2012 & MELANCHOLIA: Hope and Nihilism

2012: directed by Roland Emmerich, 2009

Melancholia: directed by Lars von Trier, 2011

We’re going down no matter what. — Roland Emmerich

So if the world ended and all the suffering and longing disappeared in a flash, I’m likely to press the button myself. — Lars von Trier

Click on poster to view the end of the world.When apocalyptic films are box office hits at the art house and draw rave reviews, then you know the "end of the world" meme has permeated consciosuness and culture — from popular culture to high culture, popcorn movies to serious films, Hollywood action to art house hits. That's the case with Melancholia, the latest film by indie auteur, Lars von Trier. What's interesting is that von Trier confronted the same existential questions that Roland Emmerich confronted in 2012. But don't tell that your friends who frequent the art house theaters, for they may think you are crazy for making such a profane comparison! 

Click on poster to view the end of the world.Here are the existential questions: If you faced the end of the world, what would you do and what would it mean? If 2012 offers a glimmer of hope for humanity to survive and be a success in the universe (and maintain a clever wit and sense of humor), then Melancholia only offers a kind of nihilism in the void of cosmic meaning for human existence.

Of course, 2012 and Melancholia are metaphorical, for they are confronting the entropy of the modern and postmodern worldviews and their systems of value, meaning, and destiny. In both films, the science is lame, but the questions and ideas are profound. The end of the world points toward the entropy of a worldview. Or does the entropy of a worldview point toward the end of the world, the end of the world within which one is comfortable or best understands? Both films pose answers to the questions, answers that are strikingly similar in some ways and distinct in others.

The similarities are evidenced in the following excerpts from interviews with Roland Emmerich and Lars von Trier. 


Emmerich is the most famous director of apocalyptic movies, most famously with the extraterrestrial assault of Independence Day, the climate apocalypse of The Day After Tomorrow, and the cosmic annihilation of 2012. These films were blockbusters at the box office. In an interview about 2012 in the New York Times, Emmerich claimed the films were mirroring his cynicism toward culture and the future:

If I cannot destroy a big high-rise anymore, because terrorists blew up two of the most famous ones, the twin towers, what does this say about our world? … I think we have become more and more pessimistic about the future. … I see it in myself. In Independence Day the world was something worth defending. In Day After Tomorrow, the message was, “We’ll go down if we don’t stop what we’re doing,” and in 2012, “We’re going down no matter what.”

A world worth defending, then a tomorrow not worth inhabiting, and now the future not happening, period. This would seem to be a rather astonishing claim about the future of civilization, an apocalyptic view that went unchallenged and largely unexplored in the story. On the other hand, the "end of the world" meme is popular in our apocalyptic culture, as evidenced by Melancholia


Below are passages from the lengthy interview with Nils Thorsen, published at the film's official website. Virtually all the reviews focused on psychological interpretations of the film, based on von Trier's own past experiences. However, this interview reveals a certain kind of nihilism in the inability to find meaning for human existence in a vast cosmic, in a universe in which von Trier believes humans are alone.

"Longing for the End of All"

THORSEN: Let us get it over with right away. The end of Lars von Trier's film 'Melancholia'. Everybody dies. Not just the guests at the grand wedding held in the first part of the film at an ever-so-romantic castle surrounded by a golf course. And not just all life on Earth. For in the world evoked by the Danish film maker this time, we are absolutely alone in the universe. So what ends in our planet's cosmic embrace with the ten times bigger planet, Melancholia, is life as such and our recollection of it.
No ending could be more final. And, as Trier remarks with a black humour germane to him:
 “In a way, the film does have a happy ending.” […] We follow two sisters till the bitter end. Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst. A melancholic by the grace of God, she has a hard time finding her place in the world and assuming all its empty rituals, but feels more at home when the world draws near its end. And then her sensible big sister Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who thrives in the world and consequently finds it hard to say goodbye to it.
 “I think that Justine is very much me. She is based a lot on my person and my experiences with doomsday prophecies and depression. Whereas Claire is meant to be a ... normal person,” laughs Lars von Trier, who has been haunted by anxieties all through his life and believed that the Third World War was breaking out every time he heard an airplane as a boy.

THORSEN: In the film she seems unable to engage in the situation. Isn't she serious about it?

VON TRIER: She's not serious about the wedding. In the start she is toying with it all in an off-hand manner, because she feels so on top of things that she can poke fun at it. But slowly, melancholia descends like a curtain between her and all the things she has set in motion. And when she gets to the wedding night, she simply can't cope.

THORSEN: She seems to be somewhere else than the others — where is she, mentally?

