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The end of the world: a Heideggerian interpretation of apocalyptic cinema.

Martin Heidegger is a philosopher that has had a profound impact on twentieth century thought. Although widely influential in the humanities, Heidegger's philosophy is rarely applied to the study of film. This paper will examine the relationship between cinematic representations of apocalyptic narrative and Heidegger's understanding of being and its inevitable end. In Being and Time, Heidegger establishes two possible ways that a self-conscious being (which he calls "Dasein") can relate to the imminence of its own demise. The inauthentic self will be the primary focus of this paper, as Heidegger's ontology places cultural discourse such as film and mass media within the realm of "the they," a concept which this paper will deal with centrally. Although it is technically impossible (if one strictly follows Heidegger's organization) to depict authentic being-toward-death, some more recent apocalyptic films have made such an attempt, and complicate the borders of understanding that Heidegger outlines in Being and Time. This paper will investigate the articulation of apocalypse in these films through Heidegger's thought. The method of my analysis is undertaken with two goals in mind: the first is to examine apocalyptic cinema from the perspective of Heidegger's ontology, which will ideally yield a novel way to approach this genre. Secondly, I hope to demonstrate the applicability of Heidegger to film studies, and to test the strengths of Heidegger's concepts. I have chosen to use apocalyptic film as my point of entry for several reasons. It is popular, and thus reflects a desire in our culture (the they) to see these films. Also, the content of these films is ultimately concerned with temporality, world, and death, all of which have their own special (and articulated) place in Heidegger's thought. The films that I will look at are Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009), and Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011).

As these films are ontic (i.e., an ephemeral manifestation particular to our world), cultural productions, they must be considered in light of Heidegger's concept of the they:

   being-with-one-another dissolves one's own
   Dasein completely into the kind of being of 'the
   others' in such a way that the others, as distinguishable
   and explicit, disappear more and more.
   In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability,
   the they unfolds its true dictatorship. We enjoy
   ourselves and fun the way they enjoy themselves.
   We read, see, and judge literature and art the
   way they see and judge. But we also withdraw
   from the 'great mass' the way they withdraw,
   we find 'shocking' what they find shocking. The
   they, which is nothing definite and which all
   are, though not as a sum, prescribes the kind of
   being of everydayness. (1)

In Being and Time, Heidegger leaves his description of the they general; this is necessary because Heidegger's interest in Being and Time is a fundamental ontology that applies to all worlds and not a single, ontic world. As the goal of my project is quite different, I intend on utilizing Heidegger's theories to explain a very specific ontic world, our own contemporary one. Where Heidegger is necessarily vague about the behaviours and intentions of the they (as these things are mutable and change from world to world), I intend to construct a more specific description of the they of our ontic world in late capitalism. Heidegger's ontology will be used to explain the ontic phenomenon of our world, and will thus give us a greater insight into the relationship between the ontic existence of the they of the now, as well as elucidating a facet of the ontology of our cultural moment.

The End of the World on Film

Film, as an art form, is concerned with diegesis; it is necessarily bound to some idea of world. Heidegger claims that the common, vulgar understanding of the world is a cultural misinterpretation of the worldliness of the world, and thus of the world itself. Here, he makes a clear distinction between the notion of an ontic, surrounding world ("umwelt") and the ontological concept of world, or the worldliness of the world. Heidegger claims that most understandings of the world deal only with the ontic manifestation of the world and the beings within it, but do not engage with the ontological structure of the world's worldliness. (2) A surrounding world is a historically contingent construction based on the perception and culture of a group of people; it is the concept that a specific society has of its world. The world itself is an ontological fact of being that allows for the ontic manifestations of these surroundings worlds. The ontic world may change, and history demonstrates the emergence and destruction of many "worlds" that are different from our own. The umwelt is an ontic understanding of Dasein in its world that occurs on the level of signification. The premise of all of these films that I am discussing falls safely within the ontology that Heidegger provides; we see that the existence of a specific umwelt (in all of these cases, our own) is ephemeral. What is interesting in these films is that they demonstrate a development of an understanding of world and end within the realm of the they.

