Nathan M. Kilpatrick, PhD,
Administrative Chair of Language, Communication and Fine Arts,
University of Mary

“Annihilation,” starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, was released in 2018. The film received 44 award nominations with 12 wins, including several for best visual effects and best science fiction film.

The end of the world is a strange thing to think about, but the Christian Church does so yearly as believers await the coming of Christ at the nativity. Looking back to celebrate the birth of Christ two millennia ago is also the season of looking ahead to the Second Coming of Christ and End of Days. Thinking about this religious vision of the end of the world brings hope in the final redemption. At best, apocalyptic narratives in literature and film offer what novelist Cormac McCarthy calls “the ponderous counter-spectacle of things ceasing to be” in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Road. By stripping away the things of this world, apocalyptic narratives attempt to arrive back at the hand that made the world, the creator whose work radiates throughout the created order and whose sustaining has preserved that world from its own destruction.

Typically, contemporary film is anything but religious, and cinematic apocalyptic narratives usually trigger despair: the destruction of this world and the potential obliteration of the human species. Instead of providing McCarthy’s “counter-spectacle,” most of today’s apocalyptic films present cinematic funhouse mirrors that distort the audience’s reflection: What they see is a disfigured view of themselves clarified by simplification in the unmaking of the world.

Yet three recent films demand closer consideration, for they begin to explain both the appeal of peering into the breaking glass of an apocalyptic world and the reward of sifting through these dark narratives to arrive back at the source of life.

“King Lear,” a TV movie based on Shakespeare’s play, was released in 2018. The film stars Anthony Hopkins (right) as King Lear and Florence Pugh (left) as Cordelia.

Director Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation and the long-awaited follow up to Ridley Scott’s acclaimed film “Blade Runner,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” reveal a desire for relationship. At the same time, they posit the modern world’s belief that such relationship depends on human redesign—and precisely because we are so broken, there is little hope of salvation.

John Krasinski’s 2018 film, “A Quiet Place,” provides a startling counterpoint to these sci-fi apocalypses in its horror-based recovery of the sacramental meaning of family life. While “Annihilation” (the film) and “Blade Runner 2049” clarify mankind’s desire for relationship, their reliance on a closed cosmos inherited from the modern world, devoid of transcendence, undercuts the genre’s appeal and settles on a half-heartedly nihilistic despair that awaits a final revelation—while denying this possibility—to restore meaning to the end of the world. In contrast, “A Quiet Place” locates an image of that meaning within the sacrifice attendant to raising children and thus reveals the very love that holds things together, even at the end of the world.

Apocalypse Then

The first fully developed iterations of the apocalyptic genre were the scriptural apocalypses of the prophets Daniel and St. John the Divine, which responded to the oppression endured by their audiences. When the biblical Book of Revelation was written during the early persecution of an infant Church, St. John assured his readers of the eternal significance of their suffering. Encoding their experiences in rich images with multiple meanings, this biblical text bespoke hope insofar as it assured the audience of their eventual renewal and beatitude through a formulaic narrative: A seemingly benign evil insidiously overtakes this world, the righteous suffer, a divine agent appears to save the righteous, and this world is remade into paradise through catastrophic turmoil that prepares the righteous for their eternal reward. By promising the future restoration of all lost things, the narrative of Christ’s return and establishment of a kingdom of justice increased the fortitude necessary to endure suffering by providing an understanding of suffering’s role in the ultimate entrance into Paradise.

This Christian understanding of the end of this world contrasted with that of the pagan world, represented in the haunting final moments of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece “King Lear.” Clutching his daughter Cordelia, the weary and possibly insane Lear shouts to the other players and the audience, “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.” The command to weep with those who weep invites the audience to share in Lear’s grief. One player responds to this cry of pain with a question left unresolved by the end of the play. Kent asks, “Is this the promised end?”—by which Shakespeare recasts the events of this play in a new genre: that of promised ends.

