23:20, Jul 14 2013

The blockbuster season has been dark and scary, with destruction on a scale not really seen on the big screen before.

The big blockbusters this year have all featured massive, citywide destruction with hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people wiped out in horrific circumstances. I have sat in the cinema with a Coke and a popcorn and witnessed millions of people exterminated for our entertainment.

These are the new breed of apocablockbusters.

Want some examples? Here goes: World War Z has whole cities taken over by zombies and a nuclear mushroom cloud, Pacific Rim has whole cities destroyed by rampaging monsters and the giant robots supposedly defending them, GI Joe: Retaliation features London being utterly wiped out in a nuclear explosion, Man of Steel has Metropolis getting largely levelled by a machine that throws innocent people into the air and then slams them back down again, and Star Trek Into Darkness saw San Francisco totalled by a crashing starship.

Popular cinema has always revelled in mass destruction from 1950s alien invasion movies, through Irwin Allen disaster movies in the 70s and their revival in the 1990s with titles like Armageddon and Deep Impact.


But never has such huge destruction been so frenzied and vivid on the big screen.

I remember when it was considered radical to see the White House explode in Independence Day or New York buildings come down in various 1990s disaster films. In the late 1990s we watched New York landmarks get taken down again and again.

These images of New York devastation had become so ingrained in the general psyche that when it happened in real life, it felt like a movie. The Onion even wrote a story saying the attacks were like something out of "a bad Jerry Bruckheimer movie''.

The nightmares from our movies had spilt over into reality.

I wrote the other week about how I found Man of Steel quite disturbing, but there is a backstory. A few days before seeing Man of Steel, I had just finished a book by Nate Silver about the art and science of prediction. One of the chapters investigates the probability of a nuclear terror attack levelling an entire city. Silver goes into detail about how nuclear material could be obtained in Pakistan, hidden in a shipping container and detonated in the centre of a city, levelling square miles of a major metropolis. Disturbing stuff.

Then I went to the cinema to enjoy a movie about a brightly coloured superhero and there it was on the big screen - the destruction of an entire city. Just what I had been reading about. It was disturbing.

Films like Independence Day featured buildings getting destroyed, rather than whole cities, and were ultimately optimistic. Bill Pullman delivered rousing speeches, Will Smith punched an alien in the face, Jeff Goldblum infects an alien ship with a computer virus and Randy Quaid takes them out with a kamikaze hit. The goodies had the wit and the means to take out the bad guys.

But this year's blockbusters, Pacific Rim excepted, have none of that optimism.

Cinema has always mined the zeitgeist for our dreams and nightmares, but the latest crop of blockbusters only seem to be concerned with the nightmares.

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