In the 1998 Biblical prophecy film, Apocalypse, the world ends not with a bang but with stock footage. Lots and lots of stock footage.
Admittedly, I’m being a bit snarky about Apocalypse‘s reliance on stock footage but it’s actually kind of understandable. When you’re trying to convincingly end the world on a budget, it just makes sense to borrow someone else’s footage of a plane exploding than going through the trouble (and expense) of buying a plane and blowing it up yourself. The two main characters in Apocalypse are both anchorpeople for a 24-hours new channel called WNN. Because they’re constantly reporting on the end of the world, the stock footage is portrayed as being a part of their report. That’s kind of clever but it’s also really icky. For instance, there’s a clip of a woman sobbing in front of an angry crowd. We’re told that the woman is sobbing because her relatives have mysteriously vanished but, because the footage is in focus and the camera is held steady, we know that we’re actually watching stock footage. Which means that this woman truly was crying about something but we don’t know what. It’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers essentially took her pain and used it for their own advantage. By that same token, when we’re shown people rioting in the streets and getting attacked by police, we’re told that it’s because the world is about to end but we know that there was another real reason why those people were rioting and it’s doubtful that any of those rioting people ever thought to themselves, “Hmmm….I wonder if this footage of me getting chased by the police will ever somehow appear in a propaganda film that has nothing to do with what I’m risking injury to protest about?”
The main characters of Apocalypse are Bronson Pearl (Richard Nester) and Helen Hannah (Leigh Lewis). Bronson Pearl is the most trusted man in the world. We know this because there’s a shot of a Time Magazine cover declaring that Bronson is the “Man of the Year.” (It must have been a slow year.) When the president of the European Union, Franco Macalusso (Sam Bornstein), announces that 1) he has magically vaporized every nuclear missile on the planet mere moments before Earth went up in a nuclear fireball and 2) he’s the true messiah, Bronson is enthusiastic but Helen has her doubts. Those doubts are caused by the mysterious disappearance of millions of people across the globe. One minute, they’re there. The next minute, they’ve vanished and left behind a pile of neatly folded clothes. Before Helen’s aunt disappeared, she organized a box of VHS tapes for Helen to watch. The tapes feature footage of televangelists interpreting prophecy, which of course means that it’s time for more stock footage!
Anyway, you can guess where all of this is leading. Over the course of six days, the world goes from being on the brink of nuclear war to being ruled over by Franco Macalusso. Everyone sacrifices their individual freedom so that Maclusso can keep them “safe” and Macalusso even takes over WNN and turns the news channel into his own personal propaganda outlet. In some ways, this film does feel a bit prophetic. In the years since this film was first released, news channels have become propaganda outlets and people have started to look to their political leaders as being messianic figures. In fact, I’d argue that Apocalypse works better as a warning against authoritarianism than it does as a biblical tract.
Which isn’t to say that Apocalypse actually works. This is a low-budget and stiffly acted film and, as I said before, the use of stock footage of real disasters to stand-in for fictional disasters is undeniably icky. It’s one of those films that was made for an evangelical audience and which seems to be more concerned with taunting nonbelievers than with actually trying to be dramatically convincing. Still, if your natural instinct is to distrust authority, you’ll probably find a lot to relate to in Apocalypse‘s not-quite paranoid vision of people being brainwashed into accepting dictatorship.
Or you might just view the film as being a tribute to the power and convenience of stock footage. I guess it all depends on how you look at it.