Herzog and the Apocalypse
Movies have been dreaming about the end of the world at least since the 1950s, when nuclear-age anxieties about world destruction combusted on-screen, mostly in genre pictures featuring mad scientists, doomsday scenarios, and irradiated monsters. The cascade of atrocity movies like these spurred Susan Sontag to write an influential essay, published in 1965, called “The Imagination of Disaster.” Though the reality of planetary extinction still looms large due to political instability and even more powerful weapons of mass destruction, the Bomb’s fear-inducing power, epitomized by that iconic image of a mushroom cloud rising over the Mojave desert, has been replaced, or perhaps just reconfigured (in film, anyway), by a new set of concerns, from global terror and runaway bioengineering to viral pandemic and environmental collapse.
For a glimpse at how prevalent 21st-century narratives of apocalypse are, all it takes is a glance at your local movie-theater marquee. Both “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight” are obvious comic-book parables for the war on terror, the former opening in the real-life war zone of Afghanistan, where Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark attempts to foil a conspiracy of WMD-wielding insurgents. The latter is set in a sprawling, benighted Gotham City whose citizens live in fear of Heath Ledger’s nihilistic Joker. Once a vehicle for campy clowning by the likes of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson, the Joker has been refashioned here as a “terrorist” bent on mass destruction by director Christopher Nolan. And why not? Superheros went from being clean-cut heartthrobs-in-tights in the ’80s to bad-ass fighting machines in the ’90s, casually mirroring the fact that Hollywood and America were world-dominant superpowers with the might to crush most signs of resistance to their hegemony. Nowadays, our caped crusaders and men of action are darker, more troubled souls (Will Smith’s Hancock is an alcoholic, Downey’s Stark a neurotic motormouth, and Christian Bale’s Batman a tortured head case) who face down grave threats to human survival in a milieu of wartime atrocity and anarchistic cynicism. End-world scenarios are the bread and butter of many pop action flicks; these new additions venture further, digging into the post-9/11 sensitivities of our collective psyche.
Post-apocalypse stories never really go out of style either, and in the past, we’ve been treated to a wealth of memorable variations on this theme, from “Planet of the Apes” and “Escape from New York” to “The Quiet Earth” and “The Road Warrior.” Will Smith recently starred in “I Am Legend,” an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s canonical fantasy story about a virus that has turned the world’s inhabitants into vampires. Bird flu? Hardly. But the real-world allusion is hard to miss: the threat of a new pandemic on the order of the Black Death seems to be an annual news story, and the menace of viral obliteration has been a theme in movies from “The Andromeda Strain” to “Outbreak.” The legendary George A. Romero has built his career specializing in zombifying the sci-fi subgenre of post apocalypse, and in 2005 revisited his long-running cycle with “Land of the Dead,” about the struggle of the world’s last human survivors to repel a mob of undead barbarians at the gate. Romero has always been a clever social critic, and his latest films take aim at the disease of capitalist consumer culture, and never fail to end on a dark note of near-hopelessness. Taking a tonal cue from his elder, cult filmmaker Richard Kelly now has two end-times allegories to his credit, “Donnie Darko,” and the more recent megabomb (no pun intended) “Southland Tales,” which seditiously incorporated war-on-terror politics, government conspiracy, contemporary pop culture, a World War III event, and wonky physics into its futuristic, crazy-quilt spin on how the zero-hour doomsday might look. Later this year, Australian director John Hillcoat will throw his hat into the ring when he debuts his big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel, “The Road,” about a man and his young son wandering a desolate East Coast in ruins after some unspecified apocalyptic event.