Destruction and death are key themes of The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, and Melancholia. Death plays an important role in Heidegger's philosophy, especially in the concept of being-toward-death. Being-toward-death is Dasein's ownmost possibility, "as being towards one's ownmost, nonrelational and insuperable potentiality-of-being." (3) Heidegger makes it very clear that an authentic relationship between Dasein and its end is an impossibility for the they; in fact, this relationship towards death is what differentiates a they-self Dasein as inauthentic from a Dasein recognizing its being-toward-death as authentic. Both The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 are clearly in the realm of inauthenticity. A strict adherence to Heidegger's thought also places Melancholia in this realm, but I argue that that film is much more Heideggerian in its philosophy and can be seen as a moment of more mature reflection on death within the they. Firstly, I would like to talk about The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. The depiction of death in both of these films demonstrates a they interpretation of the phenomenon of death. Heidegger mentions this type of understanding of death in Being and Time,

   for the biological and physiological line of questioning,
   it then moves into the sphere of being
   which we know as the world of animals and
   plants. In this field, dates and statistics about the
   life span of plants, animals, and human beings
   can be ontically ascertained. Connections
   between the life-span, reproduction, and growth
   can be known. The 'kinds' of death, the causes,
   'arrangements,' and ways of its occurrence can
   be investigated. An ontological problem underlies
   this biological and ontic investigation of
   death. (4)

Heidegger's problematizes the type of knowledge of death that science produces, the kind of death that is abundantly present in both of Emmerich's films. In The Day After Tomorrow, the protagonist, Dr. Jack Hall, is a scientist investigating climate change. The etiology for the disaster in this film is that global warming has caused the ice caps to melt to such an extent that the ocean has reached a point of desalination that affects the major ocean currents, causing massive storms to form all over the globe. The film presents a rather facile socio-economic critique of American society (lives could have been saved if the government had listened to the scientists instead of maintaining the status quo) while lionizing science as both knowing the truth and having the key to a better way. As for the depiction of death, much of it is described scientifically (or, more accurately, pseudo-scientifically). The need to explain death scientifically removes the possibility for an authentic relationship with death by explaining the event as a physical occurrence, and not as Dasein's singular, ownmost possibility. There are two main narrative threads in the film, and one of them (Jack's) is directly concerned with the scientific aspects of this disaster. Jack is not alone in his scientific endeavour; the film depicts a global web of savvy scientists coming to the realization about the human world's impending doom, while their pleas for preparation are ignored by those in power.

The narrative of 2012 is very similar to that of The Day After Tomorrow, but with several important modifications to the plot. That Emmerich made these two global disaster films within a decade (both were popular and high grossing films) demonstrate the they's fascination with the topic; something about seeing the world end this way speaks to the being of the they-self. The origin of the crisis in 2012 differs significantly from The Day After Tomorrow. In 2012, a solar storm causes a burst of neutrinos that rapidly heats the earth's core, causing a destabilization of the earth's crust. This etiology de-anthropcentrizes the crisis. Unlike global warming, which is often attributed to humans, the event in 2012 is far beyond the scope of human control. The main narrative of the film follows Jackson Curits, an unsuccessful writer, and his estranged family as they constantly evade destruction and make their way towards the arks (human made ships built to withstand the destruction). They eventually board an ark and safely weather the catastrophic change. The secondary narrative in the film mirrors Jack's narrative in The Day After Tomorrow. Adrian Helmsley, a geologist, discovers the effect of the neutrinos and reports it to high ranking government officials. Their reaction to the news is one of the major revisions to the science vs government dichotomy of The Day After Tomorrow. In this instance, the government realizes the threat and secretly undertakes the building of the arks, selling tickets to the richest members of society. On a surface level, these films seem to be offering a they critique of the governmental structures of the they in late capitalism. Underneath this reading however, I believe there is more going on concerning the ontology of the they-self.

