January 29, 2007
Sojourns: Two Views of the Apocalypse
Slavoj Zizek once said "it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system. Life on earth maybe will end but somehow capitalism will go on." One is tempted to respond, well yes of course. It is also easier to imagine blowing up a car than designing one. Destruction is a rather simple proposition. Feats of engineering are somewhat more complicated.
And yet there is something to the apocalyptic imagination. Thinking about the end of the world can perhaps tell us something about the world that is ostensibly ending. Or so it would seem from two of the more visually arresting films to appear in the last decade, both ruminating over our final days, both set, as it happens, in England. I refer here to everyone's favorite intellectual zombie flick 28 Days Later and the more recent dystopian thriller Children of Men.
The first thing I would point to is that it is not the "world" that is ending in these movies so much as the human race that has lorded over it for the past eon or so. It is part of our species arrogance to identify the world with humanity and then to wonder if our destruction would be anything other than a good thing for the rest of "life on earth." So then let us be clear. What we are talking about here is not exactly the globe or the planet but simply the noisome breed of animals bent on mucking it up for everyone else.
Humans. We are tiresome, aren't we? Few could deny the beauty of the depopulated London with which 28 Days Later begins: the seraphic Cillian Murphy ambling about Oxford Circle, picking detritus off the ground, alone save for the pigeons and the gulls. Humanity has perished because the "rage virus" has been loosed from a lab and made us tear each other limb from limb. We don't die from the virus itself. It's the rage that kills us. And so we ought to wonder how much the virus adds to our native cruelty and rancor. Perhaps Cornelius had it right after all: "Beware the beast Man, for he is the devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates he kills for lust or sport or greed … Let him not breed in great in numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours."
Actually, the conclusion (or at least the original one) of 28 Days Later is nowhere near as radical. It turns out the virus never got out of the country. Humanity is spared. The hero, his girlfriend, and an orphaned kid make an ersatz domestic hearth in the English countryside, all warm in their sweaters and waiting to be rescued. Rage may be conquered after all. Perhaps we can all just get along.
Humanity (nearly) perishes by anger in 28 Days Later. Sadness dooms us in Children of Men. Seventeen years after a global infertility crisis has brought a stop to human reproduction across the planet, "life" has pretty much ground to a halt. There's no future generation in sight, so nations plunge into despair. War, chaos, and social entropy ensue. The sound of children's voices is dearly missed.
Children of Men is a movie at odds with itself. At its core, the story is a saccharine humanist fable of a culture of life fighting to persist among one of death. A baby springs miraculously into the fallen world and suddenly there is a future to save, as if one could only live for the sake of progeny, as if a world without humans would not be left well enough alone. Amid the rubble and squalor of the end of world, life or death struggle turns to getting the baby offshore to a group of save-the-planet scientists aptly dubbed (giving the game away) … the human project.
Yet, for us much as the movie is committed at the level of story to a bland humanism, it is equally committed at the level of form to something quite different, to making us wonder, within the terms of the narrative, whether the human species ought not to become extinct after all. A great deal of attention has been paid to the six-minute long shot in a battle strewn internment camp. As with 28 Days Later, humanity's end makes quite a spectacle. I would point also to an earlier scene at an abandoned and dilapidated schoolyard. Here we are supposed to be thinking about the despair left in the absence of children. But the camera does something else. We freeze on a deer that strides into the frame and occupies the place of the missing kids. It's an arresting moment precisely in the species difference. A non-human animal walks on the ruins of a civilization made for human children. And perhaps that is just fine.
As with 28 Days Later, humanity ends and begins again in England and is best imagined wrapped up in a cable knit sweater while drinking Earl Gray tea (a role brilliantly played here by Michael Cain). Yet, Children of Men makes the saving of humanity look and feel like it is beside the point and a waste of time. And that is why it is most interesting in spite of its own worst ideas.
So, perhaps the lesson is that thinking about the end of the world is in fact thinking about making it a better place.
Posted by Jonathan Kramnick at 01:11 AM | Permalink