The End of the World as We Know It

Richard Prince, Untitled (Publicity), 2001 (detail)

Ancient Apocalypse films use the past to project a reactionary present into the future.

When we think apocalypse, we tend to think of the future. Accordingly, the apocalypse seems to show up on film only in the realm of sci-fi or, occasionally horror. But while every single hair on the rotting scalp of zombie cinema has been analyzed under bloodstained micro­scopes, a new subgenre has been emerging that wields the potent thought of the end of the world to even more reactionary ends. It uses the trope of apocalypse to project current power into the future by situating catastrophe and its overcoming in the past. These movies give voice to the blind hatred of the disgruntled agents of collapsing empire.

These films span a number of generic registers, from animated kid’s movie to big-budget summer ­production. You’ve probably seen one: 300, Noah, Gladiator, The Croods, Centurion, etc. These are the Ancient Apocalypse films, and they have opened up whole cinematic territories for a far-right theory of terminal crisis to play in.

These films differ from the historical epic or the sword-and-sandal film primarily by their total disinterest in telling a “true” story from history. Even when the source material is biblical, the films don’t stay close to their texts. Instead they are set in various ancient pasts mostly for the fact of their ancientness, their distance from the current moment. That ancientness allows these films to enter the space of the mythological rather than the purely fantastic or the historical. This mythological space makes a world-ending event appear like it was “based on a true story” without getting caught up in questions of chronological soundness or cultural or political specificity.

The story of the Ancient Apocalypse (with slight variations), is as follows: There is a subnational social group: a tribe, city-state or family, living, if not happily, at least in stability and relative peace. That group receives a prophecy of a coming apocalypse. The prophecy proves true almost immediately, though it refers to the end of the world only insofar as it is the end of the group as currently constituted, the end of the group’s forms of life, the group’s world. This end is violent, sudden, and comes from the outside, in the form of natural disaster, foreign hordes, or rival groups with better technology—although its effects are exacerbated by internal decadence, corruption, weakness, willful ignorance, and/or betrayal.

The film’s duration is then mostly taken up with preparing for and passing through a series of physical and emotional trials precipitated by this apocalypse. Other groups must be confronted and overcome, and the protagonist’s group will be thinned. Ultimately, the willed group identity—which draws from the group’s primary unity but is sharpened and intensified by the experience of some combination of loyalty, shared physical struggle, heterosexual love, mutual hatred for or disgust with an ­enemy group or the shared experience of betrayal—allows (what’s left of) the group to pull through and either defeat their enemy or survive their trial. “Victory” and “survival”, however, can mean the death of all the group’s individuals. As long as the group is projected forward into history via myth, deed, or physical monument, survival is assured.

If this sounds it this would make for a terrible movie plot, well, you’re right. The vast majority of Ancient Apocalypse films are, after 15 to 45 minutes of setup, just long boring strings of action sequences. Long strings of action sequences are the bread and butter of Hollywood, of course, but these films, lacking much of anything beyond a narrative of survival, have really long ones. They favor a brutal, fast-cutting, and inelegant editorial style. The films are dominated by extreme lighting and a dour palette. The combat is incredibly graphic without really being horrifying, sloppy and ungraceful without being brutally “realist.”

And it’s not just the style or the narrative: In these films the audience isn’t asked to relate to the protagonist or their “group” through empathy or sympathy. The characters generally aren’t kind to each other, and the dynamic within the group is one of competition and hierarchy, not solidarity or love. (In Apocalypto and Centurion, the main internal drama is who is the fastest runner; in Pompeii and Gladiator, it’s who is the best fighter; in 300 and Scorpion King, it’s whose leadership and authority is the most valid, etc.) Instead, you are meant to identify with the group, despite its internal unpleasantness, because you, like them, fear oppression by a yet more unpleasant and hated enemy.

In these films, the audience sees an apocalypse that has not only already happened but was, in fact, the foundational moment for society, the birth of some eternal aspect of the present. It is not that the characters move on into a bright and happy future: In the most reactionary of these films, the protagonists all die—reflecting, perhaps, the suicidal drive of fascism, which sees the total sacrifice of the individual for the production of an omnipotent and eternal group as its platonic form of political action. But the collapse of the societies pictured is just the end of a world, not the world. These films reflect, in their muddled and idiotic way, a recognition that the end of empire could just be the end of a certain form of life, and that particular social formations present within empire will outlast its particular political or economic arrangements, up to and including the existence of nation-states or capital. This is what makes many of these films more than just conservative or reactionary but right-revolutionary: They imagine a fundamentally overturned world in which the political and economic structures are destroyed but current forms of social organization (the anti-black racial order, patriarchy, militarism) are strengthened in the process of their ending.

