The Metaphor Translations: Doomsday Narratives

doomsday movie still

This is the first in a series on narrative deconstruction, looking at tropes.

The other day on NPR, they were talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Seriously, public radio hosted an hour of discussion that sounded more like a promo for a movie and its expected series of new films than journalistic reporting. I need to dig a little now and see if NPR has received any money from 20th Century Fox, the attention on the film’s production and narrative was so all-encompassing.

At some point they got to conversing about why we have a fascination with this idea of our ancestors uprising against us. Is it a narrative about anxiety, or tension about our place in the world? Cultural control issues? In my humble opinion, looking at just this one story warps what should be an examination across doomsday scenario narratives. After including the types of “human species on the brink” stories that are out there, maybe it’s then fairer to make broad statements about what it all means.

Zombie Apocalypse Narratives—I love me some zombies. Let’s say that there are two main types of zombies: undead human zombies and biologically infected zombies who aren’t dead, but act in every measure as zombies. Our species is under attack by our own species. Often there is little made of nationality differences in these movies, as the whole of humanity (usually one tiny remaining faction) is up against imminent demise. What’s the message here? That we are our own worst enemy, that our strength as a species and a people should not be overstated, that science is our unraveling and our savior.

Alien Invasion Narratives—So many movies, books, and television shows are in this category that any attempt at a list will just make me look like a movie watching newbie. Suffice it to say that the big difference in narrative here is the external, rather than internal threat, unless the twist is that the aliens are ourselves. It’s classic xenophobia in a fictitious frame, increasing in popularity during the cold war, when all kinds of outside threats were upon us. Again, as with zombie apocalypse narratives, it’s humans in solidarity against the greatest attack ever against us. Unless there’s a military with an ulterior motive for helping the aliens, of course.

asteroid hitting earthNature Revolts Narratives—This big category covers everything from biological agents (e.g. The Andromeda Strain and Outbreak) to uncontrollable weather (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow, Volcano) to asteroids slamming into the earth (e.g. Deep Impact, Armageddon). We’re on a fragile planet, in a fragile solar system, in a fragile corner of the multiverse. It’s all so freaking fragile! I read most of these narratives as a statement about our own excesses and carelessness. If you mess with nature long enough, nature will mess with you. Problem is, in a popular culture lens, the boundary between scientific evidence for showing the stresses on nature and fictionalized awfulizing is challenging to discern. It may get easier to poo-poo claims about global warming because so many stories depict such hyperbole about the issue.

Technology Revolts Narratives—I read Trucks by Stephen King as a kid and was terrified. And then I saw the movie, Maximum Overdrive, based on the short story, and laughed like it was the farm equipment equivalent of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. But then I watched The Terminator, and I feared Skynet more than the arrival of 1984, which hello, was nothing compared to the Patriot Act. Stanley Kubrick may have had some extreme creepiness with HAL 9000, but that was one computer gone bad. All computers gone bad? Given the number of computers we have? Even our coffee makers can come after us. This narrative is not so different from the nature revolts category, in that we’re dealing with progressing too far. I want to call this a fear of cancer, in the uncontrollable division leading to end of life sense, only what’s running amok here is our own need to create better and more encompassing technology.

Lost/Rogue Weapon Narratives—Think Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, in which a megalomaniac has the power to end the known world or a significant chunk of the universe. It’s a tough storyline to sell; how does one person collect that kind of power? The whole Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter stories were built on that concept, though, so there’s something very compelling about facing the end of humanity at the hands of one very evil, ubiquitous dude. Metaphorically speaking, I take these kinds of stories as morality plays, the classic good versus evil tale that reinforces dominant ideology as benevolent, against a simplified opposition who never musters their own philosophy other than “because I want to.”

So, with all of that, where does the Planet of the Apes franchise fit in? Parts biological, technology, and alien threat to humanity, it was originally written in France in the late 1960s, again during the cold war and among the fear of nuclear holocaust, as people were certain that the world order was in some kind of shift. Yes, there’s the straightforward good/evil dichotomy to some degree, but at least in the latest film that shows the beginnings of the enhanced apes, there is some musing about who is truly good and who is evil. If the impetus in the 60s was driven by our anxiety about the Soviet Union, today’s epoch is perhaps more nuanced: today’s America is less sure about where we’re headed, who to trust, and how we got to this place of uncertainty.

