Apocalypse LOL: Why Hollywood Has Started Laughing at the End of the World

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The apocalypse has been mined to strike terror into the souls of the unprepared since … well, forever. Every generation of humans, since the days when we were still wrapped in furs and painting on walls, has told stories about the end days and shuddered to think they might one day come true.

Of course, cinema has naturally mined the End of Days for all its worth. There have been untold scores of films about nuclear wars, ape uprisings, religious raptures, natural disasters, meteors, planetary collisions and alien invasions. We’ve watched Mad Max offer a vehicle that could haul that tanker. We’ve seen Snake Plissken prowl the abandoned streets of New York and L.A. We laughed maniacally when the entire Earth was wiped clean in “2012,” and the few of us who saw "The Road" wept when Viggo Mortensen gave us a new appreciation for shopping carts. Even the likes of Pixar dabbled in doom – albeit, adorably – with “Wall-E.”

But in 2013, an intriguing trend has developed: The Comedic Apocaylpse. There’s no less than three movies -- “This is the End” (read our review here), “Rapture-Palooza” and the upcoming “The World’s End” -- suggesting doomsday isn’t off-limits for laughs. Humanity’s number one bugaboo, the thought that’s kept us sweating for a millennia, is now just another awkward situation we can laugh about later. (“Honey? Remember that time we fought off the cannibals? It still wasn’t as bad as Christmas with the in-laws! Snare drum.)

What happened? Only two years ago, “Melancholia” was giving us a glimpse of what the calm-before-the-doom would truly feel like, and “Take Shelter” was making us wonder if anyone else felt the thunderclaps. Even “2012,” for all its delight in carnage, still wants us to be upset when California, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and a good chunk of Mt. Everest is lost.

Well, it could be argued that 2012 – the year, not the Emmerich film -- happened. We may have been spinning apocalyptic myths for centuries, but we rarely had a schedule for it. But in the 20th century, we became convinced the Mayans had pinpointed it, and it would be December 2012. So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight! At least we’d get one last New Year’s kiss, right?

But much to the surprise of no one, December 2012 came and went, and we’re all still here. If we had to make a guess, that’s when the apocalypse became a whoopee cushion. Who didn’t get on Facebook at some point in December, and make a crack about the end of the world? Remember how every continental midnight, from Samoa to … well, American Samoa, crowed “We’re still here!” on Twitter at their 12:01? It was hilarious! Yes, we were a little drunk, but “Take that, Mayans!” just never stopped being funny.

How can we still laugh, though? It’s not like we’ve hit some kind of Star Trek utopia. Don’t we know the oceans and temperatures are rising, and the ash covered wasteland of “The Road” is a week away, tops?

Sure we do. In fact, we’re probably more keenly aware of it than ever. But culture – and cinema in particular – seems to be experiencing a second renaissance of memento mori and the danse macabre. Like our medieval ancestors before us, we’ve hit a saturation point of fear and tragedy, and now we’re delighting in the destruction. It’s the same hysterical need for amusement, one last hurrah before the candle is snuffed out. They used paintings, poems, and graphic sculptures of rotten corpses and skeletons dancing. We use Simon Pegg and Danny McBride. It’s the same thing.

Moreover, we’re embracing the danse macbre for the same reason: We no longer “know” the hour of our planetary death. It could come at any time. Tomorrow could find us fighting, John Cusack style, to the last ark. Perhaps we’ll be scrabbling out an existence like Mad Max or the nomadic Eli. Maybe we’ll be huddling underground waiting for our John Connor to save us from the machines. There’s no longer a “use by” date. The possibilities now stretch before us, and we’re shifting uncomfortably, knowing that many ancient cultures theorized it before us, and it never came for them. Are we the ones? It has to be us, right? Every generation feels like they’re living in the End Times, we’re just the first to be able to convincingly visualize it on screen.

We don’t know, and we’re worn out imagining how bad it might be. And so we laugh.