The End of the World: The Apocalyptic Imagination in Film & Television

Reviewed: March 12, 2007
By: John W. Martens
Publisher: J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing Inc.
267 pages, $24.95

At one point in the middle of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy Summers’ boyfriend Riley Finn turns to her and says, “Buffy. When I saw you stop the world from, you know, ending, I just assumed that was a big week for you. Turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of ‘apocalypse’.”

Given the amount of world ending stuff that’s been crammed into our television and movies screens over the last decade, that might be true for all of us. One of the first things we need to straighten out is our use of the term. Apocalypse actually doesn’t mean the end of the world. It has more to do with the revelation of secrets, literally “the lifting of a veil”.

There are all kinds of revelations that viewers of modern “end of the world” fantasies should really get hold of if they want to get the most out of their viewing experience. The first 80 or so pages of Martens’ book will provide an entertaining grounding in the Jewish and Christian origins of the term and what it ought to mean.

Aside from arming you against the late night US hucksters who peddle bibles and “holy water” the way other people peddle exercise machines, this section will help you to understand what has been borrowed and what has been left out in the many variations that have been wrought with this theme.

Martens points out that most of the material in the market place plays fast and loose with the mythology is it mining, generally playing up the power of evil for dramatic effect, and generally giving us a protagonist who is not at all religious and has to be convinced of the problem before he or she will take it seriously. When the forces of good triumph it usually appears to be sheer dumb luck that averts the end of the world.

Some of the earliest films in the genre include the original Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen. These, Martens feels, are among the strongest examples, but only the first one seems to accept the idea that the forces of God might actually be organized and ready to do battle with the forces of the Devil. Most of the knockoffs don’t go anywhere near that far, and anyone associated with organized religion is generally portrayed as ineffective and misguided.

Some of this is buttressed with biblical sounding quotations that actually don’t exist if you take the time to try to find them. The Omen, with its rewriting and additions to the Book of Revelation, is particularly bad this way.

Only a few movies actually seem to show the inner struggle that is very much a part of dealing with evil. Martens recommends The Fallen as one that does a good job of portraying good v.s evil and manages to do it without a heavy reliance on special effects. Another is Bless the Child.

It was no accident that I cited Buffy at the beginning of this review. That show and its spinoff, Angel, get Martens’ highest recommendation as video material that deals in-depth with the struggle between good and evil and also deal with the consequences of the choices one may make. They also point out that dealing with the Big Bad is not a one-shot affair. The struggle is constant and every changing.

Some films and programs don’t make direct reference to religion but use the same themes. A chapter on Alien Apocalypses deals with such films as Close Encounters, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Contact, while another takes on the technological and natural disasters in flicks with Armageddon and Deep Impact.

Lots of films deal with life after a world wide collapse, and many of these reference the same ideas. The Mad Max films, Waterworld, The Postman the Terminator and Matrix trilogies all speak of worlds where we have somehow done ourselves in and have to rebuild with the rubble that’s left.

Tellingly, quite a few of these films also feature savior figures who are willing to put themselves on the line, even to the point of death, to attempt to redeem the damage.

Martens’ critique of many of these is the same as in the overtly religious films. They trivialize the power of good in the world and assume the worst, overstating the power of evil for the sake of the drama inherent in conflict and loss.

There have been many additions to this genre since Martens’ book first appeared in 2003. Recent shows using these themes include this year’s hit, Heroes, as well as Jericho, The Dresden Files, last year’s Invasion, and The Collector.

There is a lot of theology in the first four chapters of this book, and reading it does put you in jeopardy of actually learning something about Christianity, but it is also an entertaining look at pop culture, so why not that that chance? It’s certainly better than curling up with the Necronomicon.