The downfall of a particular king in a long-dead kingdom seems paltry substance for a piece of apocalyptic literature. But Lear’s hope that Cordelia’s life will “redeem all sorrows/ That ever I have felt” sees in the midst of the tragic the possibility of a redemptive sacrifice. Yet this lacks transcendence because of Lear’s pagan acceptance of a fated and, thus ultimately closed, cosmos. This hope refutes Kent’s question—an apocalypse is not the promised end of a horror but instead the potential redemption of every earthly loss. This paradox—that redemption is revealed in the sorrowful uncovering of ends—is what apocalyptic literature does at its best. The greatest apocalyptic narratives must both reveal ends and offer images of salvation.

In response to Kent’s characterization, then, it would be helpful to recognize how apocalyptic literature can define this “promised end.” To be a great apocalyptic work, the text must provide an image of that promised end that helps the audience understand itself and the world. Two meanings define the spectrum of apocalyptic revelations: that humanity’s promised end is a terminus, a final word to which there is no reply because there is nothing beyond this end. In other words, all of human life is nothing more than one damned thing after another, ending in a slow trudge toward nothingness eased by temporary bouts of pleasure that ultimately change nothing.

By contrast, this promised end could reveal a telos, the idea that man’s end has been put in place by a benevolent creator, and all human life prepares the person for participation in everlasting blessedness. Between these two extremes lie a number of examples that lean in either direction, but the proposed accounts illuminate how humankind can begin to understand the significance of this mortal coil and its countless vicissitudes.

Annihilation as “New” Transcendence

Such observations might seem off-the-wall for considering contemporary films, but the multiple meanings of a storyteller’s promised end become ways of considering the success of a popular apocalyptic narrative. “Annihilation” follows biologist and former U.S. Army soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) one year after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went on a classified mission. Since then, Lena has attempted to maintain hope of his return as she teaches advanced courses on molecular biology.

The film begins properly when, without warning, a dazed Kane appears outside their bedroom one evening with little explanation about where he’s been and, almost immediately, coughs up blood. Attempting to take him to the hospital, Lena and Kane are abducted by military personnel who take them to Area X, a quarantined military camp stationed near the ominously named “Shimmer,” a menacing and growing phenomenon represented beautifully through prismatic, computer-generated effects. There, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells her Kane is the only survivor of a mission into the Shimmer to investigate the origins of the encroaching threat.

Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology, examines an alligator in the Shimmer, where DNA is being refracted across species. Lena has just extracted a shark tooth from the giant reptile’s jaw.

While Kane is on life support, Lena joins a team of investigators on a mission into the Shimmer to ascertain the cause of Kane’s illness. What they experience reveals the film’s nearly nihilistic assumptions about human nature and the closed status of the universe. These become evident during encounters with species inside the environment and small moments of dialogue suggesting the problem the film is trying to solve: humanity’s death drive that manifests in a series of self-destructive behaviors that must be annihilated before any person can be saved.

Lena (middle) enters the Shimmer with the other members of her investigating team.

Key to the film’s success is its careful establishment of a beautifully damaged world within the Shimmer, one to which the crew brings their broken humanity. As the five investigators—Lena, Dr. Ventress, anthropologist Cass, paramedic Anya and physicist Josie—discuss the possibilities of why no one except the perilously ill Kane has survived the missions, two theories emerge about what has happened: either something within the Shimmer—a mysterious force, perhaps alien—has been killing investigators, or something about the experience of the Shimmer triggers sociopathic violence. The effects of the Shimmer are almost immediate: the women lose huge blocks of time, the interference of the Shimmer on their communication equipment increases their isolation and genetically mutated animals attack without warning.

However, the most poignant moments of their first few days in the Shimmer come from the women’s revelations about themselves. Cass tells Lena, “We’re all damaged goods here,” noting Josie’s hidden self-harm, Dr. Ventress’s clinical absence of human emotion, and Anya’s addictive behaviors masked behind bursts of rage and paranoia. Of herself, Cass admits a motivation for participation in the mission: the death of her only child, which brought about her inclusion among the damaged women. As she describes, she suffers from “two bereavements—my beautiful girl and the woman I once was.” Each crew member volunteered for the mission because she has little to lose and even less to live for. The notable exception is Lena, who seeks an answer in the Shimmer that might save her dying husband and thus reestablish a clear purpose for her life.

