Click to viewSo CERN switched on the Large Hadron Collider, and the end of the world has begun. But there may still be time to panic - and some hot new pre-apocalyptic spectacles are happy to help. It turns out post-apocalyptic movies and shows are passé, and what we really want is to see people living in the run-up to an imminent global catastrophe. Why would we be excited by the eve of destruction? Maybe because pre-apocalyptic stories are more interesting, and meaningful, than post-apocalyptic ones. We may or may not be living in a pre-apocalyptic world right now, but most of us are definitely not living in a post-apocalyptic one. The only thing post-apocalyptic stories tell us is that some of us may survive the end of everything, in whatever reduced circumstances. But pre-apocalyptic stories have a lot more meaning - they tell us how to use our last days, and whether it's worth struggling against the looming disaster.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which started its second season on Monday, is all about living in the shadow of an impending apocalypse. Half the show's cast consists of refugees from a fucked future. In particular, Brian Austin Green's Derek Reese is a semi-basket case with PTSD from events that haven't happened yet. We're constantly being reminded that "Judgement Day" is around the corner, and our heroes probably won't be able to stop it, given that they've already failed a few times. And meanwhile the show Heroes performs the same trick every year, having one or more protagonists hop forwards in time, into a future that's been scuppered. Scuppered! Usually because of bio-terrorism or regular splodey terrorism, on the part of one of our incestuous band of angst-mutants. The way the future gets messed up changes from year to year, but we never see a future that's not pretty horrid.
Also, the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood is constantly dropping hints that something huge and unstoppable - and probably pretty horrendous - awaits the human race in the early 21st century. And then there are movies like Knowing, where Nicholas Cage discovers that the world is going to end next week, thanks to some incomprehensible number chart that he finds in a time capsule. And a new Spanish film making the festival rounds is Before The Fall (3 Dias), in which the United Nations announces that a meteor will hit Earth in three days and wipe us out. Unlike in Armageddon or Deep Impact, there's no heroic solution in the offing, just certain doom.
And in real life, it's pretty easy to find examples of fairly specific doom-saying. Many people seem to be obsessed with the looming doomsday of the year 2012, which the Mayan calendar promises will be the end of days. Roland Emmerich, the creator of "diaster for dummies" film Day After Tomorrow, is working on an end-of-the-world film called 2012, which will be out before 2012. Plenty of environmentalists foresee a global catastrophe that will render our current civilization pretty unfeasible within the next half-century. And then, of course, there are all the people who believe we're living in the Biblical end times. So what's pre-apocalyptic art about? A message board (called "Anus Of Evil") debated that very question a while back, in a drive to come up with a pre-apocalyptic art manifesto. Writes one person:
It's all around you. People are getting ready for the last dance as the walls fall around them. Joy, sadness, pleasure, fear, hate —it's all there.
Also, the Onion had a satirical (duh) article back in 1999 suggesting that "pre-apocalyptic" is what comes after "post-modern." I do think it's part of our condition, in an era of economic dislocation and melting icecaps, to feel as if we're on a conveyor belt, heading for the furnace of history. The thing that all of the aforementioned stories seem to have in common is a theme of mystification (except maybe Before The Fall.) The impending end of the world isn't a clear-cut fact that you either accept or struggle against - it's a mystery to be unraveled. You have Nicolas Cage, circling numbers in an effort to discern the pattern, or the Connors searching for a chess-playing computer, or Hiro Nakamura interrogating his cryptic skinhead future self.
Of course, that's partly because of the demands of an ongoing or unwinding narrative. But it's also because of the conviction that our impending doom can't be a simple thing. There have to be clues, there must be hidden messages, there must be a meaning somewhere in the middle of our unstoppable obliteration. It can't just be a sheer fact, bearing down on us, without anything to tell us before it wipes us out. Because where would the fun be in that?