The Disburdening of Disaster

Both of these films are entwined with a they understanding of end, and I would argue, demonstrate an output for a they-self Dasein to defer its own relationship with death into these popular media. In Being and Time, Heidegger describes the disburdening effect of an absorption in the they,

   the they disburdens Dasein in its everydayness.
   Not only that; but disburdening it of its being,
   the they accommodates Dasein in its tendency
   to take things easily and make them easy.
   And since the they constantly accommodates
   Dasein by disburdening its being, it retains and
   entrenches its stubborn dominance. (5)

In creating and watching the types of disaster films exemplified by Emmerich, Dasein finds an output for its anxiety about its ownmost possibility; it is able to form an inauthentic relationship with death, forged in the vulgarity of the they's understanding of ontology, and thus escape the burden of its possibilities. Heidegger claims that it is impossible for Dasein to escape death as its fact of being, "rather, just as Dasein constantly already is its not-yet as long as it is, it also always already is its end." (6) The burden of Dasein's ownmost possibility is present whether Dasein is in an authentic or inauthentic relationship to that possibility. As Dasein is fundamentally being-toward-death, even inauthentic Dasein must deal with this fact, and must therefore culturally work to disburden this fact and make it easy.

Winston Wheeler Dixon elucidates this cultural behaviour of the they seeking to disburden their death,

   I feel that we are experiencing a global cultural
   meltdown, in which all the values of the past
   have been replaced by rapacious greed, the
   hunger for sensation, and the desire for useless
   novelty without risk. Indeed, in all our contemporary
   cultural manifestations as a worldwide
   community, we seem 'eager for the end.' And
   there is, after all, something comforting in
   the thought of imminent destruction. All bets
   are off, all duties executed, all responsibilities
   abandoned. Contemplating not just one's
   own morality, but that of an entire civilization
   somehow makes the unthinkable not only palatable,
   but also vaguely reassuring. (7)

Now we can start to peer past the ontic, ideological, social meaning of these films in the world of the they and examine how the films are operating existentially. Inauthentic Dasein is being-toward-death, but has not come into an authentic relationship with this inevitability. In these films, the disburdening power of the they presents a vulgar, attractive depiction of death that obfuscates Dasein's true relationship with this certainty. No Dasein can experience the death of another Dasein, but the temporal coincidence of death in an apocalyptic scenario gives the false illusion of a communal experience. The Dasein of the they-self is primarily concerned with losing its individuality in the averageness of the they, "the absorption of Dasein in the they and in the 'world' taken care of reveals something like a flight of Dasein from itself as an authentic potentiality for being."" The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 provide a flight from the insuperable reality of being-toward-death ontologically and offers a false impression of the concept of death that allows it to retain a they-ness. As Dixon points out, these films offer a reassuring ecstasy to the eventuality of death. In depicting death as a shared experience, these films place their vulgar understanding of the phenomenon of death in opposition to that of authentic being-toward-death. As a they-self, Dasein's possibilities are the possibilities of the they. On another level, these films offer a disburdening in the fact that they offer closure to the stresses of being as a they-self in our contemporary context--late capitalism. The they of our moment is caught up with the idle talk of such discourses as corruption in government, financial inequality, global warming, etc. In depicting the end to these discourses, the they-self Dasein can vicariously recognize the possibility of an end for these discourses which ontically burden the they-self. This manufactured possibility is, however, operating in support of the dominance of the they. By offering a they solution to the they problems, the they maintains its disburdening of Dasein.

Another pacification that these films offer in their disburdening is in regards to hope and survival. The protagonists in both of these films eventually survive the disasters depicted, and are left with a "clean slate" with which to rebuild their world. Heidegger says this of hope:

   But even such a phenomenon as hope, which
   seems to be completely founded in the future,
   must be analyzed in a way similar to fear. In
   contrast to fear which is related to a malum
   futurum, hope has been characterized as the
   expectation of a bonum futurum. But what is
   decisive for the structure of hope as a phenomenon
   is not so much the 'futural' character
   of that to which it is related as the existential
   meaning of hoping itself. Here, too, the mood
   character lies primarily in hoping as hoping something
   for oneself. One who hopes takes oneself, so
   to speak, along in the hope and brings oneself
   toward what is hoped for. (9)

