It's the End of the World, and We Love It
There's a powerful scene near the end of The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize—winning novel, where a father and son huddle together under soulless skies on a desolate, nameless beach littered with whale and human skeletons. They have finally reached the coast after traversing by foot a post-apocalyptic landscape fraught with unspeakable dangers, toils, and snares.
The boy, about age 10, has never seen the sea. "What's on the other side?" he asks. "Nothing," replies his father, suffering from malnutrition and weakness after fending off all sorts of evils. All along he has encouraged his son to maintain hope—to "carry the fire"—but has slowly lost his own. The boy, who believes there's still goodness somewhere in their dark and dying world, looks out to the sea and says, "There must be something."
Wanting to keep his son's hope alive, the man relents. "Maybe there's a father and his son, and they're sitting on the beach too."
Like McCarthy's 2006 book, the film is both depressing and redeeming; it depicts one of the most loving father-son relationships to appear on the big screen. And this particular scene speaks volumes for all of us asking a universal question.
What's on the other side?
The question is innate to human experience, and Hollywood knows it—as evidenced by the spate of spiritually themed films to debut after the blockbuster success of The Passion of the Christ(2004). In a fear-filled world where war, terrorism, and economic collapse bring the question of death and the afterlife to the fore, the film industry has delivered more stories to fuel the question—though not always providing answers.
The result in 2009 was a record $10 billion at the box office in the United States and Canada, where theater attendance was up 4.5 percent over 2008 despite an economic recession that saw cuts in consumer spending in almost every other sector.
Much of that record windfall came from a near epidemic of movies about the end of the world—from the explosion-driven drivel of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (where all life on Earth is in peril) and 2012 (global mayhem as predicted by the Mayan calendar) to the tongue-in-cheek Zombieland and more thoughtful fare such as Terminator Salvation, District 9, and The Road. The trend continued in 2010 with two end-times thrillers, The Book of Eli and Legion, both of which opened in January, and the documentaries Waiting for Armageddon and With God on Our Side, both exploring the State of Israel's role in ushering in the last days. January also saw the wide release of The Lovely Bones, depicting a teen girl's view of heaven (and our own longing for it). More such films—pre- and post-apocalyptic—are on the 2010 tap.
Why are so many of us flocking to the theater when we're pinching pennies more now than in decades? And why are we spending our hard-earned money on movies about the end of existence?
Two things are at work: First, when the economy is down, movie attendance often goes up; it has happened several times before, especially during the Great Depression. Second, people are asking, perhaps more than ever, what happens after we die—whether by natural causes or some cataclysmic event. War. Terrorism. Earthquakes. Teen-idol vampires, hell-bent robots, wandering zombies. Whatever.
Record Box Office
During the Great Depression, unemployment in the U.S. ran as high as 25 percent, and many wondered how they would afford their next meal. But even during the hardest times, 60 million to 80 million Americans—as much as two-thirds of the population—went to the movies every week.