Review of Ford and Mitchell’s Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films

Review of Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films by Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell

Michele Braun

Elizabeth A. Ford and Deborah C. Mitchell. Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Films. McFarland, 2018. Paperback. 237 pp. $49.95. ISBN 9781476672731.

Introducing Apocalyptic Visions in 21st Century Film, Elizabeth Ford and Deborah Mitchell contextualize their study by hypothesizing that the “American bedrock shifted” (2) after September 11, 2001 and that human beings process reality, fear and angst through art. The central premise is that 9/11 introduced new apocalyptic themes into filmmaking. This cultural contextualization offers potential as a unifying theme within the volume, but, disappointingly, its application is uneven across the chapters that follow. 

The first chapter, “Envisioning the Apocalypse,” states it will address some of the texts that do not fit in the remainder of the volume. It describes apocalyptic film as grounded in a climate change-induced fear of tsunamis, zombie-infected cities, and the contrast between the loveliness of ordinary life and the desolation of post-apocalyptic landscapes. It reads as an attempt to use filmic features, like special effects, setting, and light and color, to lay the book’s groundwork, though it never explicitly says so. 

Another organizing chapter, “Hollywood’s Doomsday-Prepper Backpacks” suggests that apocalyptic film produces character types such as the Apocalyptic Denier, the Unselfish Pragmatist, the Romantic Moralist, the Lotus Eater, and the Fetishist, by drawing from Neville Shute’s 1953 On the Beach and its 1959 film adaptation. The reader expects these to serve as models for 21st century apocalyptic film, but is instead offered additional types, which leaves one wondering the purpose of establishing the On the Beach reference.

The bulk of the book’s remaining chapters chronicle the post 9/11 effect on subgenres of apocalyptic narrative. Young adult film is rife with apocalyptic imagery, and the analysis of WALL-E‘s (2008) social commentary and warning is insightful as it focuses on narrative, in the chapter “Coming of Age in Post-Apocalyptic Worlds.” The post-apocalyptic landscape of WALL-E contrasts with the optimism and joy that WALL-E extracts from his work and encounter with Eve, producing a film that suggests it’s not too late to reconnect with each other and prevent apocalypse by environmental disaster. 

“Speaking to Them, Speaking to Us” traces the changing social context for two iconic apocalyptic films: War of the Worlds (2003) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). The authors argue that the isolationist, survivalist approach of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is an analog for the fearful response post 9/11 to arm oneself and only worry about oneself and one’s family. This contrasts with the final chapter of the volume, “The New Superhero Dynamic,” which suggests that the upsurge of superhero movies in the last two decades reflects a turn to community and cooperation as a means of saving us from irresponsible leadership, fragmented communities, and social problems like poverty, racism, and crime in a post-911 landscape. It’s difficult to reconcile these two approaches to apocalypse, and the fantastical nature of the superhero genre would suggest it is idealistic while the isolationist approach is the more realistically viable one. 

The answer to why “Why Super 8 Can’t be E.T.” lies firmly in the thesis of the book: that 9/11 changed the collective American imagination of apocalypse and our attitudes towards aliens (and alien encounters). A friendly and harmless E.T. is replaced in Super 8 (2011) by an alien treated by the military like a high-value terrorist. The introduction of “terrorist” into the American lexicon after 9/11 transforms the alien from curious lost traveller to threat. This chapter does lead nicely into the next, “The Difficulty of Framing a Real Apocalypse,” though the exploration of film that directly references 9/11 oddly pairs Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), using trauma to link the fatherless children at the center of each narrative. The parallels between the texts are numerous (as critics have already noted), though the traumatic connection is about parental loss rather than experience of apocalypse per se and thus is limited in its contribution. 

The brief discussion of Warm Bodies (2013) at the end of “The Apocalyptic Landscape of Love” explores the hope inherent in R’s gradually reawakening heart, suggesting that a zombie apocalypse does not need to be the end. The hopeful ending of the other texts analyzed in the chapter, the Twilight films and Beautiful Creatures (2013), however, is a result of individual triumph over evil, which creates an apocalypse of two, which is more limited than the usual conception of apocalypse as an event that destroys whole civilizations.

This liberal reimagination of apocalypse continues in the next chapter. While the authors admit that the films discussed in “Emmerich’s Apocalyptic Visions of Shakespeare” may not be obviously apocalyptic, they explain that Emmerich’s Anonymous (2011), which suggests that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and poems credited to him, reflects the dystopian ethos of the 21st century, an age of questioning everything. They draw parallels between the contested identity of Shakespeare as presented in Anonymous and the birther movement in the U.S. that sought to discredit Barack Obama’s presidency by contesting his nationality, though how either fictional or real contested identity is apocalyptic is not made clear. 

There are some excellent insights into 21st century American films in this volume that make it worth reading. However, the connection of these texts to each other and to apocalypse is often tenuous. The challenge with linking 9/11 and apocalypse is that together they inscribe only a small slice of an overlapping Venn diagram whose totality is much larger. Additionally, the repeated references to the home state of the authors (Ohio) and their country provide local examples for a global thesis about 21st century apocalypse. The nature of this relationship between the local and the global is never clear, and one gets the sense that many of the chapters may have stood better on their own than forced into a book with a theme of apocalyptic film.

