What the end of the world looked like

Welcome to 2000s Week! We’re exploring the pop culture that shaped us at the turn of the millennium, and examining what the films, shows, and games from the era say about us then and now. It’s a little #tbt to the days before #tbt was a thing.


At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, the mythical Y2K ‘millennium bug’ did not cause the apocalyptic chaos many had predicted. 

However, plenty of significant events would happen over the next 10 years, moments that would change the world as we knew it. But they weren’t necessarily what the ones we thought would bring about the end the world, if you’re judging by the imaginations of our cinema-makers during this decade. 

A quick glance through the plots of the 2000s apocalypse films offers a peek into what we as moviegoers were most terrified of destroying the planet. Let’s take a slightly alarming tour through the hypotheses filmmakers were throwing down in the 2000s about our demise. 

Before we give the game away, take this reasonably light spoiler warning as we’ll be unpacking some destructive details for the hell of it. And before we have to continually clarify, most of them got absolutely panned by critics, so save yourself a Rotten Tomatoes trip and just lean into the shitness.

So, what did the movies think was most likely to cause the end of the world 20 years ago? 

You guessed it: viruses (and subsequent zombies)

Cillian Murphy wanders around a seemingly empty London in 2002's '28 Days Later'.

Cillian Murphy wanders around a seemingly empty London in 2002’s ’28 Days Later’.

Image: Peter Mountain / Dna / 20th Century Fox / Kobal/Shutterstock

Comprehending the sheer amount of virus-induced zombie apocalypse films that crawled out of the 2000s is an unsettling (though completely voluntary) task amid the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Zombie apocalypse’ is by no means a genre invented or even popularised in the 2000s, but it’s interesting just how many filmmakers were unleashing bioweapons and the subsequent undead upon the imagined Earth during this decade. These apocalyptic nightmares were most often the result of accidental buffoonery. 

Danny Boyle’s 2002 completely terrifying horror film 28 Days Later saw the disturbing decimation of society after the spread of a contagious virus through freed, intentionally enraged chimpanzees in England. Who knew? Nobel Prize-winning scientist and science-related movie writer Dr. Harold E. Varmus wrote in at the time of the film’s release, “Danny Boyle’s arresting and terrifying new movie, 28 Days Later, seems to make it official: microbial plagues have displaced nuclear winter in the public’s mind as the way the world will end.”

Here’s some more from that review, just to give you an idea of what else was going on at the time:

Although written and produced before we had anthrax spores in the Senate, national debates about smallpox vaccination, searches for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and global anxiety about SARS, [28 Days Later]’s release in this country at this time feeds on now routine fears of an unanticipated microbiological catastrophe.

Plus, it got a sequel in the same decade, 28 Weeks Later. And I kid you not, this is what was projected on the Houses of Parliament in London, Apr. 11 2007, to promote the release of the film:

Yikes.

Yikes.

Image: Leon Neal / AFP via Getty Images

The 28 ___ Later series was far from alone. Fellow Brit Neil Marshall’s 2008 bloody, frenetic, and quite panned film Doomsday sees the British government brutally quarantining Scotland behind a wall when a deadly “Reaper” virus runs rampant, with the intention of letting the country’s citizens fall victim to the plague and die out. Harsh. Years later, when the virus turns up in London, politicians sheepishly send a team of soldiers into Scotland to find a cure from the dead. And Glasgow is, uh, very much alive — and quite pissed off. 

Stateside, the Resident Evil films kicked off in 2002 and hinge around a potential zombie apocalypse fiercely managed by Milla Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez and prompted by the accidental release of the T-virus by the Umbrella Corporation, a questionable yet quaintly named pharmaceutical company. In another big whoops, Robert Rodriguez’s 2007 drive-in throwback Planet Terror saw the accidental leakage of a deadly biochemical agent known as DC2 (codename “Project Terror”), which zombifies a significant portion of a town into “Sickos.”

In the apocalyptic action movie vein, the (absolutely slammed) 2005 film version of Æon Flux based on the animated series sees a deadly virus kill 99 percent of the Earth’s population in 2011. Skip to 404 years later and the remaining humans in 2415 have found themselves living in a scientist-ruled city-state called Bregna, home to telepathic rebel warriors like Charlize Theron in the titular role. If becomes our actual fate, at least we know sharp bobs are gonna be in.

Will Smith and his faithful friend hit the deserted streets of New York in 2007's 'I Am Legend'.

Will Smith and his faithful friend hit the deserted streets of New York in 2007’s ‘I Am Legend’.

Image: Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros / Kobal /S hutterstock

In the little-too-real corner, 2009’s Carriers follows survivors of a viral pandemic (hey, Chris Pine!) who are trying valiantly to avoid infection by avoiding populated areas and assuming everyone they come into contact with has the virus (hello, 2020). The virus can survive on surfaces for up to 24 hours, so they have to disinfect everything all the time. Eep. Though it often turns out that humans, not zombies, are the real threat in films like these, whatever the cause. Just watch The Road (though the cause of the apocalypse in both the book and the film is vague).

