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Courtesy of Miramax

The sky is falling

Films about the end of days raise important questions about the fine line between humanity and inhumanity

By Kevin Spurgaitis

A sudden, contagious blindness throws society into chaos. Those who succumb to the disease are quickly quarantined. They are then forced to reorder their lives — sometimes in cruel ways — like an adult version of Lord of the Flies. Only one woman, a doctor’s wife, feigns blindness to accompany and protect her afflicted husband. She then goes on to lead a faithful group of detainees, desperately trying to prevent their spiral into bedlam.

That’s the premise of Fernando Meirelles’s recent release Blindness, based on a dystopian novel by Portuguese author José Saramago. It’s one of a slew of films this past decade that have depicted the aftermath of a biological or environmental apocalypse.

Many border on the abysmal. A rare few, such as Meirelles’s telling, are thought-provoking and explore the notion of good and evil in times of crisis.

The latest end-of-days films stem, at least in part, from events such as Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11, as well as the response to each by the former administration of George W. Bush. These incidents confirmed that the sky can fall at any given moment, and that society’s rules and its moral codes can easily be cast aside. They led to a reimagining of America as a fragile country, not to mention a fertile ground for depravity.

Sure, most post-apocalyptic tales seem intent on scaring audiences in a horror show sort of way: pictures such  as 28 Days Later (2002), which depicts society following the accidental release of a highly contagious virus; Cloverfield (2008), which revolves around a mysterious attack on New York City; and I Am Legend (2007), in which a virologist fights off animalistic victims of a virus originally created to cure cancer. Like the Planet of the Apes and Mad Max movies of the Cold War era, these end-of-the-world stories merely capitalize on contemporary hysteria.

Blindness provides a sharp contrast. Instead of mimicking the anarchy in Mad Max, it condemns those who are eager to plunge into barbarism should the basic systems of order collapse. Blindness celebrates those who brave the catastrophic circumstances to recreate a safer environment for all. This polarity of action reflects the days and weeks following the hurricane devastation of New Orleans.

Philosophically, Blindness raises an important question about the fine line between humanity and inhumanity, order and chaos: At what point do individuals cease to behave like human beings and turn into animals whose sole concern is survival?

In the same fashion, John Hillcoat’s new film, The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, brilliantly illustrates what it would be like if everything burned away, if health and all the comforts of life suddenly vanished. It stars Viggo Mortensen as a dying man and Kodi Smit-McPhee as his young son. Over a period of several months, they journey through American towns and cities that have been devastated by an unnamed cataclysm.

The sky is grey. Rivers are black. The landscape is covered in soot and littered with corpses. There are no crops. There is no warmth. No semblance of safety.

Instead, the remaining few wear scavenged, ill-fitting clothing and layers of plastic bags for insulation. They trudge across a pitiless terrain, desperately avoiding bands that wield hand-hewn weaponry to enslave, rape and even cannibalize. It’s as if the film urges against the kind of bellicose behaviour seen during the U.S.-led War on Terror.

Although incredibly bleak in its depiction of the future, The Road also offers hope of human decency. The protagonists’ survival depends on the virtues of integrity and compassion. In the face of many obstacles, father and son maintain the faith that humanity can still exist in the badlands. They repeatedly assure one another that they are among “the good guys” who are “carrying the fire.”

America has refocused the lens through which it sees itself. Both Meirelles and Hillcoat use made-up calamities to magnify the various crises the nation faces. Both show the various ways people respond to a catastrophe. At the same time, they ask audiences to reflect on the dangerous fragility of social order itself. 
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