It may be the start of a new year, but as far as cinema is concerned that doesn’t mean it can’t also be the end of the world. Even before January is out, audiences will have been given two gruelling visions of the future from which to choose. You can experience your dystopian forecast in moderately Hollywood-friendly form in The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington battles unwashed marauding types in a harsh futuristic landscape. Or you can take your medicine straight in the form of The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a father and son trudging through a world scarred by environmental collapse.
Long before such films, or recent animated equivalents like WALL-E or 9, we have harboured a cultural compulsion to imagine our collective demise. The need was once sated by that popular best-seller, the Old Testament, but latter-day audiences have found that the disaster movie hits the spot as effectively. This genre hit an early commercial peak in 1936 with San Francisco, which restaged the 1906 earthquake, and In Old Chicago, about the Chicago fire of 1871, before stretching through 1970s hits such as The Towering Inferno (skyscraper blaze) and The Poseidon Adventure (capsized ocean liner).
One trend in disaster movies was to use catastrophe as a form of divine retribution for mankind’s hubris. Implicit in The Towering Inferno was the suggestion that human beings were playing God by designing structures that reached to the heavens. The 1970s Airport films tried unsuccessfully to balance their awe at advances in aviation with the suspicion that we might eventually have to pay for the sin of pride.
Recently this line of reasoning has become untenable. An increasingly secular society was never going to have much truck with a storytelling format that hinges on God bringing us down a peg or two. Then there is the unavoidable fact that real-life calamities tend to unfold much faster, and more sinisterly, than anything a film studio could cook up. A modern disaster movie couldn’t hope to compete with the realities of the post-9/11 world, where a screenwriter’s cleverest plots can be eclipsed by the ingenuity of a bomber intent on smuggling explosives on to a plane. Projects that take nine months or more to reach the screen will have been upstaged by the evening news many times over during the course of production.
This is why global warming is, to use a non-secular term, such a godsend for movie narratives. With the divine retribution angle now an anachronism, and international terrorism making Airport-style plots too near the knuckle, climate change as a plot device provides the right blend of terrible plausibility, comforting distance and chastening subtext. We know global warming is under way — well, most do — and yet the phenomenon is gradual enough to rule out any risk of reality stealing a march on fiction. The director Roland Emmerich has been a notable opportunist in this regard, grafting environmental concerns on to the template of the old-school disaster movie for end-of-civilisation epics like The Day After Tomorrow and last year’s 2012.
The nuclear age once fuelled a similar climate of fear in cinema, but it’s been a while since filmmakers invoked that spectre. It will be interesting to see how our ongoing struggle with climate change, which can’t be moved so easily to the back-burner, is reflected in the stories we tell on film. Even if carbon emissions were to be reduced to zero tomorrow, our need to contemplate our own extinction would still remain. For all their sobriety, the latest dystopian visions fill the same need within us as the cheesiest disaster movie, but with one important difference. When we see The Road, we can’t discard the fears provoked by the film once the lights come up. Instead, we take them home with us and, if we’re smart, act on them. – guardian.co.uk