This is most obvious in the only Ancient Apocalypse film that provides something other than pure resentment to get you through: The Croods (2013). The Croods is a charming dadventure about a three-generational family of cavemen who believe themselves to be the last humans on earth and have survived the violent fate of all their neighboring families by adhering to high-intensity safety procedures and paranoia—they hide in a cave closed up by a boulder every sun down. Life for the Croods is one of bare survival, day-to-day struggle with no other horizon. But when a young man appears who knows how to produce fire and tells them that the world is ending, well, the world starts ending. The ground literally collapses beneath their feet. The family has to take a long journey into the mountains (toward “Tomorrow”) during which the dad has to learn to give up some of his protective role as paterfamilias and embrace both the technological innovation (­umbrellas, fire and torches, animal domestication, whistles) and domestic uncertainty (going from living in one particular cave to being nomadic) of the younger generation if they are to live happily in their new world.

Because it is a kids movie, the Croods don’t drench themselves in the blood of their group’s enemies: Instead, they struggle against the world itself. What threatens them is natural disaster, earthquake and lava, and prehistoric monsters, including a giant bird-cat-dinosaur. Compared with other Ancient Apocalypse movies, the group’s internal hatred and competition is significantly toned down. Despite patriarch Nic Cage’s rote misogyny, the film ends with all of them loving one another. The film is not the no-future suicidal parable that most of the other Ancient Apocalypse films are but a sort of neoliberal utopian ­proposition—technology, openness to change, plus the family can get us through an apocalypse. It has before.

The Croods eventually arrive at a tropical paradise of plenty, far from the arid cave where the movie begins. The young girl (who is ostensibly the protagonist, although it’s really the dad) is named Eep, which sounds an awful lot like Eve. And in the final happily-ever-after montage the Croods have basically invented leisure—they race on the giant dino-cats, they sunbathe in lawn chairs, take a family vacation “photo,” etc. They go from being creatures of survival to ones of leisure—and only the apocalypse allowed such a transformation to occur.

But while The Croods pictures a happily-ever-after, the rest of the subgenre tends to be much bleaker. The possibility of an ever-after at all is as happy a future as there is to look forward to. Like The Croods, these films offer up a series of survival techniques to face apocalyptic dissolution—militarism, xenophobia, the family, ­becoming-myth—all of which are sufficient to let their protagonists escape total destruction. Dramatic irony fills in the rest. The audience watches these films from a position of great historical distance: This apocalypse happened and this is “our” past—although just who that “our” is is quite obviously at stake in these stories of racial, tribal, and national supremacy.

Noah screenwriter Ari Handel, when asked about the decision to use all white actors in his film, explained that “this story is functioning at the level of myth, and as a mythical story, the race of the individuals doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be stand-ins for all people.” But taking white people as the model for all people is what white supremacy is. By connecting it to myth, Noah makes transhistorical a particular, contingent, and racist “we.” Part of the appeal of this mythical white-supremacist past to filmmakers is that it seems to justify the already racist standards of Hollywood casting. The historical narrative of Greeks at war with Persians “allows” the 300 films to cast people of color exclusively as villains, films set in ancient Rome to cast black people only as slaves, and so on.

Likewise, in all these films, a tribal, familial or social group is shown to have innate qualities that mark them as elected for survival. In Pompeii, the hero is the “last Celt” enslaved by Rome, who is apparently racially predisposed to horse training and riding, embodying these skills even though his tribe was wiped out before he could formally learn them.

The survivor, in this way of thinking, acts as an embodied historical experiment, whose survival is never arbitrary nor based on previous social power or privilege. Survival is a result of something innate, genetic, or racial, which is necessarily amplified by a triumph of the will. That’s why in so many of these movies (Apocalypto, Pompeii, Gladiator, Centurion, 10,000 BC, Year One) the protagonists are enslaved members of an oppressed or nearly extinct race or tribe. In all six of these films, however, we watch the protagonist become enslaved and also see them escape their slavery. Slavery in these movies lasts less than one generation. The real historical and political structures that produce slavery—capitalism, colonialism, ­imperialism—are made invisible in favor of a conception of immediate physical struggle. Slavery is pictured as an arbitrary and momentary thing, the most hated possible situation and yet also quite easily entered into and overcome. And if it is so easily overthrown, then surely real historical slaves must just not have wanted to fight enough, or maybe just had not been made of the right stuff…

In all these films, perhaps the most consistent trait is horror at being in society, the nightmare of the social in general. In any scene in which people are in “the public sphere”—from drinking in a tavern to mass political decision-­making—the crowd is pictured as disgusting, weak, violent, bloodthirsty, ignorant and cowardly.

In Noah, when Noah’s son Ham leaves the Ark building site to go to the nearby encampment, he finds a tribe cannibalizing its own members on an open marketplace. There he enjoys the only moment of tenderness between strangers pictured in the entire film: Ham comforts a terrified, mute, and grime-covered girl in a ravine full of dead bodies. In Gladiator, Pompeii, and Passion of the Christ the crowd appears only so it can beg for bloody spectacle, crying out for the violent death of the films’ protagonists. In Pompeii, 300, and 300: Rise of an Empire, some form of popular political control is pictured at length, in order to dismiss it as fundamentally corrupt, corrupting, and ineffective. In Centurion, Noah, Apocalypto and The Scorpion King, meanwhile, the appearance of a stranger almost always means a fight to the death.

