Sometimes publicity falls out of the sky. On 24 November, just a couple of weeks before Adam McKay's apocalyptic disaster comedy Don't Look Up opened in cinemas, Nasa launched a spacecraft called Dart (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) to see if it could alter the trajectory of the moonlet Dimorphos. That particular chunk of rock turns out to be no danger to Earth. Not so the Everest-sized comet in Don't Look Up, which is only six months away at the beginning of the movie. With a cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep, McKay's film is a striking example of what you might call "impact fiction", a diverse sub-genre of apocalyptic fiction that goes all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe and is currently enjoying (if enjoying is the right word) a major revival.
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Comets and asteroids are interchangeable in impact fiction, and with good reason. Both are stray bits of rubble left over from the formation of the solar system. A comet is a globe of ice, rock, dust and gas, originating in the outer solar system. When comets pass the sun, they shed a trail of gas and debris, hence the tail: the Greek word kometa means long-haired. An asteroid (meaning star-like) is a chunk of rock and minerals from the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars: no ice, no tail.
Despite their differences, the effect of a significant collision with the Earth would be much the same, which is why all potentially dangerous bodies now come under the umbrella of Near-Earth Objects (NEOs). The largest impact event in recorded history is the 12-megaton aerial explosion near the Tunguska river in Siberia on 30 June 1908, but that was a pebble compared to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs in the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event 66 million years ago. Studies of K-Pg, a six-to-nine-mile-wide object making landfall with an estimated force of 100 million megatons, indicate what a similar impact might look like.
Adam McKay's new film Don't Look Up is an example of "impact fiction", which is enjoying a major revival (Credit: Netflix)
First, the blast waves would level everything within a radius of several hundred miles while triggering earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Worse, the impact would excavate a crater several miles deep, flinging billions of tons of rock, dust and sulphur halfway to the moon. Heavier objects would burn up on re-entering the atmosphere and create a lethal meteor shower, igniting firestorms. Smaller debris would form a thick, sun-blocking cloud around the planet, plunging it into a year-long "impact winter". Vegetation would perish within weeks and most animal life within months – if not from starvation then from sulfuric rain as corrosive as battery acid or UV radiation pouring through the shredded ozone layer. The Earth's surface would cease to sustain life.
Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God’s wrath – Martin Luther
Nasa calculates the annual odds of an impact equivalent to K-Pg as one in a million but, as the opening voiceover in Michael Bay's 1998 movie Armageddon dramatically puts it: "It happened before. It will happen again. It's just a question of when?"
The rise of impact narratives
The first asteroid, Ceres, wasn't discovered by telescope until 1801 but comets, which were first discovered in 1680, have inspired superstition for centuries. Among other things, they were thought to bring plague and crop failure, and herald the overthrow of kings. "Whatever moves in the heaven in an unusual way is certainly a sign of God's wrath," said Martin Luther in the 16th Century.
Thanks to the work of astronomer Edmond Halley, who had the famous comet named after him in 1758, comets became understood as a physical danger rather than a supernatural one, although Halley did try to reconcile his theories with Biblical scripture. He suggested in 1694 that the deluge in Genesis might have been caused by "the casual Choc of a Comet, or other transient Body". His contemporary William Whiston predicted that a similar comet would bring about the end of the world on 16 October 1736. At the end of the century, the French polymath Pierre-Simon Laplace observed: "To the terrors which the apparition of comets then inspired succeeded the apprehension, that of the great number which traverse the planetary system in all directions, one of them might overturn the earth." Laplace wrote that the consequences of a collision would indeed be disastrous but that one was extremely unlikely.
Still, the fear remained strong among the public. Edgar Allan Poe wrote his short story The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion in 1839, following agitation around the appearance of three comets – Biela's, Halley's and Encke's – in quick succession. In the story, the comet's tail first drains the nitrogen from Earth's atmosphere, throwing its inhabitants into a hyperoxygenated frenzy, before the nucleus hits: "the whole incumbent mass of ether in which we existed burst at once into a species of intense flame… Thus ended all." Writing almost 150 years before the K-Pg event became common knowledge, Poe got the facts all wrong (a comet's nucleus is solid, not gaseous) but he did at least make the first stab at a scientifically plausible impact narrative.
