“It's the end of the world as we know it.”
Over and over at the movies lately, R.E.M.'s 1987 rock anthem feels like the theme song for a gloomy, angst-ridden trend in film.
More than a dozen wide-release movies this year alone feature end-of-the-world or post-apocalyptic stories.
Though the next line in R.E.M.'s song is “And I feel fine,” local scholars of pop culture and psychology say all those doomsday movie scenarios are a sign that we don't feel fine at all.
In fact, they say, uncertainty about the future, bubbling up through our collective unconscious, is pooling into a critical mass of imaginary end days.
Last weekend, “Elysium,” starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, portrayed the have-nots struggling on the surface of a ravaged Earth and the haves orbiting in a luxurious space station.
“Oblivion,” starring Tom Cruise as an action hero, in April depicted a post-apocalyptic world in which aliens plundered our planet for natural resources, especially water.
Sometimes the theme is played for laughs. In “This Is the End,” which opened in June, James Franco and his Hollywood buddies found their wild house party interrupted by Earth's destruction. In “Warm Bodies,” zombie Nicholas Holt saved Teresa Palmer from attack and triggered romance along with hope for the world.
One of the summer's biggest hits, a more somber “World War Z,” imagined a planet suddenly overrun by zombies. Brad Pitt played a scientist seeking a way to contain the crisis and keep the human race alive.
Television hasn't been immune from the trend either. More than a dozen post-apocalyptic series have popped up over the past decade. The hits have included “Defiance,” “Falling Skies,” “The Walking Dead,” “Heroes” and “Battlestar Gallactica.”
Doomsday, of course, is nothing new in literature, television or movies. “Metropolis,” a silent classic about a dystopic future, was made in 1927. Fears of nuclear proliferation spawned lots of scary titles just after World War II, a time of great uncertainty. “The End of the World,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Day the World Ended,” “When Worlds Collide” and “War of the Worlds” are examples.
Another possible explanation: Hollywood, fond of copying whatever sells, is currently in love with digital special effects and action movies that translate internationally. The studios may be riding the latest wave until audiences tire of it.
Movies at the world's end
Post-apocalyptic movies of 2013, by opening date:
Feb. 1: "Warm Bodies"
April 12: "It's a Disaster"
April 19: "Oblivion"
June 7: "Rapture-Palooza"
June 12: "This Is the End"
June 21: "World War Z"
July 12: "Pacific Rim"
Aug. 9: "Elysium"
Aug. 23: "The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones"
Aug. 23: "The World's End"
Sept. 1: "After the World Ended"
Nov. 22: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
“There's almost always an apocalyptic trend going on,” said Dr. Carl Greiner, professor of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The new millennium, the end of the Mayan calendar and several Christian evangelists who claimed to know the date that mankind's time is up all have had some worried about the end.
Whether it's dying by fire in a nuclear war (“Dr. Strangelove,” “The Sum of All Fears”) or by flood as the polar ice caps melt (“2012”), Greiner said, the apocalyptic notion in movies has strong roots in both religious and secular society.
Right now, he said, several great barometers of personal insecurity are converging. Mideast wars, climate change, economic uncertainty, unemployment, a dysfunctional Congress, a shaky social safety net, swift change brought on by the digital information age and a shift in religious belief systems lead the list.
Tim Swisher, a certified Jungian psychotherapist whose office is in the Old Market, said the doomsday trend fits a theory from Carl Jung, the founding father of analytical psychotherapy. People around the world who are having the same experience share a collective unconscious, he said. One way we express it is through the arts. Moviemakers may not consciously be aware of the source of their creative impulse, but it's triggered by major change and the need to cope.
Whether it's through a carnival ride, Grimm's fairy tales or a horror movie, Swisher said, people want to be scared, to test themselves, to prepare for the unexpected. What goes on between characters, below the surface of a movie, resonates on a level we don't always pay attention to — but we know it's there.
“The old systems are breaking down,” he said. “So many things that used to work aren't working anymore. Something new is emerging. The mind gets to a point where it breaks down and says, 'I can't think about that.' ” Movies, he said, let them go there indirectly.
Brent Spencer, director of creative writing and coordinator of film studies at Creighton University, sees a theory from Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, at play.
“Experiencing extreme emotions in a safe environment like the movies, we're not haunted as much by the fear it could happen,” he said. “We walk away thinking we escaped cataclysm — or that we can somehow deal with the real fears better.”
Liz Huse, an Omaha fan of the post-apocalyptic movie genre, agreed. “We watch so we can mentally gather and analyze the survival strategies of the characters ... so we can be better prepared when the apocalypse comes for real.”
In history, the new coming in and the old going out were often met with resistance, with responses like the rise of the Communist Party, witch hunts and the Inquisition, Swisher said. But there's also a chance for learning, for seeing things differently. Fear is one response to change. Compassion and acceptance of difference are another, he said.
Jim Poppert, an Omaha mental health counselor, sees resurrection symbols in the werewolves, zombies and vampires popular in movies today. As some people distance themselves from traditional religious belief, he said, there's a fascination about death and what it means.
Greiner said it may not be a reach to see ourselves as zombies in a grind of dead-end jobs we can't shed. Swisher said corporations, technology and the pace of life can feel like vampires, sucking us dry.
Movies, Poppert said, are temporary myths we can use to try to cope with death or to survive significant change.
“People are coming in with depression and anxiety,” he said. “Beyond the office, I hear it generally in our culture. There's a recognition of the desire for significant change.”
Once the public shifts from an unconscious expression of anxiety to an awareness of what's beneath their fears, Poppert said, that can trigger healthy discussion and a move toward shared solutions. Movies can be a catalyst to begin that discussion.
Doomsday movies have hope written all over them in one form or another, said Adam Tyma, assistant professor of critical media studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Whether it's survival, unselfish acts of heroism or the suggestion of a solution to an impossible situation, he said, that formulaic dose of hope is an easy sell.
Maybe that, more than anything, explains the mini-explosion of apocalyptic stories.