An End Without End: Catastrophe Cinema in the Age of Crisis

By Evan Calder Williams, 25 February 2010
Image: still from 2012, directed by Roland Emmerich (2009)


Dusting off the tedium and ash deposited by Hollywood's recent spate of catastrophe movies, Evan Calder Williams takes aim at their world-affirming pessimism and calls for some real apocalypse

We're in an unprecedented historical moment: if the world should end tomorrow, whatever way it all comes tumbling down will not surprise us in the least. That won't lessen the horror of it, to be sure. Quite the opposite, it will induce the slow-motion gut-sinking realisation ‘wait, I've seen this before, and I know all too well how this ends...' For we really have seen it before, like never before possible - not a faint premonition or an imminent eschatological prophecy, neither just a dusty woodcut of the whore of Babylon riding into town, nor well-trodden saga lines rolling out Ragnarök and its wolfish aftermath. No, we have the death of the world in full-color and Dolby Stereo, stretched out over thousands of hours. (Even if the colour range is heavily skewed toward ash-grey filtres bathed in damp blue light, and even if the vast majority of those hours is basically interchangeable.)

Hollywood, and the more minor Hollywoods of the globe, have made sure of this and supplied all possible antagonists, from the a-human (asteroids, climate change, Mayan prophecy, robots, piles of garbage) to the inhuman (zombies, vampires, evil angels, dark underbelly of Hobbesian human nature untethered from the state) to the human (the modern world as somehow responsible for causing nearly all of these possible options). Above all, we have the landscape after the fact: dusty, icy, flooded, bloodied, ruined, voided, burnt, abandoned, misused, and stretched out for us to pore over, even as the sheer excess pours over us.

Call them end-of-the-world movies or post-apocalyptic films, doomsday or disaster cinema. Regardless, we are called by them, insistently, now more so than ever before in mainstream film history: The Road, 2012, Terminator Salvation, Legion, Daybreakers, Zombieland, 28 Weeks Later, Wall-E, Avatar, Book of Eli, to name but a few of the best known recent crop. The tagline for Roland Emmerich's latest orgy of CGI-destruction and pathos-mining, 2009's exceptionally mediocre 2012 is, ‘Who Will Be Left Behind?' The answer seems to be, unfortunately, not us. We don't seem to have any choice in that matter - we're along for the ride, for better or largely worse, and frankly we're becoming weary of it.

Because what's at stake here isn't just the rabbit-breeding frequency and quantity of doom and gloom films popping up of late. It's also the accompanying frenzy of wearied attempts by critics, pundits and, perhaps above all, the advertising of the films themselves to periodise, to produce accounts and assertions of how these movies are not-so-coded symptoms of our seeming end game. In short, in the era of severe and protracted financial crisis and global recession, we apparently go to the movies to see a hyperbolic equivalent of the everyday and its looming collapse. Or in other words, all critics become Marxists, if only for a day, straying onto the uncertain terrain of thinking the relation that links the defaulting base to the Armageddon-obsessed superstructure.

The range - from political axe-grinding to sharp, critical thinking - encompassed by these attempts is too wide to cross here, and not particularly important. Of more relevance are two fundamental assumptions that underpin such a tendency:

Cultural imaginings of the end of the world serve to ‘make sense' of a shared sense of a collapsing world order, the root of which is a massive crisis of global capitalism.

It is because we are in that massive financial crisis - and because Hollywood is responding to our taste for apocalyptic imaginings - that we are seeing this current rash of end of the world movies.

What follows, then, is a brief attempt to elaborate the first assumption while fully rejecting the second. In so doing, it is possible to trouble the general sense we have of a discernible correspondence between produced cultural objects, the historical moment of their ‘consumption', and the wider political and economic conjuncture from which they indeed cannot be decoupled. To understand what it means to be marked by one's time without being a product of it, perhaps to ‘lag ahead'. To try and conceive of what happens when we've hit apocalypse cinema overload too early, before the full consequences of the crisis and its shakedown are felt. And finally, to consider how to pass from a catastrophic popular cinema of stagnant collapse to an apocalyptic popular cinema of refusal, without having to refuse either cinema or the popular.



