Matt Bean
June 27, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s too easy to blame filmmakers for mining the apocalypse for dollars. Things that go BOOM tend to explode at the box office, sure. But take a look behind the disaster porn besieging your local multiplex, as critic Chris Nashawaty does in his kickoff essay, and you’ll find a more charitable explanation — one that says as much about us as it does the stuff on the screen.

Nashawaty, who’s witnessed his share of dystopian apologia in his 20 years at ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, argues that grim fare such as the Mad Max franchise (which debuted more than 30 years ago) and Snowpiercer (an impressive, imaginative world unlike anything you’ve ever seen before) are more than just popcorn delivery systems. They’re fables of a sort, back-of-the-envelope calculations that allow us to see the future — bleak as it may be. They’re wormholes to a world we’re afraid to inherit.

From 1916’s The End of the World (Comets! The horror!) to the original Mad Max trilogy (Gasoline: going, going, gone!), the scourges portrayed on the big screen have largely stayed where they belong, locked in celluloid. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Armageddon: What began as vengeance wrought by Mother Nature or good ol’-fashioned celestial cataclysm became something more nuanced, more provocative, more human. As we came to appreciate the raw weight of our own influence — the destructive power of humankind — our films followed suit.

Take Snowpiercer, for example. As senior writer Darren Franich explains, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho concocts a futuristic ice age out of society’s response to global warming. In Bong’s vision, our ozone coverage was looking a little thin in the back, and so next thing you know we’ve gone Hair Club on the thing, overdone the space rug and blocked out the sun. End result? It’s below zero — so cold that the last living humans are circumnavigating the globe on a steampunk psycho-train divided into the haves, who while away the days with drugs, steam baths, and sushi, and the have-nots, who eat bugs, crap into buckets, and live in windowless cars in the rear. Talk about bad commutes.

Mad Max: Fury Road also adds a human wrinkle. As senior writer Nicole Sperling explains, franchise founder and original director George Miller again sets his windblown fossil-fuel parable against a backdrop of dunes, dust, and scant natural resources. This time, however, Tom Hardy fills in for Mel Gibson, and to the gas crisis Miller adds human slavery, with Charlize Theron playing a robot-armed warrior rescuing women from an evil warlord. Fury Road won’t debut until mid-2015, but chances are it’ll do wonders for Prius sales.

Over time, the causes of cinematic apocalypse have been increasingly self-inflicted (from global warming to overreacting to global warming), which makes you wonder, if we’re really being honest, what our actual doomsday might look like. Death by Emoji, perhaps. Or: REVENGE OF THE 64-OUNCE SODA! Then the real question will be: Who will save us from ourselves?

Matt Bean

You May Like