re not Mad Max, or Furiosa. You’re the poor bastard whose bones they drive over as they run from the war boys.
But hey. At least you got to watch a hysterical Bill Maher video beforehand, so it’s not all bad.