VON TRIER: If you ask me, she is longing for shipwrecks and sudden death, as Tom Kristensen wrote. And she gets it, too. In a way, she succeeds in pulling this planet from behind the sun and she surrenders to it.

THORSEN: When you are longing for shipwrecks and sudden death, it must be because it seems more real than this phony world?

VON TRIER: I think that’s true. She suffers from doubts. (...) 

THORSEN: Doubt about what?

VON TRIER: If it's all worth it. A wedding, after all, is a ritual. But is there something beyond the ritual at all? There isn't. Not to her. (...) It seems so phony. Rituals are, you know. But if rituals are worth nothing, that goes for everything, you know.

THORSEN: So, in a way, that's the eternal question of the melancholic: is it all hollow? 

VON TRIER: Is the emperor wearing any clothes at all? Is there a content? And there isn't. And that's what Justine sees every time she looks at that fucking wedding. He isn't wearing anything. She has submitted to a ritual without meaning. (...) She is longing for something of true value. (...)

THORSEN: How do you feel personally about the thought that the world might come to an end?

VON TRIER: If it could happen in an instant, the idea appeals to me. … So if the world ended and all the suffering and longing disappeared in a flash, I’m likely to press the button myself. (...)

THORSEN: Doesn’t it help to destroy the whole world?

VON TRIER: I hope so. The approaching planet does provide some fundamental suspense, at least. The suspense can hardly be greater than when we know that a planet ten times the size of Earth is drawing closer and that it will crash into us. I suppose that keeps the audience from leaving halfway through. (...)

VON TRIER: And then I found it interesting if we actually are alone in space. In fact, it’s completely irrelevant. But it makes a big difference to me. One thing is that the Earth is cleared of all life, but if there are some cells somewhere, there’s something to build upon, If there’s no other life anywhere, that’s the end of that.

THORSEN: So it’s not a proper shipwreck and sudden death if everything doesn’t go?

VON TRIER: No, it has to be everything. And I think it is a scary and cold thought. When you see pictures from outer space, you shiver and feel that we’re awfully alone. And when you imagine yourself floating around in space, in a way you are alone.

THORSEN: Are we alone in the universe.

VON TRIER: We are. But no one wants to realize it. They keep wanting to push the limits and fly wherever. Forget it! Look inward.


Melancholia and 2012 pose nihilist and humanist challenges that make for a great discussion regarding the future of human civilization.

Click on poster to view the end of the world.In a certain sense, Melancholia poses the same question as When Worlds Collide, the 1951 sci-fi film that depicts a star and its planet on a collision course with Earth. What should humans do if the world was to end in a cosmic apocalypse? In When Worlds Collide, humans build a rocket for landing on the planet that is accompanying the star. So when the star obliterates Earth, the few survivors will land on the new planet — a planet with air and water and apparently set to orbit the sun. The science is a bit wacky, but so is the science in 2012 and Melancholia. There are two key points here involving science and existential meaning.

1) In When Worlds Collide, the scientists accurately predict the planet to hit Earth, but in Melancholia, the scientist (Kiefer Sutherland) is incorrect in his plotting of the planet to miss Earth. In the 1951 film, scientists also help save the species by designing a rocket to carry humans to the other planet, while in the 2011 film, the scientist is mysteriously found dead with no explanation, though one might surmise it was an apparent suicide.  

2) In When Worlds Collide, there is enough meaning to life that scientists and humans try to survive by heading to the other planet, while in Melancholia, there is nothing to do but wait for the planet to annihilate Earth. In Melancholia, science has no answers and commits suicide, leaving the humans to wait for the end.

The rituals of marriage, the life of luxury, and the man of science seem to have no answer to the meaning of existence, absent any coherent cosmology. And, many of our rituals might even seem more phony in contrast to cultural rituals grounded in a coherent artistic-scientific cosmology. Stand-ins for the rest of us, the people populating the film seem at once enchanted and alienated from the cosmos extending from the telescope of the scientist, a cosmos with no apparent meaning for life on Spaceship Earth. As von Trier explains, the film represents the yearnings for a cosmic shipwreck amidst a culture of phony rituals, from consumption to family to marriage — all apparently concocted to console ourselves for being lonely in a universe of which we are not the center. If the vast universe is void of meaning, then von Trier is left with only one option — "look inward."

In that option, "look inward," von Trier has expressed part of the apocalyptic zeitgeist of post-millennial culture, in the proliferation of new age mystics and old style creationists. The "look inward" option has been long provided by theologies, whose oral myths and sacred texts instruct us to look inward for truth and meaning, to embrace faith and not seek our exisential meaning in the evidence of the vast cosmos. Of course, our subjective consciousness requires that we look inward, but evolution suggests that is not all we must do, precisely because our consciousness and our species have survived looking outward in our adaptation to the surrounding environments on our planet.

