So why are films about the end of the world so popular at the moment? The truth of the matter is that Hollywood likes anything that makes money for very little investment (or investment in the right area) meaning that they’ve never really gone out of fashion. Bad news sells, and there’s no worse news than the end of the world – although very few films go as far as the total extinction of humanity as it is important to have a focus for the film. In this way genre is just the logical extension of the Disaster Movie, a genre as old as Hollywood itself.
Initially they focussed on the recreation of historical or sometimes topical (no fewer than three films appeared about the sinking of the Titanic in the twelve months following the event) events – the medium was still finding its feet. However Loius B. Mayer was probably responsible for the formation of its modern form when he realised that the biblical disasters gave far more leeway to create spectacle as no one could argue that it wasn’t what had happened (and the material was out of copyright, no need to worry about paying for the rights to use the story). Think of all of the big bible pictures of the 50’s and 60’s – it’s the spectacle of the Plagues of Egypt etc. that people remember.
The 70’s brought a major boom in special effects that allowed studios to sell on spectacle. They were also fighting against the growing dominance of TV so to get bums on seats it was seen as important to provide an experience that couldn’t be replicated at home. Star power was still important, any of the films had mega-casts as a means of drawing people in and the salaries of stars was still relatively low (it was just over five years since the first million dollar paycheck) meaning the casts could be put together. Two things killed the genre – Airplane & Star Wars, the former ridiculing the excesses that the genre aspired to and the later moving major studio investment into teenager orientated films (which The Towering Inferno certainly wasn’t).
The current revival is very much the work of Roland Emmerich, who with Independence Day in 1996 gave the genre a shot in the arm after it had descended into parody (Airplane being the best thing to come out the Airport series) by keeping a healthy sense of parody itself, although he’s largely forgotten this with his latter films (apart from The Patriot, all of which have firmly been in the genre). The shot in the arm this time was CGI – effects became the selling point for a film and the name was usually an up-and-coming star or a throwback to the 80’s, the key being they were cheap in what was becoming the age of the ten million dollar salary. Unlike the 70’s they didn’t attempt to be about serious subjects (although environmentalism often plays a part) but rather about pushing the boundaries of what people could see in film. They often garner poor reviews but still manage to get bums on seats, so they’re a good proposition for studios who need to turn around a quick buck.
So why are there so many films about the end of the world at the moment? The cynical answer is that they continue to make money. As soon as there is a string of poor performance at the Box Office then Hollywood will quietly file them away for a decade or so before dusting them off again for a new audience who doesn’t remember how bad they got (and Airport 1979 was pretty awful).
Now, a caveat following the general panning I’ve just given the genre – there has been one recent addition that is something else entirely because for once it concentrates on the possibility of a slow apocalypse. Children of Men treats the possibility of human extinction not as an excuse for spectacle but as a means of exploring questions about what it means to be human – and it tanked at the Box Office. The problem appears to be that if the apocalypse can be presented as a possibility for excitement and adventure then you stand to make money, if it’s going to be cause for reaching for a stiff drink afterwards (and as wonderful as Children of Men is, you do need a stiff drink the first time you see it) then it’s not going to make the money.