How Does it All End Again?

  • It's the end of the world, and Hollywood feels fine. Pop culture knows that people love nothing more than imagining their own demise. It's not that moviegoers want to die; they just want a theme-park ride through Armageddon. Thinking about what happens after Judgment Day is too disconcerting, like waking up from a nightmare into a worse one. That's why there are many more movies about the world saved from destruction, like this week's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, than about the messy business of surviving an apocalypse, like the new Brit horror film 28 Days Later.

    In T3 future world savior John Connor (Nick Stahl) is now a whiny teenager who needs help from his surly robot pal (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a school chum (Claire Danes) to escape the machinations of blond killer cyborg T-X (Kristanna Loken). The Messiah metaphors that helped make the first Terminator a superior entertainment are now just the givens: boy and girl in peril, with one protector and one implacable pursuer. At its metallic heart, T3 is another chase movie — one figure relentlessly tracking three others, mostly in cars, at high speed through implausibly underpopulated Los Angeles streets.

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    Director Jonathan Mostow delivers pretty cool chases, if you like seeing the destruction of innocent cars, buildings and telephone poles. But the movie isn't a patch on the earlier Terminators or Terminator 2: 3D, the gnarly multimedia assault at Universal's theme parks. T3 is best seen as a $175 million campaign ad for Schwarzenegger's bid to be California's next Governor. Tough, buff Arnold helps kids, keeps bad machines from despoiling the environment and saves the state, all without spending the taxpayers' money.

    For a grownup view of catastrophe, check out Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. In the script by Alex Garland (whose novel The Beach was filmed by Boyle), lab chimps have been injected with a virulent "rage hormone." They bite some humans, who bite others, and so on and so on. Four weeks later, London is a wasteland, its streets denuded of people, except for a few uninfected survivors and many ravenous, fast-moving zombies. "Plans are pointless," says a stubborn survivor, Selena (Naomie Harris). "Stayin' alive is as good as it gets."

    We're in the land of the low-budget parable, with big ideas and crude special effects. But the film is well acted (especially by Brendan Gleeson as a friendly, flinty dad). And Boyle's ingenuity with the camera gives this fraught journey plenty of menace and pizazz. The movie's craft makes the dread of a killer virus contagious: viewers may feel they have come down with a case of secondhand SARS or sympathetic monkeypox.

    Don't let these apocalyptic visions get you down. If you listen to the weirder radio talk shows, you know that the next real-life cataclysm won't come until Dec. 21, 2012 (something about the winter solstice and a Mayan prophecy). By then, Governor Schwarzenegger will be in his second term and eligible for Social Security...if there is Social Security. But that's a different nightmare. Or two.