That the protagonists are saved in both of these films offers a hopeful gesture in the they's understanding of death. As these films can be read ontologically as depicting the destruction of an umwelt, they also instantiate a rebirth scenario. Dasein as a they-self will be undoubtedly be altered by the absolute destruction of the umwelt that contained the they. The establishment of a new society necessarily means a transformation of the they. In this sense, the hope of these films is operating both ontically and ontologically. Ontically, the hope in these films is for the creation of a new ontic world, one that can avoid the problems of our current one, which is shown as imperfect. Ontologically, these films support the illusion that death may, in some fantastical scenario, be avoided. Amongst the massive death of almost everyone on Earth, these few characters are able to survive and continue in their project. This is of course an outright denial of the truth that Dasein knows, that death is a foundational fact of Dasein's being that is unavoidable. According to James M. Demske, "as Dasein's existential of totality, death belongs to the ontology of man, to the intelligibility of human existence. But it is not just one existential structure alongside several others; it is rather the totality of the structure: everything about man is enveloped in the term 'being-unto-death'." (10) This primary position of death that Demske points to in Heidegger's thought offers further explanation to the popularity and proliferation of these types of films within our current society. If death is the structure for our being, it is the one that needs the most disburdening by the levelling down of the they. The media's fascination with disaster becomes an output for enacting fantasies about death for the they-self to maintain the they in plurality. In the never-individuating structure of the they, Death must be portrayed as what Heidegger defines as demise:

   We called the ending of what was alive perishing.
   Dasein, too, 'has' its physiological death of the
   kind appropriate to anything that lives; it has it
   not ontically in isolation, but as also determined
   by its primordial kind of being. Dasein, too,
   can end without authentically dying, though on
   the other hand, qua Dasein, it does not simply
   perish. We call this intermediate phenomenon
   its demise. (11)

I argue that masking the insuperable possibility of death as inauthentic demise for the purpose of disburdening Dasein as a they-self is the ontological structure underlying this type of apocalyptic cinema.

Corey Anton, drawing on Heidegger's The Concept of Time, forges a notion of futuralness in relation to apocalyptic film:

   we have become who we are because of others
   and others become who they are because of
   us. Just as my thrown past was once another's
   future, so what I call the future is, in its own
   turn, a thrown past for others yet to arrive.
   We, both personally and transgenerationally,
   both particularly and anonymously, share the
   boon and burden of being the condition of each
   other's possibilities. The dream of a great apocalypse
   is but a subconscious desire to expiate the
   guilt of such transgenerational burdens. (12)

Anton's argument points to another existential moment of ecstasy in disaster films. Heidegger's concept of the they is rigid; there is no way presented in Being and Time for a they-self to change the ontic order of the they. Anton points out a guilt in the being of Dasein as a they-self in relation to its restriction of possibility (the they levels down possibilities); the continuance of this restrictive they across generations creates a burden for Dasein that can be alleviated through the disburdening vicariousness of apocalyptic film. The anxiety about the transgenerational possibilities in a they-self umwelt is expressed symbolically in 2012 in the character of Lilly, Jackson's young daughter. From the beginning of the film, we are explicitly told that she has a problem with "bed wetting", which I read as a symbol for both the fear of Dasein's everydayness as a they-self where the world of the they is becoming increasingly burdensome, and more obviously for the catastrophic events of the film. This rather crude symbolism is mentioned several times in the film, and provides the content for the final scene of 2012. The scene takes place after the arks have weathered the apocalypse, and the passengers are allowed to go outside on deck for the first time. There is renewed hope for humanity as the sun shines beautifully on the ocean, and we know that these people are headed towards a land where they can rebuild society. Lilly tells Jackson that she no longer needs to wear diapers to bed--she has overcome her anxious bed wetting. With this, the film ends. This perplexing conclusion only makes sense within this "guilt" that Anton has described. Ontically, this guilt stems from the older generation feeling that they have left their offspring a world that severely limits their possibilities of being. Ontologically, this guilt points towards a crisis in Dasein between its comfortable absorption in the they and a sense of the full potentiality of possibility denied by existing inauthentically. The anxiety of an inauthentic relationship towards death makes Dasein guilty about its failure to enter into a relationship with death authentically, but instead of leading Dasein towards authentic being-toward-death, these films offer an ontic and false sense of hope that Dasein can reach new possibilities without having to modify itself existentielly.

