June 29th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY John Setka, for all his faults, is the perfect scapegoat

FIGHTING FUND NCC president Patrick J. Byrne outlines the goals for 2019

SPECIAL FEATURE Author Rod Dreher brings St Benedict to bear on our decline and fall

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One million protest China's attack on Hong Kong's freedom

GENDER POLITICS Vatican issues document on gender ideology

POLITICS AND SOCIETY New secularist strategies to bury Christianity

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 4: Ancient Jewish view of the cosmos

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal: An account from the live streaming

BANKING FEATURE Greed works ... at least for a while and for a few

IDEOLOGY Feminist claims for equality, Part 2: What feminism should be

IDEOLOGY WARS Roger Scruton and the Tories: a sorry tale

MUSIC Melodic abundance: John, Paul, Duke and Antonio

CINEMA The End: Staging the apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Scenes from Dante's Inferno

BOOK REVIEW Mrs Gould: she who drew the pictures



NATIONAL AFFAIRS A Q&A to clarify issues in Cardinal Pell's appeal

HUMOUR A Western flop lob-story and that

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The End: Staging the apocalypse

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, June 29, 2019

The end of the world sure does make for some swell entertainment. That, at least, appears to be the view in Hollywood, where “saving the world” must count as one of the most popular pastimes. Umpteen television shows and movies have this as a recurring theme. And then there’s the popular fiction – the comic books and novels – they’re based on, which start the ball rolling and continue it until the world ends or the world is saved.

The common, heroic, form involves a dastardly villain or two. Maybe they’re from outer space – like in Independence Day; or some sort of terrorist with a messiah complex – like in Mission Impossible: Fallout; or maybe they don’t want to end the world but they’re willing to do so to get what they want – like in Diamonds Are Forever. Add in some heroes doing heroic things, a bit of pathos, a touch of humour and voila: the world-saving heroic movie is yours.

Alternatively, these yarns can be about surviving the end of the world. Maybe the apocalypse has happened, aliens have invaded, or zombies have made a home in the inner city. However it goes down, vast swathes of humanity are dead and it’s up to a small band of plucky survivors to make do. Cue interpersonal drama, the struggles of living in a wasteland without getting killed, deep discussions about the meaning of life – but mostly drama.

Until the 19th century, the end of the world was a solidly spiritual thing. God would judge his people, Ragnarök would wipe the world of its population, and destruction would abound – paving the way for a new, better world. As the intellectual classes popularised science and criticised religion, this shifted to a focus on the destructive power of natural forces, such as the plague or a comet.

Sneaking in, right at the end of the 19th century, is H.G. Wells with The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, trading on alien invaders and the newfangled theories of evolution.

It is in the mid-20th century that the end of the world becomes a pressing concern. The atom bomb, following on the heels of two of the most destructive, industrialised wars in history, with the second fought against genocidal totalitarian regimes seemingly bent on world conquest, showed humanity its own terrifying potential.

The power of nuclear weapons convinced some military planners that this is the end of strategy, that nothing can be done against such a threat. Others took a more sanguine view and worked out not only how to fight nuclear war but how to win, and what would happen afterwards. Their shenanigans inspired Stanley Kubrick’s mischievous and mad Dr Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – a true masterpiece of black comedy and geopolitical commentary.

The end of the world has two great assets for storytellers: the drama is built in, and the themes can be anything. World-ending scenarios can be about science gone wrong, geopolitics, alien invasions, environmental disasters, divine judgement – whatever the storyteller likes. They can be about spies, or soldiers, or superheroes, or school kids. The possibilities are endless. But, where anything can be the framing device or scenario, the risk is that the scenario doesn’t really matter.

This ties in with the other asset – the inbuilt drama. The stakes are already high – and this is a problem. With stakes so high, it’s very easy to forget about little things like character, motivation or even plot. The risk with apocalyptic films is that they become little more than set pieces for ever-more elaborate exercises in destruction. It results in films that may be entertaining but are forgettable.

Some films deal with these stakes well. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame are superb examples – but they spent a decade building the world and developing the characters. Most don’t. More common is the Godzilla approach, where the human beings are interchangeable, because the monster is the real star.

A different angle is suggested in the Daredevil TV series, in which Daredevil’s priest-confessor remarks that each person is a universe, and so their death is the end of a world. This is what the great apocalyptic yarns do – by putting people in an extreme scenario, they dramatise this truth, showing just how much the individual person matters.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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