Academic terms are not normally thrown around the set of NBC's Today Show. More commonly it is the source for fluff pieces, pseudo-news, and celebrity interviews. But recently with great earnestness host Matt Lauer asked Zachary Quinto, "What is it about our zeitgeist that so many of the blockbuster films are apocalyptic in nature?" Zachary was on the show to promote his film, Star Trek Into Darkness, where he plays the character of Spock. Zeitgeist is a German word meaning "spirit of the age or time," and is often attributed to the philosopher Georg Hegel. Sadly, Spock had no meaningful response to Lauer's query.
Why is it that the stories we are celebrating and investing millions of dollars in have a reoccurring theme of collapse, destruction, and world ending apocalypse? Is this where war fatigue, terror attacks, hurricanes, and tornados have left us? Consider the evidence.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: "An asteroid named 'Matilda' is on a collision course toward Earth and in three weeks the world will come to an absolute end. What would you do if your life and the world were doomed?"
Star Trek Into Darkness: "When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving our world in a state of crisis."
Iron Man 3: "When Tony Stark's world is torn apart by a formidable terrorist called the Mandarin, he starts an odyssey of rebuilding and retribution." Mandarin states, "I'm gonna offer you the choice: do you want an empty life, or a meaningful death?"
Oblivion: "A veteran assigned to extract Earth's remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself." Jack Harper states, "Sixty years ago, Earth was attacked. We won the war, but they destroyed half the planet. Everyone's been evacuated. Nothing human remains. We're here for drone repair. We're the 'mop-up crew.'"
After Earth: "One thousand years after cataclysmic events forced humanity's escape from Earth, Nova Prime has become mankind's new home."
World War Z: "United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to decimate humanity itself."
These are iconic films representing some of our most celebrated actors: Steve Carell, Chris Pine, Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Brad Pitt, and Ethan Hawke. Collectively these films will reach millions of viewers and gross huge numbers at the box office. So Lauer's question is an important one. The apocalyptic zeitgeist is not a measure of overheated eschatological expectations but a symptom of the myth of progress placed under strain. It is the loss of innocence metastasizing into a cultural condition.
We are assured in Scripture that if we live long enough our worldviews, idols, and faith will be tested (Matthew 7:24-27). The waters will rise, the winds will blow, and our foundations will be shaken. This is as certain as the sunrise. It's a promise woven into the fabric of reality. Sooner or later one's life will be tested relationally, financially, or physically. And what is true individually is also true collectively. Our culture is being tested and the cracks are beginning to show.
Our cultural foundations either line up with reality or they do not. And ours is increasingly a culture without foundation—highly susceptible to every wind and wave. Insecurity is writ large into the modern psyche. And the recurring images of Sandy Hook; Seaside, New Jersey; the Boston marathon bombing; and Moore, Oklahoma serve to amplify these feelings. Safety and security elude us.
These cinematic apocalyptic sagas are secular versions of the anticipation of Christ's return. Whereas Christ's return brings hope, these twisted stories only bring a nagging unease that flirts with despair. This is an apocalypse without a Saviour or Judge. This is a second coming without Christ. In 1996 Rolling Stone reporter Will Dana stated, "We used to think the center couldn't hold," referring to Yeat's poem, "The Second Coming." "All of a sudden," he continued, "there doesn't seem to be a center at all." We live in a "centreless" world. Such is the cultural experience of living in a world stipulated without any reference to the transcendent. The late University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff stated, "Every culture that tries to establish its social order without reference to a sacred order must be called an anti-culture." An anti-culture is a culture of breaking down rather than building up. It is one of incremental decay and collapse. It is not a sustainable reality.