One thing that struck me about the Brazilian movie Astral City is that its depiction of the Umbral plane, which represents a limbo or purgatory for unevolved spirits, is reminiscent of the landscapes seen in many cinematic visions of our future on earth. I don't think this is because of any failure of imagination on the part of the Brazilian filmmakers. It's simply that imagery of this type has come to suffuse popular culture in general.
The Umbral plane in Astral City
There was a time when such bleak depictions of the future were rare. Science-fiction movies usually presented the future as a high-tech world of gleaming rocketships and towering cities. These were not utopias - there were still dangers and challenges - but they were clearly a step forward for civilization. Even films that presented a darker vision usually offered a hopeful outcome; the great Things to Come, based on H.G. Wells' novel, prophesied a destructive world war and ensuing dark age, but also a rebirth of science and technology that would lift man to the stars. (A partial exception was the relentlessly pessimistic Soylent Green, but even there, civilization and culture endured, though with a much lower standard of living.)
The glittering future in Metropolis (1927)
The picture started to change around the time when The Road Warrior came out. There had been post-apocalyptic movies before this (Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, On the Beach), but none of them had captured the reversion to sheer savagery that The Road Warrior put on display. Here was a world where human beings were reduced to sweaty, snarling animals scrapping for survival over the most basic necessities. It was a world where there was no higher purpose, no ultimate meaning, just a desperate and ugly free-for-all.
The Road Warrior
Needless to say, what was revolutionary and imaginative in 1981 is old hat now. Countless post-apocalyptic movies have come out, each trying to outdo the last in terms of brutality and nihilism. Naturally, Hollywood is now remaking — er, I mean "rebooting" — The Road Warrior in a new CGI-studded incarnation that will probably feature even more over-the-top violence and dystopian pessimism.
In addition to the many imitations of George Miller's powerful vision, there has been a more recent trend: the zombie apocalypse. The first such movie was probably Night of the Living Dead, which was followed by several sequels, but the genre didn't really take off until a few years ago. Now it's everywhere, even invading the genteel drawing rooms of Jane Austen dramas. We have The Walking Dead on TV, World War Z in theaters, and infinitely more dramatizations of a world populated by shambling undead corpses who remorselessly pursue the few living human beings left on earth.
No doubt there are many possible explanations for these two related trends (related in that they both depict the bleakest possible vision of our future). Fears about scarcity of resources (Peak Oil and whatnot), fears of catastrophic environmental collapse (climate change, etc.), fears of an omnipresent Big Brother government and/or corporate bureaucracy, worries about terrorism, even the malaise brought about by a lackluster economy — all of these, and more, may well be factors in pop culture's current obsession with negativity.
But while watching Astral City, I wondered if something more might be involved. We are often told by mediums and other seers that influences from nonphysical planes of existence can reach us here on earth. Influences arising from higher planes can be beneficial, leading to useful new inventions, spurts of artistic creativity, and acts of compassion and love. Influences arising from lower planes, on the other hand, are not so wholesome; the entities inhabiting these planes are stuck in a shadowshow of violence, rage, frustration, and desperation, and if we unwittingly channel their impulses we will act in stupidly destructive ways.
Detail from The Last Judgment, by Michelangelo
It occurs to me that someone channeling the experience of entities in the Umbral plane (as Astral City calls it) and translating these impressions into pop-culture imagery in movies, TV shows, books, and graphic novels, would end up producing material very similar to what we find in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi and horror genres. A world of shambling half-dead creatures ... a blasted landscape of darkness and fog ... huddles of scared and angry people perpetually brawling with each other ... no hope, no light, no future, only an endless and pointless struggle ... That's what Hollywood and other purveyors of popular culture have been feeding us for thirty years now, with very little by way of a positive vision of humanity's future to balance it.
Maybe it's no more than a coincidence. But I can't help wondering if the prevalence of this grim subject matter reflects, in part, a growing influence exerted by low-level entities. One might even speculate that this influence has grown more pronounced because, as more people open themselves to the idea of afterlife communication, they inadvertently unlock the door to communications from malevolent sources. Or could it be that these negative influences are an attempt to counter more positive trends? As more people embrace non-denominational spirituality, perhaps the forces of darkness feel threatened.
I don't know. Whatever the answer, I can't escape the suspicion that much 0f modern culture is lost in the Umbral. And that's not a good place to be.