Exploring Neo-Apocalyptic Narratives

Traditional apocalyptic narratives ‘offer an improved model’ of ‘present society’, in which the ‘person who puts aside shallow and self-interested impulses is recognised as the true hero of the world’ (2012, p. 210).

However, this version of the apocalypse is challenged by a new movement: the neo-apocalypse. The rise of the neo-apocalypse is studied by Karen J. Renner in ‘The Appeal of the Apocalypse’, where she highlights that Emerging in the late 20th to early 21st century, the neo-apocalyptic genre is characterized by a departure from the religious vindication offered by previous apocalyptic films towards a more secular vulnerability and pessimism (Renner, 2012, p. 204; Rosen, 2008). This transition from a more ‘Promethean’ perspective to an ‘Augustinian’ one aligns with a more dystopian view of society (Bendle, 2005, p. 2). 

To Renner, ‘the secularized use of the term apocalypse is a relatively new phenomenon, one that suggests a far less hopeful attitude about the fate of the world than the biblical usage, for catastrophe in these narratives, is merely the tragic outcome of human failure or epic misfortune and promises nothing more.’ (Renner, 2012, p. 204). A dominant thematic idea in neo-apocalyptic works is pessimism. Neo-apocalyptic fiction reframes our traditional views of humanity, showing flawed characters who retain their basal human tendencies and moral bankruptcy even as humanity’s existence is threatened. Neo-apocalyptic fiction aims to act as a lens to highlight the moral bankruptcy and inherently cruelty of the current systems running society.

In this issue, we hope to explore how the traditional and neo-apocalypse narratives have shaped the landscape of apocalyptic fiction in the 21st century. The articles will explore how these narratives feed off our current impressions of modern society and how they have led to the rise of neo-apocalyptic narratives.

Olivia Wong explores the themes of heroism and courage in popular traditional apocalyptic narratives through her article that compares The Maze Runner (TMR) and Plato’s The Allegory of The Cave (TAOTC). By positing that TMR deviates from TAOTC to enter a more extensive discussion on power dynamics, she reveals how a power struggle emerges from the threat that the main hero poses to other power-hungry characters, as a result of his selfless and courageous acts of heroism. 

Chen Runfeng’s paper examines Watchmen (2009) through the categorizations of apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic narratives and finds the existence of both in this film. The finding seems to challenge the existing characterization of narrative forms. Nevertheless, it coincides with Renner’s doubts on the trend of taking pessimism as the “defining characteristic of the neo-apocalyptic narrative”. As such, how should we examine the deviations within Watchmen from current characterizations of apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic narratives? 

Wayne Sing’s article reconciles apocalyptic and neo-apocalyptic narratives through his exploration of the Detroit: Become Human’s (2018) gameplay. Despite the heaviness of its neo-apocalyptic setting, it refutes its pessimistic traits and portrays the situations faced by characters in a positive light. Wayne finds that while the game portrays the grim and unending lives of marginalized communities, there is still hope for change as the decision of whether to be part of the discriminatory experience is ultimately theirs. 

Eunice Tan’s paper endeavours to analyse the institution of ‘sacred truths’ and their impact on power and society in the post-apocalyptic diegetics of Snowpiercer (2020) and The Village (2004) through a comparative lens. Her piece identifies that the neo apocalyptic perspective may have a part to play in the portrayal of said societies by depicting them as “fundamentally distorted”. However, she identifies that there may be an underlying humanistic undertone reminiscent of traditional interpretations of the apocalypse – as characters in both texts are depicted to have agency over the unravelling of ‘sacred truths’. 

Beyond looking at the characters, Rosen’s theory of the neo-apocalypse highlights “a literature of pessimism positing potential means of extinction and predicting the gloomy probabilities of such ends”  (Extract taken from Renner, 2012, p. 204). No other phenomenon better explores this than the extinction of humanity in an apocalypse itself. The next two articles on Sweet Home (2017) and Planet of the Apes (2011 – 2018) used the narrative of extinction to bring out the degradation of human society.

Pang Ji Xuan’s paper delves into the darkness of South Korea’s beauty industry through analysing Sweet Home (2017)’s process of monsterification — where humanity transitions into a visibly corrupt version of itself. In this article, she discusses how Sweet Home criticizes society’s obsession with perfection in aesthetics, and the toll it takes on an individual’s mental psyche. By extending this, she studies how societal factors have degraded humanity into chasing for an ideal that is only achievable by losing oneself, highlighting Rosen’s theory of neo-apocalypticism “positing potential means of extinction and predicting the gloomy probabilities of such ends” (cited from Renner, 2014, p. 204), embodying the darkness of the Post-2000s with humanity’s inevitable extinction by its own undoing. 

The lack of redemption and pessimism of Renner’s neo-apocalypse is central to the new Planet of the Apes trilogy (2011 – 2017). Beginning with the near-complete extinction of morally bankrupt humanity, the trilogy sets off to show a new version of humans rising from the rubble: the new ape civilisation. However, will they be able to rise above humanity and maintain their moral goodness? Barathkumar Sriram’s article studies how the Planet of the Apes trilogy explores the aspects of human nature through the lens of the apocalypse. The essay posits that human is by nature attuned to evil and that any version of humanity is doomed to revert to moral bankruptcy no matter how hard they attempt to avoid it.

Through these articles, we hope to give further insight into how the neo-apocalyptic movement has been influenced by our perception of modern society. By analysing these texts, we aim to further understand how the perceptions of society and humanity have changed in the 21st century and what are the factors that drive these changes. As we shuffle into the new millennium, our perceptions about the apocalypse changes. Such is critical in reflecting on humanity’s different modes of thought, informed by their past experiences.