Cheery, huh? But still, it begs the question: how will the world end? In fire or ice? That’s the question Robert Frost framed in his famous poem, and these days the movies seem to be leaning heavily toward, well, hedging their bets. For the new generation of apocalypse films, no issue is of greater concern than the environment. Last year, indie-horror auteur Larry Fessenden gave us an intelligent, eye-opening scare with his acclaimed, enviro-conscious Arctic thriller “The Last Winter,” set at an oil-dredging outpost in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Strange things happen to the tiny crew; a madness erupts. Is it sour gas coming from an old well, or is global warming releasing something else—something other—from beneath the melting permafrost? Recent docs like “The 13th Hour” and “Flow: For the Love of Water” take a brainier approach to projecting what the world will look like if we continue to burn fossil fuels and consume bottled water at the present rate, while doing nothing to update our clean-energy policies: famine, war, resource scarcity, mass starvation, natural disasters, a complete collapse of civilization. Kiddie movies are no refuge from these millennial Earth concerns, either. The new Pixar flick, “Wall*E,” imagines a devastated, completely unpeopled world picked over by a garbage-collecting robot. Human culture exists only as detritus in this clever, ultra-green-leaning animated fantasy. And the exotic, fanciful creations of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, whose eco-themed films often play here theatrically, revoiced by Hollywood actors, are thinly veiled campaigns for the hearts and minds of young viewers. The message of apocalyptic anime stories like “Nausicaa” and “Princess Mononoke”? Respecting nature and all its lifeforms is the ultimate humanism.
No one seems to have a more ambivalent relationship to the human race than Werner Herzog, whose new film, “Encounters at the End of the World,” is an on-the-brink-of-apocalypse film par excellence. At the request of the National Science Foundation, and through the auspices of his friend, avant-garde guitarist and research diver Henry Kaiser, Herzog travels to the U.S.-run base camp at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, where a motley range of outsiders, dropouts, refugees, scientists, adventurers, and lone wolves staff the seasonal needs of a fully functioning town. Herzog is mesmerized and perturbed by the desolate, forbidding landscape (“I loathe the sun on my celluloid and my skin”) and the myriad ways one can perish in the ice and cold: in one early scene, he sits in on a survival-training session that simulates zero-visibility white-out conditions. As the participants wander off course with buckets over their heads, he sardonically underscores the utter futility of the exercise. He finds the makeshift civilization of McMurdo an “abomination,” but is deeply fascinated by the “professional dreamers” who’ve chosen to live and work there, often comparing their unnatural presence to that of the historic Shackleton expedition, glimpsed in archival footage. Drawn to eccentrics and outsiders, Herzog chats with seal scientists, truck drivers, ice-cream vendors, a Guinness world-record holder, and a plumber who proudly displays his plump, oddly symmetrical fingers to prove his royal Aztec heritage. At a faraway research camp, he interviews an isolative, hard-to-engage scientist about whether there are any “gay penguins,” and treks with a vulcanologist team to the rim of a massive, active volcano, where he’s instructed what to do if the crater starts to “spit” flaming lava bombs.
Throughout the film, Herzog is keen to imagine the endless chain of catastrophes that have defined the relationship between humanity and wild, untamed nature, an abiding theme in so many of his dramatic and documentary films, from “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” to the more recent “Grizzly Man.” He also likes to adopt the perspective of alien visitors to Earth who puzzle over the meaning of our relics, long after we’ve disappeared. In “Encounters,” Herzog’s eco-apocalyptic sensibility comes to the fore when he meets research biologist Sam Bowser, a sci-fi fanatic who not only finds evidence every day that global warming is melting the polar icecaps, but believes without a doubt that humanity is doomed to extinction. “Nature will regulate us,” he confidently informs Herzog. Glimpsed in Kaiser’s magical, under-the-icecap video footage, we see Bowser’s team at work studying the array of weird slimes, mandibled worms, and bizarre single-celled organisms whose horrific features and predatory violence Herzog hypothesizes must have driven our aqueous ancestors to dry land.
Ultimately, Herzog posits that we—not Nature, per se—will bring about our demise and eradicate us from the planet. “Our techno culture makes us vulnerable,” he surmises at one point, even as he gawks admiringly at the work of an Antarctic physicist dedicated to tracking the most effluvial, spirit-world elements of the universe: neutrinos. Climate change hasn’t set Herzog off an apocalyptic tack, either; his end-world thinking has been an enduring aspect of his explorations into extremes both natural and psychological. But “Encounters” offers the most poignant and terrifying coda to the notion that human irrationality lies at the root of what makes us an unsustainable species. Out on the ice, his camera captures a lone penguin marching steadfastly away from its group, toward certain death in the mountains. Determined and alone, mouth agape and wings pinned behind its back as it waddles senselessly to its doom, this deranged penguin, Herzog clearly wants us to understand, is us.