The world has ended, civilization has collapsed, the undead hordes have overrun everything. We've seen the apocalypse so many times, even Roland Emmerich is bored with it. So what comes next? We've still got some apocalyptic movies to look forward to next year, and post-apocalyptic TV shows like Revolution and Walking Dead are coming back soon enough.
But here are eight signs that pop culture is getting over its obsession with the apocalypse, and we're looking beyond the end.
1. Book publishing is over it.
The book industry is sometimes a leading indicator for pop culture as a whole — and in the case of post-apocalyptic/dystopian young adult novels, books provide a lot of the pipeline for movies and television. And when we asked people in publishing recently, the consensus was that the young-adult post-apocalyptic novel craze was pretty much over, and a post-apocalyptic novel couldn't get arrested in this town. That could mean a ripple effect, spreading to other media.
2. We had The Road, now we have comedies
This past year, a lot of the post-apocalyptic movies were either big comedies (like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) or small introspective indie movies. And 2013's apocalyptic comedies include Seth Rogen's The End of the World, not to be confused with the very similar The World's End by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. There's the huge zombie boondoggle World War Z coming next year, but most people seem to be more excited about the zombie rom-com Warm Bodies. It often feels like a trend's winding down when it becomes more comedy-oriented.
3. The world isn't going to end.
This is sort of a gimme, but worth mentioning anyway. The thing about the apocalypse is, it never arrives on schedule in real life — we've seen multiple predictions of the Rapture or the end of days in the past decade or so, and they never seem to pan out. Assuming the world doesn't end in a few days, we may finally be ready to give the apocalypse a rest.
4. Post-apocalyptic television is mostly a huge disappointment.
Of all the genres that movies can do better than television, the post-apocalypse is probably one of the most notable. Probably the best post-apocalyptic show was Jericho, and its unrelenting grittiness failed to win it a sizeable audience. (Also, Battlestar Galactica, for a few seasons. But BSG was post-apocalyptic in space, and thus less close to our own real-life fears of apocalypse than Jericho.) Of the recent crop of post-apocalyptic shows, only The Walking Dead has managed to tackle the essential themes of the genre in a meaningful, gripping way. Network TV can't, or won't, do this shit justice. And why should they, when fairy-tales and police procedurals are huge?
5. We're coming back to Earth instead of leaving it.
Watch the trailers for 2013's movies, and one thread jumps out at you: stories where people have abandoned Earth, and now we're coming back for some reason. In Tom Cruise's Oblivion, nobody lives on Earth any more, but Cruise lives in orbit, until he's forced to go back to the surface. In Will Smith's After Earth, people abandoned Earth after war with some aliens, but Smith and his son crashland on Earth and have to make their way across the surface. In Elysium, starring Matt Damon, the rich have left the surface of the Earth for the riff-raff. I'm pretty sure I saw some news items about a couple smaller films with similar themes in the pipeline.
In these movies, you get the sense that there's a symbolic return to Earth, or reclaiming of Earth, or at least a questioning of the decision to abandon the Earth. Instead of being concerned with the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse, these films are looking at the long-term consequences of planetary collapse. And they seem to be saying that it's time to go past the apocalypse and start looking for new stories about the future.
6. The apocalypse is a matter of timescale.
One thing that the aforementioned movies seem to have in common is the notion that the apocalypse happened a good long time ago, and the dust has settled enough that maybe things are re-emerging. If you wait around long enough, things tend to fall into proportion, and an apocalypse becomes just another event in history — assuming anybody survived at all. Even Revolution, for all its many misjudgments, had a stroke of cleverness in setting the main action 15 years after the blackout, so there's almost no moping about the fall of the old order. (Well, some. But not a crazy amount.)
7. We might finally be ready to deal with our real problems.
Okay, I know that's crazy talk. But after a year in which massive droughts threatened our food supply and New York was flooded, people might at least be ready to face up to the possibility of climate change. And even though at first glance, consuming apocalyptic stories seems like a way of dealing with our real-life nightmares of environmental disaster (and peak oil, and economic collapse), dreaming about the apoclaypse is actually a way of giving up. And not just because the apocalypse means we've lost. Part of the appeal of apocalyptic stories is that we get to imagine the whole slate being wiped clean by something so massive, that all current problems are rendered irrelevant. The apocalypse defies problem-solving — but also rescues us from having to think about actual disasters hanging over our heads. It's much, much harder to imagine facing a huge problem, and solving it. Which brings us to...
8. We are imagining being powerful in the face of the apocalypse.
Think about movies in 2012 that featured New York being trashed — the main one that comes to mind is probably The Avengers. Unlike previous years' crops of New York-gets-trashed films, this one featured a gang of superbeings fighting back. And next year's crop of big tentpole movies include mass destruction, being battled by giant mecha (Pacific Rim), Superman (Man of Steel), and the Starship Enterprise (Star Trek). We're not dwarfed by the scale of the destruction in those movies, we're big enough to weigh in. Idris Elba even declaims in the Pacific Rim trailer that the apocalypse is cancelled.