Saturday, March 12, 2011

Posters of the apocalypse

We love movies about the end of the world, don't we?

Even if we know there's a high likelihood they will suck, our excitement overwhelms us -- doesn't it?

But I'm wondering if that phenomenon wouldn't be half as powerful without a tradition of truly captivating posters ... which, a lot of times, were for movies that really sucked.

It remains to be seen what we'll think of Battle: Los Angeles, but I can tell you that the poster you see above absolutely thrilled me. It perfectly accomplishes what posters for apocalyptic movies set out to do -- it provides a single-image encapsulation of the idea of normal life supplanted by chaos. What better way to indicate "business as usual" turned upside down, than surfers waiting for the next big wave as aliens rain the heavens with artillery fire?

It's that mixture of everyday things we recognize and exotic things we don't recognize that makes the image so powerful. And that's why I think the poster for Battle: LA you see below is not as effective:

Sure, there's a basic impressiveness here: A single soldier stands and looks at ... something. We don't know what. And that's part of the problem. Is it an alien craft? Is it a chunk of land turned up on its side, and the spiky objects we're seeing are buildings or other parts of the industrial landscape? We can't really tell. It still makes me want to see the movie, but not the way the surfing poster makes me want to see the movie.

So I thought today it would be fun to go back and look at other posters of the apocalypse, and to dissect how they used familiar images to whet our appetite for the movie in question ... and whether that whetted appetite ended up resulting in a satisfying movie.

Let's start with the most recent obvious example, which also has a whole series of posters associated with it:

2012 (2009, Roland Emmerich)

These posters are, frankly, perfect. They are ludicrous at the same time that they are somehow deliciously plausible. Waves crashing over the Himalayas? Not on your life would that ever happen. But would I like to see a movie where it happens? Yup, I think so. Emmerich et al were also smart to use the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, since it has a basic awesomeness that is enhanced by collapsing under the weight of a tidal wave. The final image is interesting to me, referencing the most orgiastic destruction depicted in the movie, when plate tectonics rip apart the west side of Los Angeles. It's interesting because there's a billboard for Battle: Los Angeles that features the same section of town, with those artillery blasts from the surfing poster above -- I'm wondering if that's an intentional allusion (or else direct theft) from the 2012 advertising campaign.

Was it worth it? I thought so, yes. The destruction was great on its own terms, and just removed enough that you didn't have to ponder the billions of people who were dying. Some criticized the movie for that very reason, and for dozens of other reasons, not the least of which is that they have a knee-jerk hatred for everything made by Roland Emmerich. I did previously as well, but this one really worked for me. And speaking of Emmerich ...

The Day After Tomorrow (2004, Roland Emmerich)

Emmerich tried to capitalize on our fears of climate change with The Day After Tomorrow, and this poster was a good start. The Statue of Liberty, up to her nose in snow? My God! AND IT MAY BE HAPPENING AS SOON AS TWO DAYS FROM NOW!

Was it worth it? Not really. The Day After Tomorrow was silly. I was able to appreciate it only on the level of seeing some of the special effects, but to be honest, the catastrophic phenomenon depicted here does not lend itself to effects the way some of his other phenomena do. In fact, the scene I remember most was where tornadoes were ripping apart Los Angeles, which doesn't even really jive with the rest of the movie. Emmerich basically threw it in there because he could. And speaking of uses of the Statue of Liberty ...

Cloverfield (2008, Matt Reeves)

The Day After Tomorrow poster shows only the statue's head, while this poster shows only the statue's body -- because the head has been ripped off its shoulders by a giant reptilian alien. The smart thing about the Cloverfield poster is that it reminds everyone of their first exposure to the movie, which was that great teaser trailer that went viral in late 2007, in which the final shot is the statue's head coming to a rest in the street somewhere, uptown from Liberty Island. The events depicted in Cloverfield may not lead to the end of the world, but who knows ... they may.

Was it worth it? HELLS yes. Cloverfield was awesome. I got it on BluRay for Christmas and am looking forward to my third viewing. And speaking of the Statue of Liberty again ...

Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner)

Of course, all these other movies' usages of the Statue of Liberty owe a debt to how it was used as a gut punch at the end of Planet of the Apes. Having this iconic image sunken into the sand just killed us -- and by "us," I mean people who saw it in the theater, which does not include me, as I was not born for another five years.

Was it worth it? Well, duh -- Planet of the Apes is a classic. However, I have to wonder if this poster was used to advertise it at the time, or only in retrospect. I'm thinking retrospect. Given that it was a highly guarded secret that this ape planet was Earth, intended to Shyamalan us 30 years before Shyamalan, I doubt they would have revealed it in the original advertising campaign. But back to Roland Emmerich ...

