The film of The Road is part of a long tradition. Why do we have such a penchant for apocalypse?
But although it is easy to find examples of people predicting how the world will end – whether with a bang, or a whimper – the stories we tell about it are far harder to pin down. Just as preachers who warn of the day of judgment are happy to revise their calculations as the predicted date comes and goes, so our ideas about the future tend to change in response to whatever is terrifying us here and now.
Much of this has been aided by the fact that the Book of Revelation, Western culture’s most influential apocalyptic vision (the Greek word apocalypse literally means “disclosing” or “unveiling”), depends on a vision so misty and uncertain that it is capable of being turned in almost any direction. While the language of Revelation is still used in everyday speech – the four horsemen, fire and brimstone, and so on – and is still interpreted with sturdy literalism by some, such as the preacher in Nebraska who is apparently hoping that a specially bred herd of Red Angus cattle may yield the “Red Heifer” needed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple, it has also been the inspiration for some of the most striking apocalyptic visions of recent years.
Its descriptions of floods, earthquakes, monsters and plagues have been rebranded as popular entertainment in the crash-bang-wallop genre of disaster movies. Its “beasts” have spawned creatures as diverse as the furry hordes in Planet of the Apes and the snarling Orc army made out of fire and ooze in The Lord of the Rings.
In the end, of course, the Orcs are defeated and this is what gives many of the best apocalyptic stories their narrative shape. Disaster is approached but then flinched away from. The meteorite heading for earth is blown up with only seconds left on the clock. Alien invaders suck the life out of their victims but are then vanquished by humble bacteria. The Daleks cackle lustily over their plans for world domination before falling down the stairs. In every case, whether by luck or cunning, the danger is averted. Traditional apocalyptic stories are triumphs of the near miss.
More recently the situation has been changing. These days, it seems, the storyline has to be pursued to its bitter end. German director Roland Emmerich’s films provide the grimmest examples. In 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, freakish weather conditions produce a new Ice Age overnight. In last year’s 2012, a realignment of the Earth’s crust causes global chaos: continents drown, civilisation collapses and a handful of wealthy survivors bob towards the future on a fleet of secretly built “arks”.
Both films are committed to what Susan Sontag described in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” as “the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, in making a mess”. Mountains explode; cities are pulverised; millions vanish under the waves. It is a long way from the sort of events sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss had in mind when he dismissed novels like The Day of the Triffids for their brand of “cosy catastrophe”. There is nothing cosy about Emmerich’s films. This is catastrophe with designer stubble and twin turbos. Hard-core catastrophe.
The assumption behind such Hollywood spectacles seems to be that bigger is always better. Do you find storms scary? Here’s one that flattens skyscrapers like matchwood. How about earthquakes? Watch as California slithers into the sea. Yet, the odd thing about these films is that the higher the body count, the less we end up caring. To some extent this is because we are never allowed to get to know the anonymous crowds who perish; they are just computer-generated specks, about as interesting as dust. Unlike tragedy, where the hero eventually dies, in apocalypse movies it is the hero who must survive and to hell (or heaven) with the rest of the human race. CGI special effects make the loss of a city seem of no more consequence than airbrushing a beauty spot out of a photograph. Worse still, is how quickly we are anaesthetised to suffering on such a grand scale. We become so used to being helpless spectators – oops, there goes France! – we are tempted to forget that we can create the future as well as merely suffer it.
In its quiet and understated way, The Road offers something far more interesting. This is apocalypse restored to a human scale. The film follows a man and his young son as they make their lonely way through a landscape that has been turned to ashes by nuclear war or some unspoken ecological catastrophe. It is a familiar enough premise: variations on the same theme can be traced back through Mad Max and The Omega Man to Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel The Last Man, all of which make survival seem like a Robinson Crusoe fantasy in which the desert island has expanded to the size of the world. In The Road, though, the story is not a fable of self-sufficiency or celebration of the pioneer spirit. What we are given instead is a combination of grimy realism and pitiless logic, as the man and boy seek out the few remaining rusty cans of food, or avoid the “bad guys” hunting in packs. “Do you ever wish that you could die?” the man asks an old tramp they encounter on the road, receiving the flat reply: “No, it’s foolish to ask for luxuries at times like these.” It sounds like the sort of exchange you might find in Waiting for Godot.
But if The Road has Samuel Beckett’s despair, it also has his flickering sense of hope. At the end of the film, the boy is adopted by a new family and there is the suggestion that for him at least there may be a fresh start. It is close to the optimism that led Beckett, when he wrote in French, to keep coming back to words like terminé, which means “finished”, but ends in né, meaning “born”.
Viewers of the film might conclude that optimism, like everything else in this bleached world, is in short supply. After all, the closest the man and boy get to a “revelation” is when they stumble upon a trapdoor in a rotting house and discover that the cellar is full of maimed human beings whose captors periodically chop off bits to eat. The real menace of the future, it turns out, will not be zombies or vampires, but cannibals who keep people in the larder like sides of ham.
But that is not the most important revelation of the film. The real revelation is that, even in a future that is silent, save for the crackle of flames and the shrieks of the dying, not everyone has succumbed to despair. As father and son walk across this wasteland, they create an almost silent duet, a shuffling pas de deux, in which every movement is generated by love. It is almost unbearable to watch. It also shows how powerfully such stories can still affect us, resonating with the ancient force of myth, when they manage to avoid being seduced by shiny special effects. Apocalypse continues to have a future.
- 'The Road’ (15) is released on Friday. Read director John Hillcoat’s gripping account of the filming of 'The Road’ in the Telegraph Magazine