Wide Angle

It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and Hollywood Feels Fine

Movies and TV shows have begun telling us to make peace with the apocalypse.

Stills from War of the Planet of the Apes (of an ape), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (of a dinosaur), and Westworld (of Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores).
Stills from War of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Westworld. Twentieth Century Fox; Amblin Entertainment; HBO.

Like any modern sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom leaves the door open for another installment in the series, but the speech that Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm delivers over the movie’s final images suggests that the human race might not be around long enough to enjoy it. At the movie’s beginning, it’s the dinosaurs who are most imminently threatened with extinction, thanks to an erupting volcano on their home of Isla Nublar, but that eruption, he explains, is merely a “correction,” just nature’s way of restoring balance. The greater risk comes from the species that disrupted that balance in the first place—us.

Malcolm has a point. Last year, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists claimed that we have entered Earth’s sixth mass extinction, a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.” In 2014, a contributor to a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the “window of opportunity” to curb the effects of climate change was “closing fast,” and last year, a co-author of a new IPCC report said that the planet might be “fatally wounded by negligence” if we failed to act by 2020. Given that President Donald Trump and much of his party refuse to acknowledge that climate change even exists, the chance of immediate, concerted global action seems awfully slim, so it’s not surprising that a good number of us have simply given up hope. In 2017, a national survey found that nearly 40 percent of Americans believe that global warming is more likely to lead to humanity’s extinction than it is not.

And it’s not just climate change. In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, noting humanity’s failure to deal satisfactorily with both climate change and the threat of nuclear war, put the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight. The only other time it’s been set that close to outright apocalypse was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War, and it’s never gotten closer. Increasingly, we think that it isn’t a question of if but when.

We’ve been imagining the end of days for as long as we’ve been telling stories—Norse mythology envisioned Ragnarok long before Thor swiped it for a subtitle—albeit never so frequently or in so many different ways. A fresh apocalypse arrives at the multiplex on a nigh-weekly basis, and our TV screens are full of small bands of survivors fighting to keep humankind from slipping into the abyss. But more and more, they seem to be losing the fight, and we seem to be strangely OK with it. Perhaps repetition has just inured us to the idea, but popular culture seems to have gone from treating humanity’s demise as calamity to a fait accompli: an inevitability to be absorbed, even celebrated.

Side by side photos of Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling in their respective Blade Runner roles.
Harrison Ford in Blade Runner; Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049. Warner Bros.; Alcon Entertainment

In the most optimistic doomsday scenarios, humanity dies out because we’ve created something better than our own hopelessly flawed selves. The original Blade Runner’s replicants were imperfect copies of human originals, imbued with a spark of something like life but fundamentally unstable, even beyond their preprogrammed five-year lifespan. But in last year’s long-in-the-works sequel, Blade Runner 2049, the replicants have become “more human than human,” and the humans have become somewhat less. The first movie’s suggestion that Harrison Ford’s Deckard might unknowingly be a replicant was considered too uncommercial for its initial release, but the sequel’s protagonist is announced as a replicant in its very first scene, and we go for long stretches without seeing a single human being—a state of affairs more startling because it’s treated so matter-of-factly.

Blade Runner 2049 opens with the revelation that replicants are able to bear children, and while Jared Leto’s silver-eyed industrialist merely views that reproductive capacity as having lower overhead costs than the old assembly line, the replicants themselves have other plans. It’s time for humans, most of whom have already decamped for the elusive “offworld colonies,” to abandon Earth altogether and leave it to the species they’ve unwittingly designed to replace them. Standing in their way, Sylvia Hoeks’ ruthless replicant enforcer warns one soon-to-be-extinct human, is like trying to “hold the tide with a broom.”

In the original 1976 movie version of Westworld, the Bacchanalian theme park’s “hosts” were little more than wind-up toys, mindless robots with a face full of circuit boards hiding just beneath their synthetic skin. But on its 21st-century TV reboot, the lines between hosts and guests are purposefully blurred, and not even the characters themselves can be sure which is which, or which is better.

Westworld has played coy with what the world looks like beyond the park’s borders, but at least within them, humanity is in short supply. In the show’s first season, that was true only of the species’ finer qualities, which dropped away when faced with Westworld’s array of immaculately crafted temptations. In theory, guests had the option to choose between hero and villain, white hat and black, but over time, the heroic scenarios grew thin with repetition, and villainy’s canvas was limitless. Given the chance, at least in Westworld’s dim view of human character, we all turn into the Man in Black sooner or later.

In Westworld’s second season, the threat to humanity becomes more literal. “I’ve evolved into something new,” says the host played by Evan Rachel Wood, a milk-faced farmer’s daughter turned bloodthirsty revolutionary, and when she says her aim is “to dominate this world,” it’s clear she’s not just talking about the park. Although the hosts were created with an eye toward physical perfection, there’s little to indicate they’re any more moral than the venal, often monstrous humans who made them. But even if they’re no better, they’re no worse, and given that humankind has already squandered its shot, why not give someone else a try?

