A disastrous summer ahead for the movies

Enjoy the summer movie season like it’s your last.

Hollywood is doubling down on one of its most durable themes this year: doomsday. Apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures will be busting out all over multiplexes like never before.

Already in theaters, Tom Cruise is making like WALL-E in “Oblivion” and obnoxious L.A. brunchers are coping with creeping mass destruction in the comedy “It’s a Disaster. ”

Coming up, Will Smith revisits our abandoned future planet with son Jaden in tow in M. Night Shyamalan’s “After Earth” (opening May 31); the Antichrist walks — or rather stumbles across — the Earth in the comic “Rapture-Palooza” (June 7); and more final days hijinx erupt as Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and a bunch of buddies attend their last party in “This Is the End” (June 12).

Plus, if TV’s “The Walking Dead” isn’t enough zombie apocalypse, Brad Pitt is bringing “World War Z” (June 21); “Hellboy” director Guillermo del Toro offers up giant, human-piloted robots as mankind’s last line of defense against giant, inter-dimensional monsters in “Pacific Rim” (July 12); “District 9’s” Neill Blomkamp foresees an even worse future junkyard Earth in “Elysium” (Aug. 9); and the British blokes who made “Shaun of the Dead” offer up another pub crawl to Armageddon in “The World’s End” (Aug. 23).

Of course, movies have wrecked civilization since the first big wave of science fiction films in the 1950s. George Romero started the zombie takeover subgenre with “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968, “Mad Max” triggered a string of dystopian futures in the ’80s and Will Smith has coped with Man’s End before, in the 2007 version of the oft-filmed “I Am Legend.” Steven Spielberg brought catastrophe in his “War of the Worlds” remake, and Roland Emmerich has made a career out of depicting disasters with “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “2012.” This summer, he’s contenting himself with just demolishing 1600 Penn. again, and for the second time in three months, with “White House Down. ”

But even Emmerich lets a couple of years go by before wrecking everything in sight.

Until this summer, it was a rare scheduling anomaly when two doomsday films came out within months of each other, like “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” did in 1998.

So why all this now?

“It could be because the end of the world was recently predicted,” reckons Craig Robinson, “The Office” regular who appears in two of the doomsday comedies. “When we shot ‘Rapture-Palooza,’ it was during the time that one minister predicted the actual end of the world was supposed to happen. Then, while we were shooting ‘This Is the End,’ the Mayans predicted it for December 21. So there are all these predictions, and it does get your imagination going. You start wondering, ‘OK, what if?’ ”

“Maybe it’s a place people turn to in terms of entertainment when they feel the world changing around them really, really quickly,” observed Dede Gardner, president of Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment company and a producer of “WWZ.” “I certainly feel that’s true now; I’m sure anyone who lived in another era would have said the same of when they were alive. But the change, maybe, is more evident than it’s ever been because of the Internet and the speed with which we are given the world’s news. ”

Perhaps it’s not only the endless availability of instant bad news. Watching the world come to an end may also provide temporary catharsis in times, like ours, when real-world problems seem insoluble.

“In 2008 we had the big recession, and it maybe took a year or two to sink in that we weren’t getting out of it anytime soon,” noted Luke Y. Thompson, editor-in-chief of the pop culture/nerd news website Topless Robot. “That kind of depression was making people think apocalyptically. Then add in about a three-year process from development to completion of a feature film and there you go, a lot of that’s coming out. ”

Whatever the causes, so many creative people thinking along the same lines has not only
Jaden left, and WIll Smith in “After Earth.”
resulted in a bevy of similarly themed, big-budget sci-fi spectaculars, but the unusual phenomenon of multiple satires coming out at the same time. Usually, it takes a few years for a movie trend to generate comic takes on the subject. But since we’ve been living with filmic cataclysm for what seems like forever, the clowns already had their material.

“I remember watching ‘Right at Your Door’ around 2006,” recalled writer-director Todd Berger, whose “It’s a Disaster” is available on-demand and on iTunes, hits DVD June 4 and is still playing at select theaters around the country. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, this movie is grim and stark,’ and years later I was like, that’s a premise that should be funny! I mean, why don’t we take a premise that in no way could be funny and try to make it funny?

“After 50 years of those movies, comedians see that there are so many tropes that we can make fun of now,” Berger added.

Maybe all of these factors affected the brains of filmmakers and stars. But this summer’s catastrophic glut probably doesn’t represent the best of all possible worlds to distributors.

“Apocalypse fatigue is a legitimate worry,” USC associate professor of cinematic arts Jason E. Squire said. “If they had a choice, they probably would not be coming out with similar, futuristic, expensive, end-of-the-world movies opposite each other in the same summer. I bet that would not be their first choice. ”

But summer is thought of as the best time of year for movies to make money, Squire pointed out. So even if a movie wasn’t initially intended for the season – like “WWZ,” which had its original late 2012 release date postponed when expensive rewrites and reshoots were ordered – conventional wisdom dictates that summer is the best time for the film to recoup its $200 million production cost.

Producer Gardner doesn’t sound worried, but she’s not taking anything for granted.

“Of course, you have to be humble whenever you put something out into the world and hope that it’ll find its place, both in terms of its originality and, also, is it going to feel like an also-ran or like people have seen it three times prior to its opening that summer,” she acknowledged. “I’m not terribly concerned relative to the other titles this summer that are similarly themed, precisely because ‘World War Z’ is set in, basically, today, and because I know how realistically we’ve rendered it. ”

Really, though, after this exhausting destruction, how many more times are audiences going to want to see the world end?

“I think it’s here to stay as a trope no matter what,” Topless Robot’s Thompson said. “Like film noir, the Western, the war movie, it’s something that we’re always going to have in the arsenal, and it will come and go in cycles, like everything else. ”

“I think it has a lot to do with what’s going to happen in our world,” Gardner reckoned. “As long as it’s kept on the other side of reality, it will remain a stalwart of our entertainment. If something horrific happened for real, I’m not sure people would be racing to see it repeated. ”

“Audiences are finally getting kind of sick of vampires,” Berger observed. “Maybe in a year, audiences will be sick of the end of the world and something else will come up. Maybe we’ll suddenly see a resurgence of talking-dog movies.

“But I think it’s great to see dark comedies like this becoming so mainstream,” he added. “Maybe we’re changing as a culture, but the fact that people are going to see dark, end-of-the-world movies and not talking dog comedies is encouraging. “