A few minutes past the opening scene of The Road (2009), the scene switches from a panorama of a ravaged wasteland to a close-up of the boy’s hands while he tries to put together the torn pieces of a map. Whether or not he succeeds is inconsequential: the map, filled with colors, lines, and shapes, offers a topography that bears no resemblance to the unbroken solitude of the gray landscape, on which all pre-existing points of reference and place-markers have since become indiscernible. They were either obliterated, eroded, or buried under the blanket of snow. The landscape had undergone radical changes, and the pre-apocalypse map would not have been able to show the man and boy how or where the landscape had changed, nor could it have told them where the safe places were. The crisis, then, is in this post-apocalyptic world rather than the apocalypse itself. No longer dressed in man’s habitual interpretations, the undifferentiated landscape has become unreadable. The incongruity of the post-apocalyptic landscape and its pre-apocalyptic map underscores the magnitude of change that had taken place in the wake of an apocalypse. Apocalypse is disaster on a global scale.
The apocalypse genre originates from the Book of Revelations. The OED defines “apocalypse” as the “‘revelation’ of the future granted to St. John in the isle of Patmos. The book of the New Testament in which this is recorded.” The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek apo-calyptein, which means “to unveil” or “to uncover.” Today, the biblical roots of the apocalypse have mostly slipped away from the popular imagination, and the word takes on the more general definition of a “disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, especially on a global scale; a cataclysm” (OED). Though the apocalypse has been adapted and re-characterized in various ways, a closer look finds its biblical roots still echoing through numerous cultural documents.
Whether or not one disputes the presence of biblical undertones in contemporary apocalyptic narratives, it is this room for dispute and reinterpretation that keeps the trope of the apocalypse alive. The idea of the world coming to an end has anything but lost its grip on the human imagination. Somehow, the trope of the apocalypse has escaped banality, surviving through the ages and continuing to perplex, preoccupy, and entertain through generations, and across geographical regions and cultures. If anything, the advent of modern technology has facilitated the manifestation of the ever-imminent apocalypse in popular culture. Modernity has revitalized this ancient narrative by inseminating it with new possibilities that enable it to spawn sub-genres. Variations of the apocalypse have emerged in the form of the zombie invasion, the nuclear holocaust, some abnormal environmental disaster caused by climate change, or a fatal epidemic. These sub-genres share the overarching motif of humanity’s impending doom. As the apocalypse has not actually happened, it automatically grants storytellers of any medium the narrative freedom and artistic license to represent it in any imaginable form.
The apocalypse is an imaginary event bound up in our cultural consciousness and remains as “imminent” as it has always been. It comes to life in film, when the viewer suspends his or her disbelief while watching the apocalypse unravel. However preposterous the apocalypse or nauseating the romance in The Day After Tomorrow, the film still manages to gain a large following and entertain a large group of people. The versatility of the apocalypse trope and its ability to speak to many different issues and times makes it a useful medium for activist messages. So far, all that constitutes apocalypse has been derived from the ways in which people witness, experience, and understand disasters, both natural and man-made. Disaster is what we know. On a similar note, post-apocalyptic scenarios such as those seen in The Road are constructed out of the ways in which people have responded and coped in the aftermath of disaster.
Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road departs from some of the conventions of dystopian science fiction, which often take place in our usual “city-of-cities” like New York and Los Angeles, both of which can be identified by their iconic monuments. Rather than filming The Road in one of these big urban cities, Hillcoat bases the film’s production at an abandoned turnpike in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. He uses shopping carts, canned food, and “gangs carrying weapons”—signifiers of urban life—to give the viewer the impression that the scene’s location could have been a city in the pre-apocalyptic days, and also that it need not have been. The un-scenic, un-iconic, unreadable setting and noisy visual field grants the film an uncanny verisimilitude. Like dangling someone off a cliff, the film uses the horror of recognition in order to evoke an imaginative empathy in the viewer, possibly getting the viewer to think about that which really matters to him or her, should he or she be caught in such a situation.
