At my count, the world is going to end five times in movie theaters before 2013 is over.
It ended in Oblivion, forcing Tom Cruise to fight for a desolated and ruined planet. It ended in After Earth, evolving to the point where it's uninhabitable for humans. It will end in This Is the End, where a bunch of movie stars will face the fire and brimstone of the apocalypse. It'll all but end in Elysium, where the poor live on the overpopulated surface while the wealthy and powerful retreat to space. Finally, it'll be threatened (and possibly destroyed) in The World's End, with only a handful of British comics standing in the way of a robot invasion.
The year 2013 is the year of the apocalypse and the postapocalypse. For whatever reason, this is the year when Hollywood decided to make a big deal of just how completely and utterly doomed we really are. There's no big secret reason for why this trend exists -- it exists because a bunch of screenwriters and directors opened up the newspaper one day and just muttered "Oh, s**t, we're f****d." Artists make art that reflects the time that they live in and in the case of these movies, all the filmmakers had to do was turn on the news, sigh and admit that "Well, maybe the end is nigh."
However, what makes each of these films interesting (even the ones that haven't come out yet) is their approach to the end of the world. Although each appears to be coated in the doom and gloom you'd expect from an apocalyptic film, they all seem to be saying incredibly different things about the future of humanity, what we deserve and how we're reaping what we've sowed.
Consider this article the first in a series.
Let's start with the most recent film of the bunch, M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth. In the film, Earth was abandoned a thousand years ago after mankind wrecked it with all of the usual suspects: pollution, war, etc. While mankind rebuilds itself as a star-faring, alien-fighting race, our former home does a little rebuilding of its own, evolving into a hostile, predatory world where humans simply can't survive. Like so many films dealing with the end of the world, After Earth makes it perfectly clear that we, the human race, screwed up the planet and that we deserved to be exiled from its surface. In fact, the point is driven home by a completely unnecessary exposition dump at the start of the film (similar to an equally dumb exposition dump at the start of Oblivion). It's our fault that the Earth will kill us if we go near it.
However, the most interesting aspect of After Earth is that that humans don't need Earth. In fact, now that they're away from it, they're thriving (and vice versa). We have fleets of spaceships. We have cool, environmentally friendly metropolises across various planets. We have managed to learn how to abandon fear so we can do battle with giant aliens. And all kinds of other etceteras. After Earth is akin to Star Trek in that it sees humanity pulling itself up by its bootstraps and reaching the stars... it just needs to lose its first home to get the right motivation to do so.
On the other hand, Oblivion takes the exact opposite approach to the end of the world and mankind's responsibility. Where After Earth makes the world's end the result of human actions, the desolate Earth of Oblivion is the result of an alien invasion, which transformed entire cities into desert wastelands (except for the big landmarks, of course). Although Oblivion's plot grows increasingly complicated and bizarre (leading up to a totally bonkers climax), the underlying message never really seems to change. Oblivion is all about how great Earth is and how human beings have to fight for it, no matter the cost. In the beginning, Tom Cruise's character regrets that mankind is ready to leave the planet behind and by the end, he's fighting for its survival and the right for humans to continue inhabiting it.
Although Oblivion is a more complicated movie (i.e. it takes a kitchen-sink approach to storytelling) than After Earth, it's message is far more traditional. It believes in things like hope and it believes that the human race and our planet are worth fighting for. It takes place in a world where mankind's place is in flux. Compare that to After Earth, where mankind has found a new home and a new purpose and has already dealt with and overcame the mistakes of its past. The humans of After Earth don't need Earth. The world has ended and they've moved on. The humans of Oblivion not only need the Earth to survive, they need the Earth because they need something worth fighting (and possibly dying) for. Both films are ultimately optimistic and hopeful depictions of what we can accomplish in the face of adversity, but there's something refreshing about After Earth's admission that things will only get worse before they get better. After all, the ruined Earth of Oblivion is still habitable.
But how will the rest of 2013's postapocalyptic offerings treat the Earth and the human race? This Is the End is a stoner comedy. Elysium is a politically charged action movie. The World's End is an Edgar Wright movie, which means it can be anything. Let's revisit this topic in a few months and see how the planet fares throughout the rest of 2013.