The apocalypse is always just over the horizon, particularly if you live near a multiplex or have a Netflix subscription. Hollywood’s fascination with the end of the world is nothing new (as Charlton Heston’s early ‘70s career demonstrates), but recent years have seen a deluge of apocalyptic cinema, from disaster movies (2012, The Day After Tomorrow) to dystopian sci-fi (The Book of Eli, Snowpiercer) to comedies (This is the End, World’s End). If you’re looking for a critical study of these films, be warned that Approaching the End (Amazon, iBooks, Powell’s) is not it: Peter Labuza has an entirely different take on what constitutes the apocalyptic American film, which makes for fascinating reading in its own right.
Labuza, a film critic who has written for Variety and Indiewire, sees most of these end-of-the-world movies as anti-apocalyptic, in that they tend to celebrate the endurance of the human spirit even through all the special-effects carnage. “You go into Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009) expecting the end of the world,” he writes, “but there at the end of it is John Cusack and his daughter hanging out on a boat with a bunch of other survivors cruising toward Africa and checking out a sunrise. It’s boring.” A true apocalyptic narrative, in Labuza’s view, finds the old social order permanently destroyed, resulting in darkness and chaos.
To that end, Labuza presents an eclectic selection of films for consideration under his definition of apocalyptic American cinema. Film noir classics like Out of the Past and In a Lonely Place depict apocalypse on a personal scale, while a nuclear-age noir like Robert Aldridge’s truly nutty Kiss Me Deadly ends with the explosion of a “great whatsit” that may well consume the whole world. Religious-themed works like God Told Me To and The Rapture concern a spiritual apocalypse, while science fiction finds the seeds of our doom in technology (Strange Days, The Terminator).
At times it feels as if the tail is wagging the dog in Approaching to the End – as if Labuza wanted to write about a disparate group of films and found a way to tie them together, however tenuously. (Even Labuza admits the inclusion of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven “initially sounds like a stretch.”) But idiosyncratic choices make for engaging film criticism, and Labuza’s arguments are generally persuasive. (He even convinced me to give Richard Kelly’s reviled Southland Tales another look, a decision I don’t entirely regret.)
Approaching the End is the (intentionally ironic?) first release by the Critical Press, a new film culture publisher dedicated to “short and medium-length books: topics and arguments that can’t comfortably fit in a long article, but don’t necessarily need 300 pages to make their point.” It’s a great idea conducive to a variety of interesting projects, and with Approaching the End, it’s off to a promising start.