Image: still from Avatar, directed by James Cameron (2009)

To start, we should give some sharpness to how we talk about the end of the world. More specifically, about the difference between a ‘crisis', a ‘catastrophe', and an ‘apocalypse'.

A crisis, in Marxist analysis, does not just signify flagging profitability or the sudden popping of speculative bubbles. Rather, it is the moment when fundamental disequilibrium is violently corrected, when all that ‘normally' appeared to be autonomous and independent spheres of the reproduction of the capitalism system, are wrenched back into unity. In our contemporary moment, the unstable gap between the staggering, deleveraged heights of fictitious capital and the ‘real world' of fixed capital, material production, and capacity for employment - the gap that made such heights of finance possible in the first place - was abruptly closed. Credit contracted, the naturalised profitability of the future disintegrated, and the wounded totality could be glimpsed, if only for a halted moment.

In its deeper eschatological roots, krisis is a judgment and a separation, the moment that allows the stakes of the battle to appear with clarity. But under capitalism, crisis is not the guarantor of such a reckoning. It is a cyclical, expected and necessary expression, not a permanent state of affairs. It will pass, and be passed through, clearing out systemic dead wood along the way. And it is not an end in itself. A crisis might be read as threatening times of non-recovery to come, but those are the times when it can no longer be called a ‘crisis'.


If crisis is a revelation (of contradiction) without the world's end, catastrophe is an end without revelation, an end of the road which doesn't point anywhere beyond itself, just to a historical void. Worse, if it does point somewhere, it is to a post-world that is nostalgic and scrambling to shore up the remnants of its outmoded status quo. Catastrophe looms heavy these days, and not just in the fears of global warming, flu pandemic, or peak oil. The general contraction and decline of late capitalism into its sickly, frantic state very well may become, over the coming decades, statically catastrophic. Earlier, in the coalescing moments of the world order now in danger of collapse, champions of neoliberalism and punks alike declared, with varying degrees of cheerfulness, there was no future: just the eternal present of this world declaring itself to be the only show in town, even as it veered into war and off the rails. The situation to come is a different no future, the slow entropic loss of energy and profit, coupled with the state's brutal refusals - and ways of demanding the same of its citizens and subjects - to acknowledge that the eternal present has become an eternal past.

Lastly, apocalypse, or the ‘lifting of the veil'. Apocalypse is an end with revelation. Or rather, it is neither the end of the world nor the revelation that declares and accompanies the end of the world. It is the end of a world order and a way of ordering the world anew. What was there all along, hidden in plain sight, surges into visibility and threatens the organisation of knowledge within which it could not be grasped. In this way, apocalypse is not a terminus, it is an opening, a wound that will not close, the revelation of what was there but not acknowledged. Crucially, the apocalypse makes possible the hard work of the post-apocalypse, of reordering not a dead world, but a world into which has erupted what doesn't belong. Which is to say, under capitalism, all that is needed to make it all run but which must continually be shoved out of sight: masses of the dispossessed, bare coercion behind the market, requisite creative destruction, increasingly unstable ecosystems, the basic antagonism of work itself, everything that is without value.

Casually, we talk about the majority of these films as ‘post-apocalyptic'.i But for the most part we are talking about a world in which either the end has already come (i.e. dystopian landscape-traversing survivors) or in which it won't stop coming (i.e. zombies). However, we should really speak of them as part of a ‘cinema of catastrophe', in which the emphasis is not on what is revealed but on a world-collapsing end without difference, but also without end. The world may be destroyed, but it neither goes away nor opens wounds of possibility. What persists is the constitutive absence of the new, the unending twilight of more of the same old shit. The eventual rupture of history becomes a termination, above all, of the whole fantasy of civilisational progress. We're left with the bled-out present hobbling forward, dragging along its raggedy caravan of outmoded social forms, and muttering to itself.