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11 Comments on “The Metaphor Translations: Doomsday Narratives”

  1. Scott
    August 16, 2011 at 7:13 am #

    I would argue that the Andromeda strain was an “Alien Invasion” story because the virus came from space,..
    <—-film nerd

    • evmaroon
      August 16, 2011 at 7:32 am #

      It’s an excellent point, Scott, that you make. Perhaps we can call it a hybrid, because there’s a lot missing from the usual alien doomsday scenario . . . no sentience or master plan on the part of the aliens, no attempts to thwart master plan, no human-alien alliances or double-crossing. It behaves much more like a biological agent, along the lines of Outbreak than Independence Day or V. But absolutely, it’s an extra-terrestrial agent!

  2. August 18, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    Oh man, I feel you on “Trucks” – both the short story and the wretched movie.

    I think of the “Nature Revolts” genre somewhat differently, as something a little bit more like the Technology Revolts, but where it’s not our technology that does us in per se, but our hubris, our exceeding our place in the universe. Half of these stories come from the same place as the Prometheus myth and or the Tree of Knowledge = Fall From Grace stuff. Or, for the secular humanists, our very real concerns that our technology is outstripping our cultural ability to come up with just mores around its uses. Things like “Godzilla” or “Day after Tomorrow” that have that Gaia grove going. So I’d put the classic PotA here; we tried to master all of nature and WHOOPS! We bombed ourselves to kingdom come, leaving a vacuum that we groomed our former servants to fill nicely.

    Then there is the flip side of the same coin where the narrative is “We *think* we’re all that and a bag of chips, but we don’t know *shit*!” I see “Andromeda Strain” as coming directly out of this latter. Also “Lifeforce” and “Jurassic Park” and fast zombie/Outbreak type movies; all stories where we just don’t *quite* have as good a handle on our understanding of the universe as we thought we did. Unless I’m mis-remembering Andromeda Strain; doesn’t it start with some ill-advised mucking around with an asteroid? It sounds like the PotA reboot is starting from here, with some of the moral underpinnings of “AI ” thrown in (what happens when we fuck around with other types of sentience).

    To me, things like “Asteroid” and even “2012” were just straight-up disaster flicks of the Unpredictable Universe type. But your framing has definitely given me more to think about!

    • evmaroon
      August 18, 2011 at 9:13 am #

      Well, IrishUp, I like your framing, too! There’s certainly room for more than one way of looking at these things, and I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I’m just wondering if there’s a space beyond the hubris narrative. Like, is there a narrative difference between an outsider attempting to destroy our species, and our own tinkering destroying our species? I suspect there may be…in terms of the underlying messages about outsiders, threats, and our communal responsibility to each other and our planet. Not that I focus on these when like, Rio de Janero is falling or I’m watching the White House explode. If I think about the images from say, V or Independence Day, with alien ships blanketing the sky, do I have ideas regarding what that fight is about that are different from masses of robots that we originally built coming to kill us? I think I do, but it can be hard to pin down. There’s an honesty and an arrogance in telling a story about our own capacity to kill ourselves from our wayward progress, and a rampant xenophobia in the “they’re coming for us” story line, and I like to go back to the events in culture that may have something to do with which kind of story gets told at which moments. If we believe that movies have anything to do with their era, that is.

  3. Jan Rubak
    August 24, 2011 at 9:30 am #

    Daphne du Maurier’s creepy short story “The Birds” (famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock) would be an obvious candidate for the Nature Revolts category, but since it doesn’t include *any* indication of root causes (and therefore no implied blame on human failings), I think it more properly fits in your Alien Invasion category.

    Re: Planet of the Apes. I haven’t seen the new movies (by which I mean anything beyond the original Heston film), but I suspect that io9’s recent analysis of the story arc timelines treats the whole franchise with the appropriate level of gravitas: http://io9.com/5827029/planet-of-the-apes-a-timeline-and-explanation. An entire hour on NPR may have been overreaching, as you say. 🙂

    • evmaroon
      August 24, 2011 at 9:52 am #

      That’s one of the things I love about Hitchcock (it’s been a long time since I read du Maurier’s story); he leaves so much out of frame for the audience to ponder. I’m okay with shuttling The Birds into the Alien Invasion bucket. It’s not necessarily subgenre-based for a narrative to provide explanations of its world building, I suppose.

      Thanks for the link to io9, Jan. I’ll take a look at it!

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