Hollywood’s most sustained, even eloquent, argument for the human race’s extinction is also its most successful: the Planet of the Apes trilogy, rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which altogether took in more than $1.6 billion worldwide. The new series started as a simple tale of scientific progress run amok: In testing a potential Alzheimer’s cure on chimpanzees, James Franco’s biotech researcher inadvertently creates both a strain of intelligent apes and a virus that proves lethal to humans. But the movies that followed, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and last year’s War for the Planet of the Apes, slowly shifted its sympathies from human to ape, from a species that’s already doomed itself to one with at least a hope of getting it right this time.

By the last movie, we’re effectively cheering for our own destruction. 99.8 percent of the human race has been wiped out, and most of what we know as civilization has gone with it. Sometimes a hint of our former selves resurges, like the smiling family photo that flickers on a ruthless general’s iPad when electric power is briefly restored. But by War for the Planet of the Apes, that spark has sputtered out, and what’s left is two species at war—one still evolving, and the other at the end of its rope. In War for the Planet of the Apes, humans are the antagonists, not the heroes, and the only question is whether they’ll kill themselves off or die of natural causes. A new strain of the virus is wiping out their higher brain functions, reducing them to a primitive state, and even the ones who aren’t yet infected have been consumed by war. By the time humanity gets wiped out for good, there’s not much left of it to save.

Side by side photos of Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes and Caesar, the ape, in War for the Planet of the Apes.
Left: Charlton Heston screams in rage at humanity’s extinction the end of the original Planet of the Apes. Right: Caesar looks on coldly as humanity snuffs itself out in War for the Planet of the Apes. Twentieth Century Fox

The last time we see humans in the Apes series, they’re swaddled head to toe in military parkas, bundled up against the cold their hairless bodies can’t endure, yet so removed from their environment they don’t realize their war cries are about to bring an avalanche crashing down upon them. In the original Planet of the Apes and its turn-of-the-century remake, the discovery that humankind has been replaced is the ultimate horror, registered by Charlton Heston’s despairing screams and Mark Wahlberg’s stunned incomprehension. But in War for the Planet of the Apes, the death of dozens of humans, which for all we know may be the last surviving group anywhere, is played as a slapstick gag, their faceless, undifferentiated bodies buried under a mountain of snow with a swift, subdued thud—an inglorious ending for a species that deserves nothing better. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a womp womp.

There are many more examples, some of which have achieved massive popularity despite their pessimistic outlook. The Walking Dead remains a TV powerhouse in spite of recent ratings declines, still seducing audiences with its vision of a world where brute survival is the only end and civilized virtue is a disposable luxury. Alex Garland’s cult favorites Ex Machina and Annihilation take a cerebral, even resigned approach to humanity’s eventual ouster, whether by android or alien being. The year’s highest-grossing movie, Avengers: Infinity War, ends with beloved comic-book characters turned to dust by the dozens, as the regretful villain Thanos, arguably the movie’s main character and certainly the one who gets the most screentime, pursues his plan to ease the universe’s burden by wiping out half of its inhabitants. Given the earth’s exploding population and its overtaxed resources, the most frightening thing about the movie’s melancholy monster is that he might have a point.

The human race—spoiler alert!—survives the end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. But the prognosis isn’t good. When Ian Malcolm returns at the end of the movie to advocate once again for letting nature take its course, he’s no longer talking about the dinosaurs’ extinction. He’s talking about ours. The dinosaurs, he explains, are just one example of “man-made cataclysmic change,” the kind of change we’re far better at instigating than coping with.

Unless you see Fallen Kingdom’s Indoraptor—a ruthless, unnatural killing machine with an irregular row of orange-tipped spikes running down its back—as a sly Trump stand-in, as some do, the inclusion of “avarice and political megalomania” among the potential catalysts for “sudden, radical irrational change” that Malcolm identifies may seem like a last-ditch effort to lend a summer blockbuster a hint of relevance. But with the country perpetually on the verge of chaos, the words hit home with surprising force. Environmental activists have talked about the danger of going from ignorance to despair, from not grasping the problem to being paralyzed by its scope. But there’s a seductive comfort in giving up, especially if we can console ourselves with the thought that something better will come along if we just lay down and let it. These stories aren’t telling us to fight the end. They’re telling us to embrace it, and sometimes even that we deserve it. Fallen Kingdom doesn’t obliterate the human race, but it concludes that it’s only a matter of time before we finish the job ourselves. It was Ian Malcolm who said that life finds a way, but he never said what kind of life it would be.