This damage remains a significant theme throughout the movie, as it provides a common thread uniting various remnants of previous missions, encounters with mutations in the Shimmer and the discovery of the physical properties of the environment. Early in the movie, during Lena’s lecture to her students, she explains cellular death with a grim assessment of human potential: “The cell’s death is a result of a fault in our genes.” Blaming biological death on genetic conspiracy, Lena’s explanation suggests the failures she and the women have brought into the Shimmer are fated, chosen for them by genetic accident and inclusion within a damned and deluded species. Though each woman aspires to be more, each confronts her tendency toward self-destruction, a drive Dr. Ventress characterizes as “coded into each cell.” The unfortunate demise of each crew member comes from this coded failure, regardless of the motivation driving each person’s action. Even the most noble of these deaths—self-sacrifice to protect a fellow investigator against a terrifying creature—results in the same end, the reshaping of human identity as one among many biological elements being refracted through the Shimmer.

Indeed, the film presents the Shimmer as indecipherably destructive in what is happening to the living species within its borders. The field created by an alien force refracts the DNA of biological specimens into each other—plant life begins to share genetic material with human life, animals are mutated across species, and flowers bloom brilliantly in iridescent shades because genus boundaries seem to disappear. More significantly, the film presents this dissolution of individuality as a good thing, for the human tendency toward self-destruction existed long before Lena enters the Shimmer.

At first glance, a seemingly random flashback in the movie reveals Lena engaging in a sexual relationship with a man other than her husband. While she breaks off the affair, describing the relationship as a mistake, the film reveals this as Kane’s motivation for signing up for the mission into the Shimmer in the first place. He entered this alien force because of Lena’s predetermined self-destructive activity. What Kane, the other investigators and, ultimately, Lena seek in the Shimmer is an escape from their failures, for each desires to be free of brokenness.

Significantly, Lena recognizes that her redemption requires the salvation of Kane as well. Because her offense was against her marriage vow, her sanctification must seek to restore that broken relationship. This assertion of self against the Shimmer’s dissolution of specificity points to what has made Lena distinctly herself. Given the closed cosmos of this film, such a concern for Lena’s betrayal is optimistic, for it suggests a meaning to their moral actions that transcends their world and the random violence of the Shimmer, even if it only grasps at that meaning.

The film’s solution comes in the nearly surrealistic climax of the film, when Lena arrives at the epicenter of the Shimmer’s expansion, a lone lighthouse on a nearly vacant beach that houses what could be described as an alien life force, beautiful in its destructive ability. There, she finds Dr. Ventress, who has so identified with the alien force that she dissolves into nothingness when speaking with Lena. The final ten minutes of this scene has Lena fighting with another being with no distinct personality but who precisely matches her every motion and action in a perfectly choreographed symbol of Lena’s battle with her self-destructive behavior.

How she survives this battle and the long-term effects of her experience in the Shimmer should remain a mystery to be discerned by a thoughtful viewer, but Lena’s final characterization of the beings she encountered in the Shimmer is noteworthy. When asked what these beings wanted, Lena responds, “It’s not like us. I don’t know what it wants. … It was changing everything, making something new.” The possibility that she has become something new, something more than Lena was before her journey into the Shimmer, begins to explain the content of this apocalypse’s revelation.

From Dr. Ventress’s dissipation to Lena’s seemingly changed nature after her experience to the disturbing video footage showing how Kane survived the Shimmer, the film suggests that humanity’s hope may lie only in its annihilation. To be clear, I don’t mean by this term that these characters cease to exist in some fashion; rather, the film seems to celebrate the annihilation of what has made them noticeably and particularly human, seeking an escape from the genetically determined self-destruction through an incorporation into a higher, alien species that seems to be above human concerns like the morality of destruction.

Kane’s final question haunts the audience, too: “Are you Lena?” to which there is no clear answer, though the film suggests a substantial change to Lena by shooting her through a glass of water, the image refracted to make her look out of place within her world, a shot that mirrors the establishing conversation with the newly returned Kane. Instead, the film seems to ask if Lena was worth preserving as herself and answers that question in the negative.

Garland’s film, then, posits the telos toward which humanity is aimed as an anti-humanist cessation of a species. Lena and Kane are only worth saving when they eliminate those very things that made them human, and they transcend their limitations by becoming less than what they were and at least partially alien. Such a remaking, however, means a terminus for the human species. There is nothing beyond this point of annihilation for what Lena and Kane have been. Instead, the movie seems to bid them, and their all too human audience, good riddance.