The apocalyptic fin de siècle mood of the 1890s revived interest in NEOs. In 1894, the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published a speculative novel called La Fin du Monde, which is more a symposium than a story. Flammarion uses a comet as "the pretext for the discussion of every possible phase of this great and important subject – the end of the world," though he stops short of delivering it.
In 1894 the French astronomer Camille Flammarion published a speculative novel called La Fin du Monde, reflecting a wave of interest in NEOs (Credit: Alamy)
Flammarion's novel was followed by HG Wells's short story The Star (1897), in which natural disasters and intense global heating caused by a comet's passage drive the surviving population to resettle in the newly verdant polar regions. With understanding of the "impact winter" some way off, it was assumed that the world would burn rather than freeze.
The Danish director August Blom made the first attempt to put a NEO collision on screen in his eerie 1916 movie The End of the World. The conceit of the film was inspired by the appearance of Halley's comet in 1910 but its mood reflected the revolutionary temper in Europe (Frank Stoll, a wealthy cad, dies after an angry mob of workers storms his decadent last-night party) and the horror of World War One: the meteor shower looks like a mortar bombardment while the shattered town into which one survivor emerges resembles any number of towns in France at the time.
The most influential impact narrative of the interwar years was When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, serialised in 1932 and published in book form the following year. Balmer, the editor of Redbook magazine, had a talent for thrilling plots but no ability to execute them. He found the perfect collaborator in Wylie, an ambitious writer and keen amateur scientist. While working in Hollywood in the early 1930s, Wylie befriended atomic physicists at the California Institute of Technology, whom he later consulted on aspects of When Worlds Collide.
The novel opens with the terrible discovery that two planets have become detached from their own solar systems and are hurtling towards Earth. When Bronson A and Bronson B pass close by, they will cause untold damage. On their return, they will smash the planet to smithereens. Much of the novel is taken up with the construction of a rocket (called Noah's Ark) to transport a few hundred lucky survivors to Bronson B, which conveniently has a habitable atmosphere, but the most arresting chapters describe the ravages of the first pass in harrowing detail. Wylie's imagination for mass destruction surpassed even that of Wells.
Danish director August Blom made the first attempt to put a NEO collision on screen in his 1916 movie The End of the World (Credit: Nordisk Films)
Reading When Worlds Collide or watching the 1951 movie version, it's fascinating to see how many of the enduring tropes of impact stories were already in place: the shocking scientific discovery, the authorities alerted, the sadness and panic, the riots and looting, the hi-tech plan for survival, the reference to Noah, and the many forms of denial. "The end of the world will never be really believed till it comes," says the scientific genius Cole Hendron.
For most post-war writers, the cause of global annihilation would not be a freak intruder from outer space but the greed, malice and stupidity of mankind itself
It's unclear whether the Austrian playwright Jura Soyfer had read When Worlds Collide before writing his 1936 play The End of the World but he certainly seems to be having fun with Balmer and Wylie's ideas. Soyfer, a 23-year-old Jewish Marxist in a country sliding towards war, saw the immense satirical potential of impact fiction. The play begins with the sun deciding that Earth needs to be cleansed of humanity and dispatching a comet to deliver the killer blow. A popular figure in impact fiction is the astronomer who identifies the threat but isn't believed. Soyfer's Cassandra is one Professor Peep, who struggles to get world leaders to heed his warnings. "The comet is going to destroy everybody," Peep warns Hitler. "Destroying everybody is my business," Hitler retorts. With just a week to go, Peep designs a machine that will divert the comet but an uptight bureaucrat instructs him to apply for a patent before seeking funding. All seems lost until the comet takes pity on humanity and veers away at the last moment.
