Note: The following contains spoilers for the films The Dead Don’t Die, Crawl and The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Near the end of 1954’s Them!, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn), the philosophical sage of the film, reflects ominously, “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.” In this case, the new world involves gigantic killer ants, which the army just finished killing with flamethrowers beneath the streets of Los Angeles. A bit absurd and a bit philosophical, Medford’s eulogy for the future positions the film as a commentary on the modern age, on the dangers of atomic technology. The ants in the film, irradiated in the desert of New Mexico before spreading to the city, become something of an allegory for America’s relationship with atomic weapons and energy. If the film is possibly reassuring—the ants do, in fact, die via fire, their nest destroyed—the notion of what may eventually be found in the future looms over the film’s ending. If atomic energy produced these fictional ants, what else might it produce?
These plots aren’t new, and Them! wasn’t the first, though its depiction of the way we might be speeding up the end of the world feels particularly fresh. In fact, the world seems to be ending every summer, whether or not heroes are around to save it. World rescued or blown to bits at the end, these disaster films manage to lay bare our collective anxieties. When we watch a film dealing with the apocalypse, we’re staring at a funhouse mirror of our deepest cultural and social fears.
So what’s destroying us and what are we afraid of? This summer, under-the-radar movies Crawl, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and The Dead Don’t Die show us bleak visions of a future without humanity as we know it. Unlike some of the most historically popular disaster plotlines, in these three titles, the world just …ends. And more often than not, we helped bring it to that point.
In the 1990s, a spate of natural disaster films reinvigorated the genre: a tornado film, two asteroid movies, two volcano movies, a few alien invasions. Destruction came from sources beyond human control. Humanity was the passive, if brave, responder to the end of days. There was no climate change reference in the tidal wave at the end of Deep Impact—just an asteroid-induced tsunami. With no Soviets to defeat after 1989, and no War on Terror to provide a new series of fictional threats, our collective anxieties lost direction and purpose. Viewers enjoyed destruction on its own terms—the bigger, the better.
(The notable outlier among this era is 1984’s The Terminator and 1991’s Terminator 2, which both contain a quite powerful indictment of corporate tech culture and the progress toward self-aware AI as the pathway to destruction. We’ll remark on it and move along, but Google is finishing your sentences in your email and Facebook can manipulate your mood with an algorithm and you should probably go back and watch The Terminator.)
Consider these ’90s disaster movies’ theatrical destruction of Los Angeles and New York. In depictions of leveling America’s signature cities, the commercial capitals which the free market vertiginously elevated, we recognized our last thrill would be in self-destruction—or at least the spectacle of it. With no rival economic system left to defeat, capitalism could only explode itself over and over again for our collective enjoyment. These were not radical or revolutionary plot lines, however. In the great 1990s disaster films, we see no possible future or critique of our present. We merely see spectacle itself. With the possible exception of Deep Impact, these films—Independence Day, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, Armageddon—are all fundamentally reassuring: The world remains largely intact at the end.
Even in Deep Impact, when the asteroid actually hits and a tidal wave obliterates Tea Leoni and her father on a beach, Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobeski still escape to high ground as the sun rises over a flooded-out Eastern Seaboard. Despite the mass death and destruction, the film forecasts a new day. We leave the theater knowing the world, a bit damaged, has been preserved. We can always rebuild.
Look to later versions of this genre, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, perhaps surprisingly, the Fast and Furious franchise: Heroes save the world because it is a world worth saving. Audiences delight in the frisson of averted disaster. Given climate science, lead-poisoning in water around America’s urban core, persistent economic inequality, mass shootings, opioid addiction and the rise of right wing facistic movements in many of the world’s industrialized nations, including our own, viewers in 2019 may still have an appetite for theatrical destruction, but we may also believe less and less that the world is worth saving. Crawl, The Last Black Man in San Francisco and The Dead Don’t Die have little in common besides offering a bracing look at our contemporary fears without the chaser of having the world taken care of in the end.
Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is a meta-riff on the zombie movie rooted in the threat of environmental cataclysm. The undead are a result of “polar fracking,” a hilarious merger of two separate sites of climate anxiety. Even George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, the film which pretty much invented the modern zombie genre, allows two main characters to survive the end, escaping from the roof of a shopping mall, a small glimmer of hope in a world overrun by thoughtless consumers. The Dead Don’t Die communicates a similar critique of consumerism, but without any hint of salvation. Adam Driver’s Ronnie Peterson repeatedly articulates the film’s thesis: “It’s all going to end badly.” He’s right. It does. The zombies infect all but two people: Tilda Swinton’s Zelda is bizarrely transported away from Earth by aliens, and Tom Waits’ Hermit Bob becomes the last human being left on the planet. In the movie’s estimation, the only way to survive the end of the world is to leave it. Jarmusch’s zombies are a product of our environmental decision-making, choices which literally tilt the world off its proper axis. In this case, the asteroid is us.
Crawl, an absolutely crackling disaster movie, maps a mildly more realistic climate fear onto the old trope of people trying to outwit dangerous animals. Using a similar arc to the Jaws franchise, Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and her father, Barry Pepper’s Dave Keller, battle killer alligators unleashed by a Category 5 hurricane hitting South Florida. Most of the movie’s action takes place in the house, where Alexandre Aja’s claustrophobic direction raises the thrill with each floor to which the pair escape. The movie rocks from beginning to its predictable end.
The first sound in the movie is thunder outside, as we open to Haley’s swim meet at the University of Florida. (She’s a Gator, too, get it?) As she drives south to find her father, from whom she hasn’t heard as the hurricane approaches, the weather becomes the film’s antagonist. Roads flood and waters rise: Time is running out. Aja’s first thrilling scenes come in the crawl space under the house. Yes, that’s where we first meet the killer alligators, but it’s also where Dave’s radio blares a warning about the hurricane and the rising flood waters. Aja intersperses the initial scenes of the alligators hunting Dave and Haley with the radio’s warnings, suggesting the intermingling of the movie’s dangers. For most Florida residents, alligators represent one form of individual disaster, but the water rising in your basement, maybe even on a sunny day, is the real existential threat.
Finally, Haley and Dave, brutalized in gory fashion, escape in a rescue helicopter. We are reminded of Dave’s early reminders to Haley, before the swim competitions of her childhood, that she is the “apex predator.” Haley’s savvy, not to mention her swimming ability, is integral to the film’s plot, but a more provocative reading of Aja’s film is that human beings are no longer at the top of the food chain. The gators represent a tangible and gnarly threat in the world of the film, but climate change is the ultimately horrific architect. Alligators can be stabbed in the eye, evaded, outwitted in Crawl, but we sense that these houses will flood again, that there will be more catastrophic hurricanes to come. Our protagonists cannot outswim the future.
In Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, white people are the harbingers of annihilation. The film centers on Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails), the proverbial Last Black Man who attempts to reclaim his family’s old home in San Francisco’s Fillmore neighborhood, once called “The Harlem of the West,” by trespassing on the property to do banal bits of upkeep: painting the trim, tending to the flowers. He tries desperately to keep and save the house. Outside, the zombies are well-meaning, old white people, hipster girls and disgusting tech bros invading the city. Opening with images of apocalypse—a street preacher barking about repentance, and men in HazMat suits trying to clean up the pollution in the Bay—The Last Black Man in San Francisco winks at gentrification as an extinction-level event—for Black people in the city, at least. A shrewd inversion of racist tropes, we see the white owners yell at Fails to get off their property, knowing Fails is the real caretaker of the house, and the white residents are, even in their neoliberal good intentions, the villains, the invaders.
In the end, Fails and his friend Montgomery Allen, played by the very excellent Johnathan Majors, part ways. Fails rows out to sea, alone, in one of the year’s most affecting sequences, a scene that allegorically enacts the death of the old world. There is nothing left for him. Even San Francisco, that last edge of the American experiment, a supposed liberal bastion, holds no place for him. The zombies win here too.
Jonathan Majors, in an interview with The Wrap, reflects on the final scene, “Standing alone on the dock … felt like I was standing at the end of the world,” he said. “And yet also at the beginning of something new.” For Majors to be optimistic isn’t a total surprise; the word “apocalypse” comes from the Ancient Greek apokalupsis, meaning “to lay bare” or “to uncover.” As Majors suggests, the end of the world doesn’t have to be a disaster—it might not even be the end of the world at all. Witnessing no one save it—that could be a powerful reminder that there might still be time to change our fate. Maybe then we won’t have to watch our own demise next summer.