“Blade Runner 2049,” starring Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, was released in 2017. The film received 144 award nominations with 88 wins, including Oscars for Best Achievement in Cinematography and for Best Achievement in Special Effects. The film also won Best Science Fiction Film from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA.
Above, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) looks for Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the main character in the original “Blade Runner.”

The Birth of a Soul in “Blade Runner 2049”

In contrast to “Annihilation,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” ostensibly celebrates what multiple characters throughout the film call the miracle of birth. Picking up the events of the previous “Blade Runner,” 30 years after that film’s conclusion (in 2019), Villeneuve’s film follows Agent K (Ryan Gosling), a blade runner for the Los Angeles Police Department. A blade runner is a replicant commissioned to track down and “retire” rebellious replicants (artificial humans created to serve the needs of this post-apocalyptic world).

“Blade Runner 2019” presents a much darker world than in the original film, since the ecosystem has collapsed, and survival depends on tycoon Niander Wallace’s (Jared Leto) invention of synthetic farming. The film opens with K pursuing the replicant Sapper Morton and accidentally discovering the remains of a replicant who gave birth—an unheard of possibility for these artificial humans. Much of the movie then follows K as he attempts to find the child born to the replicant, stave off aggression from the Wallace Corporation, and ascertain the significance of his life in a world reluctant to acknowledge his humanity but willing to sell him the illusion of human community in the form of his digital girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas).

“Blade Runner 2049” explores the question of what makes someone a human being. Because the film follows K, a replicant, director Villeneuve must work to have audiences identify with him. After the opening confrontation with Sapper Morton, the first half-hour of the movie slowly increases K’s isolation by showing both human rejection, because he is a replicant, and replicant rejection, because he kills their kind.

Indeed, K’s closest relationship is with the digital Joi, an almost perfect representation of ideal 1950s domesticity, first presented after having fussed with K’s dinner for hours. However, the film repeatedly illustrates Joi’s lack of substance, both with the flickering visuals of her fading hologram and the proliferation of other versions of her marketed throughout the community. Joi is the cyber projection of K’s desire for companionship, but her appearance begs the question of the legitimacy of K’s humanity. If a replicant can desire human companionship, is that sufficient evidence for his or her humanity?

The shimmering illusion of K’s experience is also demonstrated in the confrontation with Sapper Morton. While Sapper’s life appears dreary on the synthetic protein farm, he growls at K, “You’re happy scraping shit because you’ve never seen a miracle.” In contrast to K’s perpetual acceptance of his isolation, Sapper’s barely contained rage comes from his experience of the miracle of the child born to a fellow replicant. Visually signified by a bright yellow flower growing over the remains of the child’s mother, Rachael, that miracle provides more meaning to Sapper’s life than obedience to his human superiors does for K. When K is tapped to investigate whether or not Rachael’s child survives, K must confront the possibility there is a meaning to his life that transcends the illusive circuit of imagined pleasure with Joi.

Much of the movie’s success revolves around its consideration of how to measure human dignity. Despite being a replicant, K knows the significance of human life and the concomitant cost of taking that life. When asked by Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), a human, why the thought of killing this child bothers him, K notes that he’s never retired a thing that was born, which unsettles him because “to be born is to have a soul.” This declaration seems to come from nowhere—K is a replicant and thus would have no context for questions about the significance of birth.

For the audience, such a statement demonstrates Villeneuve’s attempt to grasp at meaning as the characters pursue Rachael’s child, because the film shifts the traditional Judeo-Christian definition of bearing the image of a creator to a simpler understanding of humans as born beings, a definition that could begin to include replicants.

In contrast to K’s discomfort with the mission to find Rachael’s child, Wallace’s arrogation of creator status resonates throughout his eerie allusions to Isaiah 9:6: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The linking of Rachael’s child to a messianic prophecy suggests that Wallace believes this child will bring hope for humanity’s future. However, a few moments later, he tells his confidante, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), about his plan for the replicants he’s created: “We could storm Eden and retake her.” Thousands of self-replicating artificial humans would simply serve to aggrandize his diabolic ambition.