Image: still from The Road, directed by John Hillcoat (2009)


However, we get ahead of ourselves. The central issue here is the intuitive notion that the current overgrown batch of imagined ends, entropic or abrupt, is a response to a changing economic situation and to the real anxieties engendered by what may come with a deepening financial crisis that signals catastrophe for global capitalism's future health and the livelihoods of the vast majority who live within it.

Unfortunately, this isn't the case, at least in any direct way, for the simple reason of how movies are made. ‘Culture' may necessarily lag behind shifts in the economic base, but mainstream film provides a more concrete lag that nearly defangs a simultaneist-materialist correspondence theory of culture. Big budget movies take a very long time to go from concept to screen. For all intents and purposes, September 2008 was when the current crisis hit mass awareness, inaugurating the months of bank closures, bailouts, and massive credit default. What of our catastrophic cinema? When did their concepts - and hence the broad shape of their ‘reflection' of the crisis - come to be? A quick breakdown:

- Wall-E (2008): concept developed in 1994, in the works since

- 2012 (2009): script finished and marketed in Feb 2008

- Terminator Salvation (2009): concept first drafted in1999, film finished in summer 2008

- The Road (2009): screenplay adapted in April 2007 (from a 2006 novel), filming began in February 2008

- Avatar (2009): based on a 1994 script treatment and in the digital works for many years thereafter

- Daybreakers (2010): shooting finished in September 2007

- Legion (2010): principal photography in summer 2008

- Book of Eli (2010): Hughes Brothers signed on in May 2007 to an already written script

Barring a theory focused on how the editing, marketing, and minor aesthetic choices of these films were determined by economic disaster, these films cannot be reflections of either the crisis at its most visible or of consequent consumer anxiety. The films claimed as symptomatic of our current worries about global financial collapse were in fact made before the crisis broke.

Given that my point is obviously not to discard materialist readings of culture, a few options - all of which say these are not ‘crisis films' - point a way forward:

These are prescribed films that would have been made regardless of the economic situation.

These are prescient films that sniffed out what was to come.

These are pre-crisis films, time capsules from the still-inflating bubbles before.

These are films of the present, made then under the same conditions that engendered the current crisis, and which therefore parallel its tendencies toward both giganticism and weariness.

Our way forward is to say, somewhat paradoxically: all four mutually exclusive descriptions are correct, and it is this over-determination that makes these catastrophic visions real ‘crisis films'.

Indeed, Hollywood would have made them anyway. The prior filmography of Emmerich alone, including Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and Godzilla, reminds us that these movies just keep happening as long as they keep bringing in money. And our attempts to see in them a distorted, blown-up nightmare of this crisis seems just that: an attempt, an over-extended reach to suture meaning to contingency. Yet it is this coincidence, that uncanny sense of alignment (financial catastrophe - catastrophic cinema), of a sudden linkage, that makes them films of crisis. In other words, it is because they are not films of the crisis that they are crisis films: our yearning glimpse of a totality and feeling that even our entertainment is marked inexorably by the economic, is the experience of crisis and its violent, contracting alignment of everything yoked abstractly together through the circuits of reproduction.




Image: still from Terminator: Salvation, directed by McG (2009)


Furthermore, without assigning a Zeitgeist bloodhound role to the general intellect of Hollywood, the films do capture something of their time. For the sense of catastrophe wasn't just in the air. The period in which these films were conceived and made coincides with the economic foundation of the ‘long downturn', the hugely overdue system-wide crisis of manufacturing and profitability deferred precisely by financial speculation and turbulent bubblenomics. They couldn't help but capture this, and with it, the sense that the crisis is ongoing. Not in the loose Marxism of ‘capitalism is crisis', but by providing a glimpse of a longer history that necessarily bleeds toward a wider vista of capital's fundamental, irreconcilable contradictions that won't be perpetually deferred through multiple crises. In short, these films of crisis are catastrophic cinema, for they reveal that contemporary capitalism is terminal catastrophe, not crisis. That is the promise, rarely elaborated by the films, of their apocalyptic labour of revealing what isn't new, but hidden in plain sight. Namely, the anxiety of the static catastrophe, the end that inaugurates only the foreclosed possibility of starting over differently.