That these films all depict societies as beyond saving, worthy only of total overturning through destruction, reveals both the revolutionary tendency within apocalyptic thinking and its often genocidal character. This is not to read in these films a populist belief in the true prophecy of empire’s collapse, but to recognize in them a shared strategy of response to collapse.

The subgenre’s films are devoted to the formation of a right-revolutionary subject. Not every audience member hears the call, but that should not lead anyone to ignore its effectiveness. The way frat boys, German Neo-­Nazis and Ukrainian separatists memetically adopted 300’s tagline “This is Sparta!” and formed weight and combat training groups inspired by the film, and the way Christian conservatives held mass screenings of Passion of the Christ indicate that they understood the films exactly as they were supposed to—as calls to political action.

The left tends to think of the revolutionary right’s relationship to crisis as equally opportunistic as its own. If, for the left, crisis is not actually a moment of fundamental change within capitalism but rather reveals the true nature of capital and the state and can be used to organize accordingly, then it sometimes assumes that the right does the same. The right is seen to use economic collapse to drum up resentment, hatred, bigotry, and nationalism—to produce false consciousness—as a way of explaining the crisis rather than performing a structural analysis of capital, the state, race, class or gender. By blaming collapse on cultural decadence or weakness caused by an internal enemy, hidden in plain sight within the nation, the right proposes to reintroduce order and justice by coming to power and ­putting said population in its place. That population might be government bureaucrats and feminist killjoys or it might be Jews and immigrants, but the function of that population is always the same.

While some right-wing parties, particularly in Europe, do take this relationship to crisis, a different form of right-wing politics is reflected in Ancient Apocalypse films. Like much of the left, many on the far right have moved beyond the party as an organizing structure and reject the concept of coming to power by capturing the state. They take the imminent collapse of capitalism (at least as it is currently constituted) more seriously than anyone on the left: They see empire on its death bed and they hunker down, start gathering guns and making lists of friends and enemies. They hope to save the ideological underpinnings of empire even if its particular historical formation is doomed. Its partisans begin to murder police in broad daylight, martyring themselves in suicidal confrontations with the state to incite others to battle preparedness. All society needs is a little push, they think.

This analysis must be rejected because of its racial, tribal, and national supremacism, because of its homophobia and misogyny, because it imagines that suicidal vengeance is enough, because it rejects life in favor of a death reified forever through myth or progeny. But if it fails because it is excessively tribal and small-minded, it also fails because of a universalization: These films (and their partisans) imagine that the apocalypse is imminent, that it will happen to “everyone” at once, within one generation and across the entirety of a civilization. But they fail to recognize the ways in which apocalyptic collapse is already happening but is distributed unevenly across populations. The apocalyptic collapse of the world of the first nations of America continues as a lived struggle for tribal lands and traditions today. Climate apocalypse already has claimed thousands of victims, from the poorer residents of the Rockaways to the Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea, who have had to flee their ancestral home as it will be fully underwater by the end of next year.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, however, these movies fail to understand the actual history of the concepts they hope to protect. Disgust at the social in favor of the family forgets (or never knew) that the family is a child of the social in the first place. This is why this politics favor mythical representation over historical storytelling: they are necessarily antihistorical, based on an act of ideological faith (in the family, physical valor, tribal purity, etc.) from which everything else emerges.

And here, finally, we encounter apocalyptic Christianity. The Book of Revelation, the Christian text of the apocalypse, promises a heaven on earth but only after righteous holy justice is brought to the world’s sinners and unbelievers through centuries of the most devastating and nightmarish hell. Unlike most of the New Testament, which joins miracles of faith with moral and ethical precepts embodied in Jesus’s acts and parables, the Book of Revelation is almost entirely made up of images of violence and suffering. An atheist could theoretically draw metaphysical and moral truths from the rest of the Bible. But the apocalypse without faith in a second coming is just a bunch of nasty shit—multiheaded monsters, plague, fire, and earthquake—without a point or a happy ending. Of course, even with faith in such an eventual heaven, the apocalypse is a pretty vindictive structure of belief.

This is true of Ancient Apocalypse films as well, although they are all decidedly non-Christian. For those without a deep faith in reactionary forms of group formation, the films reveal what yearning for apocalyptic survival as comeuppance actually is: a celebration of hate, prejudice, and a desire for death. Without a belief in a future unity-in-Christ, or the secular image of a post-apocalyptic utopia, all the apocalypse cult has to look forward to is its self-­immolation in the cleansing and murderous distribution of “justice”.

An apocalypse produced by collapse, by god or climate change, internal contradiction or nuclear bomb, will never provide heaven on earth. Those who eagerly prepare for the apocalypse in order to survive it will manage only to die of survival. If we are to live, we cannot merely survive this empire’s apocalypse. We will have to be it.