The hardest part about dealing with an apocalypse is surviving its aftermath. In The Road, the structures of the human world have crumbled. Each step of the man and the boy’s journey to the South is filled with fear and paranoia; the future is uncertain and dangerous. Displaced from their homes and left with nothing but one another, the post-apocalyptic conditions that the boy and the man face resemble the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, when people lost their homes and had nowhere to go. Such conditions test one’s faith and morality as they do the man’s: in times of extreme desperation and stress, how do our morals and beliefs hold up? In the moment of the apocalypse itself, one either lives on, or dies—no conscious decision has to be made. Furthermore, the apocalypse itself is often depicted as instantaneous or something that takes place overnight. In The Road, the drama concomitant with apocalypse is summed up as “a long sheer of bright lights and a series of low concussions.” Whereas the apocalypse flashed by, the man and the boy’s post-apocalyptic struggle for survival is drawn out over time, without any sense of an ending. The adage “time flies with you’re having fun” implies that the temporal progression of our experiences do not always seem to reflect chronometric time. The trauma that comes with post-apocalyptic conditions are often far more drawn out than the apocalypse itself, which suggests a far greater suffering that comes in the aftermath of the apocalypse. Like many apocalyptic narratives, the cause of the apocalypse is not explained in The Road. The main aim of these stories and films is to explore what people will do and will not do when placed under such distressing circumstances.
Often, post-apocalyptic landscapes are stripped of man’s habitual interpretations and appear impossible to navigate. Drawing upon a distinction put forth in Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, Fredric Jameson describes “. . . the alienated city” as being “above all a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves: . . . none of the traditional markers obtain . . . ” (Jameson 89). While the setting in The Road is far from the urban totality that Jameson describes, the film evokes a similar disoriented feeling. The man and the boy are lost in the naked landscape without any tools to navigate the vast uncharted space. Their usual indices of time and space no longer obtain: the map that can no longer guide them, and the “clocks stopped at 1:17.” In addition to being displaced, the man and the boy exist outside of time. In the film’s earlier scenes, the man “think[s] it’s October, but [he] can’t be sure. [He] hadn’t kept a calendar in years.” The viewer hears the man’s thoughts through the film’s narration. Minimal dialogue takes place between the man and the boy, and there is a pervading silence about The Road. The overwhelming silence evokes the post-traumatic speechlessness and discomfort in both the man and the boy, as well as draws the viewer’s attention to the absence of human life.
The apocalypse is both proleptic and analeptic. On one hand, the viewer exists in the characters’ “past,” as the apocalypse has not happened in the viewer’s world. Throughout the film, the viewer obtains glimpses of a perfect, pre-apocalyptic earth through the film’s visualization of the man’s memories. The Road opens with the man’s flashback of the better, pre-apocalypse world in all its pastoral tranquility. As soon as the man wakes up from his dream, the viewer is cast into the man’s wintry world of gray. Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road demonstrates the indebtedness of the modern environmental movement to the literary genres of the pastoral and apocalypse. The ravaged landscape forebodes an unnamed disaster of known scale that has yet to come for the viewer. Relying upon a “prophetic” reference to the “past,” the film evokes an eco-nostalgia as it depicts the man’s yearning for a past that no longer exists. The Road urges its viewer to confront and contemplate the apocalypse as if it were his or her own memory.
The apocalypse is an effective metaphor for drawing attention to contemporary issues and various concerns. By placing people in life-threatening apocalyptic situations, apocalypse narratives are able to draw its audience’s attention to the severity of a particular issue of the time. The tragic earth and the gut-wrenching specter of cannibalism is hard to ignore, and the viewer is inadvertently shocked into noticing the possible fate that awaits humanity. Post-apocalyptic and apocalyptic representations have the capacity to use the horror of recognition to get its audience to care more about a particular cause, as these narratives warn the viewer of the disastrous consequences that could result from his or her selective blindness to these pressing issues. The Road captures the 21st-century zeitgeist of environmental activism and increasing environmental anxiety.