The Relevance and Anxiety of Apocalyptic Cinema

As I have demonstrated, the existence of the ontic phenomenon of apocalyptic film is based on both the situation of these films as the product of an ontic umwelt and on an ontological behaviour of the they-self in disburdening. Heidegger posits that the being of innerworldy beings unlike Dasein is relevance, which allows innerworldly beings to function significantly in an ontic world. Therefore, the being of these films is relevance; they do not exist as separate from the total relevance of the world, but function within it. In their ontic manifestation as films into the referential context of our society, these films must therefore have a what-for that is ultimately tied to a for-the-sake-of-which of Dasein. I have already discussed the what-for of these films in relation to the disburdening effect of the they, but these films are also in a relevant relationship with Dasein's anxiety about being-in-the-world. An investigation into the attunement of anxiety is now necessary for a further gain in clarity about these films. As Heidegger claims,

   the attunement which is able to hold open the
   constant and absolute threat to itself arising
   from the ownmost individualized being of
   Dasein is anxiety. In anxiety, Dasein finds itself
   faced with the nothingness of the possible
   impossibility of its existence. Anxiety is anxious
   about the potentiality-of-being of the being thus
   determined, and thus discloses the most extreme
   possibility ... Being-toward-death is essentially
   anxiety. (13)

If, as I argue, Dasein's relevant relationship to these films is associated with Dasein's relationship with its being-toward-end, then the attunement of spectating these films is necessarily anxiety. Even the names of these films evoke a Heideggerian notion of anxiety: "The Day After Tomorrow" and "2012" are temporal constructions indicating Dasein's most imminent possibility of the future, death. Robert D. Stolorow points towards the crisis in the they self about its being-toward-death in anxiety, "The appearance of anxiety indicates that this fundamental defensive purpose of absorption in the everyday world of public interpretedness has failed, and that authentic Being-toward-death has broken through ... the evasions and 'Illusions of the 'they'." (14) Read through the attunement of anxiety, the ontology of these films becomes more complicated than simply art forms created to disburden the they-self. Unintentionally, the anxiety induced by these films contains the potential to shatter Dasein's absorption in the they and bring it towards the existentiell modification of authenticity. Heidegger posits that authentic being is not separate from the inautheticity of the they, but rather an existentiell modification of the inauthenticity of the they into authenticity. Although these films are ontically operating within the realm of the they, the mere fact that they rely on the attunement of anxiety about the possibility of death as a future event marks a possible complication in the what-for of the films relevance. The intention of these films as produced by the they for the they is disburdenment. However, beneath this ontic what-for lies a greater potential if the being of these film worlds are taken beyond their mere value as entertainment. The depiction of the end of the world in these films reifies this possibility for the world of the they and thus for the they-self as such. The relevance of Emmerich's films are more problematic than von Trier's, as Emmerich's characters are able to evade the certainty of death that these apocalyptic scenarios signify. Nonetheless, presenting apocalypse as a futural event in a phenomenological experience carries the possibility of traumatizing the they-self Dasein into authenticity. This possibility of modification through film is much more palpable in Melancholia, which is more philosophically Heideggerian than either of Emmerich's films.

Melancholia and Desein's Anticipation

Lars von Trier's Melancholia offers a more subversive understanding of death when compared to The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. The narrative, briefly, is as follows. The first half of the film, "Justine", follows the character Justine on the night of her wedding. Her severe depression causes the celebration to fall apart and her husband leaves her. In the second part of the film, "Claire", Justine's sister, Claire, takes care of her while she is in a deep state of depression (or melancholia). During this time, it is revealed that a rogue planet is going to pass safely by Earth, which distresses Claire but does not bother Justine. We later learn that the scientific projections were incorrect and that the planet, named Melancholia, will collide with Earth, effectively ending all life as we know it. The scenes of destruction in Melancholia are very different from those in Emmerich's films; Emmerich's movies dedicate a lot of screen time to showing the destruction visited upon human cities and landmarks. Melancholia does nothing of the sort. In the opening sequence of the film, we see a set of slow motion shots of the moment when Melancholia collides with earth, and the final scene shows the impact once again, but there is no other destruction shown in the film.

