Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.

An End of the World Taxonomy

I only know of five ways to make an end of the world movie:

  1. The end of the world happens and everybody dies (On the Beach, Doctor Strangelove)
  2. The end of the world threatens and:
    1. We successfully avert it (Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon)
    2. It happens but some people survive by luck or skill (Pretty much every post-apocalyptic movie ever made)
    3. It happens and some people are rescued before the end
  3. We are left not knowing how it comes out (Children of Men)

Type 1 movies are a bummer, but the two best known examples,  On the Beach and Doctor Strangelove, both have a moral. True, the moral of Doctor Strangelove is cloaked in a black comedy, but it's nonetheless the same as On the Beach: if we don't quit with the brinksmanship, sooner or later we will do something fatally wrong. So we have a choice, and the movie traces the consequences of making the wrong choice.

Children of Men is as bleak as On the Beach for much of its length as it shows the human race living out the end of a futile final existence. At the end we are left with a ray of hope when a woman has a baby for the first time in eighteen years. But the ending is ambiguous. Will the baby survive? Can a cure for global sterility be found? And the message is unclear since we really have no idea why everyone stopped having babies.

A movie where the end of the world happens and virtually everyone dies and it's not our fault and there's nothing we can do and the few people who are rescued have no particular abilities or resources to rebuild civilization is bound to be depressing. That's Knowing, and I'm not sure there is any way to make a movie along those lines that will be satisfying. Good try, impossible mission.

October, 1959

A newly opened elementary school in Lexington, Massachusetts buries a time capsule. Most of the kids who contribute predictions of the future draw rocket ships and robots, but one introverted little girl covers a piece of paper with frantically scribbled numbers.

I was seriously expecting a reference to an eclipse here. There was a total eclipse of the sun on October 2, 1959 that was briefly visible in the Boston area at sunrise before the shadow swept across the Atlantic. Or it would have been visible if it hadn't been pouring rain that morning, although the eclipse was photographed from an aircraft. But the movie ignored the eclipse.

October, 2009

The time capsule is dug up, and the envelope with the numbers is drawn by Caleb Koestler, son of MIT astrophysicist John Koestler (Nicolas Cage). Koestler has recently lost his wife in a hotel fire and is in a seriously nihilistic frame of mind. Just to show us he's at MIT we see him in his classroom, and just to show us he's a nihilist, we see him discussing determinism versus randomness. On the other hand, the students show the level of intellectual vibrancy you'd expect in junior high, not MIT.

Koestler is intrigued by the numbers and finally stumbles onto the realization that they code the date and number of fatalities for every major disaster since 1959 (including the one that killed his wife). He shows his results to his colleague, Phil Beckman, who dismisses the numbers as a spurious pattern. Now that is a scientifically absurd statement. Show me a piece of paper from 1959 with every disaster coded on it, and my first suspicion would be an elaborate hoax. Somebody tampered with the time capsule or otherwise planted the paper. My next suspicion would be that something decidedly weird and unexplainable was going on. But the idea that any scientist would think a hundred or so events would be correctly coded by chance is just ridiculous. That's scientific "hugga mugga talk" (what Hollywood used to call nonsensical jabber used in place of real Indian dialog) - it's dialog written by people who know big words but have no idea what they mean.

Koestler finally realizes that unexplained numbers on the sheet are geographic coordinates, just as he discovers that his car's GPS unit is showing him to be right at the location of the next disaster. Just then an airliner drops out of the clouds, clips a high tension line, drags its wingtips across a jammed highway and crashes into a field. Koestler runs to help and sees people staggering out of the plane on fire. From a controlled crash landing, maybe. From a 20-degree nose-first dive into the ground, followed by the fuselage breaking into half a dozen pieces? No way in the world. Most likely nobody would survive that sort of impact, much less remain conscious or able to escape.

Koestler now knows what all the numbers mean, but there are only two disasters left on the list. The next one is due to strike New York City in a few days. Koestler phones a tip in to the police but anonymously, from a coin phone (do they still have those?). That's the sum total of his "frantically trying to alert the authorities" that we read in some reviews. Hearing that the national threat level has been raised to high, he travels to New York to try to avert the disaster. Since all he has is a date, it's hard to figure out how he can be sure exactly what time the disaster will strike. He spots the presumed terrorist, but after a lengthy chase, it turns out the "terrorist" is merely a petty shoplifter. At that moment, a switch on the tracks is thrown, sending the subway careening through a station and supplying suitable carnage for a Nicolas Cage movie.