A real-world threat
Impact fiction receded after World War Two, for the obvious reason that the atom bomb permanently altered the course of apocalyptic fiction. In her 1965 essay The Imagination of Disaster, which does not even mention comets or asteroids, Susan Sontag attributes the power of post-war science fiction to the knowledge that "collective incineration and extinction… could come at any time, virtually without warning". For most post-war writers, the cause of global annihilation would not be a freak intruder from outer space but the greed, malice and stupidity of mankind itself. To this day, the bomb is how we measure impact (the comet in Don't Look Up is said to be equivalent to "a billion Hiroshimas") and how we think about preventing it. The possibility of deflecting or destroying a NEO with nuclear warheads was first mooted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Project Icarus in 1967 and dramatised in the misleadingly titled 1979 Sean Connery movie Meteor.
The end of the Cold War coincided with a new seriousness about the threat of NEOs. In March 1989, the half-mile-wide asteroid 1989 FC came within 430,000 miles of Earth: the closest shave since 1942. The fact that astronomers didn't discover this until after it had passed by inspired the US Congress to fund a Nasa report into the tracking and interception of NEOs. It was named Spaceguard, after the early warning system in Rendezvous with Rama, a 1973 novel by Arthur C Clarke that is reportedly a new film project for Dune director Denis Villeneuve.
By the 1990s, it was widely accepted that an asteroid or comet impact had caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and the near-disaster at Tunguska. Space agencies had identified around 2,000 NEOs at least as wide as 1989 FC intersecting Earth's orbit. During negotiations for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996, China argued that mankind needed to retain some nuclear weapons in case of an imminent asteroid.
The most influential impact narrative of the interwar years was When Worlds Collide, which was made into a film in 1951 (Credit: Alamy)
So when Clarke published his novel The Hammer of God, about just such an effort, in 1993, he did not consider it merely science fiction. "It was my duty to show what could be done about the asteroid menace," he wrote. "By creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, I might even save the world – though I'd never know." The following year, 21 fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter, giving NEO-watchers a preview of what one might do to us. One of the impacts was equivalent to six million megatons of TNT, creating a cloud of debris as wide as Earth.
Steven Spielberg optioned The Hammer of God, which was then merged with When Worlds Collide to form the basis for the 1998 movie Deep Impact. Although neither novel was ultimately credited, their influence is undeniable. A comet is expected to cause an Extinction Level Event. The world's governments make plans to nuke it or, if that fails, to preserve a few thousand survivors in underground caves ("Our new Noah's Ark," says the president) until the surface is habitable again. In reality, blowing up a NEO rather than deflecting it would be very risky, because it would likely create a fusillade of shrapnel. As Arthur C Clarke writes, "Which is better – a single mega-catastrophe in one place, or hundreds of smaller ones?"
Deep Impact coincided with Armageddon, a similarly themed movie about the effort to stop an asteroid which is, absurdly, "the size of Texas": more than 100 times bigger than the K-T object. "It's what we call a global killer," Billy Bob Thornton's Nasa executive tells the president. "The end of mankind. Doesn't matter where it hits, nothing would survive, not even bacteria." It sounds like a brag.
While both movies precede the ultimate success of a mission with enough failure to allow for spectacular CGI mayhem, their approaches could not be more different. Deep Impact is a deeply sentimental picture, primarily concerned with how a handful of individuals process doomsday. It is really about mortality and grief. Michael Bay doesn't care about any of that. Armageddon is a boy's own apocalypse: glib, bombastic, chauvinistic, and blithely uninterested in most of the world's population. Armageddon outperformed Deep Impact at the box office by more than $200m, which tells you a lot. It's obvious which one Don't Look Up's movie-within-a-movie, Total Destruction, is parodying with its tagline: "When the asteroid hit us, he hit back."
