This essay appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, click here.


This isn’t the apocalypse we were expecting.

That has been a common sentiment making the rounds in Zoom calls and Instagram memes alike. We thought the end of the world would look like Mad Max—punk-rock biker gangs with razor-sharp boomerangs battling for the last petroleum reserves in the desert Outback. Instead, we hunkered down at home: sewing masks, doing jigsaw puzzles, swapping cocktail recipes with friends we could no longer share drinks with.

That is, those of us lucky enough to be able to shelter in place while in decent health, of course. For a large swath of the country’s blue-collar workers, the burdens of labor continued, but with the added acute anxiety of possible infection as the relief of life’s pleasures largely evaporated. For another huge segment of the population, loss of jobs and businesses, and the attendant loss of income and private health insurance, loomed larger even than fears for their health. And then there are the great many who got sick or died, those barred from being present for their loved ones’ deaths and unable to mourn them properly after they had passed. But even for those most directly affected, this juddering stop was not the promised end.

I say this because the image of that horror has been before our eyes for decades now. Ever since it became clear that humanity had such capacity for destruction that civilization itself could be snuffed out in an instant, we have made that nightmare visible on screen. Films like On the Beach attempted to confront the reality of possible annihilation head on; others, like the original Godzilla or Planet of the Apes movies, approached the same terror from the relative safety of metaphor. Regardless, the terror itself was real.

More recently, though, we have approached the end in a rather different, almost anticipatory spirit. As often as not, in our cultural imagination, the end of the world has ceased to be an occasion for dread; rather, it has been welcomed as an escape from the shackles of a despised civilization. Without society to hem us in, we can imagine our personalities being given greater scope, and with survival on the line every action has the kind of stakes that civilized life rarely affords.

Yet even in these stories, our dreams remain mired in the quotidian. The contemporary zombie story—whether in a comic incarnation like Zombieland or in an action soap opera like the hit TV show The Walking Dead—is generally peopled with characters we could readily imagine knowing, and being. They are not larger than life but merely lucky enough to be alive, as we fantasize we would be as well. The pleasure lies in relishing that expectation, while our competition lies dead.

Then there are the more resolutely downbeat tales of doom—films like Interstellar and Deep Impact—that reflect, perhaps, an absence of futurity creeping into the culture. To some extent the feeling is rational—climate change, for example, presents the very real prospect of a progressive immiseration of humanity, with some possibility that human civilization itself would not survive a slow-motion catastrophe of our own making. If so, though, it is striking that these films use the prospect of global annihilation as an impetus to therapy, forcing one or more emotionally stunted protagonists to confront the fear of loss that they’ve been running from all along, and connect to those they love before it is too late. The more all-encompassing the catastrophe, the narrower the true scope of concern, as though the anthropic principle would devour narrative itself and the impending death of humanity is ultimately just a metaphor for the impending death that faces us all.

In all these films, there’s a whiff of the kind of cosmic solipsism so perfectly expressed by the immortal A. E. Housman verse:

     Good creatures, do you love your lives
     And have you ears for sense?

     Here is a knife like other knives,
     That cost me eighteen pence.

     I need but stick it in my heart
     And down will come the sky,
     And earth’s foundations will depart
     And all you folk will die.

Perhaps even more apropos is the quip from Mel Brooks on the distinction between comedy and tragedy in their approach to human suffering: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

So I found myself curious: How do some of these films hold up now that we have been in an actual catastrophe, if not the one we anticipated? In particular, I was interested in those that addressed the most common experience of the past few months: of sheltering in place, largely confined to quarters, most often with immediate family, cut off from both the routines and the diversions of normal life, waiting. What did those films think they were doing in exploring that theme, and how would they feel to me now, when that has become my lived reality?

Escape to the Future

A Quiet Place demonstrates in exemplary fashion how the modern post-apocalyptic horror film, far from expressing dread of the future, is often in fact a fantasy of escape from society. But the nature of the escape is equally instructive.

The film is set in the immediate future, after an alien invasion has wiped out most of humanity. The aliens in question are ravenously hungry, incredibly fast, and utterly efficient killers, and cannot be stopped by any known weaponry. They are completely blind, but they have acutely sensitive hearing, such that making the slightest sound will instantly draw their attention from a great distance. So the only chance of survival lies in being completely silent.

