Film: Apocalypse Never

'The Matrix' confirms Hollywood's fear of the millennium

Apr 22, 1999 at 2:06 pm
The Matrix

One thousand years ago, preachers throughout Europe clamored, predicting the end of the world. The first millennium following the birth of Christ seemed like a nice round number for the prophesied apocalypse. But the year 1000 A.D. came and went without incident. The preachers turned to each other, shrugged, and said, "We'll get 'em next time."

The next time is here. The world is a slightly different place, and people are more concerned about technological meltdowns than retribution by an angry god.

Hollywood, to some degree, tries to reflect what people are thinking about. Being an originality-impaired environment, studios often resort to popular issues for dramatic fuel. If any given topical film produces big box office, chances are you'll see it again and again and again.

Hollywood has often produced dire prognostications of the future as a bleak wasteland.

Beginning most profoundly with Fritz Lang's (1927) classic Metropolis (the image of the human drones marching mechanically into the industrial complex is curiously echoed in the (1990) Tom Hanks farce Joe Versus the Volcano), movies have repeatedly told us man is destined to annihilate himself, to lose control of the machines or to succumb to some kind of totalitarian state.

Hollywood owes a great deal to the Cold War. The paranoia of that era producing such apocalyptic flicks as Dr. Strangeglove (1964), Fail Safe (1964), Damnation Alley (1977) and On The Beach (1959).

There was a theme to all those 1970s disaster films (Airport, Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno): People built their gigantic toys and skyscrapers too hastily, without considering the consequences. The disaster trend was repeated in the late 1990s with Dante's Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact and Armageddon. The latter two specifically deal with apocalyptic themes. But while Twister and Independence Day were phenomenal box office hits in the summer of 1996, Dante's Peak and Volcano were equal disappointments. So after two big-budget, special effects-driven volcano films failed to enthrall audiences, why did Hollywood think asteroids would be any different? Some have attributed it to "millennial nerves," a social condition that encompasses the blooming of apocalyptic religious cults and random acts of lunacy. If people think the end of the world is coming in the year 2000, Hollywood will do its damnedest to cash in before it arrives. The studios guessed right: Armageddon and Deep Impact were audience favorites.

But now, in 1999, less than a year before the millennium arrives, Hollywood is curiously silent. Its very nearness may be causing studios and screenwriters to set their science-fiction plots hundreds of years from now. It's as if Hollywood is as leery of Y2K as everyone else.

Not that we're not getting our share of future actioners. The Matrix was the No. 1 film in America by a landslide, and Keanu Reeves is the toast of Tinseltown once again. The premise is that the 1999 world as we know it is a dream, a computer construct. Our real bodies are soaking in futuristic Jacuzzis overseen by artificially intelligent machines in the year 2199.

It's definitely a very frightening concept, but it soon degenerates into raw foolishness. Reeves really is perfect as the film's Bruce Lee-like hero. Nobody gapes in slack amazement better. But on focusing on his antics, the film's implications are diluted, making it no more meaningful than James Cameron's Terminator films, which also involved machines that turn on their creators. There's a hilarious moment when Keanu plummets from the roof of a skyscraper. He falls through the street, which has become elastic, and bounces out again. How can a film that borrows so heavily from Wile E. Coyote ever hope to reach an audience on a cerebral level? The simple answer is profit. Studios would rather wow people with a digital universe than ask them to think.

There are more formulaic future-related films to come. The Thirteenth Floor is another examination of a virtual universe. Entrapment tells the story of a master thief scheming to rob a world bank on the last day of the 20th-century. Y2K stars Chris O'Donnell as a computer expert who stumbles upon shady dealings at a consulting firm. The only sure-fire apocalyptic film is called End of Days and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger. Need I say more?

Hollywood could very well be afraid of offending people. Maybe they think a serious, contemplative millennium film would be the catalyst for unstable individuals to run amok. The argument is easier to see when you notice what Hollywood has been producing — cute, fluffy comedies like She's All That. Hollywood didn't used to be so afraid. Our current decade has forecasted smaller-scale visions of future life. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea of a nuclear apocalypse has toned down. And except for a few empty action flicks like True Lies and Broken Arrow, Hollywood has lost interest in the subject. When India and Pakistan heated things up again with nuclear testing, Hollywood responded with The Peacemaker.

Strange Days (1995) focused on a group of burned-out characters during the last days of 1999. The film was rife with images of filthy streets, brush fires and ragged souls meandering around. Shades of Blade Runner? Definitely. But the subject matter was more contemporary than fantastical. It incorporated elements of racism, police brutality, rape, political murder and a terrifying technology that allowed you to live another person's life on a sensory level — virtual experience replacing genuine experience — all building to a climax at midnight, January 1, 2000.

Twelve Monkeys (1995) involved a pandemic that wiped out most of the earth's population, driving the few remaining survivors underground. Humans lived in darkness and sludge, while the earth's animals, unaffected by the virus in a not-so-subtle display of poetic justice, enjoyed absolute freedom in the beautiful world above.

Gattaca (1998) depicted a world where genetics determined individual worth. At childbirth, doctors would read infant chromosomes to learn what disorders and defects the child was likely to have. A system that created a new class system. Anyone with a clean bill of genetic health wore a suit and got to blast off into space. Anyone with attention-deficit disorder wore blue coveralls and swept the floor. This sort of distinction is comically simplistic, but it does touch on a raging controversy regarding how much our genes determine who we are, and therefore, how much credit we can take for our accomplishments.

All three of the above films were commercial busts. And that, more than anything, may have determined how Hollywood deals with the millennium. Some filmmakers maintain that the public has tired of the subject. Sure, some people are hoarding food, others are staying away from airports and large cities, but for an alleged apocalypse, the public seems to be taking it rather well.

Maybe the end of the world is more of a media-created phenomenon than anything else. Perhaps it's a subject you wouldn't otherwise worry about, one the news and entertainment industries want to make you afraid of to sell tickets and newspapers. ©