The apocalypse is an effective trope for getting the audience to reflect upon how well their morals and beliefs will hold up when they are placed under extreme pressure. How does one keep going without purpose and direction? Should one keep going in the first place? The survivalist ethic that pervades most stories about the end of the world is less prominent in The Road, in which suicide is regarded as the better option than survival. Recall the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when people were seen jumping out of the World Trade Center during the time of the attack. These examples illustrate the desperate moments when survival may no longer feel instinctive. When death is a certainty, and one’s only options are a fast death or a slow and painful one, the Darwinian concept of “survival of the fittest” becomes irrelevant. Even cannibalism, as we see in The Road, loses its taboo status—people decide that it is acceptable and not immoral because they need to eat other people in order to survive. The man’s only justification for continuing to survive in the perverse world of The Road rests in his option to teach the boy the skills and knowledge he needs in order to survive. Whatever reasons there might be for surviving, all the man “know[s] is the child is [his] warrant. If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” The man teaches the boy how to orient himself, how to keep track of his physical and moral bearings, and how to navigate the earth when the codes and markers have disappeared, when the map is no longer usable, and when the man is no longer around.
Apocalyptic narratives serve as wake-up calls to our morals and beliefs. They make us think about whether or not these values and beliefs would prevail in disaster’s moment of truth. By not conforming to cannibalism despite possibly starving to death, the man and the boy in The Road anchor the differences between themselves and those who have turned to cannibalism for survival. Early on in the film, the man’s thoughts are heard through the bleak narration: “There’s been cannibalism, cannibalism is the great fear.” Cannibalism is not only his great fear—it’s our great fear. The Road speaks for the fears of the viewers’ collective psyche. The trope of the apocalypse enables cinematic works to use the “great fear” of cannibalism and zombies as disguised analogues of the heightened cultural anxiety about terrorism and national security. Cannibalism and zombies capture the disquieting notion of being killed and consumed by our own kind. The notion of being killed and eaten by one’s own is comparable to the way in which the 9/11 attacks took place from within the target government’s home country—like a virus attacking its host from within. These events demonstrate a kind of dissolution of boundaries. Like the barren landscape that the man and boy find themselves in, they provide scenarios when “inside” and “outside” are dead terms.
At the same time, apocalypse restores human agency in the light of their fears and anxieties, and gives people a sense of control in the disorienting, nightmarish aftermath of disasters like 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and Hurricane Katrina. The dissolution of boundaries and the unreadability of the film’s post-apocalyptic landscape can also be viewed as an opportunity to re-carve these spaces and redraw the maps. Where there are no boundaries, we can create boundaries. The barren landscape is also a white canvas, waiting to be reinterpreted.
Apocalypse is a shape-shifting cataclysm that has not become outmoded despite its long history, because it exists outside of time. While we are able to confront it through analepsis and prolepsis in film and literature, apocalypse exists neither in the past nor the future—at least not that we know of. The analeptic and proleptic frames of cinematic apocalypses are opportunities for us to look “backward” in order to look “forward,” to develop a “new principle of interpretation, a new perspective or point of view.” It offers us a range of possibilities for the re-characterization of its events and the rereading of its signs. The events of the apocalypse can be reorganized to consist of different revelations, or “things as they really are,” based on the needs of each time and place. Apocalypse awakens us to the possibilities of redefining our boundaries; where there are none, we can recreate them. Rather than feel like the world is closing in on us, we can think of it as opening up for us. That which it prepares man for is not the experience of the apocalypse itself, perhaps, but the radical changes and crisis to come in its aftermath.
The apocalypse in itself is a perennial anxiety of humankind. The regeneration and reinvention of the apocalypse speaks to the anthropocentrism of humankind and how man tends to think of his place in the world. It is rare for apocalyptic narratives to present the complete annihilation of humanity, no matter how “irreversible” the damage is purported to be. How would a post-apocalyptic world exist, otherwise? We cannot even imagine an earth without the mark of humanity, let alone imagine ourselves going extinct. There is no end to our existence, because survivors must exist to tell the tale—somebody’s got to do the job. As it turns out, The Road offers the audience a glimmer of hope for mankind toward the end. The man’s discovery of the living bug is indicative of the earth’s natural regenerative properties, while suggesting a reciprocity between mankind and nature. Therein lies the film’s glimmer of hope, as well as the paradox of apocalypse. The trope of the apocalypse is likely to survive if an apocalypse were to happen. It will survive alongside humanity in the “post-apocalyptic” world, in which we anticipate the next revelation with eyes wide open, naked as we came.