The film follows a single nuclear family of survivors, the Abbotts, whom we first meet as they are stealthily raiding an abandoned drug store for medicine for their older son, Marcus (Noah Jupe). Their younger son, Beau (Cade Woodward), who looks about five years old, finds a toy that he wants—a battery-powered space shuttle—on a shelf, but his father, Lee (John Krasinski, who also directed), anxiously, communicates to him in sign language that it’s too loud and takes it away. Unfortunately, his daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), takes pity on the kid and gives it back to him. A few minutes later, as they are walking home barefoot, taking care not to make a sound, the boy switches on the toy, setting it beeping and buzzing. Before Lee can get back to his son and flick it off, an unseen horror has heard the sound and snatched the boy up to devour him.

That death sets up the emotional arc of the story, which revolves around Regan’s guilt and her conviction that her father has never forgiven her for Beau’s death, and hence cannot trust her with any serious responsibility. Before the film is over, Lee will have to demonstrate his forgiveness, and his love, by sacrificing himself to save his daughter, and his daughter will have to demonstrate her maturity and worth by solving the mystery of how the monsters may finally be defeated.

The film is mostly a creative demonstration of the value of artistic limitation; the inventiveness released by the restriction “don’t make a sound” is consistently impressive. The premise itself, though, barely withstands scrutiny. There’s no evidence that the aliens use technology; how did they get here? They seem to have depopulated the planet with incredible speed; are they now starving to death with most humans gone? Are they eating each other? At one point, we learn that a constant hum of noise (from a waterfall) can mask human activity sufficiently to let people speak, even shout. Why then haven’t the Abbotts made their home in a very noisy place rather than a quiet one? Wouldn’t that be safer?

But the emotional interest lies in its Swiss Family Robinson version of the end times: one resourceful family, pulling together, carving a home not merely in the wilderness but in a world very determined to kill them. The father has to hunt and fish and farm and teach his children to do the same, not only without any larger society for support, but in total silence and constant fear. The mother, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), doesn’t just have to give birth without the aid of a doctor; she has to give birth without making a sound while an alien monster stalks the halls of her home. And they both must find sufficient inner sources of hope to want to bring forth new life into such a world of death and to muffle the newborn’s cries rather than provide succor.

This is a peculiar version of that survivalist myth. The original Swiss Family Robinson was a Rousseauean fantasy: shipwreck was an opportunity for the father to raise his sons far from the corruptions of society and for the sons to learn true self-reliance. The wilderness was there to be explored, and tamed. But the domesticity on display in A Quiet Place is a very narrow one, because the world outside is unimaginably dangerous. And the children in it are being raised not to tame or conquer it but to hide and keep quiet.

What, then, is the fantasy here? The film shows us a world in which our contemporary dread of risk is unquestionably justified, and parents who live by it most truly are the only ones with a hope of seeing their children live. In that world, a family in isolation, living without support from society and in the narrowest, most careful way possible, grows stronger together, more committed to each other, and capable, ultimately, of defeating an evil that bested the entire world. It is the perfect movie for those who believe that eternal vigilance is the price of parenthood.

It’s not a fantasy that spoke to me before I had to shelter in place; indeed, I remember rolling my eyes when I first heard about it. Today it is simply maddening. A rational fear is a necessary but far from sufficient response to the virus that traps us all indoors, and the purpose of our vigilance must be to get out both as quickly and as safely as possible, for the health of our children most of all. But that is an emphatically social project. It requires authorities that can be trusted to weigh, distinguish between, and explain risks honestly, because only knowledge, not bravado, can move people to emerge. That trust is manifestly lacking, and so what the film offers as a fantasy of isolation and cocooning is now a central aspect of our lived horror.

