Bright Lights Film Journal

Dads of Great Adventure: A Guide to Cinema’s Post-Apocalyptic Hyper-Parent

Those people had names! Families!

Whether or not 2012 will really be the end of life as we know it, the myth of the post-apocalyptic dad is emerging in today’s cinema, and man, he’s a bad father. Forced by cataclysmic events to cowboy up while his kids roll their eyes and talk shit about him, whether in bleak existential treatises like The Road or big-scale popcorn fodder like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, “the dad” has been center stage, his responsibility to keep his kid/s safe grown to astronomically tight-assed proportions in the wake of global meltdown. While millions die, he’s forced to create his own hypocritical blueprint for survival, one that runs counter to his basic urge to just let it all hang out, save his own skin, and luxuriate in a quick, painless, CGI death along with everyone else. The almost unbearable responsibility to protect his children trumping his own humanity, the post-apocalyptic father uses global meltdown as an excuse to become a “my-family-first” neo-conservative, shoving other families out of the way to be the last on the lifeboat, or risking the lives of many to save his precious few. Is Hollywood using this dad to passive-aggressively condemn the recent trend in micro-managerial parenting? Or is it all just an easy way to ratchet up key demographic interest? Is parental anxiety the new black? Or is fighting to survive in a world with no TV or internet just not meaningful enough, and one has to do it “for the kids’?

As far as suspense goes, the underpinning rationale is clear: having it be your fault if the children die or are horribly maimed, kidnapped, or molested — i.e., it happens while you have them for the weekend — is the worst thing males can imagine. Why? As a child in the far more permissive 1970s, it was you who freaked out and cried, not your father, if you wound up lost at the department store. He just finished shopping, then went and got you at the lost and found. Now the father is more of a large child himself, eyes bugging, screaming his kid’s name, pulling on the lapels of passing shoppers like a drowning victim: “Have you seen my child!!? His name is Adam! ADAM!!

Though abduction statistics haven’t changed since the 1970s, parental paranoia has. When I was a kid, parents were derided as “over-protective” and suffocating if they were even half as micro-managing as parents of today. Something happened, but what? In the early 1980s, a lot of it had to do with housewives now going back to work, leaving children to raise themselves and the media filling in with hysteria over repressed memories of abuse, witchcraft, suburban pedophile sex rings, and so forth. Nowadays there’s a return to sanity, with books denouncing false memory syndrome and “Satanic panic,” and authors like Lenore Skenazy who writes about the need to return to letting kids go be themselves in Free Range Kids: “Crime is actually lower than it was when we were growing up. So there is no reality-based reason that children should be treated as more helpless and vulnerable than we were when we were young.”1

According to Skenazy, a child is in the end much better off with parents who let him play and grow on his own. A dad might participate by playing ball or whatever when asked, but not to the point of being a burden, and not to the point of trying to be his child’s “best and only friend,” which nurtures a sense of deep mistrust toward the rest of the world, and prolonged immaturity, while simultaneously making the child feel he or she needs to protect and shelter their own parents. The dad of great adventure is driven by guilt to become everything and everyone to his children, including a “buddy” rather than an authority figure, but the child ends up taking on the parental role, sensing the dad’s insecurity and fear, which leaves a gaping hole in the family dynamic that the child then feels obligated to fill. A good father knows that in playing “the bad guy,” he also creates genuine enjoyment, a feeling of relative safety. The dad’s demonstration of authority allows the child to relax his own guard.

To any dads reading: remember, I’m talking about the movie dads here, as a reflection of parental and masculine anxieties, in movies that are actually aimed at males younger than the dad depicted, and older than his kids as well. Being in my forties and childless in NYC, most of what I can gather about fatherhood comes from action and SF movies, which is why I sense this common theme, the guilt/fear trip that seems aimed just as much at boys as fathers; the boys in the audience are forced to imagine the terror of being a father, suddenly “responsible” not only for a kid’s health and safety, but for keeping them completely in the dark about the looming dangers of Satanic cults, kidnappers, and 2012. Growing up there was always one crazy mom who insisted on picking up her child from the bus stop after school to drive her the half a block back home, and she was laughed at, the children worried over. If our parents knew she was the vanguard of a new style of parenting, it would have been depressing, shocking and scary.

