With global warming, floods, health pandemics... the human extinction story is back in fashion. In the 1970s it took shape in the post-apocalyptic story where a wondering lone hero (or a band of heroes) survived in a post-nuclear Armageddon, a petrol-starved wasteland, while also attempting to rebuild a viable society. Outliers like ‘Silent Running’ (1972) focused in on the wider eco-system, not just the plight of humanity itself.
Most of those 1970’s stories were tonally upward journey’s, surprisingly optimistic. Although much of humanity had been wiped out, the message was simple: we’re tough and we will prevail. There’s always hope.
In ‘The Road’ (2009), ‘The Survivalist’ (2015), and ‘High Life’ (1919) the tone is altogether darker. It is about maintaining hope in an otherwise hopeless world that’s filled with destruction and barbarity. But, even in a world like this there’s still selflessness and sacrifice — there’s still a moral choice to be made.
In ‘Aniara’ (2018) journey is a downward one, away from optimism, which makes for a tough sell. It is a bleak but intelligently handled story about materialism and human meaning — ‘High Rise’ set in space, an imploding micro-society meets ‘Silent Running’. In essence it is saying that hope is wrapped up in other bigger things, like a wider social context, connection, belonging, and an earth-like natural environment which people feel at one with.
The mainstream Hollywood story is usually a tonally upward one, the little person winning against the odds, justice being fought for and attained, positive change, good winning against evil, finding harmony. In essence it says: there’s no need to worry. The mass extinction story (often in the form of the low budget science fiction indie movie) is one of coming to terms with a grim new truth, a new reality.
In blockbuster Hollywood films the global floods, earthquakes, ice-storms and meteorites never lead to extinction. There’s always someone with a nifty idea just in time to save the day. With independent films the audience doesn’t always have that certainty. The tonally downward journey is, in a way, a modern morality tale about love and sacrifice.