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Published: Thursday, 11/19/2009

Films have long history of making us think end is near

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

From Earth-shaking asteroid collisions to hyper-contagious mutant viruses, movies have killed us in a kaleidoscope of ways.

We have a twisted, somewhat perverse fascination for forking over righteous bucks to watch Hollywood concoct ghoulish methods for humanity's demise. Clearly there's a sizable profit to be made with these peril-and-perish films, or studio execs would have squashed the genre decades ago.

In fact, these films are enjoying a marked resurgence, fueled, no doubt, by the inescapable gloomy headlines anchoring the news, and the ancient prophecies of doom discussed ad nauseam on cable networks.

There's something about pessimism that brings out our morbid side.

Jumping into the apocalyptic frenzy is the biggest, baddest disaster thriller yet, 2012, a big-budget CG spectacle of mayhem, destruction, and death on a worldwide scale, which opened nationwide Friday.

A loose tie-in with the Mayan calendar's possible prediction of the end of our Mother Earth come December, 2012, the disaster film stars John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Danny Glover, and Woody Harrelson, and was cowritten and directed by Roland Emmerich, master of "the end is nigh" movies such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow.

2012 is expected to do boffo business this weekend, and that's hardly surprising. Harbingers of doom have been generating buzz for centuries, whether it's the biblical apocalypse found in Revelation, or the killjoy predictions of Nostradamus.

But it's only been within the last 80 years - give or take - that our preoccupation with global destruction has manifested itself in film.

1933's The Deluge was one of the first such features. The movie featured the destruction of New York City in an impressive display of early special-effects technology: a building-toppling earthquake that stirs up the Atlantic, causing massive flooding that drowns the city's remains.

Skip ahead two decades and Hollywood wisely gambled that the box-office forces of disaster and science-fiction films would prove irresistible to the masses in such genre classics as When Worlds Collide (1953) and The War of the Worlds (1953) - each produced by the legendary George Pal - as well as the atomic bomb-inspired Japanese import Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956).

The global disaster trend continued with such B-movie classics as The Night the World Exploded (1957), The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), and Crack in the World (1965).

1970 took a turn for the serious with a military super computer that seized control of our planet through threat of nuclear annihilation in Colossus: The Forbin Project, and also with 1971's The Omega Man, in which Charlton Heston fights to survive a future of whitish vampire zombies with afros - this only three years after he struggled in a future of simian rule in Planet of the Apes.

The destruction of Los Angeles (a world unto itself) with the seismic jolt of the San Andreas Fault in 1974's Earthquake - in seat-rumbling "Sensurround," no less - was a hit with theater-goers, as were the majestic spectacles of "Master of Disaster" Irwin Allen, who unleashed near-global calamities via Africanized bees in 1978's The Swarm (1978), and a space rock hurtling toward Earth in 1979's Meteor.

By the 1980s, our fears turned toward technology run amok: 1983's introduction to computer hacking in War Games; 1984's The Terminator, in which machines have assumed control of the future and are determined to keep it that way; and the heavily hyped 1983 ABC disaster miniseries to end all disaster miniseries, The Day After, in which residents in rural Kansas struggle to survive a post-nuclear United States.

By the 1990s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, fear of nuclear annihilation seemed like such a distant memory that filmmakers were forced to find new ways to kill us. So they looked to the heavens and wayward chunks of celestial rocks in 1998's Deep Impact - itself a loose remake of When Worlds Collide - as well as its theatrical rival, Armageddon, and the 1997 TV movie Asteroid. And who can forget the dueling molten lava eruption movies of 1997, Volcano and Dante's Peak?

But these decades of cinematic death and destruction have proven to be mere cartoonish warm-ups to the morbid end-of-the-world spectacles of the 2000s.

We've had massive earthquakes, giant tsunamis, asteroids, global pandemics, super volcanoes, global warming, and category seven storms, oftentimes rolled into one movie.

There's been a dying sun (2007's Sunshine), a gradual loss of Earth's electromagnetic field (2003's The Core), and a planet laid waste by pollution (2008's WALL-E).

We've even had those who have tried to warn us of what's in store (2009's Knowing). And for now, at least, the genre climaxes with 2012, the grandest of all disaster films.

So, what does all this mean? Why do we pay to see our species nearly wiped out?

Probably not much to the average ticket buyer. Ask someone in line to see 2012 if they're there out of morbid curiosity or a lingering fascination with death, and you're sure to get quizzical looks.

No one wants to see the Washington Monument collapse during a real-life massive earthquake, but simulate the disaster using state-of-the-art technology and put the spectacle on the big screen, and it's suddenly mesmerizing; gruesome, but fun.

Movies make cataclysms entertaining, especially when it occurs on a massive scale: a city ripped apart by an earthquake, a volcanic eruption that shrouds a continent in burning ash, a planet wiped clean by massive tsunamis - all of which are featured in 2012.

Hollywood has made global destruction such an over-the-top spectacle, you can't help but wonder if the real thing, should it ever happen, could possibly live up to the hype.

Contact Kirk Baird at

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.




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