Is the Apocalypse Film the Same as the War Film?
By Leong Jun Wen
The war and apocalyptic film genres have become mainstays of popular film culture across the years. From a horde of monsters or zombies on the rampage as frequently depicted in apocalyptic classics to a ragtag band of soldiers fighting for their survival in a war epic, there is undeniably something cryptic about widespread death and destruction that pulls in audiences to both genres. In a sense, then, the apocalyptic film genre can be considered a subset of the overarching genre of war films. However, although both genres share similarities, there are noticeable differences in their respective depictions of war. This raises an intriguing question: does the addition of the element of an apocalyptic theme change a conventional war movie and if so, in what aspect? To answer this, we will do a comparative analysis between a conventional war movie and one with an apocalyptic tone. In this article, we will be looking at Steven Spielberg’s war epic Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Roland Emmerich’s high-grossing apocalyptic movie Independence Day (1996), arguably two of the most important films of their respective sub-genres. Specifically, we will dissect the theme of warfare in both films, in the process crystallising the intricate similarities and differences in their depictions of war. Both similarly high-budgeted blockbusters released just two years apart and featuring scenes of widespread carnage and death, a comparison is most apt as they both significantly advanced the popularity of their respective subgenres. Following which, this allows me to argue that although a conventional war film and an apocalyptic war film share similar characteristics, the inclusion of an apocalyptic theme enables the exploration of new themes that would otherwise be difficult to fuse into a film of the genre.
In Independence Day (ID4), the Harvesters, an alien race with technology superior to that of humans’, attacks Earth with huge spaceships in an attempt to plunder the plethora of resources found on the planet. After a Harvester mothership enters orbit from deep space, confusion and fear is set loose upon the human population and scenes of panic spanning epidemic proportions are epically filtered through Emmerich’s setting. Sorties of fighter jets and even a thermonuclear strike organised against the foe are shown to be hopelessly useless against the extraterrestrials’ advanced technology. This culminates in the Harvesters utilising powerful technology to systematically obliterate major cities across the globe one by one, leaving widespread trails of destruction on human establishments. Throughout the movie, the human military is depicted as engaging in a hard-fought war against the alien invaders, with battle scenes supported by cutting-edge computer-generated imagery. Scores of civilians and soldiers are killed by the Harvesters’ advanced weapons of war, with Emmerich not shying away from scenes of spectacular explosions and destruction in his depiction of the war.
Set during the Second World War, Saving Private Ryan follows a squad of United States Army Rangers led by Captain John H. Miller as they search for a paratrooper, Private Ryan, who is the last-surviving brother of four servicemen, in an attempt to save him to alleviate some of his mother’s grief. After the Normandy landings, the mission takes the squad through Nazi occupied territory to establish contact with Ryan’s unit, an element of the 101st Airborne Division. Throughout the movie, Spielberg’s graphic and violent war scenes portray the physical and mental struggles the squad has to go through in fighting Nazi soldiers on their way to Ryan’s unit. The movie’s realistic portrait of warfare has led to it being universally lauded as an influential film in the war film genre by many critics (Suid, 1998, p. 1185).
In both films, a main symbolisation is the accentuation of values like sacrifice, resilience and team spirit through the characters’ war against the alien invaders/Nazi Germany. For a start, brotherhood and strength feature in the camaraderie of the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan. This is reflected by the scene where Private Ryan refuses to leave his fellow soldiers behind to go home even though they urged him to. A normal person would embrace the thought of leaving war and going home, but to a soldier, leaving one’s comrades behind on the battlefield bordered on the unthinkable. Their urgency is evident in forming up and getting into strategic battle positions, reflecting the degree of mutual ownership each man feels towards his brethren and his platoon. Sacrifice constitutes a demonstrably significant chunk of these soldiers’ lifelong vocation; they battle physically traumatic and emotionally scarring experiences throughout the film in the midst of carrying out their rescue operation. In warfare, these soldiers require bravery to maintain their sanity under the constant threat of death, all the while being surrounded by the painful suffering of their dead or dying comrades.
A similar theme can be found in ID4, where we see the fighter pilots who did not previously know each other work in tandem and put their lives on the line to take down the Harvester motherships. Their collective cooperation made the eventual termination of the Harvesters’ schemes successful, humanity would have witnessed its extinction. On a grander scale, reflecting the determined attitudes of the pilots is the propensity of the human race to survive, unwilling to retire what little agency they possessed to perforate the Harvesters’ line of defence and hence, exploiting their fatal flaws to eliminate their reign of terror on Earth. The same undercurrent of selfless sacrifice in the face of bleakly abject oblivion underpins the courageous actions of Russell, the fighter pilot who rammed his craft into the spaceship’s weapon port. Such values are often valued by soldiers on the battlefield as essential for victory and survival. A platoon of soldiers working together would have greater collective strength and battle capability than when they act as individually-minded mercenaries. Take the Ancient Athenians for instance, where the battle capability of their units were massively augmented by the soldiers coordinating their movements in the highly effective Phalanx formation. Meanwhile, their rivals, the Spartans, were famed for their bravery in battle, enabling them to defeat even enemy forces with numbers far greater than that of them like that of the Persians during the Greco-Persian wars.
It is thus unsurprising that the war genre is templated by such values, encouraging both directors to fuse such themes into their movies to such a great extent. Parallels between the two films are evident, narrative-wise; these themes form the scaffolding for the emotive layering that drive the characters to perform the actions they do and thus lends the films their compelling, engaging qualities which induces the viewer to become invested in their outcomes.
Bringing a power “down to earth”?