So the films aren’t aimed at real dads at all, per se, but rather at young men’s anxieties over their possible failures should they become fathers, and conversely, the longing each teenager has to be bonded with a strong, ultimate signifier father, a dad who can embody “the Father” rather than a dad who can only embody a “pal.” The inability of these target demographic males to fathom the difference is clearly embedded in the notion of what I refer to as “guilt qua proximity,” a kind of parenting learned from TV, from Sally Struthers world hunger commercials, from hysterical moms in the playground. A dad of great adventure treats disaster relief with the ADD of a kid in a candy store, the flashiest display wins his focus: he might be running to stop a bomb in a crowded restaurant, but if he passes a wounded puppy, let’s say, especially if you see the dog’s cute face, in a close-up, the restaurant is forgotten. Is this human nature or further evidence of media conditioning extending to our basic sense of prioritizing and survival? Emerson wrote about this effect in his “On Self Reliance”:

At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles. Friend, client, child, sickness, fear, want, charity, all knock at once at thy closet door, and say, — “Come out unto us.” But keep thy state; come not into their confusion. The power men possess to annoy me, I give them by a weak curiosity. No man can come near me but through my act. “What we love that we have, but by desire we bereave ourselves of the love.”2

If our “weak curiosity” can make us peer too close at the endless squall of misery that is the beggars, sick, endangered children, and so forth — even/especially on TV — we must not get bogged down in it to the detriment of our own lives, Emerson is saying. No amount of proximity to “emphatic trifles” should defer us from sanctity of self. But he’s also talking about leaving behind “childhood arrogance, first,” which to the literalist, helicopter parents of the apocalypse is misunderstood as a bad thing — abandoning their kids. This misreading, it seems to me, is born of lazy cowardice, the dad who goes into debt, bankrupting his kid’s college fund, to buy them a pony that they desperately want . . . NOW . . . but will soon tire of. A good dad would know better, like going into triage mode, making difficult life-death decisions like a general at his maps or a doctor at a MASH unit. In refusing to be the one to choose who lives and who dies, these dads of great adventure stay boys forever. You hear these dads in the mall or the park, talking to their kids in high-pitched voices, unconsciously trying to mimic the speech of their children, and their wife. Neither boys nor men, they try to be both, and fail.

But the “event” of world annihilation is the jail rising like a wave to consume them, for no longer allowed to be an “overgrown boy” luxuriating in the scalding bath of adolescent self-hatred, these dads are thrown — kicking and screaming — into “responsibility,” i.e., adulthood. What they find generally are ex-wives and children who aren’t convinced; it’s one thing to have the world end, another to convince anyone to follow you through the flames when you can’t even wake up on time. The upped ante of moving as close as possible to the area of “real” eruption (be it alien invasion, volcano, tidal waves) so they can rescue kids and/or yell at the ineffective law and rescue workers is the result of not doing it right the first time, i.e., waking up on time to pick up the kids from school. The anxiety increases and the external disaster manifests almost in direct proportion to the incompetent displays of parenting that usually open these films. Let’s take a look.

Our first meeting of John Cusak in the disaster film 2012 finds him waking up late in the day on the couch of his messy bachelor pad, looking at his watch, spazzing out in such a way as to make us suspect he’s relied on his adorability one time too many, his pleading, embarrassing; racing to pick up his kids for the weekend from hot ex-wife (Amanda Peet) and her new dork husband (Tom McCarthy). The new dork is actually nice, as it turns out, but, like Cusak, one of those “pal” dads who still think kids need to be spoken to like they’re slow-witted four-year-olds. Dude, your daughter’s watching the world cave in around her and you’re the one panicking like the three stooges on a sinking ship. You’re old enough to know how to get up in time in the morning, so don’t patronize.