Independence Day (1996, Roland Emmerich)

Emmerich first started blowing up the world back in 1996, with Independence Day. Talk about making it personal for us -- the White House getting blasted by an alien laser beam became the signature image of the film. And there's something about when you get to the president, who should be untouchable, that really strikes a chord with us. In fact, you could say that the White House bit worked so well, Emmerich intentionally alluded to it in 2012 with the scene where the capsized battleship flattens the White House, after riding on the crest of a tidal wave. That one scene is like every exciting thing from every disaster movie, rolled into one. (The Empire State building poster looks nicer and is good, too -- and certainly wouldn't have been possible post-9/11).

Was it worth it? I am not a fan of Independence Day. But I did like those few scenes with maximum possible destruction. They lived up to what I was expecting. And speaking of tidal waves ...

Deep Impact (1998, Mimi Leder)

Both asteroid movies that came out in 1998 were all about the tidal wave that was going to destroy the world, but only Deep Impact emphasized these in the ad campaign, while Armageddon focused more on the heroic and patriotic oil riggers-turned-astronauts. Although this poster cheeses it up a bit by showing the human drama implied by the world's coastal regions being violently drenched, the sight of the wave bearing down on New York City captures the situation pretty well.

Was it worth it? Yeah, I really liked Deep Impact -- in part because of the human drama I just poked fun at a minute ago. What can I say, I'm a sap. I should probably see it again to be sure, but I really liked it.

Okay, this post is getting long, so let's hurry through these last couple:

The Core (2003, Jon Amiel)

Talk about preposterous ... the idea behind The Core was that the Earth's core had stopped, and some scientists/adventurers had to drill into it to jump-start it. This presented all kinds of visual problems about how to represent the threat, and what they ended up with was merely adequate. Not only is the part of the Earth's surface shown in this image too abstract to make out, making the threat abstract as well, but the deep fissure depicted here is not actually the outcome of the threat -- more than anything else, it shows the hole they'd have to burrow to get down to the core.

Was it worth it? Hopefully the abstract advertisements kept people away, because this movie was not good. However, not knowing exactly where the threat is did not matter here ...

The Day After (1986, Nicholas Meyer)

This is cheating a little bit -- The Day After was a TV movie rather than a theatrical release, so our appetite for it was not whetted by a poster. In fact, this image probably accompanied the eventual video release. But the nuclear blast in the middle of an American city is so effective that it doesn't really matter which city it is -- though I believe the action was set around Kansas City.

Was it worth it? To this day I still identify The Day After with all my fears of nuclear annihilation. It was damn effective.

I had a couple more I was going to do, but all the image files attached to this post were causing Blogger to act funny -- images disappearing (possibly being "behind" other images), etc. So I'll just leave off there. You've had enough. I'll let you off the hook.


Thaddeus said...

I've put up tons of pics in my movie reviews, and there is the occasional glitch.

Sometimes when you add images, there will be a second copy that pops up at the top of the post. What you might want to try doing is adding the pictures in "Edit html" mode, then shifting their features in "Compose" mode.

Nice idea for a post!

Travis McClain said...

I love Independence Day, faults and all. The special effects still hold up nicely, the cast is great (including Will Smith before he stopped being funny), the humor is amusing and David Arnold's score has to be one of the finest of the 90s.

My problem with The Day after Tomorrow was that it purported to go through the motions of showing us scientists being dismissed by politicians. The problem is that even if those politicians had heeded the warnings in the movie it wouldn't have made any appreciable difference. What they should have done was show us the science/political debate in flashbacks, and left it ambiguous how long ago that had taken place. Start the movie with the world's climate going berserk and fill us in along the way how we got there, and I think it would have held up better. But, hey, they didn't ask me.

Vancetastic said...

@Thaddeus - Interesting idea, I've never tried that. Fortunately, I usually only need one or two posters per post. Easier both on me and my readers. :-)

@Travis - They should have asked you -- they should have asked anybody, really, and they would have had a better movie. However, I didn't hate The Day After Tomorrow. I guess I dislike ID4 as much as I do because I think almost everything not directly related to aliens blowing up buildings is absurd and overly jingoistic. Then again, even some of that stuff is absurd as well, like the dog jumping out of the path of the fireball in that tunnel. Classic!

Travis McClain said...

Generally, I prefer science fiction that has a commentary on our world as it is; I dig allegories. Independence Day doesn't really offer that, but it clearly advertised itself as a big, dumb popcorn movie with lot of special effects and one-liners. I never felt deceived, which is more than I can say for a lot of other movies.

Plus, casting Judd Hirsch as Jeff Goldblum's dad? Brilliant! That was the kind of likable dynamic that was woefully absent in The Day After Tomorrow.

I think too often, storytellers make the mistake of thinking that if there is any humor in a movie, audiences won't take it seriously.