In the 1990s, Hollywood unleashed a series of large-scale, big-budget disaster movies with increasingly high stakes. From Twister and Volcano to Armageddon and Deep Impact, the destruction ranged from personal tragedy to apocalypse. But regardless of severity of their violence, the source of the destruction in these films remained the same: It was man versus nature. Although they spoke to some of our deepest existential fears, these movies ultimately re-assured us that man would succeed.
At that same time, Agent Smith in The Matrix told us that “human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet,” but Neo proved him wrong. Smith was the villain—but today, he might be the hero. A new series of pop culture protagonists are not fighting the end of the world; they’re welcoming it.
Take Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, which is at once an epic disaster movie and a penetrating exploration of the misanthropy that underpins the genre. How else to describe films that wring entertainment from the potential end of humanity? As played by Russell Crowe, Noah has a deep, simmering hatred for man even before God asks for his help. Civilization is ruled by rape and savagery; Noah, meanwhile, teaches his children to respect even the smallest flower.
Most disaster movies would end when the great flood comes and our hero saves his family. Noah lets the story continue and takes misanthropy to its logical endpoint. Once aboard the ark, Noah receives another message from God telling him that mankind is to end his with his family. Since his daughter-in-law (Emma Watson) is pregnant, Noah pledges to murder his infant grandchild, if she is born a girl, i.e. with the capability of repopulating the planet with humans. Mankind, we are told, is a failed experiment, a harsh assertion for a Hollywood movie.
Noah-style heroes who welcome the end of humankind aren’t that exceptional anymore. Consider the success of HBO’s True Detective, which built a following in part because of the misanthropic musings of its lead character, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). “I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution,” Cohle says in the very first episode. “Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction.” Where Noah’s low opinion of mankind is part divine inspiration, Cohle’s stems entirely from his experiences. Driven by grief over the death of his young daughter in a car accident, the evil acts he witnesses in his work as a homicide detective only reinforces his inability to see anything good in this world.
True Detective was the most buzzed-about television show in years, inspiring a sub-industry of fan theories, while Noah just took down Divergent with a $44 million opening weekend. What makes their brand of misanthropy popular? Part of it may be that Noah and True Detective tap into widespread anxiety not only about mankind’s existence, but about what mankind’s done to the planet. And why not? If the environment goes, so do the rest of us, and you can’t say we wouldn’t deserve it if so.
In Noah, the link to environmentalism is clear. It’s impossible to watch the flood sequence without thinking of climate change, especially since the script directly references man’s failure to be a steward of the Earth as the primary reason for his extinction. Darren Aronofsky controversially confirmed this reading by calling Noah “the first environmentalist” in interviews.
True Detective does not directly reference climate change or the environment, but the topic looms over the entire series. Here at The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal wrote about the show’s “sacrificial landscape,” a term for rural areas that suffer so that people in cities can thrive. “Fossil fuel production and refinement does something to a place, usually something sinister,” he wrote. We get glimpses of this perspective from the power plant smokestacks that seem to emerge in the background of many exterior shots. As creator Nic Pizzolatto described the setting, “There’s a sense that the apocalypse already happened here.” Hurricane Katrina is never mentioned by name, but any story set in poverty-stricken Louisiana will call it to mind.