Hollywood at the End of the World

In Fiction and 9/11 on August 2, 2009 at 11:32 am

Fiction and “reality t.v.” are focusing on end-of-the-world scenarios:

A flood of postapocalyptic stories is now headed toward movie theaters and TV screens: Expect to see characters fending off cannibals, picking up day-to-day survival techniques and struggling to maintain their humanity amid the ruins. Previous waves of pop-culture disaster, from the Atomic Age paranoia of “War of the Worlds” to Watergate-era flicks such as “The Towering Inferno,” have depicted calamity in stunning detail. Many of the new projects, however, actually skip the spectacle of doomsday. Instead, they’re more fixed on what goes down in the aftermath.

Most of the storytellers say they are reacting to anxiety over real threats in uncertain times: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, two U.S. wars abroad, multiple pandemics, a global financial crisis and new attention to environmental perils. “The Road” even weaves in footage shot during recent disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, into its scenes of destruction.  “For me, I feel like I live in an apocalyptic world with global warfare, a recession, and resource scarcity,” says Jesse Alexander, writer and executive producer of NBC’s “Day One.”

In the film version of “The Road,” as in the novel, the apocalypse that blackened the landscape and set the narrative in motion isn’t described. Director John Hillcoat says he pressed author Cormac McCarthy for an answer about what happened. Mr. McCarthy “said it didn’t matter whether it was nuclear war or mini volcanoes or a comet,” Mr. Hillcoat says. What mattered was the backdrop for the intimate relationship between a father and son.

Rather than use computers to create massive smoke plumes, the filmmakers patched in news footage of the billows that erupted from the World Trade Center as it burned. Other images came from Mount St. Helens and volcanic devastation in the Philippines. The collage technique was both allegorical and practical (and helped keep the budget to a lean $20 million), despite the fact that most viewers won’t recognize the source material. “Our logic is if you’re within that place, whether it’s Katrina or the Twin Towers, it would be the same as a global apocalypse to you,” Mr. Hillcoat says.

Discovery recruited experts like Adam Montella, a private homeland security adviser who’s worked on disaster sites after Hurricane Hugo and the Oklahoma City bombings. “Most of the country didn’t experience Katrina or 9/11, but they did virtually on television,” Mr. Montella says. “There’s nothing different about the disaster that caused the colony to come together and another incident which most people can’t fathom.”

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