The understanding of death that is presented in Emmerich's films is absent in von Triers. Instead of the disburdening effect of seeing a world out of balance and a corrupt culture destroyed, Melancholia dwells on the characters' personal relationships with their impending death. In a way, this film depicts Dasein thrown into a situation where the certainty of death cannot be disburdened in an absorption of the they. The philosophical advancement of von Trier's film points towards a greater tension that the film is working with. Death is Dasein's singular, ownmost possibility, and we can see the characters dealing with this fact as Melancholia draws them closer to their end. Undoubtedly, Melancholia is inauthentic, as it is a cultural production intended for mass consumption and is contextualized within the they. The content of the film, however, seemingly tries to capture both an inauthentic and an authentic depiction of Dasein in its being-toward-death. Each of the two main characters represents one of these existential modes; Justine is Dasein in anticipation of her being-towards-death. Claire, on the other hand, represents a contemporary they-self relationship with death, which exists in fear and denial. This is made evident in each character's behaviour leading up to the disaster. At a time in the narrative when Melancholia is still thought to be harmless, we elliptically learn that Claire has been secretly obsessing in fear about the planet. One day she asks Justine if her intense depression has the same root, to which Justine replies "you must be stupid if you think I'm afraid of that planet." When it becomes certain that Melancholia will collide with earth, each of the characters has a different reaction to their certain end. John, Claire's husband, immediately commits suicide. Throughout the film, he had reassured Claire of the planet's harmlessness, preaching a voice of scientific reason to Claire; he tells her, "sweetheart, we have to trust the scientists." As soon as it is revealed that the scientific calculations were erroneous, John's self-hood is shattered; the reassurance offered by the they's trust in science falls away in the anxious moment where his death becomes certain, but he is so absorbed in the they's rhetoric that he cannot maintain an authentic relationship with his death and chooses instead to escape into it. John's suicide demonstrates the trauma of the moment of authenticity, "trauma shatters the absolutisms of everyday life, which, like the illusions of the 'they,' evade and cover up the finitude, contingency, and embeddedness of our existence and the indefiniteness of its certain extinction." (15)

Claire maintains a different relationship with the end that Melancholia represents. This is symbolized in the way that she relates to the planet; she uses a simple stick with wire to measure whether the planet is getting nearer or farther to Earth, based on her perspective. This is in contrast to John's scientific understanding of the planet and his dependence upon a computer controlled telescope. When Claire learns that the collision is imminent, she reacts not unlike the characters in Emmerich's films; she panics, tries to flee to safety, etc., before realizing that these flights from death are useless. Instead of coming to an existentiell modification, Claire retreats into a they-self action that treats the event of death as though it were still a social, ontic event. Talking to Justine, Claire suggests that they share their experience of end by "being together" and having wine on the terrace and listening to Beethoven. Justine promptly dismisses this idea as "a piece of shit", to which Claire reveals that she just wants her death to be nice. This information leaves Justine aghast; Justine is the only character in the film who shows no fear of the coming doom, and no need to distort it, because in her depression she has already come to terms with her end.

Justine's reaction to Melancholia is one of anticipation for being-toward-death. Heidegger describes anticipation:

   anticipation reveals to Dasein its lostness in
   the they-self, and brings it face to face with the
   possibility to be itself, primarily unsupported
   by concern that takes care, but to be itself in
   passionate, anxious freedom towards death,
   which is free of the illusions of the they, factical,
   and certain of itself. (16)

Justine's failure to be participate in the social world as a they-self (demonstrated by her own destruction of her wedding) leads to her depression; as Justine is in authentic being-toward-death, existing amongst the leveling-down of the they causes her to give up her own project and dwell in the ecstasy of her ultimate possibility. In the film, the imminent collision of Melancholia takes Justine out of her deepest depression and into a more "normal" state (where she talk, eats, etc.). Justine's anticipation of her own end is the anticipation of something (or rather, nothing--the impossibility of death) that can free her from the world that causes her suffering.

The moment of destruction in Melancholia is absolute. Unlike Emmerich's films, which show the world undergoing a transformation, Melancholia truly depicts the end of the world. The enormity of the destruction caused by the interplanetary collision leaves no doubt that every living thing on Earth would die. The being of the world and the being of Dasein depend on each other. Without Dasein to be in the world, the world as we know it is made impossible. This is demonstrated by how von Trier ends his film. Unlike Emmerich, who depicts the aftermath of his catastrophes, and life after the event, Melancholia ends with the moment of death. The end of Dasein and world marks the end of depiction of that world, and the end of the narrative that depends on these beings.