Similarly, Tom Cruise in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake shows up late from work to pick up his kids, and mom and her newer, richer husband are waiting impatiently at his front door. Cruise uses his charm as a front, meeting their condemnations with a boyish insolence he should have grown out of long ago. When the Martians invade, he rushes to get the kids back to their mom and new dad. When they ask what’s going on, he refuses to tell them, more a bratty old brother who uses his privileged information to gain power. He acts like he’s just shocked, but Spielberg’s camera and pacing tells a different story. Later he even kills a fellow human (Tim Robbins) whose insane ranting might attract Martians and thus endanger little Dakota Fanning.

The Road (2009) similarly examines how a boy’s safety overwhelms his dad in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. “The Man” (Viggo Mortensen) starts out like a normal, concerned dad, but eventually becomes a metaphor for amok militarism, finding enemies everywhere, and perhaps with good reason. His son, “the Boy,” is trusting and sees the good in things, not old enough to remember civilization as it was. For the boy, every encounter is a chance to make a new friend. Dad’s worried they’ll both get raped and eaten by the hordes of lawless dying freaks and — for lack of a better reason — that makes the whole apocalypse thing somehow the dad’s fault; you can read it in the reproachful eyes of his wife (Charlize Theron) in flashbacks. Determined to survive, he nonetheless keeps a bullet ready to shoot his son should they fall into cannibal rapist hands. His drive to preserve his son’s life obscures a basic understanding: that humanity has to be saved one person at a time, with self-reliance, a la Emerson, not in wandering off in search of someone “in authority” to rescue them. The “Man” is waiting for civilization to cohere on ahead, so he can unburden himself of the crushing responsibility of preserving his son’s life . . . or death, not realizing it’s his job to be that authority. With that bullet reserved for his son in this way, the whole idea of survival becomes vague, and the film subtextually admonishes conservativism or the “my family first, the rest of you can go to hell” attitude, as seeming sources of help and advice are dismissed or scared off by the father at every turn.

The Book of Eli travels similar rapist and cannibal-encrusted post-apocalyptic terrain, but wanderer Denzel Washington has no child; he’s in it for the book, a bible he’s carrying to San Francisco, a fabled bastion of civilization. A comic book-style fighter, Eli is basically infallible — it seems — thanks to his Christian faith, which makes him a fine example of an ultimate signifier father, and yet, he deliberately goes it alone, coming to no one’s rescue (until the climax). And since a book is easier to protect than a child with crazy liberal ideas, he does not resonate as much of anything beyond the preservation of Christianity aspect, which is kept deliberately abstract so as not to alienate either Christians or non-Christians, and the ultimate usefulness of his endeavor is intentionally ambiguous. For all his scheming, the figure of Eli‘s bad guy (Gary Oldman) at least functions as a genuine father figure, taking responsibility for what social order there is, even if he’s a tyrant. At least he’s willing to let a social order of weaker people form around him. In the end, what else is leadership? Someone must be the Saddam, so the tribes aren’t at each other’s throats but rather oppressed as one great people. In refusing to interact with and help the people around him, Eli shows himself to be one of those self-appointed protectors of the common man who actually despise the common man, like Barton Fink, or Andrew Carnegie, for example, who notoriously underpaid his workers, used cutthroat tactics against unions, and would then use the money to build public libraries.

