Hollywood never needs excuses to revel in an imagined apocalypse. From The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Night of the Living Dead to Escape from New York to 28 Days Later to I Am Legend, few scenarios are mined more frequently than impending human eradication. And critics and audiences alike frequently impose deeper meanings on movies dealing with Earthly destruction, whether such allegories are intended by the filmmakers or not. The alien invasion flicks of the Cold War '50s represent pinko infiltration/insurrection and nuclear dread. George Romero's zombie movies comment on the civil rights struggles of the '60s (the original Night of the Living Dead) and the mad consumerism that blossomed post-Vietnam (in the mall-set Dawn of the Dead). Other entries in the genre are viewed as time capsule parables about subsequent zeitgeist panics: the crack epidemic and urban decay (Escape…), HIV/AIDS (28 Days Later) and 9/11 (28 Days Later, again).
With America in the midst of another mass anxiety attack, prepare for a slew of reviews and Sunday Arts & Leisure feature pieces devoted to what will now be the theme of every successful movie released in the next nine months: The Great Recession of 2008- God Knows When.
This year has already seen the release of three suddenly prescient movies. Confessions of a Shopaholic, initially sold as a tween Sex and the City (with Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren getting plum exposure in the trailer), rebranded itself as a movie about a shallow material girl who realizes the folly of her spendthrift ways (by working at a finance firm, no less). The International, a Clive Owen dud, is about a nefarious bank wiping out investor portfolios and dallying in political assassinations. And Watchmen recreates the grimy New York of 1985 at the precise moment New Yorkers (or at least the city's journalists) are alternately dreading and exulting in the possible return of squeegee men and Times Square porn palaces.
Public Enemies is the upcoming release best custom-fitted for the economic meltdown. Set in the Depression, it tells the story of bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent (Christian Bale) hot on his trail. Just as 1968's Bonnie and Clyde is a Great Depression period piece that nonetheless became emblematic of the '60s counterculture, expect Public Enemies to acquire topical resonance, with many rooting for the assumed villain as he fights the good fight. Amelia, an Amelia Earhart biopic starring Hilary Swank, is another Depression-era movie coming out this year. The taglines ("Just as the markets crashed, Amelia took flight") and Captain Sully parallels will nauseate. (On the bright side, Hilary Swank, after a few disastrous turns as a sexpot, is back on fertile Oscar ground as a woman fighting her way into a man's world.)
Two annihilation epics tread on more familiar, bombed out blockbuster territory this summer: Michael Bay's 2012 and McG's Terminator Salvation. The Mayans and Nostradamus marked December 2012 as the date of end times--sure to be rendered deafeningly by Bay's CGI and sound editing. Inverting the not-too-distant future destruction scenario are Ice Age 3: The Age of the Dinosaurs and Year One. Both movies are set in prehistoric olden times and offer a glimpse into the sort of hunter-gatherer lifestyle that the more pessimistic (and press hungry) economic doomsayers see as a logical endpoint to our societal regression.
The flaw in declaring many of these imminent releases timely, or at least purposefully so, is the source material they grew out of. The Road follows a father and son on a despairing, perilous journey through a landscape made barren by an unnamed cataclysm. Their experience might mirror that of people currently reviewing their 401K statements, but the movie is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel from the frothy days of 2006. And of course, Terminator Salvation emerges from an enduring blockbuster franchise that has spanned nearly four decades.
Topicality is usually achieved by accident. It is possible to make a movie for the times in which it's released, but more likely that the times will make the movie. Maybe there's no collective psychic pull among moviegoers to flock to certain films at certain times after all. When Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings did gangbusters in the months following 9/11, some critics said audiences facing murky real world conflicts had responded to those neatly delineated cinematic battles between good and evil. Certain journalists viewed The Dark Knight, with its themes of moral ambiguity, tough justice and invasive surveillance techniques, as a cathartic response to, if not defense of, the senescent Bush administration.
But maybe in these cases viewers were simply responding to engaging movies sown from already iconic entertainment sagas.
It's tempting to declare a zeitgeist when one might not exist. Entertainment grows more fragmented by the day. When 10% of Americans see The Dark Knight on the big screen in the film's opening seventy-two hours, there is reason to cheer. Maybe Johnny Depp beats out mortgage woes and latent bank heist fantasies as the biggest draw of Public Enemies. Maybe not. What's certain is that at a time when a $10 movie ticket is the costliest entertainment many people can afford, these movies will be packed, regardless of audience motive.