Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.
Haruki Murakami, IQ84
I think it’s normal to imagine how the end of the world would look like. If you ask your friends about it, you might be surprised to learn that people have very different thoughts on it. Catch a glimpse of a few interpretations extracted from cinema – spoilers included.
Melancholia is a heavy apocalyptic film soaked in anticipation that is often too hard to bear. The beginning of the film, a 20-minute sequence of blurry slow-motion shots of a bride in distress, held back by tree branches or running through long grass is truly perplexing. This is how depression feels like, director Lars von Trier seems to suggest. Everything moves in slow motion and feels heavy. Time, space, words, and activities become increasingly diluted and purposeless and cannot abide by the laws they once used to. Melancholia, a planet that is thought to dance around the earth and follow its trajectory without repercussions, is a metaphor for Claire’s depression increasingly affecting her world and the people around her. When time comes, Melancholia passes earth and departs from it. It then reaches earth’s orbit a second time, moving directly towards it. Apocalypse occurs through collision. As Kim Skate describes it: “You sit on your seat in the cinema and mildly marvelled go along in the end of the world”.
Another film which reflects a unique view on the end of the world is Kubrick’s satire of nuclear wars and leadership, which may give us a glimpse into the shortcomings of large-scale conflicts. From the beginning of the film to the war room scenes, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb humorizes the ability to produce large amounts of technologically advanced weapons of mass destruction without being able to control them. All characters seem either improperly trained and distracted or irrational and dominated by the obsessive thought of destroying their enemy. The discussions at the Pentagon were inappropriate and unfocused, often used to advance personal obsessions or interests. Every potentially remedial action that was undertaken was prevented by some procedural incapability. The difficulty of communication, the lack of means to stop the planes or to send other codes, even the lack of coins failed to prevent the war. The war unfolds as a two-step procedure instead of a domino phenomenon for the purposes of the film but has the same aim and captures nonetheless the issue of deterrence. Once nuclear activity is registered, the doomsday machine is automatically triggered and ends all life on earth. In reality, nuclear apocalypse would have happened gradually.
Another interesting interpretation of the end of the world belongs once again to Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Considered one of the most important cinematic masterpieces of all time, 2001 presents an evolutionary story of humankind. The end of the world is only suggested in the final scene of the film, when Dave reaches for the monolith and becomes an ethereal fetus. This foetus is disproportionately big, floats around Earth and is encapsuled in a thin orb of light. It is not obvious that this foetus will produce an apocalyptic outcome. Rather than providing a clear direction of interpretation, Kubrick forces the audience to think about its meaning independently, using cinematic cues, vagueness, and symbols to generate food for thought and a tint of confusion. However, given the trajectory of the film, first encompassing the prehistoric times, then the present dominated by the enhancement of artificial intelligence, it seems natural that the last part of the film would be assigned the end of the world. The big eyes of the floating foetus are fixated upon Earth and slowly move towards the audience, which has been described either as a chilling or a calming experience.
Music plays a big part in film production and these 3 movies are no exception from the rule. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is the recurrent hymn of Melancholia, and its grave undertones are suggestive of the depressing atmosphere. Music also has compositional influence: the overture-like opening sequence before the first act is a technique associated with Wagner. In Dr. Strangelove, after the doomsday machine is triggered, Vera Lynn’s It’s been a long, long time plays over a montage of real-life nuclear explosions and is reflective of Kubrick cinematic dark and elegant humour. Whenever I hear Also Sprach Zarathustra, my thoughts are directly redirected to the opening scene of A Space Odyssey. Strauss’ composition creates an interesting effect of grandiosity and universality that elevates Kubrick’s work.
Drawing upon the 3 movies, the depiction of the end of the world in films symbolises much more than it might initially appear. Apocalypse in films becomes a means to advance a message to the audience and accentuate its gravity. I don’t really watch zombie movies, but here is a short list of other films which depict world-end scenarios: WALL-E, Fight Club, Don’t Look Up, 28 Days Later, The Big Short.
Image by: Nirajan _ Photographs via Unsplash.