Despite the adolescent hankering for movies that make for good ad copy (“I was blown away— and so was everyone else!”), very few films end with The End. More often you get the Independence Days that burn down the global village up front in order to save it, the Outbreaks where infected monkeys, Africans, and homosexuals tastefully bleed out offscreen in order to fix marriages and reunite families at the last possible moment, cautionary Days After where the human spirit endures against all odds, and, of course, the not-so-Deep Impacts where that meteor or asteroid takes out a whole mess of folks, but not so many that anybody in the multiplexes gets too depressed.
The Cold War and the rhetoric of Mutual Assured Destruction were breeding grounds for this kind of total cinema, its prime examples clustered in the years of duck-and-cover drills. Although all the good, big-screen apocalypses of the Atomic Age not only contemplated The End but served it up for audiences, the best imagined a kind of joy in the prospect. Ground zero of the genre, Stanley Kubrick’s carefully calibrated Dr. Strangelove (1964) didn’t count down to the end but up to it, B-52 pilot Slim Pickens’s yippee-ka-yay-motherfucker ride on an A-bomb into the Siberian tundra a gleeful preorgasmic cry uttered just before the film’s final harvest of mushroom clouds, global ejaculatory splatter from the military-industrial complex. Stanley Kramer’s more traditionally somber On the Beach has always gotten a high-minded nod for considering the individual human costs of nuclear gamesmanship, but even its teary, downbeat finale could be said to provide a certain pleasure, the onrushing radioactive cloud offering deliverance from the bondage of nickel-and-dime personal melodramas. Early techno-fetishistic action, 1964’s Fail Safe was a chillingly precise walk through the collapse of national systems of governance intended to keep us safe from our own madness. But it also had a familiar lock-and-load kick, the turning of keys and the giving of technically insane orders as much an eager capitulation as portents of final-scene disaster.
In the more debased precincts of straight-up sci-fi or horror flicks the absence of direct political references to nuclear war often allowed filmmakers a more sustained wallow in the textural details of The End. Horror flicks like David Cronenberg’s Rabid or the entire Living Dead franchise are morbidly fascinated with implacability, ending not with the big bang but the small moment involving large-scale viral implications— the last-second bite, the carrier escaping into the unsuspecting population. These are films whose doomsday logic is so convincing that nothing can bring closure except The End of Life As We Know It. When Worlds Collide (1951) (ripped off recently in both of last summer’s the-rock-is-falling flicks) did get a chosen handful off a doomed Mother Earth on that nifty spaceship, but in the preceding hour and a half of paltry preparatory
details— the half-baked schemes and training, the lotteries, the endless good-byes— it undermined its own semi-happy ending, casting a backward glance at the broken homeworld to suggest that certain kinds of survival are Pyrrhic victories at best. Beneath the Planet of the Apes magnified the feeling that it might just be better to call the whole civilization thing off, mating white fears of black liberation to nuclear anxiety so completely that when Charlton Heston rides in at the last moment to push the button, most audiences don’t know whether to cheer or cry. It’s probably not an accident that it usually takes a man’s man to end it all. Your mother might be the one who brought you into this world, but it’s usually Daddy who promises to take you out.
One of five articles in our Film supplement.