And that is the central feeling of these films, which are indeed shaped by their inception in the bubble years. They are marked by the lead-up to crisis, the last years of mad profit and risk before the collapse, when the frayed edges became more visible. The years when capitalism witnessed its own obscene, autophagic repetition, as high finance insistently did what it and everyone else knew to be digging the grave deeper. If such a backdrop didn't concretely inform these films, it may as well have. For if we ask what kind of films they are ‘in general', two dominant tendencies of catastrophic cinema come to the fore: they are obsessed with the persistence of what should have gone away - the end of the world didn't get rid of that world; they articulate fears, not of economic failure per se, but of an ongoing disaster of economy itself, of the fundamental impossibility of aligning supplies with needs, of production with consumption, even as they resolutely mourn the lost ‘stability' of the doomed late capitalist order.

What do we mean? A real survey exceeds our scope here, but we can nevertheless map these tendencies across the major films.

Zombies (Zombieland, 28 Weeks Later, countless other iterations): even in their most smugly self-knowing incarnations, the films - and viral hipster fetish - that has recently ruled the day make literal the non-revelation of catastrophe. They are obscene persistence made manifest, an occasion to witness the cathartic and gory dismantling of bodies that don't know when to die and rot away. For they aren't really about the ‘living dead' and never have been. They are about the living who never could die, infected with surplus-life, doomed to consumption without hunger. If we speak of zombie ‘apocalypse', what lies behind the veil is more of the same, exhausted, necrotic, unable to clock-out from a labour that knows no end.

Robots and Trash (Wall-E and Terminator Salvation): we don't turn against ourselves, zombie-like, but the rush toward profit and consumption produces constitutive excess that makes us bloated fat milkshake-drinkers in need of robot salvation, or lean, dirty mercenaries in need of salvation from our killer robots. In both cases, we brought it on ourselves, through our inability to manage our waste and our attempts to solve it via high technology. With it, the dazzling world of rubble, too strewn with the remnants of the past to start anew without resetting the clock (Wall-E's back-to-the-Earth primitive resettling, Terminator Salvation's temporal feedback loops).

Earth Threatening Disaster (2012, most recently): we may have ‘been warned', but what can we do when the cause is solar flares heating the Earth's core? Following one of the more stunning naturalisations of catastrophe (it isn't just beyond our control, it is written into Mayan legend and outer space), it becomes only a question of disaster management and disastrous mismanagement, of too few ‘arks' (read: barely veiled stand-in for developed nations) for too many people. What remains is just the full-blown pathos of the remainder, the desperate clutching to the broken timber of the family in the storm, and a gaze onto spectacles of destruction so lusty it becomes near impossible to feel anything other than concomitant shame and arousal.

Vampiric Corporations (Daybreakers): almost too allegorical to touch, nearly a missing horror-fantasy written by the young Marx, Twilight for anti-capitalists. A corporation supplying the blood of the living to a world of bourgeois vampires? The attempt to circumvent problems of inadequate productivity with biotechnology (synthetic blood substitute)? The ultimate irreconcilability of production with ‘unnatural', inhuman hunger for consumption? A consequent nostalgia for older anthropological arrangements as ‘better' via the conservative defense of the human (à la I Am Legend)? It's high time for the proletariat to out-vampire the ruling class.

Dusty Scarcity (The Road): a terrible, terrible film, very serious about being serious, full of Von Trierean sadistic sentimentality without acknowledging it. The basic need of consumption runs up against the causeless collapse of all production, even biological, as all goes grey and plants stop growing. With it, a full nostalgia for the managed consumption of late capitalism, pushing a rickety shopping cart across the country, the reverent hush before the gift of an unopened can of Coke.ii The dusky prettiness is that of a halted, still, ashen world, in which only recourse to the nuclear family will help us still be ‘good guys'. Because, as we all know, in the wake of liberal capitalism's demise, any form of collectivity that isn't familial leads only to the wrong consumption of human flesh, supposedly abhorrent precisely because the need to survive shouldn't disrupt the sanctity of the social contract. But when the lights go off, the cannibalistic urge flicks on...

