The End of the World (As We Know It)

Sometimes the metaphor is so perfect it seems the gods of discourse and simulation must have conspired to produce it. The video clip now spreading across the internet — in the Huffington Post‘s words, “like wildfire” — not only visualizes the earth’s destruction by asteroid, but the global proliferation of the clip itself, a CG cartoon leaping from one link to another in a contagious collective imagining of apocalypse:

The video has apparently been in existence at least since 2005, when (according to my quick-and-dirty sleuthing) it aired as a segment on the Discovery Channel series Miracle Planet. Only recently — perhaps after being contextually unmoored by the swapping of its narration for a Pink Floyd soundtrack — has it “gone viral,” scorching the graphical territories that have grown around our planet like a second skin since the dual foundings in the 1960s of the internet (nee ARPAnet) and the computer-graphics movement whose granddaddy was Ivan Sutherland. The reasons for the asteroid clip’s sudden popularity are, I suspect, both too mundane and profound ever to explain to anyone’s satisfaction: on one level, it’s about the idle clicking of links and impulsive forwarding of attachments that has become the unconscious microlabor of millions who believe ourselves to be playing as we work (when, in fact, we are working as we play); on another level, it’s about 9/11, The Dark Knight, and conflict in the Middle East. Tipping points, for all their blunt undeniability, remain enigmatic things at heart. Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) spilled water off the back of his hand to illustrate nonlinearity and strange attractors; I submit to you “Chocolate Rain,” Twilight, and now a video, running time just under five minutes, that renders in lush but elegant terms the immolation of our homeworld.

I’m not about to get all moralistic on you and suggest there’s something unhealthy about this spectacle, or the way we’re passing it eagerly from platform to platform like a digital hot potato. It is, in a word, supercool, especially when the continents start peeling up like the waxy bacon grease to which I applied my spatula after an indulgent Christmas breakfast last week. In its languid, extended takes it recalls the Spider-Man sequence that Dan North and I recently kicked around, and in its scalar play — a square inch or two of screen display windowing outward onto the collision of planetary bodies — it’s like a peepshow of the gods, the perverse cosmos literally getting its rocks off, caressing earth and stone together like Ben Wa balls. The clip is mercifully blind to the suffering of life on the ground (or for that matter in the air and sea); its only intimations of pain are displaced, oddly, onto architecture, with Big Ben and the Parthenon in flames.

What the clip brings to mind most powerfully, though, is a similar exercise in worldshaping now more than 25 years old: the Project Genesis sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982). That brilliant, franchise-saving movie revolved around an experimental device called Genesis, a high-tech MacGuffin that motivated the piratical faceoff between Admiral James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh (is my geek showing?) as well as some beautiful matte paintings, a cloud-tank nebula, and a thrilling countdown sequence scored by James Horner before his compositions became simulacra of themselves.

But all of the Genesis device’s visual and auditory puzzle-pieces would not have cohered as potently in my imagination if not for the way it is introduced early in the film, by a short CG sequence showing the effect that Genesis would have on a lifeless planet:

Several things tie the Genesis sequence to the asteroid-strike video: formally, each begins by tracking inward on a celestial body and ends with a pullback to show the world turning serenely in space; the midsection consists of a sweeping orbital arc, dipping down to the level of mountains, forests, and oceans before lifting back into the stratosphere. Most importantly, each details the utter transformation of a planet, albeit in opposite directions: Genesis brings, in the words of Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), “life from lifelessness,” while the Discovery Channel’s asteroid inverts the dream of creation, showing its necessary, extinguishing counterpole. The difference between them reflects, perhaps, a shift in how we imagine the possibilities of technology through science fiction: Star Trek‘s utopian vision has given way to the more shadowed and conspiratorial nihilism of Battlestar Galactica (a series that begins in the fires of nuclear armageddon).

But there is also a story here of computer graphics and how they have, for all their evolution, stayed much the same in their aesthetics and predilections. The Genesis sequence was a groundbreaking piece of work from the nascent CGI department at Industrial Light and Magic — a proof-of-concept exercise in ray tracing and fractal modeling by artists and equipment that would soon spin off into Pixar. ILM founder George Lucas, obsessed with extending his authorial control through the development of digital production tools like SoundDroid and EditDroid (forerunner of Avid and nonlinear editing systems), let the future juggernaut slip through his fingers, only later realizing the degree to which CGI would revolutionize filmmaking by merging the elastic, constructive capabilities of animation with the textured realism of live-action. In Pixar’s most recent work — the acclaimed Wall-E, whose glories I’ve been revisiting on my Blu-Ray player — one can see the same hunger to take worlds apart in favor of building new ones, an awareness of how closely, in the world of visual-effects engineering, creation and destruction intertwine. Like other films that have captured my attention on the blog this year — I Am Legend, Planet of the ApesWall-E serves up apocalypse as spectacle, a tradition that continues (proudly, perversely) with the asteroid video.

Happy new year to all, and best wishes for 2009!

1 thought on “The End of the World (As We Know It)

  1. It is interesting how the end of the world and the beginning of one are portrayed in such similar ways. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the whole Project Genesis thing was so horribly stupid and unscientific that it almost ruined Star Trek II!

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