Released in 1998, both Deep Impact and Armageddon feature the destructive threat of a NEO (Credit: Alamy)
"The destruction of the world is a subject so engulfing that all it's good for is a cheap thrill," wrote Anthony Lane in his New Yorker review of Deep Impact. But many filmmakers would disagree. Those two blockbusters having exhausted viewers' appetite for astronautical derring-do, the past decade has seen several more sombre and intimate movies about what happens when all hope of averting catastrophe is lost. Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (2011) ends with the titular rogue planet obliterating Earth in breathtakingly beautiful fashion. "This film is perilously close to the aesthetic of American mainstream films," Von Trier told an interviewer. "The only redeeming factor about it, you might say, is that the world ends." Most recent impact fiction starts from the same conclusion.
A bleak new wave
Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) somehow manages to summon a romantic comedy from this hopeless scenario. Opening with the failure of a deflection mission, it ignores scientists, politicians and astronauts to focus on ordinary people who can do nothing except decide how to spend their last days. The answer, of course, is: with someone you love. The following year's These Final Hours, written and directed by Zak Hilditch, explores the same idea to much less cheering effect. Despite their very different tones, both movies are road trips punctuated by suicides, orgiastic parties and delusional survivalists. Both conclude with two lovers swallowed up by a blaze of white as the end arrives.
The slow-motion apocalypse of climate change is the subtext of most 21st Century disaster narratives
These movies reject the insistence on survival and build-back-better rebirth in mainstream movies from Deep Impact and When Worlds Collide to 2019's The Wandering Earth, which is China's fifth highest-grossing movie ever, and 2020's Greenland. For Von Trier, Scafaria and Hilditch, the end is the point – and much cheaper than a space shuttle, too. This year alone, more than a century after Stoll's doomed bacchanal in The End of the World, How It Ends and Silent Night have also used the conceit of a last-night party.
Why are these stories so attractive to filmmakers? Impact fiction is flexible enough to accommodate multiple genres, from grave character study to black comedy to old-fashioned disaster movie. NEOs are also a growing real-world concern. After a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia on 14 February 2013, Nasa began annual asteroid impact simulations. In 2015, a group of concerned scientists, astronauts and artists led by Stephen Hawking launched Asteroid Day, a UN-backed annual event on the anniversary of Tunguska, with the aim of rapidly accelerating the tracking of NEOs and research into interception strategies.
The climate crisis is a common subtext in many 21st Century impact narratives, like Don't Look Up (Credit: Netflix)
In fiction, though, a comet isn't just a comet. In the same way that post-war science fiction was always on some level about the bomb, the slow-motion apocalypse of climate change is the subtext of most 21st Century disaster narratives. Recent years have seen a boom in explicit "cli-fi" novels such as John Lanchester's The Wall and Jessie Greengrass's The High House, but the metaphor is hard at work in other end-of-the-world stories, from Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind to Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven. Adam McKay has talked about looking for a means of making a movie about the climate crisis and settling on a comet as the perfect allegory.
Don't Look Up, which comes to Netflix on Christmas Eve, is an unlikely cross between Deep Impact and Veep, combining broad satire with genuine anguish. The blacker the comedy, the better the movie gets. The three Professor Peep-like astronomers are familiar genre archetypes revived by a new context as their efforts to warn the world bang up against populist politicians, shallow broadcasters, hubristic tech gurus and online conspiracy theorists. You can also detect in McKay's plea to listen to scientists an unspoken critique of irrational and partisan responses to the pandemic: its comet-deniers literally refuse to look up. While a little too baggy and scattershot, Don't Look Up does politicise a genre which tends to avoid politics, and relocates the satirical energy to be found in people's struggles to take existential threats seriously.
As the hero of When Worlds Collide observes: "They, and he, could not realise that the world was doomed, any more than a man could realise that he himself must die. Death is what happens to others! So other worlds may perish; but not ours, on which we stand!" The bitingly pessimistic new wave of impact fiction compels us to consider the worst-case scenario and not just to look up but to look inwards.
Don't Look Up is on Netflix from 24 December
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