Lush Excess (Avatar): conversely, Avatar is possibly the most staggering display of pure plenitude ever committed to the American screen. On what ground does it rest? Underground, a massive deposit of the unobtainable made manifest - the rare ‘Unobtanium' metal to be mined. Flowering above, total wet fecundity, illimitable hybrid biopower, interspecies interpenetration, an absence of agriculture or organised production, and trees that have developed an information network for which Google would happily displace many millions of animist, lithe, bare-assed tribes. (What is the wealth of the Unobtanium in the face of all that lush forest and ‘technologies of nature' to be explored?) Forget any issues about ‘war on terror', liberal guilt, noble savages or the like. It's the full subsumption of politics to the prospect of an era of unbound plenty. It is a cinema of anti-crisis that blows away the very category and possibility of scarcity. A wish-fulfillment of profit and profligacy behind every corner, hanging from every luminescent vine. When each digital fibre drips with such lush excess, what else is there to do but frolic and drool?

Pseudo-Christian End (Legion and Book of Eli): The most recent catastrophic films have taken a definite turn for the explicitly Christian: God decides to destroy the world, Denzel Washington carries a Braille Bible to get the post-apocalypse back on track in what can only be described as The Road plus martial arts plus the church. But in both cases, as with 2012, they lack the courage to lay bare their eschatology. We'd prefer a full CGI-covered ‘Book of Revelations' to this, when Legion's God lacks the gumption to follow through on the apocalypse (or the infinite resources to do it himself without passing the buck to his angels). What's notable, therefore, isn't the fact of a Christian perspective but its remobilisation toward other ends. In this way, these are flawless apologists for crisis and for the way forward through the reenactment of the same under slightly different names. A reactionary cinema of adaptive non-advance, they merely rescript the already given and morbidly persistent beneath a slightly more heterodox and ethical star.

To conclude, we should ask: what now? As the financial crisis continues, will we see films marked by the anxieties proper to the full visibility - and material effects - of its unfolding? Will we get a genuinely apocalyptic, rather than merely catastrophic, cinema? If the past is any indication, no. Even if the crisis produces a systemic contraction of the film-attending purchase power of consumers, as in the Great Depression studio shakeout, these movies will hardly be the first to go. Furthermore, even if culture doesn't necessarily ‘lag' behind real world conditions, the culture industry certainly does: it'll be damned if it adapts. Zombies, floods, and trash-sorting robots don't appear because they ‘stand in' for the economy, and they won't disappear because the economy gets worse. We may think we're past the point of catastrophe film saturation, but we ain't seen nothing yet.

In short, if we want apocalypse, not catastrophe, during this time of crisis, we can't look to Hollywood. Apocalypse is not the subject matter of ‘The End': it is a position of revelation without transcendence, of making unmistakable what we've disavowed for too long. The particularity of cinema in the age of crisis is in how viewers relate to it. It isn't those imagined trajectories of the world order's collapse that is particular to crisis, but the desperate searching itself. So for us to call for an apocalyptic cinema is to call solely for a combative, striving post-apocalyptic stance in relation to the catastrophe that is contemporary capitalism and its films. It is in the degree to which we neither sit and weep because Daddy is dying nor drool because everything is illuminated, but rather start to sift, sort, and scrap, to ask what we can use and what should be rejected in full. A post-apocalyptic cinema is not a kind of film: it is a kind of space, an urgent diagonal cut to be made across the futile stagnancy of the day, a reclamation of the ruins, a refusal that neither flees nor abandons.

Evan Calder Williams <> is a theorist and graduate student in Santa Cruz, California. His book, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, will be published by Zero Books in fall 2010. His blog is


i For those that involve big waves and bigger displays of sentimentality, we usually reserve the specificity of ‘disaster movies' or ‘doomsday scenarios'.

ii And, as China Miéville has pithily put it in a McSweeney's review, regarding the death of the father at the end of their journey: ‘In that shopless nightmare, what else is afflicting him but consumption?'