Review of Ransom’s I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations

Review of I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations by Amy J. Ransom

J.R. Colmenero

Amy J. Ransom. I Am Legend as American Myth: Race and Masculinity in the Novel and Its Film Adaptations. McFarland, 2018. Paperback, 231 pages, $45.00. ISBN 9781476668338. 

Although it misses some opportunities to engage more rigorously with theories of race and masculinity, Amy J. Ransom’s comprehensive book about Richard Matheson’s horror/sci-fi novel I Am Legend and its many screen adaptations is an eminently readable and useful addition to critical literature on the horror/science fiction genre, studies of Richard Matheson’s oeuvre, and the intertwined histories of literature, film, and mass media in twentieth and early twenty-first century texts. Before reading this book, I was mostly ignorant about the pervasive nature of Matheson’s 1954 text in structuring horror/sci-fi conventions of the late twentieth century. After finishing this book, I’m convinced that I Am Legend deserves an exceptional position as a reflecting pool for social concerns about masculinity as well as race and race-mixing in a United States context. 

The best part of American Myth is in its lucid treatment of the historical and cultural context for the series. Ransom is thorough in discussing literary and filmic antecedents for the “last man” apocalyptic narrative (such as M. P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud [1901] and The World, The Flesh and the Devil [1959], written and directed by Ranald MacDougall). Historical details — of production and direction of the adaptations, as well as of Matheson’s response to those adaptations — are interestingly and usefully explained in an accessible way. Finally, Ransom’s overall argument about the most recent iterations of I Am Legend as conjecturing a “post-white” United States is persuasive (181). 

The first chapter, “The Trauma of World War II and the Decline of Western ‘Right’,” includes a thorough critical summary of the originary novel, situating Matheson’s work both historically — as a response to post-WW2 and Cold War fears — and generically, as the vampire novel Matheson intended it to be. Thematically, Ransom is most concerned with the figure of the protagonist and the different interpretations of the Robert Neville character. Even in the 1954 original text, Matheson’s Neville “problematizes the white male’s role as arbiter of right” with his erratic behavior and symbolic castration (being the only surviving human foreclosing possibilities for reproduction) (56). One of the interventions of the original narrative is its illustration of the “Last Man” post-apocalyptic narrative, one that is “symptomatic of the gravity of the national crisis in white masculinity and its traditionally perceived prerogatives” (82). Ransom’s use of “star” theory guides the second and third chapters, in which she analyzes the first filmic adaptations of Matheson’s book, the 1964 film The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. 

Chapter 2 is a well-reasoned argument that reads Matheson’s two novels The Shrinking Man (1956) and IAL in order to establish Matheson’s thematic interest with depicting a “crisis of masculinity” (112). This claim is then used to examine the casting and performance of Vincent Price as the protagonist in the first film adaptation of IAL and how Price’s interpretation of the character makes clearer the more submissive and perhaps queered role of a bachelor being pursued by “lustful” vampires and locked in a passionate relationship with his vampire suitor, neighbor and friend-in-a-former-life Ben Cortman. The third chapter, “The Last White Man on Earth: Charlton Heston in The Omega Man,” intervenes in critical conversations about the film that have overly relied on the “star persona” (12) of Charlton Heston and his reinforcement of a strong, masculine protagonist (in contrast to the earlier film starring Price) to define their interpretation of the film. Indeed, Ransom comes to show that Omega’s messages regarding race and masculinity are more ambivalent than critics have historically argued, and that the film “retained the subversive core of Matheson’s novel and its interrogation of its white hero and his moral imperative” (127). 

While The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man register cultural fears about the Cold War and Vietnam respectively, Ransom situates the two most recent adaptations of Matheson’s text — two films produced in 2007, Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend and Griff Furst’s I Am Omega in their position as post 9/11 U.S. cultural productions. The section on Lawrence’s I Am Legend takes up the question of “what it means when the last man on earth is black” (160). Although it is Lawrence’s film that has garnered the most critical and popular attention in recent years, I also appreciated Ransom’s exegesis of its straight-to-DVD homologue, a more flashy interpretation of the original text — this time featuring cannibalistic zombies and martial arts — that nevertheless raises interesting questions about the future of an increasingly multiracial U.S.

While it’s a given that there is no single totalizing mythos that defines the history of the United States, reading race and gender at the center of U.S. horror/science fiction endeavors is a sound place to start. If anything, I wish that Ransom had engaged more with foundational theory about race and feminist theories of masculinity. Since the book already utilizes critical terms such as “star” theory and adaptation to inform the argument, I think a deeper engagement with critical race theory as well as theories about masculinity to inform her reading of the protagonists’ various identities throughout the adaptations would have been helpful.

Ultimately, Amy J. Ransom’s book is clever, well-argued, and accessible to lay readers interested in the horror/science fiction genre, movie adaptations, and 20th century film and “star” histories. Because of the nature of the subject matter (using a variety of theoretical lenses to study a text and its adaptations by different people at different times), it is also an ideal book for undergraduates to learn how to usefully compare and close-read texts and their adaptations. For the more serious scholar of Matheson, Ransom offers both a comprehensive introduction to literary criticism about I Am Legend, as well as lucid new readings of the significance of the text, reminding us that the barriers between “literature” and “mass media” are increasingly permeable, and best understood as the inextricable realities that they represent.