There’s another type of post-apocalyptic dad, the martyr from afar, who’s too far away to help when disaster strikes, but who brings his fatherly support like a pizza. I’m referring, of course, to Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow. Here Quaid plays Jack Hall, a good dad, and his son is already old enough to not be under his wing, but when the world freezes over, Quaid takes it on himself to launch a foolhardy mission to rescue his son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) in New York City. Sam is actually doing fine, warming himself in the public library fire by slowly burning up all their encyclopedias. But Jack won’t be stopped. That’s his son, dammit! His son has a name! So he goes off across the global freeze tundra. Aside from killing his partner on the “rescue,” Jack accomplishes nothing  except to bring a snowmobile up to the city in order to spend some QT time with his son. It’s not like he’s bringing blankets or canned goods. The reunion is given top priority both in the film and in the government. Jack’s an important government “paleoclimatologist” who predicted the global freeze, so we follow his “rescue” for no discernible reason except to make the story “human:” And the rescue has no point other than to allay Jack’s parental anxiety. In the end that’s the difference; these rescues and over-protective parenting moves are much less about the child’s actual needs and more about the adult’s need to allay the anxiety of being a parent. Nothing is worse than waiting up for your child, not knowing where they are, but the moral is to let go and not worry so much, because sooner or later they will be all grown up and resent your clinginess. The parental moral is misread as “I’m anxious when my child is out and about without me, therefore, I must tag along, or restrict his freedom rather than letting go and trusting him to make the right decisions.”

In Knowing, Nicholas Cage plays a grieving widower with a young son whom he over-protects to the point of refusing to allow him to go out on sleepovers with his friends, or do much of anything except keep very still in his room, so dad knows where he is at all times. Able to predict but not stop cataclysms, Cage runs hither and yon, yelling at SWAT teams like they’re incompetent student aides, and chasing possible terrorists around on subway platforms. A classic case of the guilt qua proximity effect, Cage takes responsibility for disasters even before they happen. This is a guy who probably cries and freaks out over every single death he sees on the news. He can’t pass a newsstand without kneeling to cry over the headlines. You can imagine him calling up Haiti and demanding something be done about the earthquake; not giving money, just lecturing them on what to do. He’s the guy who has to butt into every accident he passes on the highway in case he misses a chance to cradle a dying child’s head in his lap and scream “Noooo!” in pitch-shifted slow motion. The fact that he is not qualified for rescue work means nothing: it’s not about the safety of the masses, it’s about feelings, his feelings, his need to be morally superior and allay his guilt. Rather than learn to let go, the world must learn to let him leech on.

Conclusion: The Ants Stop Moving

I’m always glad to see that Hollywood, for all its smarm and sensationalism, manages to subtextually examine these issues. The dad-of-great-adventure films deal rationally and succinctly with the relatively recent phenomena of micro-managerial parenting and the crippling anxiety it creates. 2012 especially carries a jolting covert condemnation of liberal bleeding-heartedness. I mean, can we be honest? Do we really care if four billion people die if we don’t have the “proximity qua responsibility” effect weighing on our conscience? We know for a fact it will be good for the earth, may even avert or postpone global meltdown to have earth’s population halved or quartered (presuming our friends and family are among the survivors). Do we really care if an extra hundred crazy idiots get to come on the ark or not? Would you really care so much, Holly, if one of those little ants down there stopped moving?

That’s a quote from The Third Man, a classic example of this guilt qua proximity phenomenon, as Holly can only be convinced to betray his friend via a trip to the children’s ward where his friend’s victims lie in twisted comas. The liberal agenda covertly criticized in these films is that even at “ant size” one should bleed for the common man. But, frankly, unless we see their faces close-up, meet their children, read their letters, then why should we care? That’s why the lack of liberal guilt in Emmerich’s other films, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, was so refreshing, eliminating altogether the whole “escape ark” concept. After all, we go to these films to see the world destroyed, freeing us from common man anxieties like credit card debt, final exams, deadlines, family obligations, and sacred vows. Nervous producers, it seems, feel obligated to insert moral hand-wringing as if we might just use the fantasy of escape to actually escape, like we’re too stupid to remember that the world is, like, important. It’s almost in defiance of that phony liberal piousness then, perhaps, that writers add these ambiguous subtexts about this proximal hyper-parenting, much the way snarky Broadway wits would subtextually send up Christian moral hypocrisy in their production code-enforced scripts of the 1930s.

