Apocalypse Film Theory

World War Z hit theaters last week. It’s another in a long list of recent films focusing on the apocalypse. Why the appeal of these end-of-the-world narratives? Here are a few possibilities:

Apocalypse Films Express Our Fears, Serve As Metaphors For Global Terrorism

We’re on constant alert for attack and every day brings the threat of disaster from unknown sources. Apocalypse films put terror into motion, which is both frightening and a relief in the sense that, rather than waiting for terror, we have to face it.

The Zombies And Aliens Represent The Other, Help Us Secure Our Identity

Apocalypse films contain well-defined enemies who come from other worlds and states of being. They help us realize our place in the world as good human beings. They are the quintessential Other—foreign, unnatural, hostile to our way of life. And, of course, we’re right and they’re wrong.

We Enjoy Viewing A Romanticized Version Of Our Political Origins

When the world comes crashing down, we’re forced to reconstruct society from the ground up. Apocalypse films show us from a distance the nuts and bolts holding together the framework of society. Leaders emerge to combat threats and in the process teach us the origins of contemporary democracies. Heroes operate within politics; as society crumbles someone needs to save the superstructure.

We Need An Outlet For Our Cultural Guilt, Our Collective Death Wish

Freud would’ve had a field day analyzing these films. When you’ve mastered the environment and hold the fate of the world in your hands, you’re bound to feel the weight of such power. Maybe you secretly desire a way out, an exit from responsibility. While apocalypse films focus on the will to live, our tendency toward self-destruction lurks in the shadows.

It’s Really A Morality Lesson, An Overcoming-Sin-To-Reach-Redemption Tale

In the end we enjoy seeing things destroyed only to be rebuilt. Old-time religions may be lagging these days, but spiritual quests are fixtures of the human experience. When the threats are mitigated (at least until the sequels arrive) and the monsters/terrorists are turned away, we emerge heroic. The End is just a new Beginning.