How Movies Shape Our View of the Apocalypse (or Why A Bunch of a Dead Birds in Arkansas Make Us…

By  · Published on January 5th, 2011

How Movies Shape Our View of the Apocalypse (or Why A Bunch of a Dead Birds in Arkansas Make Us Freak Out)

As we all know, the world is going to end in 2036 after mankind’s preventative measures against global warming attract a meteor the size of Nigeria and pull it right down on top of New Italy. Yet, even though we’re armed with this powerful knowledge, we still lose our minds a little bit when we see signs of natural disaster right out of our religious texts.

So why are we so concerned with the end of all things?

NASA thinks movies are the culprit, an assertion that’s entirely correct.

Movies are almost un-measurably powerful. They fill our dreams, our cultural conversations, and make us believe that men can fly. We go to them for their escapism, but also for their armchair psychology and pop science.

It’s that last part that has NASA concerned, and they’ve done more than just make a list of the most scientifically inaccurate movies (which also lauded Jurassic Park, rightly, for being both scientifically diligent and awesome). They currently maintain a website where a senior scientist posts up answers to frequently asked questions about the 2012 myth and the end of the planet.

What they’re fighting is the cognitive dissonance between something being correct and something seeming plausible. After all, 2012 made almost $770 million worldwide (meaning it was seen by a lot of people), and the power of its imagery was fueled by a cursory explanation that made sense in a dark room where we’re all suspending disbelief anyway. Solar flares? Sure. Massive tsunamis? Why not? If we can believe that Katherine Heigl would hook up with Seth Rogen, why not believe that neutrinos shifted our poles and caused a volcano to sprout up in Los Angeles?

It’s the intense power of suggestion mixed with our own biases, a pinch of our animal instincts of survival (like being concerned about imminent danger), and our imaginations running wild by allowing movies to fill in the holes of our scientific ignorance.

So when a bunch of birds die in Arkansas or a bunch of fish die in Maryland, (and then in Sweden and Brazil) the end of the world seems plausible because 1) it’s a truly strange phenomenon 2) that was predicted in religious and spiritual texts (of which a huge portion of the population believes in and 3) we’ve already seen it before.

We’ve seen these situations in films, and the outlook is not a bright one.

When the plagues hit the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments, he ends up losing his son. When birds fall from the sky, they’re usually attacking Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock’s frightening classic. When God’s wrath hit Hilary Swank, she stopped winning Oscars.

It’s also uncanny that a large amount of birds and fish would kick the bucket, NASA would calm fears about the end of the world, and Apocalypse Now star Robert Duvall’s birthday would all happen at the same time. Or maybe it’s our stupid belief in coincidences that hurts us even more. The truth is that we need an explanation, and movies have already provided us with several that made sense at the time.

The most typical explanation goes a little like this:

  1. Scientifically known thing (e.g. a volcano, asteroid, or killer klowns) acts in a strange and dangerous way because of another scientifically known thing which we’ve heard of but don’t at all understand in any way (e.g. dark matter, neutrinos, the Large Hadron Collider). We now have almost so much science that the event couldn’t possibly seem implausible to our laymen minds.
  2. The threat is exacerbated or we discover new information that proves that things were worse than we thought.
  3. Bruce Willis has to save us all.

It’s doubtful that Hollywood will stop making movies about the end of the world even with NASA bugging them about it. In fact, there’s probably at least one executive yelling his pitch for an Inexplicable Dead Bird Disaster Movie to the boss that’s going to fire him soon.

That’s why, in the face of thousands of dead fowl (and the forthcoming death meteor), it’s even more important to remember that movies can have an effect on the way we think, and on the way that we see the world (even the end of it).

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.