Yet, our post-millennial desire for looking inward is the result of looking outward, namely peering through telescopes that reveal a vast universe of time and space, a universe in which humans are not the center. From Galileo to Darwin to Hubble (to the forthcoming Webb space telescope), science has been busy showing that our species exists in vast spanses of space and time, spanses which seem to effect a void in meaning for life on Spaceship Earth. Isn't that why the Apollo 8 astronauts felt compelled to recite creation myths from Genesis while orbiting the moon and gazing at our planet floating in the cosmic void? Four decades later, not much has changed, for Lars von Trier films a meaningless existence in Melancholia and Stephen Hawking laments that "philosophy is dead" on page 1 of The Grand Design (2010). 

The "end of the world" meme flourishes in a culture that cannot handle the end of the worldview that places itself at the center of everything. We know we are not the center, as illustrated by nature and science every day. Yet, cosmic non-centrality is an unbearable cosmology for most everyone, as evidenced by the proliferation of creationism, fundamentalism, evangelicalism, new age shamanism, and the endless quests for destinies of divinity, fates eternal and central to the universe. No matter how far we look with the Hubble and other space telescopes, there is no sign of a plan or planner, only billions of galaxies with billions of stars, and likely billions of planets (According to NASA's Kepler findings). So von Trier's fears of Earth as the only site for life are likely untrue.

Reordering ourselves far from the center of everything would generate a whole new cultural cosmology and systems of meaning, not merely a new book explaining how gravity, energy, and cosmic evolution provide design without designer (The Grand Design), however important and welcomed are such works. 


When attending 2012, I expected to dislike the film, but was quite surprised in the use of visual images and double entendre dialogue to cleverly convey philosophical ideas that are prevalent in post-millennial culture. I viewed the film again the next day, just to make sure I saw what I thought I saw! In 2012, the "end of the world" science is silly, but don't dismiss the entire film. I doubt Roland Emmerich wanted the science or Mayan prophesy to be taken too seriously, since so little time was spent on the explanations. After all, Emmerich's title as director appeared in the credits just as the Mona Lisa was being replaced by its simulacrum, along with witty dialogue. Instead of detailing the science or the prophesy, Emmerich poses a few profound questions, including: if you had to save civilization, what would you save?

The film provides some answers that might surprise you. One of the omissions was obvious and quite striking, so much so that is surprising there was no outcry by the usual defenders of world faiths. No need to look closely, it's right before our eyes. Check it out.

That's one reason why 2012 is less a Revelations story and much more a postmodern Atlantis story combined with a secular version of Noah's Ark. After all, John Cusack stars as an obscure utopian theorist whose book, Farewell Atlantis, sold but a few hundred copies. If you like apocalyptic films and are a theorist or philosopher, then you should like Emmerich's sense of humor — an apocalyptic film about the end of the world starring a utopian theorist with a book about Atlantis, the apocalyptic myth about the end of the world for a utopia-turned-dystopia.

Plato's myth of "Atlantis" arrived centuries before the myth of "Revelations" and is perhaps the earliest "end of the world" meme in western civilization. In the diallogues, Timaeus and Critias, Plato told the story of the universe and a utopian island civilization that lived in harmony with that universe and each other, as seekers of knowledge and wisdom. Eventually, the Atlantis devolved into a civilization of hubris and empire, which warranted a cosmic payback in the form of earthquakes, floods, and total disappearance beneath the seas. In 2012, Emmerich seems to be suggesting that human civilization will not become an Atlantis, despite his claim that "We're going down no matter what."

Melancholia and 2012 both make visual and metaphorical references to the “postmodern conditions” described by Jean- Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, and others. In 2012, for example, the entropy of western civilization, the eroding foundations of globalization, the empty facades of hyperreality, and the existential void of cosmic meaning are all depicted in the many special effects, especially the scenes of expanding cracks, urban crevasses, and gaping canyons in the metropolises of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. If you are a scientist or literalist groaning right now, do not forget the role of art and metaphor in human culture. In the end, Melancholia leaves us gazing at the ultimate human and planetary demise, while 2012 offers utopian hope for a somewhat better humanity to emerge after the cosmic apocalypse. There is much more that can be said about Melancholia and 2012, but suffice to say that both films provide depictions of post-millennial culture which are evocative, thought-provoking, and, in the case of 2012, even a little fun.


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