In the original “Blade Runner,” Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) was a former LAPD officer who worked as a blade runner. In “Blade Runner 2019,” Agent K, the main character who is a replicant blade runner, searches for and finds Deckard.

In linking to this child of his creations’ creation, Wallace sets himself up as a rival to God, powerful enough to recapture Paradise after man has fallen. To do so, Wallace must master the gift of life and capture the replicant’s child, so that he might establish his divine power over families.

Caught in the crosshairs of a variety of interests at play in the social and political implications of Rachael’s child, K starts recovering implanted memories that conjure the phantasm of lost childhood, stray moments in which he may have been involved from the beginning in the plot to hide this replicants’ child, either as the child or as a decoy in larger machinations. Upon visiting an expert memory-maker for replicants, K must parse through the implications of these memories. When this doctor tells him that authentic memories were given to replicants, so they may have “real human responses,” K must consider the confusion this necessarily causes. However, the line separating the replicant blade runner from natural humans consistently shifts in response to the degree megalomaniacs like Wallace impart humanity to their creations.

The film’s conclusion takes a particularly dark turn when divergent agents (blade runners, replicants and humans) and groups of replicants and humans clash over the meaning of Rachael’s child. While Luv and Wallace see the child as the newly promised end—their elevated status as creators of a strange, terrible new world—their insistence on achieving this end requires violence. In contrast, the leader of the remaining rebellious replicants, Freysa, tells K, “That baby meant we were more than just slaves. If a baby can come from one of us, we were our own masters … more human than humans.” While Wallace and Luv saw the child as the means of enslaving future races of both humans and replicants, Freysa sees the child as the key to a liberated future in which replicants no longer need to obey their creators. Both parties see a chance for man’s place within the cosmos to be catastrophically overturned and replaced by replicants.

What neither Wallace nor Freysa consider, however, is that Rachael’s child is a good unto itself, prior to achieving the instrumental and secondary goods of either political strategy. K gains this insight from the least likely of sources—the reappearance of Deckard from the movie’s prequel, played to perfection by the grizzled Harrison Ford, who is actually the father of Rachael’s child. In his conversations with Agent K, Deckard does not speak to the child’s political import or social significance. Instead, he loves the child, even as a stranger. After being captured by Wallace and tortured for information regarding the child’s location, Deckard continues his apolitical stance even when tempted to despair by the appearance of a faux Rachael, newly designed by Wallace. To this, Deckard simply rejects the illusion, unlike K’s regard for the holographic Joi, opting instead for knowing what’s real. Rachael is gone and cannot be brought back. By honoring that loss with his grief, Deckard rejects the reducibility of his beloved to an appearance, even if he doesn’t resolve the question of what constitutes a human.

Neither “Blade Runner 2049” nor “Annihilation” ultimately knows how to resolve the questions their apocalypses raise. Like Kent in “King Lear,” they look to the future and see only the image of the horror of what man might become. Because their worlds depend on a closed cosmos—one in which the closest a person can come to God is a destructive alien species or the megalomaniacal Wallace—both movies accept that man must be eradicated to redeem him from his failure to live as he ought.

Whether through the Shimmer’s refraction of one species into another in “Annihilation” or the usurpation of the human race by a better, more efficient, but less human species in “Blade Runner 2049,” the distorted image of humanity both movies reflect is of man genetically predisposed to destruction and ultimately isolated in depravity until time runs out and the last vestige of humanity is usurped by fitter species.

The shimmer, however, of what both movies rightly see about humanity’s promised end is its social nature. While peering into the chaos of humanity’s destruction, both filmmakers see that each human life coheres to another—Lena seeks to save her soul by seeking solutions for her husband, while Deckard attempts to preserve his child’s life, regardless of its political significance, and recruits Agent K to this mission, thus inviting him to a kind of humanity that might preserve his sanity following the death of his Joi. Like the great cloud of witnesses welcoming saints into paradise, these isolated figures grasp for simple human touch beyond the seclusion of their experiences. They invite their audiences, like Shakespeare’s Lear, to “Howl, howl, howl” over the broken body of fallen humanity crushed by its self-
destruction. Such a ruin awaits a savior to restore the lost things to their
true promised end.

Beau (Cade Woodward), the youngest child of Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) Abbott, just put batteries back into a toy, reactivating the siren and attracting murderous aliens.