After all this, one lesson we learned in the 2000s is that you must have a canine companion in a zombie apocalypse, as seen in 2007’s I Am Legend. Will Smith plays U.S. Army virologist Robert Neville, the last remaining human in New York City, which has been overcome by the fallout from a population-wiping virus meant to cure cancer. But he’s not alone, with nocturnal zombie-like creatures running around the city, and his trusty German Shepherd to keep him company while he fortifies his Washington Square Park home and works on a cure.

The virus-instigated apocalypse continues to plague our screens 20 years later, with zombie apocalypse films only getting smarter and more intense over the last decade, from the exceptional South Korean thriller Train to Busan to the Australian hit Little Monsters, from the big-budget World War Z to the survival of the Resident Evil series, all shuffling alongside the undying popularity of The Walking Dead. We’re not done with viruses and zombies, though it seems a truly weird time for any of it now.

The war between machines and humans 

These damn things, as seen in 2003's 'The Matrix Revolutions'.

These damn things, as seen in 2003’s ‘The Matrix Revolutions’.

Image: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

The well-established onscreen war between machines and humans didn’t start in the 2000s, but it was a continuing fear explored by apocalyptically-minded filmmakers over the decade. Morpheus had already dropped the red pill reality bombshell in 1999’s The Matrix, but discussion of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s simulation hypothesis rode the wave into the 2000s with two subpar sequels and the exceptional Animatrix. The scenario of sentient machines controlling our waking reality found continued life in the new millennium thanks to the Wachowskis, with incessant armies of Sentinels constantly attacking the human refuge of Zion in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. And we’re not entirely out of this apocalyptic fear right now — just ask Elon Musk.

More literal wars with machines came in the form of Tim Burton’s 9, in which the invention of a “fabrication machine” (a highly intelligent robot that can create other robots) is wielded by a dictator to build an army of war machines. In case you thought this was going to go well, these in turn decide to wipe out all life on Earth with chemical weapons.

And the shimmering star of humans-versus-machine stories lingered in its hangover from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with the third instalment of the Terminator series kicking into gear in 2003. Arnold Schwarzenegger returned for a third round in his most iconic role, this time alongside Claire Danes. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines sees a few possibilities for the end of the world on “Judgment Day,” but it ultimately comes in the form of self-aware virus software from Skynet which starts a nuclear holocaust using humanity’s own weapons. Great. 

While the Terminator series still rampages on to this day, our onscreen relationship with machines and artificial intelligence has become more complicated but undeniably less warlike since the 2000s. Now, AI robots are raising kids in post-apocalyptic bunkers in 2019’s I Am Mother, or policing a ravaged Earth in 2017’s Elysium. Things are getting weirdly…practical.  

Extreme weather and climate change…

New York gets wet feet in 2004's 'The Day After Tomorrow'.

New York gets wet feet in 2004’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow’.

Image: 20th Century Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Filmmakers were more than aware of the effects of human-induced climate change and our blatant disregard for the planet. And though the conversation around and emergency level of climate change has increased since the 2000s, there were plenty of filmmakers during this time exploring the extreme weather events that could lead to a post-apocalyptic world.

The brutal effects of climate change sat in the bones of films like The Day After Tomorrow, which saw cataclysmic weather events flattening cities and turning the disaster films of the ’90s like Twister up a dramatic notch. When a paleoclimatologist warns of impending global warming at a U.N. conference, he’s dismissed by the vice president (sounds familiar). Welp, he was right, and extreme weather events rampage across the globe, including three enormous superstorms that flash freeze parts of in the northern hemisphere. We’re also talking hailstorms in Tokyo, tornados in Los Angeles, and a tsunami in New York. Plus, wolves have escaped Central Park Zoo in all the drama. It’s bad.

Rising sea levels were one of the decade’s greatest onscreen threats.

Rising sea levels were one of the decade’s greatest onscreen threats. Though not an official apocalypse film, Stephen Spielberg’s uncomfortably plausible 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, set in the 22nd century, sees rising sea levels caused by melting polar ice caps, which prompts the obliterative flooding of coastal cities like New York. Millions are displaced, hundreds of millions starve in poorer countries, and the global population is significantly reduced — hence the need for humanoid robots called the Mecha, “who were never hungry and who did not consume resources beyond those of their first manufacture.”

Filmmakers even channeled this fear into updates of old classics like 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, with Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson’s 2008 version replacing the Cold War parable with a new message of environmental emergency. Keanu Reeves’ version of the alien visitor Klaatu is sent to talk to Earth’s leaders on his mission to save the planet from humankind’s abominable treatment of it. There’s intergalactic penance to be paid. It may surprise you that humans do not respond well to being told they’re not treating the planet well. Eventually, Klaatu helps save Earth from imminent alien invasion, but at the cost…of electricity! Look, we deserved it.

And there goes Los Angeles in '2012', released in 2009.

And there goes Los Angeles in ‘2012’, released in 2009.

Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment / Kobal / Shutterstock

Climate change doesn’t specifically cause the cataclysmic natural disasters in Roland Emmerich’s high-grossing, poorly-reviewed 2012. Released in 2009 as a testament to Mayanism (the end of the world caused by the alignment of the planets), the film begins in 2010, when research is brought to the president indicating the Earth’s crust has destablised. In two years, temperatures rise in “hot zones” across the globe, big cracks begin to emerge in the ground, splitting supermarkets then whole cities in half. Doomsday has officially arrived. The important thing with 2012 is that the film emphasises the lack of time the planet has and the speed of the emergency, while also reminding us of the fact that scientists and world leaders have known for years what’s coming (hmmmmmmmm). Don’t fret, the world governments build nine Arks to save a small amount of the globe’s population. Who gets to go on them? Politicians, scientists, but mainly rich people.

And now? Storms have only increased further onscreen as climate change-induced extreme weather events intensify and become more frequent, with big-budget popcorn-stuffers like Geostorm and Into the Storm attracting large audiences. As for the repercussions of pollution and drought? I dare you to look at Mad Max: Fury Road and not see it as a grim climate change film.

Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road', arguably a climate change film. Fight me.

Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, arguably a climate change film. Fight me.

Image: Village Roadshow / Kobal / Shutterstock

…and general human disregard for the planet

But sometimes it’s not all climate-related doom onscreen. Sometimes humans destroy the planet just by being consumerist jerks! In Pixar’s 2008 animation Wall-E, humans pilfer the resources of the globe and create so much stuff that they need adorable, solar-powered, trash compactor robots to construct towering skyscrapers from the overwhelming amounts of rubbish. After polluting the place so badly it becomes uninhabitable for any being who isn’t a cockroach, humans call a global emergency, and rather than glamourously rolling around in the filth like the trash planet Sakaar would in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, they piss off on corporate spaceships “on a course for non-stop entertainment.”

The robots clean up the mess, while humans cruise around on hover chairs, drinking every last meal in milkshake form as their skeletons shrink. Could be us in a bit. 

Aliens!

'War Of The Worlds' was remade in 2005, along with a few other alien invasion classics.

‘War Of The Worlds’ was remade in 2005, along with a few other alien invasion classics.

Image: Dreamworks / Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock

The 2000s weren’t completely devoid of apocalyptic alien invasions, with potential global takeovers proving a mighty threat during the decade. A casual $132 million was poured into the 2005 remake of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, one of the most iconic of the genre. Though the aliens’ colossal war machines truly fuck shit up, the aggressive aliens themselves unfortunately don’t have the one thing humans have developed: resistance to bacteria, bitches! Yeah, we apparently earned the right to exist on Earth through natural selection. 

It was truly a time for unoriginal thought on this potentially apocalyptic plane too. Along with the aforementioned remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the classic sci-fi horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers found itself updated as the abominable 2007 film The Invasion, with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman, and Stephen King’s novel Dreamcatcher, concerning a parasitic alien invasion, was made into a film in 2003. 

Alien invasion apocalypses these days are mainly dealt with by superheroes of the Marvel and DC persuasion, with X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016 and Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame in 2018 and 2019 putting the end of the world in the hands (or fingers) of a couple of genocidal supervillains. Meanwhile, the likes of Annihilation and Attack the Block were reframing what the beginnings of an alien invasion could look like.

So, while climate change, viruses, zombies, overconsumption, alien invasions, and the inevitable dominance of machines destroyed our planet and screens for the decade, we’ve left one stone surprisingly unturned, one alley of fear to brave, one avenue of apocalyptic horror…

For one hot second, dragons 

Uh, dracarys?

Uh, dracarys?

Image: Touchstone / Kobal / Shutterstock

2002’s Reign of Fire might be the strangest moment of fear for 2000s apocalypse films, with Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale dirtying up to tackle a dragon-dominated 2020. This is our future, people: one spent groveling in underground tunnels and leaving suddenly awoken dragons to dominate the skies, with no Daenerys Targaryen to speak on our behalf. 

The fear of . John Krasinki’s A Quiet Place and its sequel tiptoe through a world where monsters hunt by sound, Bird Box blindfolds up in a world where monsters control by sight, Shin Godzilla unpacks the bureaucracy behind handling the invasion of a Giant Unidentified Creature. On a similarly smashy scale, Pacific Rim presents a future global battle between gigantic mechas called Jaegers and ancient Kaiju monsters. “Today, we’re cancelling the apocalypse!” yells Idris Elba before a Kaiju battle (they do not, there’s a sequel).

'A Quiet Place' and its sequel picture a post-apocalyptic world where monsters hunt by sound.

‘A Quiet Place’ and its sequel picture a post-apocalyptic world where monsters hunt by sound.

Image: Jonny Cournoyer / Paramount / Kobal / Shutterstock

It’s interesting to think that our fears on screen 20 years ago aren’t that different from now, although we’re playing more with time travel in the face of the apocalypse these days. Give or take a few dragons, we’re still afraid of viruses and climate change.

And we should be. 

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