The most politically fraught movie of the summer may be Brad Pitt’s zombie flick World War Z, because of a brief act that takes place in Israel and that has given rise to competing interpretations of what it all means.
The movie has political overtones, though, long before Pitt arrives in Israel – overtones that are more subtle because more familiar and closer to home. World War Z embraces the same plot points that most end-of-the-world movies do, and reinforces the same set of politics, by focusing almost exclusively on a single nuclear family. The movie opens with mother, father, and two daughters chatting at breakfast and closes with them reunited after several days of global catastrophe. The family’s plight between those two scenes is the film’s main interest. Brad Pitt seems to genuinely want to save the human race from zombiefication, but his primary motivation is made explicit when he is pressed into service by his ex-boss – an under-secretary of the United Nations – and he refuses to leave his family’s side. Only when it is explained to him that his family’s safety rests on his service does he agree to confront the zombie hordes. Again and again the film reminds us that Pitt’s first priority is saving his family, with saving his species a not very close second.
As anyone who has watched Armageddon, Independence Day, War Of The Worlds, 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Contagion, or Outbreak knows, this is boilerplate: movies that threaten the annihilation of the human race almost always anchor their narratives in the emotionally and existentially trying experiences of a single family. Sometimes – as in World War Z – this family is a stable one put at risk by the destruction of civilization. More often the family is already strained, by divorce or estrangement, and the possibility of apocalypse serves to mend frayed relationships, put differences into perspective, and reunite parents and children, husbands and wives. InIndependence Day an armada of hostile aliens levels most of the planet’s major cities but in the process helps to create one family and reunite another. Will Smith marries his girlfriend and becomes a father to her son and Jeff Goldblum reconciles with his ex-wife just before both men head off to do battle with a massive spacecraft; their domestic lives in order, they are ready to save the world. As the planet freezes in The Day After Tomorrow, Dennis Quaid convinces the United States government that it’s too risky to rescue Americans north of the Mason-Dixon, and then sets off to make up for being an absentee father by rescuing his son in New York.
This trope of disaster films is pretty clearly a script device. Watching one after another person swallowed up by earthquake, infected by zombie, blown apart by alien ray gun, or drowned under a rising sea eventually leaves an audience cold. In order to give viewers a set of three-dimensional characters – two-dimensional, at least – to identify with, writers stick some sort of family unit at the center of the story. While most moviegoers have never waited in terror for an asteroid to wipe out all life on earth, they have fought and reconciled with their parents and their spouses. They can relate.
Whether intentional or not, though, storytelling cliches can have moral and political valences. The troubling moral suggestions within this particular narrative arc are fairly obvious: each of these movies asks viewers to weigh their sense of tragedy at the loss of millions if not billions of human lives against their sense of triumph at a single family managing to survive – and thrive! – amid catastrophe. In Armageddon the audience may experience mild regret as New York City and Paris are pummeled by meteors, but at least they are rewarded at the movie’s finale when Bruce Willis accepts Ben Affleck as his son-in-law.
Probably the most egregious example of this sort of twisted morality – as of so many other things. That movie is filled with earnest sermonizing about who will be chosen to survive a planetwide flood and perpetuate the human race, even as it invests most of its screentime and whatever sense of humanity it musters into a single family. They survive the disaster, and a few weeks later when the trauma of nearly all life on Earth having drowned becomes more tolerable, John Cusack tells his wife and children that whatever denuded hilltop they end up on will be home because, despite it all, they’re still together.
A little sense of proportion is called for here, one that older movies usually had. Casablanca might be the story of a love triangle set against a world overrun by Nazi aggression, but at least it’s smart enough to point this out: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman as he sacrifices their romance for the sake of fighting fascism.
In contemporary end-of-the-world films, the problems of one little family amount to much, much more than a hill of beans. There is almost certainly no political agenda behind this repeated storyline, but there are political implications. For the past fifty years ideological debates in the United States have often centered on the nuclear family. This is most obviously the case in the efforts of social conservatives to beat back feminism, gay liberation, and abortion rights. But it’s also the case in the ongoing attempt by conservatives more generally to shrink the size of government by cutting social services. For late-twentieth-century conservatives not only did the welfare state erode the nuclear family but the nuclear family was the answer for achieving all the goals of the welfare state without any public spending. The weaker the government the stronger the nuclear family, and vice-versa. At a time when fewer Americans were actually part of a traditional nuclear family conservatives emphasized more and more the nuclear family’s fundamental importance, and during a period of economic upheaval that reshaped industries, communities, and families, conservatives from George Gilder to Ralph Reed to George Bush insisted that morality rather than economics determined family structure.
None of this is to say that the nuclear family is not important, and meaningful, and to some extent desirable. It is all of those things. It just isn’t isolated. The family is not an autonomous, self-sufficient unit, independent from civil society and government. Talking about it as situated in the private rather than the public sphere makes as much sense as talking about Manhattan as situated in New York City rather than New York State. Brad Pitt insists that his responsibility is to his family’s safety before that of the rest of the world as though the two goals can be disentangled, echoing the false choice between supporting families on the one hand and supporting public programs on the other.
Again, this is not an intentional message on the part of scriptwriters; it’s just unimaginative storytelling. But it’s also an example of how certain ideas, pushed and pushed until they become common sense, insinuate themselves into popular culture and so become even more cemented in the popular imagination.
It may seem impolitic to make these kinds of claims just a week after the Supreme Court took one step closer to gay marriage throughout the nation. But struggling for the right to marry is not the same as believing marriage defines a relationship, just as struggling for the right to vote is not the same as believing elections define democracy. In fact, the exact opposite may be closer to the truth. Near the end of 2012, as the rising seas submerge nearly every continent, one character turns to John Cusack and says, “I always wanted a family. You’re a lucky man. Never forget that.” This last regret at the end of the world suggests that the nuclear family is a person’s ultimate accomplishment, and by extension the lack of a nuclear family a grave shortcoming. That idea is the basis for a lot of make-believe told in Hollywood and sold in Washington, D.C.