The Fall of Man and How That’s Kinda OK: The Eco-Apocalypse in Film

I love a good apocalypse movie. Be it a mystery virus, global warming, or some enigmatic invader, films where we’re forced to confront our demise have always fascinated me. Everyone is always running around, panicking, trying desperately to prevent what is of course one day inevitable – the end of man. The one thing that frustrates me about these films though, is that more often than not they are tied to a neat and tidy ending. An ending that makes the global catastrophe, although still devastating, still survivable. Films like War of the Worlds (2005) cling on too tightly to the idea that humanity would, or rather should, survive one of these world-ending events. What I prefer is films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), an Armageddon with repercussions. This is what drew me to Little Joe (2019), Jessica Hausner’s new film which debuted at the Cannes film festival this year. The film follows Alice (Emily Beecham), a scientist who is working for a company that is looking to genetically engineer a plant that can change people’s mood. The way in which Little Joe handles its subject matter, and the subtlety of its Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque plot really astounded me, it was unlike any plant-based horror I’d seen before (i.e. The Day of the Triffids (1962)). This prompted me to look at how our depictions of the apocalypse have changed through the years, and what this could mean for our attitudes towards The End.

Before I begin I feel I should stress, I am looking at a specific type of apocalypse. What I’m interested in is the eco-apocalypse. We all know that if Thanos came to Earth, or if the Independence Day (1996) aliens arrived then we’d be screwed. What I’m interested in is films that see nature, be it Mother Earth or our own, and tests our position at the top of the pecking order on planet Earth. There are of course films that blur the lines. Films like The Andromeda Strain (1969), PHASE IV (1974), and Annihilation (2018) may deal with an extra-terrestrial threat, the way in which the films alien(s) integrate into Earth’s ecosystem, I feel, qualifies them for this genre of eco-disaster. So, with that clarified, our first question is of course, where to begin?

Now there is a long history of genetic experiments going haywire in film. Famously, there are monster-movie disaster classics such as Tarantula! (1955) and The Blob (1958), however these films hardly herald the end of days. So, I have decided to begin with a different sort of creature feature: 1968’s Planet of the Apes. We all know the story. A hairy chested Charlton Heston crash-lands in his spaceship onto a planet, and swiftly realises that he does not have the hairiest chest. In fact, he has landed on a planet in which apes are the dominant species, and humans are hunted and enslaved. As the film progresses we realise that the apes have been the dominant species on the planet for hundreds of years, and that once humans ruled. Then comes that classic ending. We discover that the planet is in fact Earth, years after a nuclear war. Humanity meeting its end via nuclear war is of course terrifying, and Planet of the Apes provides quite a bittersweet outlook on the aftermath. Yes, we are now hunted and enslaved, but the Earth has itself a new set of rulers who will hopefully not make the same mistakes as us, despite the film maybe suggesting this isn’t the case. Nevertheless, I think Planet of the Apes as a starting point shows an attitude to the apocalypse that I love to see, one that isn’t scared of displacing humans as the dominant species and making us suffer for our sins.

Image result for planet of the apes 1968
Planet of the Apes (1968)

Next on the list is the aforementioned PHASE IV, Saul Bass’s anty-human cult horror. The film sees cosmic rays give ants the chance to develop a hive mind, allowing them to challenge humans as the alpha-species on Earth. The film shows us the ants enraged at human activity, however they soon come around to the idea of integrating humans into their new society (but with no hint as to what our role would be). PHASE IV has its similarities with Planet of the Apes, a new species fights to become the new ruler of Earth, however it goes slightly vanilla at the end. What’s changed that means we no longer get hunted and enslaved, but are now rather part of a new society? Why does this apocalypse have mercy? It’s boring and feels limp. Maybe this is signs of Saul Bass going stale? Despite being older, Planet of the Apes has a much fresher feel and seems to pick up on the spirit of ’68. Though PHASE IV has a gorgeous aesthetic and excellent concept, the ending has echoes of the Hays Code, an enforced Hollywood happy ending. And this trend of optimistic eco-disaster would only continue through the 1980s, an age where Reaganomics and more individualist films mean our genre took some time off.