The Voice of God in “A Quiet Place”

“Annihilation” and “Blade Runner 2049” root their exploration of the end of the world in the destruction of human society, both its material conditions and social relationships. Like Kurtz at the end of “Apocalypse Now,” audiences whisper “The horror!” as they see what man becomes without the relationships that define his place within the cosmos, for what is slowly revealed is the horror of humanity without transcendent meaning in the midst of an ostensibly sci-fi world.

By contrast, John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” begins with horror—an alien species, which hunts by sound, landed on earth and killed almost all humans—but develops an understanding of the human family as a locus for hope within a seemingly doomed world. Krasinski, himself a father, details what human beings become if, unlike the other films, the audience can accept that relationships are what defines the human person—relationships that are still largely limited to this mortal coil but that hint at a transcendent understanding of sacrifice at the core of love.

Within the first 10 minutes of the movie, Krasinki establishes both the threat to the world and the family that will make up its central action. Searching the dusty shelves of an abandoned small-town drug store, Evelyn Abbot (Emily Blunt) seeks antibiotics for her sick son Marcus (Noah Jupe), while teenaged, deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and younger son Beau (Cade Woodward) play silently among the aisles. When their father Lee (John Krasinski) enters the store, he signals to the family that it is time to return home. Gathering his household, the scene reaches a crisis when youngest son Beau finds a toy rocket that lights up and makes noise. Lee approaches the toy with the caution of a bomb-squad agent, slowly removing the batteries that brought the toy to life, reinforcing the command that everyone remain silent. When Regan sympathetically returns the toy to her younger brother, the audience knows what’s coming as Beau reinserts the batteries during the family’s journey home. Almost there, the movie’s silence is broken by the reactivated toy’s gaudy siren. Lee runs to rescue his son, but a murderous alien gets there first.

Lee silences his son Marcus (Noah Jupe) to prevent him from yelling, which would attract the monstrous aliens.

The movie cuts to black and words declare that 383 days have passed since Beau’s loss. That the smallest noise might bring death remains an ever-present threat, as revealed when the children accidentally knock over a lantern when playing Monopoly. They are immediately afraid they will meet their doom. When that doom turns out to be marauding raccoons, the movie shifts attention to the family’s attempt to make meaning of their lives in the daily tasks and burdens they bear in love for each other.

While “Annihilation” and “Blade Runner 2049” dramatize global apocalypses, “A Quiet Place” remains rooted in the local and domestic. Brief glimpses of the outside world are shown in newspaper clippings detailing the aliens’ monstrous destruction, but this family is isolated by necessity. Small attempts at communication—the transmission of SOS signals with homemade radio equipment and the lighting of fire-signals atop their corn silo, reciprocated across the countryside—reveal that this family is neither myopic nor reclusive. Instead, their isolation focuses the concern of this apocalypse on the single institution potentially capable of withstanding the end of civilization: the family. While empires topple and corporations become dust, the family necessarily becomes stronger to preserve the wellbeing of its members.

Evelyn and Lee dance to Neil Young’s song “Harvest Moon.” They listen through headphones so the aliens won’t hear the music.

This is what Krasinski’s film does so well: it makes this family real enough to avoid trite cliché, instead building their world with small moments of family interaction that would make sense in a less apocalyptic movie. Before their evening meal, the family holds hands in a silent moment of prayer; the homeschooling mother must cajole her son into doing his schoolwork; the teen daughter shows a bad attitude at various moments. However, the film also carefully shows how life in this decimated civilization requires a great deal of work, as the parents exhaust themselves to put food on the table, and the children contribute to the family’s wellbeing. Beyond the bare necessities, however, this family shows its love in sweet, significant moments. Each night, after the kids have gone to bed, Lee attempts to manufacture a working cochlear emitter for his daughter, whose handicap makes her more vulnerable. Evelyn interrupts her husband to communicate through sign language, which characterizes the movie. She insists they dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” which they listen to through headphones. The singer tells his beloved he is still in love with her, even as it’s getting late and the moon is climbing high. That song becomes the soundtrack for this family, for the love that motivates their care for each other.