In 2012, especially, Cusak’s mad chase across the globe to fight to get his kids onto some escape craft that he didn’t pay a ticket for opens up all sorts of Pandora-ish issues of empathy and survival instinct that come off best either being addressed in Brechtian reflexivity or in a film noir-style survivor guilt way (a la 28 Months Later) or not at all. Don’t lecture us for getting off on watching ant-sized people falling out of burning skyscrapers — that’s what got us in the theater in the first place. But taking the moral high ground seems, in the context of the film, to carry its own hypocritical stigma, though you maybe have to dig to find it. In worrying about a child, an adult feels exempted from responsibility for all the other billions of lives that are being left to die so this one child may be spared. In this manner these dads of great adventure are no different than the bad guy (Billy Zane) in Titanic (1997), muscling his way onto a lifeboat by claiming to be the guardian of some random kid he scooped up. Since the kid’s not his own and we understand his motives, Zane’s actions are condemned, but if it was actually his kid, Zane would be considered a saint. The only difference between Zane’s move to get off the Titanic, and Cusak’s to sneak onto the ark, is immature unconsciousness. Zane is a heel because he’s an adult calculatedly trying to save himself. Cusak is a hero because he’s a dad of great adventure, too terrified about watching his kids die to think rationally about his own right to survive — but the actions are identical

The only time this kind of proximity qua responsibility issue has been successfully resolved was in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett walks out of the makeshift confederate army hospital to get more bandages and just keeps going, past endless rows of wounded, right on home. But Scarlet’s morality was inherently dubious, what with slavery and all, and because Selznick hewed to the book, Scarlett was, almost by a fluke, allowed to be totally mercenary and immoral. (Everyone wants to make a film as sweeping and memorable as Gone with the Wind, but have they actually ever seen it? The lead character’s an unrepentant bitch, y’all!) GWTW could hardly even be made like that today with such a ruthless, self-centered heroine. If the suits remade it, Scarlett would probably end up a saintly single mom, and then all her capricious manipulations and treacheries would be solely to care “for the child” and she’d be a secret abolitionist . . . and a sexy doormat.

The catch phrase to so many action movies, “this time it’s personal,” comes from this as well and also helps explain, conversely, the strangely self-defeating red-state habit of poor people voting for the candidate most likely to rob them and give to the rich. The poor don’t identify with being poor, because they watch so much TV: the image is their real home, and in their image, their Lacanian Ego ideal, they’re rich and powerful, they vote against their own “real life” self-interest in a kind of political dysmorphia, like an anorexic in the mirror.

Similarly, the dads of great adventure act conservative and think liberal. Many must be left on the road to starve, so that Viggo Mortenson can ensure his son’s safety, so that Denzel can protect his stupid bible, so that Nic Cage can play the martyr and suffocate his only child with love.

What saves 2012 more than the others is that this guilt qua proximity quandary is actually addressed on both sides. As the group conscience, a geologist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plays his bleeding horn whenever he learns that someone he knows has died, demanding everyone around him in the big government planning room drop their own urgent issues to acknowledge that these people he knew had names, families, feelings! Meanwhile, the “self-preservation” other of the equation is Oliver Platt as a blustery politico who screams at Ejifor: “You might have gotten us all killed, but as long as your conscience is clean.”

Even better, 2012 also includes Woody Harrelson as a Yellowstone hippy DJ who greets the huge volcanic eruption of old Faithful with a head full of mescaline (I’m guessing) and an old blues pianist who uses the news as an excuse to take his first shot of Jack Daniels in 25 years off the wagon. These two alone seem cool enough to use the end of the world as a chance for personal growth and change. Then again, one’s son is Ejifor—safe on the ark — and the other is childless. They’re both free. Say, Solomon3, which way to the bar on this sinking tub?

  1. Skenazy, Lenore. Free Range Kids. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009, p. 193. []
  2. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “On Self Reliance.” []
  3. Solomon Guggenheim, it may be remembered, went down with the ship on the Titanic, and was apparently one of the few level heads around, electing to drink and send the freaking out wives and children off to safety so he could have a last drink in goddamned peace. In this context it’s mean to also reference the wisdom of King Solomon, who offered to slice children in half when their parents fought over custody. []