Now the ‘90s comes with a new awareness on eco-issues. 1995s Waterworld imagines a world in which the polar ice caps have completely melted, and mankind exists on ships: essentially less Waterworld more Pirateworld. In the film, The Mariner (Kevin Costner) begins a quest to discover the mythical Dryland (pretty self-explanatory). After numerous escapades and waning hope, The Mariner and his gang of unlikelys discover Dryland, the top of Mount Everest, and they all live happily ever after – except for The Mariner himself who sails off moodily into the distance. Now I know what you’re thinking, everyone is alive, this is hardly a good start, and I KNOW! When I watched Waterworld I was sort of hoping for it to shock me and give me a sort of grim ending that results in Dryland not existing, but it couldn’t even deliver that. The film ends up just being a Hollywood adventure set in our inevitable future. Except in the future, we won’t all be able to perch on top of Mount Everest, and we won’t all miraculously develop sailing skills. In terms of its depiction of eco-apocalypse Waterworld pales in comparison to another 1995 eco-thriller; Todd Haynes’ Safe.

Safe doesn’t really fall into our category, there isn’t an apocalypse, but the writing is definitely on the wall. Carol White (Julianne Moore) finds herself becoming increasingly ill but has no idea what is triggering her symptoms, until one doctor diagnoses her with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, an illness that causes a reaction to environmental changes. Carol struggles intensely with her symptoms, and retreats to Wrenwood, a New Age retreat that aims to help sufferers of MCS. However, their leader is extreme, who reveals the sanctuary (sic.) to be somewhat cultish. Now as I said, Safe doesn’t technically fall into this genre, however it certainly does show signs that the eco-apocalypse is coming, and when it does those of us who suffer like Carol will have to choose between the horrifying outer world, or cultish leaders like the people at Wrenwood.

Image result for safe julianne moore
Safe (1995)

Throwing ourselves into the 00s we see films that exploit humanity’s ignorance to the apocalypse. Numerous films in this decade will give us a seemingly wrapped up ending to our Armageddon, only to hint that there is more to come in the closing moments. A key example of this is The Happening (2008), in which plants begin to release a toxin that prompts people to commit suicide. Although the disaster comes to an end, in the film’s closing moments we see a scientist ridiculed for warning that this may only be the beginning, followed by a resurgence of the toxin’s symptoms in Paris. This final twist of the knife is almost a reverse of I Am Legend (2007) – in which a mutated measles virus causes most humans to transform into nocturnal zombielike creatures, with Robert Neville (Will Smith), a man immune to the virus, desperate to find a cure. The end of the film sees Neville sacrifice his own life in order to save the cure to this civilisation-ending virus. This one narrative technique acts as opposite sides of the coin in our genre, The Happening using the technique to expose the ignorance of man in the face of natural disaster, and I Am Legend using to demonstrate the nobility and selflessness of its protagonist.  It feels to me, of course, that The Happening puts this narrative twist to better use. Yes, man may be noble, but we are also dumb. We allow ourselves to walk into natural disaster time and time again, even when, in the case of this film, it isn’t necessarily of our own making.

Finally, we launch into the 2010s where, in spite of global apocalypse events being saved by one man and his laptop (i.e. Geostorm (2017)), one film stands out as the decade’s most interesting eco-apocalypse. This film being, Annihilation. Alex Garland’s follow up to Ex Machina (2014) provided a psychedelic take on nature taking back the Earth, with a mysterious zone called The Shimmer expanding across the globe and mutating anything it touches. Garland’s take on The Shimmer presents it almost like a Lovecraftian monster, it isn’t really aiming to destroy us, we aren’t even on its radar, our end is merely a consequence of The Shimmer’s existence. In the film, a team of scientists set out to explore The Shimmer and learn more about it. Following numerous trippy encounters, the film ends quite ambiguously. Our protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) awakes, and it is unclear if she is Really Lena, or a Lena doppelgänger created by The Shimmer (yes it can do that). This ending provides an ambiguously horrifying end to humanity. Not only could we be mutated out of existence with seemingly no way to put up a fight, we could be replaced in the process, without our own knowledge. This is a completely fresh take on the eco-catastrophe, no longer are science experiments going wrong, or nuclear mutations causing havoc, instead The Shimmer, much like nature, is presented as an indifferent force, out of our control.

Having trekked through 50 years of eco-havoc, it is clear that humanity is not to be trusted. Be it through nuclear war, genetic experiments, or antagonising new species, humanity always manages to find itself on the wrong side of nature, and when it does so it doesn’t like to admit it much. We may like to depict ourselves as noble, or able to outwit nature, but deep down we know there is no escaping The End. Hopefully in the following decade Little Joe and other films like it will provide a launching pad for eco-apocalypses where we accept that our position as alpha species on Earth is temporary.