Eating Popcorn While the World Burns

What does it say about humanity that we love a disaster movie? Critic Robert Horton on five films that take us into the abyss.

Why do we like disaster movies? Long before I was a film critic, I loved these stories about society reacting to some huge cataclysm, or trying to create a new civilization in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Surely part of what doomsday movies provide is a how-to guide on surviving disaster—or at least a blueprint for what not do to when the sky falls.

In my Speakers Bureau talk “This Is the End: How Movies Prepared Us for the Pandemic,” I show how many of the scenarios that unfolded (and are still unfolding!) during the Covid-19 crisis had already been outlined in movies—whether the films were actually about pandemics, or about other catastrophes, such as nuclear winter, alien invasion, or environmental collapse. These movies envisioned widespread panic, or the mistrust of government and media—and heroic acts, too.

Some films in this genre are serious attempts to grapple with impending doom (On the Beach threw a scare into Kennedy-era audiences), and some are profound classics (Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal used the medieval Black Plague to ponder the meaning of existence).

Some, admittedly, are rather cheesy. Perhaps you recall Charlton Heston as one of the last humans on Earth in The Omega Man, doing battle with nocturnal zombies—but even in a movie like that, the characters dream of re-building society and avoiding the mistakes of the past.

Whether somber or frivolous in its intent, pop culture often holds up a mirror to reflect how we’re thinking about issues—or a crystal ball to predict the future. Here are five movies that serve as different ways of imagining The End.


The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

This 1959 film is one of the many post-apocalyptic stories to hit screens during the Atomic Age; in this case, Harry Belafonte finds himself one of a small group of survivors trying to figure out what life will be like in this changed, depopulated world. Will people revert to old bigotries and hatreds, or is there hope that the survivors might get it right this time? This is one of those movies with shots of vast, empty city streets, exactly the kind of cinematic image that came true when Covid-19 was in its early stages and the shutdown was in full swing. Like a number of post-apocalyptic films of the era, this one takes on the subject of race, and how mankind’s prejudices could stick around, even if most of mankind did not. Belafonte (who also produced the movie) was disappointed when the studio watered down this aspect of the film.


Children of Men

An unexplained phenomenon has left humanity infertile, except for one pregnant woman who represents the future. Our cynical protagonist (Clive Owen) is charged with protecting her at all costs. This global disaster has not brought people together, as the Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón uses this sci-fi premise to examine how totalitarian impulses might flourish in a doomsday era, with particular attention to the plight of refugees, imprisoned in barbaric circumstances. I interviewed Cuarón when the film was released in 2006, and he told me, “We said to ourselves, we can’t let one frame of this film go without having it comment on things today. It’s about the fading of hope. That could be the metaphor for the first decade of the 21st century.” The film also depicts the way “opinion news” can be used to twist reality into unrecognizable form, directly contradicting things we’ve just witnessed with our own eyes.



Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film has a different kind of viral disease racing around the world—much more contagious and violent than Covid-19—but its depiction of an unfolding pandemic has a near-documentary quality that looks all too familiar now. Many of its dire scenarios came true during Covid-19, including questions about how much information to share with the public, and the need for large-scale treatment facilities when hospitals became overrun. There’s also a choice subplot about an internet influencer (Jude Law, in an all-star cast) who accuses the Center for Disease Control of spreading misinformation while hawking his own pricey herbal concoction as an alleged cure-all. And if you’re not already a germophobe, Contagion will turn you into one. It’s a two-hour PSA for hand-washing. You wonder: If more people had seen this movie, would we have been better prepared for the chaos of Covid-19?



Mankind’s actions have brought on a new ice age, and the survivors occupy a super-train that never stops circumnavigating the globe. The train is segregated into sections: The have-nots (led by non-superhero Chris Evans) are relegated to squalid conditions in the back, doing all the work and living on grisly rations; the upper class live at the front, in luxury. A revolution is percolating, and eventually we’re going to make our way to the cynical dictator who rides in the front, but surprises are in store. Director Bong Joon-ho, who won multiple Oscars for his Korean masterpiece Parasite, blends social comment with wild action in this 2013 satire. Like many films projecting a future after the apocalypse, Snowpiercer takes a skeptical view of how we will react to large-scale calamity; if some films hold out hope that the better angels of our nature will come to the fore, this one suspects we might keep making the same old mistakes.


Don’t Look Up

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play scientists who discover a comet that will, with no doubt whatsoever, slam into the Earth and end all life as we know it. Humanity’s response? An overwhelming desire to think about something else. This 2021 comedy was meant as a metaphor for humanity’s denial of climate change. But it worked just as well for our pandemic response, using black humor to skewer the absurdities of politicians, the media, and pretty much anybody else drawn into its circus of denial. Nobody is spared, by the comet or the satire—and the movie might make you wonder whether we deserve what’s coming to us. By the way, the premise recalls another film in the “This Is the End” talk, the 1951 sci-fi flick When Worlds Collide, where a rogue planet is due to conk into Earth. In that one, humanity did a pretty good job of pulling together for the sake of the species, except for one sourpuss billionaire who funds the Noah’s Ark-like spaceship that will save a few folks. At the time, maybe the idea of a billionaire building a spaceship seemed far-fetched. But it’s just one more way these movies look absolutely clairvoyant today.

Check out Robert Horton’s Speakers Bureau talk, “This Is the End: How Movies Prepared Us for the Pandemic,” online and in-person around the state.

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