“He who saves one life saves the world entire” claims the Talmud. How can this be true? Judaism, Islam and Christianity all have long philosophical and theological traditions which uphold the notion that man is a microcosm, a little cosmos, and that God has written the entirety of creation, in miniature, within the person of every human. Offering a defense of this tradition would be long and somewhat dense, but I would like to assume for a moment that the saying is true and that it offers a fascinating principle concerning character and tension which all storytellers ought to embrace.
The last several decades has seen numerous films which deal with the life of the world, the survival of the human race. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is the latest, largest example of such stories, but there are nearly too many others to count. Roland Emerich disaster movies treat on human survival, as do many James Bond films, though the end-of-the-world story not only appeals to the sensual storyteller, but to the intellectual. Kubrick sent the world to an hilarious, ironic conclusion in Dr. Strangelove, and in Melancholia, Lars von Trier brought the myth of Tristan and Isolde to a final, all-encompassing tragedy.
In general, I find it hard to get very involved in stories about the end of the world, not because I think the world is going to last eternally, but because staking human survival on a handful of characters exhibits little confidence in those characters. Tension emerges in a story when the audience perceives a possible loss of the characters, be it physical or spiritual loss. If a character has been humanely, sympathetically and symbolically drawn, every possible loss that character might suffer is a loss of the entire world. We care about Frank TJ Mackey losing his soul because, if he does, we all shall lose our souls, as well. We care about Tom Ripley dying because if his light is extinguished, so is ours. Mackey is microcosmic. Ripley is universal. If a film can teach us to sympathize with just one character, one stranger, one soul we have encountered for the first time, then that film can teach us to sympathize with any man.
Centering the tension of the plot on the survival of mankind may be symbolic of the loss a single character will suffer, though that potential loss is no longer suggested or intuited, but forced upon us. The end-of-the-world plot does not ask us to discern the cosmic nature of a man’s struggle, the spiritual nature of a man’s struggle, but insists upon it in a materialistic sense. For this reason, most films about the survival of mankind tend to reduce mankind to animals acting upon instinct. Man is stripped of the possibility of being an angel martyr, a supersensual being. And so the story of the end of the world is not about the triumph of the soul (the spiritual man), but the physical supremacy of man. When we reach the end of Interstellar and find that man himself is the messenger of man’s salvation, even Nolan’s most optimistic and hopeful film returns to the sick and vicious cycle which The Prestige so horrifically envisioned.