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.
Upcoming films also dwell in the fear of imminent payback for our collective sins. Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch subverts the vampire movie genre by depicting his anti-hero as someone who hates mankind simply because he’s been alive long enough to see its true nature. “They’ve poisoned their own blood, not to mention their water supply,” he says of humans. The new Transformers movie has a fear-mongering subtitle, Age of Extinction, while the upcoming sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, if it’s anything like its 2012 predecessor, will depict humans as the villains in a war against animals who have been systematically abused.
But misanthropy and apocalyptic scenarios have their limits, especially when addressed in a commercial setting. What’s disappointing about both Noah and True Detective is that, despite their willingness to journey a bit deeper into human-hating than, say, Armageddon, they basically end up in the same place. In True Detective, Rust was willing to sacrifice his own life to stop a serial killer—an ending that would have re-affirmed his bleak worldview—but instead he inexplicably survived and gave up his misanthropy for spiritual faith. Worse still, the finale suggested that all of his philosophical pessimism was really just sublimated grief. Nic Pizzolatto may have intended for Cohle to journey towards humanitarianism all along, but based on the reaction to the show and its ending, it’s the first seven episodes of grim monologues that helped people identify with the character so closely.
Noah, for all its mass death and threats of infanticide, also backs away from its darker impulses. The film’s first third paints Noah as a saint-like hero before the next act credibly transforms him into a murderous psychopath. In this way, the film challenges our own misanthropy. We may say that people are, generally, terrible, but the film asks: Are you really ready to give up on them entirely? Ultimately, Noah settles on one man’s capacity to love his family as justification for the entire species’ continued existence and ends with a simplistic hope that we will “be kinder” in the future. It’s an earnest plea to the viewer, but as a happy ending it feels unearned.
Neither work has the courage of its convictions, but then again it’s the rare film that leaves the viewer with a truly hopeless feeling about mankind. Pop culture, after all, basically aims to reinforce the status quo. Perhaps David Fincher’s Se7en or Aronofsky’s own Requiem for a Dream come to mind, but neither of those films aimed for widespread appeal. They took us on a one-way journey into the depths of misanthropy, but Noah and True Detective only offer a quick tour, promising to bring us back alive.