Cage has also been trying to understand the girl who compiled the list, but her daughter Diana finds this all too spooky until after the New York disaster. Her mother (the little girl from 1959) had gotten progressively more weird, finally moved into a trailer in the woods and overdosed on drugs. Diana's own little girl (played by the same actress who played the girl in 1959) has been hearing whispery voices, as does Caleb. They also see shadowy figures watching them. Caleb wakes up in a nightmare and sees the woods around his home on fire and animals fleeing in terror. I can truthfully say that before Knowing, I had never before seen a flaming moose. (Coming up: Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Moose of Fire?).

Cage finally figures out that the last disaster, with the number 33, does not refer to 33 fatalities, but to backwards E's. In a search of the trailer, he discovers the inscription "Everybody Else" repeatedly scratched on the underside of a bed, and realizes that 33, or EE, means Everyone Else in the world will die. He also realizes that the cause will be a gigantic solar outburst, delivering a "one hundred microtesla magnetic field." Now the earth's normal magnetic field is about 30 microteslas, so this burst will be three times a strong as the normal field of the earth. That will be one heck of a magnetic field to throw all the way from the Sun and it will certainly raise electromagnetic havoc, but why would it kill everyone? There has also been speculation in the media that unusual solar activity had triggered a number of aircraft mishaps and the subway switch in New York.

Cage, Diana, and their kids make preparations to hide out in some caves, but Koestler realizes that Diana's mother had carved another set of numbers in a door in her school. When he uncovers them, he realizes they are the coordinates for her mother's trailer. While Diana is refilling her gas tank, two things happen. First, the Emergency Broadcast System comes on, warning people of super solar flares and advising people to seek underground shelter. Second, one of the mysterious shadow people steals her van with the children in it. She steals another car and takes off in pursuit, only to be T-boned by a truck and killed. Cage gets there just after she dies.

Cage gets to the trailer and finds the abandoned van. The two children appear and half a dozen of the shadowy strangers appear as well. They are there to rescue a few people from Earth, but only those who can hear the messages. The two children can go, but not Cage. A vast ship (Ezekiel's wheel in a wheel vision) appears, the two children board, and the shadowy figures morph into glowing beings. As the ship rises into space, it is joined by others from elsewhere around the world. Cage watches them rise and then collapses in grief and exhaustion.

He awakens at sunrise in the rain. As he drives into Boston, glowing auroras fill the sky in the daytime. Numerous fires dot the skyline, though why anything has caught fire yet is not clear. Although Cage mentions unusual heat at one point, everyone is wearing typical fall clothes. People are milling about in the street but there is little violence, and astonishingly, no traffic. He drives to his parents' house to make peace with them, when the end of the world hits. Great turbulent waves of flame engulf Boston, New York, and presumably everything else, because hey, we had some Independence Day special effects footage left. But we also see the children deposited on a pristine earthlike planet. Life goes on. Just not ours. And what's the point? They won't remember Beethoven, or the Parthenon, or Romeo and Juliet. So human DNA reproduces on another planet. So what?

I found myself thinking of the wonderful and moving Outer Limits two-parter, The Inheritors (1964) in which an alien intelligence takes over the minds of several wounded soldiers. The soldiers experience radical increases in their intelligence. One voraciously reads books on economics, then makes a huge amount in the stock market in just a few days. Others devour books on science and then develop new metals and propellants. More disturbingly, they also start collecting children. At the climax, when a reporter and investigator finally track down the missing children, it turns out the aliens' plans are to bring them to repopulate their own world, which had been devastated by a plague. The children, all doomed to handicap or early death on Earth, are healthy and sound in the atmosphere of the space ship built to carry them. And the episode ends as we watch the ship take off. But in The Inheritors, our world goes on, and another world gets a new lease on life.

Nothing in Knowing suggests the authorities had any more than minimal warning before the end, probably no more than Cage himself, who was in about as good a position as anyone to figure it out. Nevertheless, if I were in charge of Homeland Security and had only a few hours to try to save at least a few people, I can think of a few things I'd do. I'd tell every nuclear submarine in port to grab as many of the crew families as possible, head to deep water and dive as deep as the sub can go, and not come up until life support was critical. I'd tell Cheyenne Mountain and every nuclear silo to get families underground as well. If we don't have at least a couple of ultra-hard hideaways, someone hasn't been doing their job. And why not just grab some groceries and find a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike or I-70 in Colorado and park the car? Obviously if radiation penetrates extremely deeply or conditions on the surface stay lethal too long, everyone is toast, but it's worth a shot. On the other hand, I just viewed the ending again, and debris is shown flying off the Earth just before the screen goes white. So if the whole earth ablates away or vaporizes, there won't be any place to hide.

A Riddle

What, exactly is with all the Nicolas Cage bashing? To hear some people talk he's the worst actor ever. Is it that he generally portrays characters who behave rationally in a crisis? Don't we have a world full of people who behave irrationally? Why do we want to spend money to watch that sort of thing in a film?

Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 03 December, 2002, Last Update 02 June, 2010

Not an official UW Green Bay site