Apocalypic cinema is a disclosing artwork. In the mode of the they, prototypical apocalyptic cinema (exemplified by Emmerich) functions as a revealing of a world where Dasein's relationship to being-toward-death is made to be easy through the illusory power of the they's disburdening. In Lars von Trier's interpretation of the apocalyptic film, we find a more philosophically developed depiction of Dasein's relationship to death. Instead of offering a disburdening of the they self, this film offers a realistic depiction of Dasein relating to its end. The anxiety of Melancholia is much more invested in a single character's relationship with their own imminent end.

I chose to examine these three films because each of them offers a different perspective on the end of the world. The Day After Tomorrow posits that human beings are in control of their own demise; the catastrophic storms could have been allayed if those in power cared. Even the ultimate cause as global warming points towards an origin that is anthropogenic. This depiction gives the illusion of mastery over death for the they, and is thus the most inauthentic; in the film, society is punished because because humanity has not taken enough care in ensuring that the world does not lose balance and react violently. The underlying message of the film is that we can master our own destiny, our being-toward-death, if only we alter the way we live. This facile illusion that death can be mastered serves as a disburdening for the they-self. 2012 advances the cause of destruction beyond human behaviour; death is imminent and uncontrollable. Instead of a mastery over the disaster and death itself, 2012's narrative offers hope in that some Dasein are able to utilize technology to weather the storm. This sanguine disposition towards the they-self's ability to overcome its imminent death with technology shows again the inauthentic disburdening of the they. The film is also more advanced in its anxiety; the building of the arks demonstrates an aware anxiousness about death. This act is, of course, one of denial (i.e., an attempt to supersede the certain death of the apocalypse). Melancholia's philosophy is the most advanced of all in that it allows the potential to be read as a depiction of an authentic Dasein. Justine's anticipation and full acceptance of her death demonstrates an understanding that she is in an authentic relationship to her end, which is juxtaposed against Claire's emotional reaction and denial of her certain doom. Unlike Emmerich's films, Melancholia shows that world and Dasein require each other for their being. The end of the world in von Trier is the end of being--the film cuts the moment that all human life is erased. The destruction of Dasein results in the destruction of the diegetic world, and thus it can no longer be depicted. Von Trier's film confronts the they-self with the absolute negativity of the end, and thus offers a much more challenging film to the they-self and its perverse distortion of being-toward-death.

Ultimately, all of these films illustrate examples of the they self in our current cultural moment grappling with the inevitability of their own death. Being and Time dedicates a lot of time to examining the complexity of Dasein's authentic being-toward-death. My goal in this paper was to illustrate through these films how inauthentic being-toward-death (or demise) is operating in the they of our contemporary world. In clarifying the ontological/existential foundations of apocalyptic cinema, I have hopefully maintained the spirit of Heidegger's project. Being and Time begins the project of a fundamental ontology that Heidegger hopes will point other disciplines to consider the meaning of being as their basis of inquiry. In this case, I have attempted to recalibrate film studies in a Heideggerian mode.


(1) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: a revised edition to the Stambaugh translation, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 123

(2) Heidegger, 64-65

(3) Heidegger, 245

(4) Heidegger, 237

(5) Heidegger, 124

(6) Heidegger, 236

(7) Wheeler Winston Dixon, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2003), 2

(8) Heidegger, 178

(9) Heidegger, 329

(10) James M. Demske, Being, Man, & Death (Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 1970), 3

(11) Heidegger, 238

(12) Corey Anton, "Futuralness as Freedom: Moving toward the Past that Will-Have-Been," in Media and the Apocalypse, ed. Kylo-Patrick R. Hart and Annette M. Holba (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), 199

(13) Heidegger, 254

(14) Robert D. Stolorow, World, Affectivity, Trauma (New York & London: Routledge, 2011), 42

(15) Stolorow, 44

(16) Heidegger, 255
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Author:McFadden, Dan
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Date:Dec 22, 2015
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