All in the Family

That horror—of being trapped in the nuclear family—has a long pedigree in its own right. Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Shining, about the Torrance family’s ill-fated snowed-in sojourn in a Colorado resort hotel, is the first film in the file for me, but that film’s center is strangely elusive. Is the horror being trapped with an abusive husband? That’s certainly what it would be if Shelley Duvall’s Wendy anchored the film with her experience, but she plays a distinctly secondary role. Is it about a young Cassandra, a boy preternaturally able to foresee horror, but unable to discern its source or meaning (itself a potent allegory of life with an abusive parent)? That’s nearer the mark. But it is Jack Nicholson’s turn as Jack that dominates the film, and what is his story about—alcoholism? cabin fever? writer’s block? just being stuck with a family he’s come to loathe? The hotel itself offers such a multitude of reasons why it should spawn horrors—including horrific murders and a desecrated burial ground—that the film seems to be aiming beyond metaphor or allegory for something more primal, which only sends obsessives (entertainingly chronicled in the documentary Room 237) searching all the harder for the key that will unravel the film’s mute mysteries.

The Torrance family, though isolated, is not sheltering from anything. They’re just doing a job, taking care of the property. For a film about a patriarch pursuing isolation in a mad quest for safety, the aptly named Take Shelter isn’t a bad candidate. Michael Shannon plays Curtis, a man convinced a terrible storm is coming and who devotes himself single-mindedly to protecting his family therefrom, digging up his yard to bury a shipping container that will serve as a home where they can wait out catastrophe. Unfortunately, the film flinches from a fine, dark ending, with his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart), having finally decided to join him in his madness as the price of keeping the family together, huddling beside Curtis in their gas masks, waiting for the storm. Rather than end there, the film continues, and leaves the shelter, to reopen the question of whether Curtis was truly mad or prescient after all. What the filmmaker surely saw as a final twist is actually a significant diminishment.

For a film that goes all in on this particular horror, then, I recommend Dogtooth, Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-nominated provocation about a family raising their three children in near-total isolation. The father (played by Christos Stergioglou—the character, like all the members of the family, is unnamed) and mother (Michele Valley) tell their children that the outside world is horrifically dangerous. It will not be safe for them to take even a single step off the property until their dogteeth fall out. In the meantime, they must wait and trust to the wisdom and care of their parents.

That care manifests itself in a North Korean level of control over their reality, even extending to language. The parents routinely teach the children absurdly wrong meanings for words—zombie, for example, is a yellow flower. Sometimes the manipulation is defensive, to avoid contamination with ideas that sneak in from the outside; other times it manifests as sheer perversity, a demonstration of the totality of their control. The children are told that house cats are the most dangerous animals in existence, for example, and every now and again, when an airplane flies by, the mother will toss a toy airplane into the yard and tell the children it is the airplane they saw flying, now fallen to earth.

The children are already young adults by the time the film begins, so the parents have begun to attend to their new desires. The father brings a female guard (Anna Kalaitzidou) home from the factory where he works as a manager, to provide sexual services for his son (Hristos Passalis). When she contaminates the bubble by bringing in material from the outside (culminating in a forbidden videotape of the movie Jaws), he decides to employ his son’s older sister (Angeliki Papoulia) instead. Incest seems to be the only sure way to keep the family intact, but actually proves the final spur for the eldest daughter’s escape.

What is Dogtooth about? It feels like a hell-dark satire of overprotection, of homeschoolers and Benedict Optioneers panicked about pernicious outside influences, desperate to deny their children a destiny beyond their control. But the Dogtooth family are not presented as principled outsiders like, say, the family in Captain Fantastic, whose patriarch has removed them from society to escape its corruptions. On the contrary: the life the family in Dogtooth leads is utterly banal, possessed of a cockeyed conventionality. It bears more resemblance to the freeze-dried world underground in the post-apocalyptic classic A Boy and His Dog than to the Swiss Family Robinson. What is being satirized, I think, is the very idea of the family as a haven, the home as a man’s castle, a safe retreat from the social and physical world. That impulse, the film suggests, ends in a totalitarian cul-de-sac.

How does it read in the midst of the pandemic? The virus is not a house cat, a fiction invented to keep us under control; it is a very real, if elusive, threat. Yet the central premise of the film was surprisingly easy to set aside. What resonated anew for me was the creativity of the imprisoned—the games they invent, the personalities they multiply, the fecundity implicit in any new thing that intrudes on their tiny world—as well as the lack of privacy and the consequent preciousness of any moment out of the confinement of our micro-society. We’re all Mirandas now, in a sense, and a single six-foot-distanced walk with an old friend feels like a brave new world discovered. But Prospero, the controlling father, is nowhere to be found on my island.

