May 24, 2024
Apocalypse now: Why movie and TV fans love the end of the world | CBC News

Apocalypse now: Why movie and TV fans love the end of the world | CBC News

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Jay Baruchel feels fine.

On the second season of his Crave series We’re All Gonna Die (Even Jay Baruchel), which launched last week, the host and namesake explores several possible apocalyptic scenarios, from insect extinction to a world ruled by artificial intelligence.

“I think we are all understandably anxious and constantly at odds with the world and civilization,” Baruchel told CBC News recently. “And so when we get to, like, have a moment where we can go, ‘Yeah, it’s a garbage fire,’ I think there is like a strange relief.”

The Ottawa actor is not alone in his fascination with the end times, if streaming services and the box office are any indication. 

Canadian director Caitlin Cronenberg released her debut feature film Humane on Friday, a dark comedy featuring Baruchel that imagines a not-so-distant future where overpopulation is addressed with human culls.

Alex Garland’s dystopian Civil War has topped the box office two weekends in a row, while post-apocalyptic TV series Fallout, based on a popular video game, is No. 1 on Amazon Prime.

This comes on the heels of other massively successful apocalyptic shows like HBO’s The Last of Us and Netflix movie Leave the World Behind, which featured stars Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali.

A woman poses on the red carpet.
Caitlin Cronenberg walks the red carpet for the premier of her debut feature film, Humane, in Toronto, on April 17. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

‘More popular than ever’

Chris Begley, an archaeologist and author of The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival, says apocalyptic narratives in the media have always been a reflection of the times, going all the way back to ancient religious texts.

He suspects the current wave is driven by the anxiety people feel about issues such as climate change and political uncertainty. 

“One thing is clear: apocalyptic narratives are more popular than ever,” Begley said. 

He says the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic were the closest thing many audiences have experienced to a potential apocalyptic scenario. Real-life events such as the pandemic, worsening wildfires and rising sea levels encourage us to imagine those futures.

And even if the overall messaging feels dark, the narratives contain aspects of life many people want.

“If you think about some of these apocalyptic narratives, it really is like resetting everything. You’re getting rid of the baggage. You’re able to start anew, or perhaps you’re able to have this ideal future that mirrors in some ways the things you wish would happen,” Begley said.

‘New technology’ tapping into ‘a very old desire’

Coltan Scrivner, a behavioural scientist who studies horror, true crime and morbid curiosity, says while humans have always been drawn to apocalyptic tales, we now have more ways using modern special effects of telling those tales in compelling ways.

“That’s part of it, just using new technology to tap into a very old desire,” he said.

Coincidentally, new technology is also feeding our fears.

“I think also the world is changing pretty quickly, especially with AI, and there’s questions about, is AI going to destroy the world or change the world into a sort of world that we don’t recognize anymore.”

Scrivner, who is currently co-managing a travelling variety show called The Apocalypse Road Show in the U.S., says he personally finds it interesting to explore possible dangerous futures and see how people handle them.

“You get the suspense and the thrills, but you also get what feels like insight into situations that might happen that haven’t happened yet,” he said.

Scrivner’s research suggests consuming such seemingly bleak material could actually be helping people.

In a 2021 study, he found people who had watched more apocalyptic and pandemic-themed movies felt more prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and were more psychologically resilient during pandemic-related shutdowns.

“I think it can help people kind of feel like they’re prepared or at least feel like they can handle the uncertainty a bit better,” he said.

A film set is pictured in downtown Calgary with road closures and abandoned cars.
A scene of a post-apocalyptic version of downtown Calgary as production of HBO’s The Last of Us descended on the province in 2021-22. (Tom Ross/CBC)

Apocalyptic narratives can shape our future

But our apocalypse obsession may not always be healthy. 

Studies show millennials and gen-Zers see a bleak future in many respects at a time when the climate is warming, life expectancy is down, costs of food and other essentials are rising, and home ownership is out of reach for many.

Technology and culture writer Zara Stone has suggested apocalyptic programming caters to a hopeless feeling among young viewers by telling them that this is the norm, and “allowing them to think the lack of a future is acceptable.” 

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Begley similarly cautions that these dystopian visions of the future can affect us after our screen time. 

The way our future is portrayed in the media we consume influences the way we all think about our own future, he says, and to some degree, that sets the parameters for what is possible in the real world.

“I think it’s important for us to consciously think about the world we envision. For instance, is it one where your relationship with other people is one of caution and violence, or is it one where it’s community and support?” he said.

‘There are still things that we can all do’

Baruchel says his interviews with scientists and other experts for We’re All Gonna Die — which takes an educational approach fusing science, psychology, pop culture and philosophy — have actually made him a more optimistic person. 

From his perspective, naming and understanding potential threats can give us a place to understand, process and plan from, in case we ever do encounter these scenarios in real life. 

“The through line to every person that I interviewed on that show was that, as insurmountable as any of this feels, there is a piece for each of us to carry,” Baruchel said. “And that you don’t have to throw your hands up and resign yourself there. There is a fight that we’re all participating in, still. There are still things that we can all do. And it’s nice to be reminded.”

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