Analyzing cinema’s apocalyptic appeal
March 30, 2022
No other genre captivates audiences quite like apocalypse cinema.
Viewers eagerly pack theatres to watch films like “Contagion” and “Avengers: Endgame.” But the fascination isn’t new — it dates back as far back as the silent film area, when 1927’s “Metropolis” ruled the screen.
Maybe it’s the seat-gripping action and adrenaline rush that keeps audiences coming back for more. But as morbid and fatalist as depictions of the end of the world may seem, most films about the apocalypse are actually rooted in humanity. That’s what the late professor Stephen Prince loved about the films.
“Generally, when someone says ‘apocalyptic,’ we think of barren landscapes, dangers everywhere, and scant resources,” said Shaily Patel, an assistant professor of religion and culture at Virginia Tech. “But when we think about apocalyptic movies, there’s always an element of hope.”
Prince was a beloved professor of cinema in Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts for 32 years, and he served as president of the Society for Cognitive Study of the Moving Image. He passed away in December 2020. The last of his 17 books, “Apocalypse Cinema,” was published posthumously in July 2021.
The Department of Religion and Culture will host “Dr. Strangelove & the Apocalypse,” a film screening and discussion, in celebration of Prince’s work on April 18 at 7 p.m. in 3100 Torgersen Hall. The event is free and open to the public, with discussion led by Patel, along with Brian Britt and Matthew Gabriele, both professors of religion and culture.
Britt approached Gabriele after realizing the department had a shared interest in apocalyptic thought, and he wanted to honor Prince’s work as well as celebrate his time at Virginia Tech. They chose the 1964 Stanley Kubrick–directed film “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” for the viewing, Gabriele said, because it is one of the films Prince focused on in his book. The film also remains relevant, given its focus on conspiracy theories and potential nuclear threats.
“Apocalypses are about transformations — about people who are unsatisfied with the world around them and want something new,” Gabriele said. “You see that tension throughout the film, politically, culturally, and religiously. Plus, it’s just a really good, funny film.”
Patel added that while the film is not necessarily “hopeful on the surface,” it contains a definite element of hope. She said the event will also discuss how satire is used as cultural criticism and how popular media portrays cultural values.
“It’s a satire of the mismanagement of nuclear weapons,” Patel said of the film. “And given current events, it could be very, very bleak. But to me, satire only works because the audience recognizes that things are absurd as they stand, and that there are better ways forward.”
Patel notes that in the introduction of “Apocalypse Cinema,” Prince writes that moviegoers “depending on their mood or interests, can choose different versions of the way things will end.” He argues that popular media isn’t just idle entertainment or escapism — though it can be — but rather a response to and exploration of social and cultural underpinnings.
“I would hope,” Patel said, “attendees take away this one thing: The popular culture we love matters, because what we choose to watch, read, or listen to tells us something about ourselves.”
Britt, who had previously served as interim director of the School of Performing Arts, considered Prince a friend. Britt said Prince had a way of guiding discussions “gently and productively,” and spoke of movies with “warmth and enthusiasm.”
“When he told me he was writing a book about apocalypse and film, I immediately thought it would be nice to connect him to colleagues in my department who share this interest,” Britt said. “Steve’s discussion of ‘Dr. Strangelove’ is one of the longest in ‘Apocalypse Cinema,’ and so even though we can no longer talk with him about it, his voice and appreciation for the film are vivid enough to support a meaningful conversation.”
Written by Kelsey Bartlett