Today, Roland Emmerich’s latest world-ending epic, “2012,” hits theaters. John Cusack, Amanda Peet and their pals race around the world, beholding one scene of devastation after another as an eco-catastrophe tears the planet apart. The story’s premise is built on the belief that the apocalypse will come in the year 2012, as foretold by the Mayan calendar.
Unfortunately for Mr. Emmerich, Hollywood has already trashed the lovely planet Earth roughly a bazillion times over. From viral outbreaks to zombie uprisings, global warming to alien incursions… the people of this world have seen, suffered through and been almost completely annihilated by any threat you can imagine. Looking back through Hollywood history, the world was wiped out countless times, and long before the year 2012.
For any movies where the time of the apocalypse isn’t specified, it’s a safe bet that the action occurs in the “present day” in which the movie was made. Like in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.” In 1964, a nuclear apocalypse is triggered due to the actions of a deranged rogue general who fears a Communist conspiracy involving the nation’s water supply. Yes, the world ends because someone freaks out over tainted water.
That same year, Vincent Price starred in “The Last Man on Earth.” The story is set in 1968, years after the world’s population has succumbed to a plague which transforms them into some weird zombie/vampire hybrid. Zombie apocalypse harbinger George A. Romero credits his “Living Dead” series, and the birth of the zombie sub-genre, to Richard Matheson’s novella “I Am Legend,” which served as the inspiration for “The Last Man on Earth.”
The 1970s were a strange time, a period marked by rampant drug use, free love and… some startlingly bizarre takes on the apocalypse. Look no further than “The Omega Man,” yet another adaptation of Matheson’s “Legend.” Charlton Heston replaces Price and the zombie/vampires are replaced by black robe-and-sunglasses-wearing… I dunno what they are. They don’t like sunlight though. Or Charlton Heston. And they’re all that remains of this once-great world.
Meanwhile, across the world in Australia, a young Mel Gibson rides out the post-apocalypse in a heavily modified automobile as Max Rockatansky. I am of course referring to George Miller’s “Mad Max.” To be fair, the movie is set long enough after society has broken down that biker gangs have formed and fuel has become a coveted resource. And since the 1979 release is set “a few years from now,” we can safely assume that the world came to an end at the dawn of the ’80s.
Maybe the grim future presented in “Mad Max” is confined to Australia. It doesn’t matter; the ’80s had more than its share of apocalyptic scenarios. There’s “The Terminator” of course, though that movie’s fiction pins the end of the world — at the cold, metal hands of Skynet’s machine armies — sometime in the post-2000 teens. Still, it was a grim future for humanity that James Cameron painted. Even John Connor, humanity’s savior, couldn’t make all of that global destruction disappear.
Then we fast-forward a couple of years to “Maximum Overdrive,” adapted from a Stephen King short story. On June 19, 1987, a green fog settles across the Earth. On that day, all electronic devices develop a mind of their own, striking out on a homicidal killing spree. Not only is Emilio Estevez one of their targets, but the apocalypse also plays out to the strains of AC/DC. Best. Apocalypse. EVER.
Oh, the 1990s. The Cold War was over, but the War on Terror took its first stumbling steps. A president nearly got thrown out for doing dirty things in the Oval Office while America bounced back from a recession. Oh, and tales of the apocalypse went from fun to awesome. Machine armies tucked us all into a waking dream in “The Matrix.” Alien invaders blew up everything in “Independence Day” (another Emmerich classic). There were killer viruses (“Twelve Monkeys”), killer meteors (“Deep Impact”) and even the Biblical “wrath of God”/end of the world scenario (“The Rapture”).
And let’s not forget the glorious post-apocalypse depicted in “Waterworld,” a so-bad-it’s-good movie of absolutely epic proportions. Global warming causes global flooding. Humanity survives in makeshift floating cities. And aboard a giant oil tanker under the watchful, evil eye of Dennis Hopper. Kevin Costner somehow survives too, aboard his little modified catamaran. It is a glorious work of camp-meets-blockbuster budget. The apocalypse the way it’s meant to be seen.
And so we come to now-times. The past decade has certainly seen its share of world-ending disaster scenarios. There’s “2012” of course, but the world ended several times before that, even if you discount the previous decades. A Vogon fleet demolishes the planet to make room for an intergalactic freeway in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” That’s a crappy way to go. Far cooler (quite literally) is the global warming-triggered ice-over seen in “The Day After Tomorrow” (yet another Emmerich epic). And don’t count out the not-zombies of “28 Days Later,” victims of a pandemic that turns everyone into flesh-craving beasts… until the illness kills them completely, that is.
The real question now is what will the future bring? We’ve seen zombies and nuclear devastation and death by alien-controlled automobiles and global warming. What will be the next great threat to snuff us out?