The film’s most startling revelation comes on Day 472: Evelyn is pregnant and due within a few days. Given the danger of noise in their situation, bringing a child into the world seems suicidal. However, the love that motivates their family life is optimistically oriented to things working out because they need to. In a moment of frustration when Lee asks Regan to try his newest model of hearing aid, she emphatically signs to her father, “It. Never. Works,” each word underscored by her anger at her handicap and her father’s optimism. His response—“We’ll keep trying until it does”—communicates what has helped this family to survive. It is not a sentimental communication of affection but the dogged fidelity to each other that tries action after action to achieve what will help the other survive. This resolve seems to be the method by which they will protect their newborn, as well as their present children, and the family arranges an ingenious plan to protect the infant.

However, this tenacity does not deny the grief this family is enduring. The primary tension exists between Regan and the other members of her family, for she feels guilty over Beau’s death. Indeed, she gave the toy back to her brother after her father expressly forbade it. Marcus and Lee, seated near a river that muffles their conversation, talk about how they might increase their strength as a family:
Marcus: Do you blame her for what happened?
Lee: No.
Marcus: ‘Cause she blames herself.
Lee: It was no one’s fault.
Marcus: You still love her, right?
Lee: Of course I do.
Marcus: You should tell her.

Despite their capacity to outwit the aliens, this scene points to the further revelation needed to overcome the despair over losing Beau. To stave off resentment and guilt, this family must figure out how to tell each other they still love each other—beyond the banalities of our current “love languages.”

“A Quiet Place” offers two images of love rooted in pain and self-sacrifice. The first is the most gruesome image in the whole movie: Evelyn’s bloody hand pressed against a glass shower stall just after having given birth. After stepping on an uprooted nail and crying out in pain, Evelyn goes into labor and has to deliver the baby while the aliens prowl about her house. Shot after shot shows Evelyn stifling her cry, while the rest of the family works together to distract the aliens with a coordinated plan to launch fireworks, thus luring the aliens away from the newborn. By focusing on childbirth, the film shows that the first act of love—birth itself—is rooted in pain.

“A Quiet Place,” starring John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, who are married in real life, was released in 2018. The poster depicts the climatic scene, in which Evelyn (Emily Blunt) gives birth as an alien monster stalks her and her children. The film received 92 award nominations with 28 wins, including Best Movie of the Year by the American Film Institute.

Then when Evelyn realizes that her two other children are not with their father, she asks, “Who are we if we can’t protect them?”, thereby clarifying her identity as a mother in self-sacrificing protection. In response, Lee seeks out the missing children who have also put their safety at risk by luring the monsters with the sound of fireworks to the foot of the corn silo they mounted. After narrowly escaping the aliens, Lee hides the children in an abandoned car and accepts the choice he must make after being badly wounded by one of the creatures. As the monsters pummel the car, Lee makes eye contact with his daughter and signs carefully, “I love you. I have always loved you,” and then yells at the top of his lungs to draw the aliens’ attention.

How the movie ends, how the family is able to overcome these monsters should remain a mystery, but Krasinski roots his apocalypse in this revelation of love from father to daughter, proving the truthfulness of the earlier declaration that they will keep trying until they find what works. What survives is the family’s love for another and the mutual willingness to sacrifice their lives for each other. The family meets its terminus in arriving back at its telos, the community of love that was its origin point.

Such an apocalypse returns us to the liturgical pairing of the Virgin Mary awaiting the birth of the Christ-child and the Church’s awaiting the Savior’s second coming. What Krasinki’s film corroborates is that redemption for a fallen world comes through the sacrifice that love is willing to make, as Evelyn and Lee prove. They reveal their love for their children and reveal themselves as parents to their audience. Like the Blessed Mother, Lee and Evelyn find that, even in the midst of death, there is life, for the sustaining work of God in such sacrifice redeems the germinal good into a magnificent declaration against the overwhelming chaos.

In such a revelation, we begin to see the appeal of these apocalyptic films, for they reveal what T.S. Eliot was getting at in his masterful poem “The Four Quartets,” which details the passing of time and this world into Paradise: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”

In following the trajectories of three modern apocalypses, we arrive where we started, not in reestablishing national or global structures but in the community of a family and the gift of life it provides for each member. This, perhaps, is what these apocalypses are seeking, and they have arrived back where they started to know the place for the first time. 