Classy Mind Games

It’s striking how many of these films do resort to that assumption of familial hierarchy. Whether the patriarch is benevolent and caring or cruel and manipulative, he has an inherent authority, and the scenario of social isolation implies the need for such. Even nonfamilial stories of isolation under threat tend to revolve around that question of whose authority will be respected and legitimized. The original modern zombie film, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, is all about this dynamic, as the level-headed black protagonist tries in vain to establish credible authority over his panicky white shelter-mates, and survives them all, only to be shot dead by a roving armed posse who mistake him for a zombie.

They don’t always revolve around that dynamic, however, and what was probably my favorite film of this shelter-in-place project barely did at all. Not that authority plays no part, but it plays a very different part than it does in the other films I watched, because it is bound to class rather than to family.

Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel is remarkable as well for the distinctiveness of its premise. In most of these other films, the external threat is either palpably real (A Quiet Place, the various zombie films) or a manifestation of the patriarch’s mind (Dogtooth, Take Shelter). In The Exterminating Angel, the line between what is in the mind and what is in reality is fluid, and in a different way than in The Shining.

The action takes place at a fancy dinner party in Madrid during the Franco years. Before the party, several servants on the house’s staff—including the chef—make their way out of the house. When confronted by the butler, they cannot readily explain their intention to leave, but they persist even when threatened with dismissal. The party proceeds, and after dinner the large group of guests retires to the music room. But they never leave. Periodically, individual guests declare their intention to go, but they don’t, and eventually everyone just lies down on a couch or on the carpet and grabs some rest.

The next morning, they are still there—and still don’t leave the music room. They plan to go after coffee and a breakfast of cold leftovers, but they don’t. Eventually, the hostess breaks through her manners enough to try to move the party along, but to no effect. No one will leave. Guests walk to the edge of the room, peer out into the dining room, and stop, staring. No one, seemingly, can leave. And yet no one knows why. Nor can anyone outside—the police, some of the house’s servants, and a variety of onlookers have gathered at the front gates—venture in, though they are similarly baffled as to why.

Days stretch out one after the other; the group must confront the problem of how to get fresh water (break open a pipe in the wall), how to get food (lure animals into the room, kill and roast them on the wood of broken furniture and floorboards), how to minister to the sick and dying among their number, how merely not to go mad. There are gestures in the direction of a struggle for authority, but that’s not where the heart of the film is. That heart is focused on matters of class. These dinner-party guests are members of society’s elite, while all the servants but the butler have departed. And they do not, in the absence of their servants, constitute a functioning society. Some show a measure of resourcefulness, but on the whole the group retains the character of a dinner party of wealthy friends awaiting rescue.

They ultimately do save themselves, by playing a kind of psychological trick that allows them to walk out of the room. But the reprieve is temporary. At a funeral held not long after their escape for one of their number who died, they are trapped again in the church, along with all the other mourners, unable to leave and unable to say why.

Buñuel was surely saying something about the nature of class itself as an invisible prison, something that the inmates themselves cannot see or even understand how it works to hem them in—nor can those locked out understand it any better. Watching it during the pandemic, I felt that insight far more viscerally. My own survival, my ability to shelter in place in the first place, depends entirely on the willingness of millions of workers to expose themselves as I do not. Were they equally unable to move about, I would not be far from the characters at the dinner party, wondering how to lure pigeons into my apartment to be strangled. And their passivity is mirrored in my own, as I wait for some trick that will let me walk out and rejoin the world.

The Exterminating Angel is, in that sense, precisely the opposite of A Quiet Place in its intent and effects. The fantasy of self-reliance rings hollow when confronted by how much we actually depend on each other, as does the fantasy of patriarchal authority when confronted by the reality of its impotence. We are far less adaptable than we imagine; our psychological habits are more stubborn than the material basis of our civilization is durable. And if I am not merely going to escape by watching an old Marx Brothers or Danny Kaye film, I would rather confront the painful truth than indulge in a fantasy that rings more hollowly than it did when I was free. ♦

Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.

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