This year, film won't imitate life: it will transfer our apocalyptic nightmares on to celluloid. Kevin Maher explains how global angst is part of the zeitgeist.
2009 will be remembered for the end of the world
Stow those new year's resolutions. Don't bother with the mortgage repayments. And cancel that long-term health insurance. For if Planet Movies is anything to go by, then 2009 will be forever known as the year the apocalypse came to town.
The big studio behemoths are typically making the loudest noise about impending Armageddon, firstly with a movie titled, confusingly enough, 2012. Directed by Roland Emmerich, originally budgeted at an eye-watering $200 million (Dh735 million) and set a mere 36 months into the future, the film follows the attempts of the everyman hero John Cusack and the African-American president Danny Glover (very topical) to evade the complete destruction of all life on the planet as we know it. Emmerich, of course, has made a career out of apocalyptic fear-mongering (see his previous Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day), but this movie, glimpsed in an ominous teaser of drowning Himalayan peaks, seems to offer little room for optimism. "How would the governments of our planet prepare six billion people for the end of the world?" asks the trailer, before answering, with brutal finality, "They wouldn't."
The gloom continues in the highly anticipated movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-winning post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Starring Viggo Mortensen (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy) and directed by John Hillcoat (The Proposition), it follows a dying father (Mortensen) as he travels across the ravaged and post-cataclysmic landscapes of the south-eastern United States, dodging gangs of cannibals and searching for a sliver of hope in the nihilistic wreck of humanity. That particular plot is echoed in The Book Of Eli, Denzel Washington's new movie, directed by the Hughes Brothers (From Hell) and focused on, again, a post-Apocalyptic America where the secret of saving mankind from total annihilation is hidden in the titular tome.
Other movies, such as Terminator Salvation (the latest in the popular cyborg franchise, but the first not to star Arnold Schwarzenegger), or the Nicolas Cage supernatural thriller Knowing, are all rooted in an apocalypse that if not already realised, is clearly on its way. Could this be a metaphor for fundamental global angst? It certainly seems so. For movies this year are all about what is inferred and implied rather than what is stated. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the complete absence of Iraq War films, coupled with the fantastical proliferation of Second World War movies - there is clearly some sublimation going on here. Faced with an embarrassing litany of last year's critically praised yet commercially panned Iraq-themed movies, such as In The Valley Of Elah, Rendition and Redacted, Hollywood has fled completely from Iraq and instead inserted its war obsession into films almost exclusively about the Second World War.
Films such as Valkyrie, The Reader and Good (starring, respectively, Tom Cruise, Kate Winslet and, again, Viggo Mortensen), are all films that re-examine the Second World War, but they do so from a slightly revisionist point of view. In each case they use personal dilemmas to question what it was to be a Nazi, and they suggest that it wasn't always a case of choosing evil over good. These films, along with Defiance (about Russian Jewish guerillas fighting the Nazis) and Quentin Tarantino's upcoming Inglorious Bastards (about Jewish-American soldiers terrorising their Nazi foes) can't help but reflect a contemporary world where the morality of war has been so confused that the differences between good and bad, between liberators and occupiers, and between defenders and aggressors are not just muddy, but irrelevant.
The absence of explicit political comment in the films of 2009 is noticeable right across the genres, too. The big documentaries, once such a locus of biting comment and rabble rousing (step forward Michael Moore), have seemingly retreated this year into the comfort of quirk. Tyson, the new doc from acclaimed filmmaker James Toback (Black and White), is simply a biographical profile of former boxer Mike Tyson.
There are a few exceptions to the no-politics rule, naturally. Najwa Najjar's Pomegranates And Myrrh, playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival, has created industry buzz for its tough picture of the daily struggle of a Palestinian prisoner's wife. While events in the UAE will be calendar highlights of the festival circuit, the greatest controversy is the imminent head-to-head clash of the Venice and Toronto film festivals in September. Venice has been deliberately moved, by competitive organisers, to coincide with the Toronto Film Festival, thus facing the much-needed visiting stars (who provide the oxygen of publicity) with one crucial question: This year, will I do Venice or Toronto? Or, more accurately, given the state of the impeding apocalypse, will I even bother at all?
1 Where the Wild Things Are: A tortuous production schedule, expensive reshoots and rumours of giant puppets cannot deflect interest from Spike Jonze's adaptation of the classic fairy tale. 2 Star Trek: The rebirth of kitsch begins in earnest, as Hollywood wunderkind JJ Abrams (Cloverfield, and the TV series Lost) takes the cast of the Enterprise back to their youth. 3 New York, I Love You: A companion piece to last year's Paris, Je t'aime, veteran as well as debut filmmakers try to capture the spirit of the city that never sleeps.
4 State of Play: Kevin Macdonald follows up the Oscar-wining Last King Of Scotland with this big-screen adaptation of a UK TV classic about a politician implicated in the death of his mistress. 5 Angels & Demons: Robert Langdon is back in this Da Vinci Code sequel about another secret society - the Illuminati - and its quest to put some anti-matter to very bad use. 6 The Lovely Bones: In Peter Jackson's adaptation of Alice Sebold's bestseller, Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) stars as the girl who must solve her own killing from beyond the grave.
7 The Fantastic Mr Fox: Everyone's favourite hipster director, Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) turns his attention to animation in this star-studded adaptation of a Roald Dahl tale. 8 Avatar: Twelve years since he turned Titanic into a smash, James Cameron returns with a revolutionary 3-D movie (he invented the technical process) about life on another planet. 9 Watchmen: Directed by 300's Zack Snyder, this comic-book adaptation is based on Alan Moore's iconic series. The story centres on superheroes staving off nuclear war and, naturally, Armageddon.
10Terminator Salvation: A controversial choice of director, McG of Charlie's Angels, and a surprise choice of star, Christian Bale, have given some much-needed lustre to this fading franchise.