However, the addition of an apocalyptic element to a war film can allow for the depiction of a traditionally “stronger” power turning into the weaker side in a war. A nation that is usually portrayed to be powerful and militarily dominant will become part of the dominated side in the advent of an apocalyptic scenario like an extraterrestrial invasion. In Saving Private Ryan, America is shown to have considerable military clout and punches her weight in the war, leading the D-Day Normandy beach landings depicted in the first part of the film. With the film being historically accurate, America is shown to be the superpower of the time with her powerful army and navy turning the tide of the war. Well-equipped American marines and paratroopers lead the push against the weakening but still combat effective Nazi forces to reach Berlin.
On the contrary, in ID4, the superiority of the technologically advanced aliens means that the usually-dominant America is, along with the rest of humanity, portrayed as the weaker side in the war. Throughout the film, America’s mighty military is shown to be fighting an uphill battle against the vastly overpowered alien ships, with waves of U.S. Air Force fighters falling to their firepower, with even the B-2 stealth bomber, America’s military trump card, failing to inflict any visible damage on the Harvester mothership. The iconic symbolism of America’s hopelessness against the superior alien race is manifested in the shot of the White House’s destruction by an alien spaceship mercilessly firing a laser beam at the once-proud and impregnable metropolis of Washington D.C. . This is in stark contrast to the traditional depiction of America in the genre as an indomitable powerhouse. In this case, America is depicted to be part of the losing side, a somewhat unfamiliar position for her to be in a war film as many a war film has conditioned us to expect America’s power allowing her domination over enemies. Although America (and humanity) does emerge victorious in the end, it is the result of a weakness of the aliens that is found and exploited, as opposed to her winning by virtue of her power being greater than that of her enemy, which is also not true this case.
Evidently, the addition of the apocalyptic element into a film more easily allows the introduction of a fresh perspective on the role of a usually potent faction. By setting America up as the weaker side, it allows the country to be viewed in a different role compared to what the average cinemagoer is used to, enabling an added dimension that a conventional war film would find difficulty in facilitating. What makes this difficult to do without the premise of an extraterrestrial invasion is that there is no easy way to subvert the expectations of who the victors and losers are that are already ingrained in viewers’ minds. This is mostly a result of most war flicks historically portraying the usual superpowers like the Soviet Union or America triumphing over their weaker foes. Thus, this creative deviation from the traditional war movie offers a unique take that is intended to resonate with audiences looking for something new by introducing this fresh trope.
A mismatch of power
In addition, the addition of an apocalyptic theme allows for the depiction of a huge technological warfare advantage as compared to a film without it.
The Harvesters in ID4 possess military technology far greater than that of any found on Earth. In the movie, the extraterrestrials’ massive technological advantage over the humans is obvious in the form of their firepower and the near-impenetrable deflector shields strong enough to absorb nuclear blasts equipped on their ships. Here, a parallel can be drawn with certain instances of warfare in the real world. Throughout history, there have been many instances in which technologically more advanced and more powerful nations wage war on weaker states, making use of the gulf in military muscle to easily overpower the invaded country. An example would be of colonial powers systematically invading and occupying less developed nations in Africa and the Far East in the second half of the last millennium. Naval power, especially that of the British empire, coupled with the lack of the operation of a functional military navy by many of these weaker states due to their non-possession of the required technology, easily facilitated the movement of troops from the aggressor nation. Once the invasion forces landed, the scenario on land was one no different where the usage of muskets or gunpowder resulted in a mismatch with a relatively primitive defence equipped with spears and bows. This technological advantage gifted the colonial invasion force or the extraterrestrials a dominant advantage in war over their foes.
This is not the case in Saving Private Ryan where both the Allies and the Nazis possessed relatively similar military technology. This is evident in the battle scenes in which both sides used similar firearms like the Lee-Enfield rifles carried by the British infantry and the Gewehr 88s used by the German Wehrmacht. Both sides were also depicted to be using similar artillery and tanks and there is no visible gulf in technological advancement between the two factions. As in many conventional war movies, both sides are not shown to be far apart on the military technology scale.
Thus, the addition of the extraterrestrial invasion trope into a war movie allows for the portrait of a greater gulf in technology between warring factions as compared to one we would expect in a traditional war movie. This is because in most real life instances, the different nations or factions partaking in a war do not have a great technological mismatch due to the globalisation of technology and the continual homogenisation of technology around the world. Although it is possible to depict such a great mismatch in technology without this addition, this would be challenging as it is mostly confined to plots closely following themes of the colonial era like the one described above. As such, the addition of an apocalyptic theme into a purely war movie could more easily allow for a greater gulf in military technology to be depicted. What makes this important is that there is a visceral thrill in watching a technologically inferior side defeat a superior one, with humans having a tendency to support the underdog (McGinnis & Gentry, 2009). This means that a war filmmaker can amplify this thrill in viewers by incorporating a greater superiority in technology for one faction or species, resulting in a greater satisfaction for the viewer when they are defeated by the lesser side.
As evidenced by the comparison between the two films, despite their similarities, there are notable differences between their respective narratives of war. Thus, I believe that the inclusion of apocalyptic elements into a war film dies open up the possibility of exploring new themes that would otherwise be difficult to portray in a conventional war film like Saving Private Ryan. As such, this granted Emmerich the opportunity to include some tropes in ID4 that Spielberg would have encountered difficulty in if he were to attempt to include them in his more conventional war film.
Emmerich, R. (Director). (1996). Independence Day [Motion picture]. Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox.
McGinnis, L. P. & Gentry, J. W. (2009). Underdog consumption: An exploration into meanings and motives. Journal of Business Research, 62(2), 191-199.
Spielberg, S. (Director). (1998). Saving Private Ryan [Motion picture]. Hollywood: Paramount Pictures.
Suid, L. H. (1998). Saving Private Ryan [Review of the motion picture Saving Private Ryan, by S. Spielberg]. The Journal of American History, 85(3), 1185-1186.