In an era where special effects have made the end of the world so common as to be an everyday event, it takes something special to make an apocalypse stand out. In HBO series The Leftovers and the Image Comics’ Trees we are presented with subtler, slower, end of the world scenarios that re ultimately just as devastating.
In Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, the first episode opens three years after a rapture-like event in which two percent of the world’s population vanished, presumably taken by whatever higher power exists. There is, however, no discernible pattern as to how those who vanished were selected. If it was the ‘Rapture’ then who was taken was not determined by any traditional moral or religious code. People seem to have been taken randomly; firefighters, police, drug dealers, rapists. The Pope was taken along with Gary Busey.
In a similar vein, Warren Ellis and Jason Howard‘s comic series Trees begins ten years after alien life arrives on Earth. These alien ‘trees’, enormous living structures that reach high into the atmosphere, have taken root in the earth, planting themselves in populated cities and remote deserts alike. Their arrival signifies to mankind that we are not alone in the universe, but unlike other alien invasion stories they are (seemingly) not here to conquer. These tress are, in fact, completely oblivious to mankind; we are not alone in the universe, but the life form we have encountered doesn’t even consider mankind to be intelligent life.
In both The Leftovers and Trees, fundamental questions of our existence are answered, but in both the answer leaves the protagonists more lost than did the questions. In Trees, we are given a near future world where alien life exists on Earth, but it’s only interaction with mankind is to cause collateral casualties as they periodically spew toxic waste. The cast includes a botanical researcher in Svalbard, the mayor of New York and a young Chinese artist, all of who are trying to make sense of a universe where our understanding of the universe has moved the importance of our existence from the center to the very periphery.
In The Leftovers Lindelof gives us, through the focus of one small town, a world that is suffering deeply from post traumatic shock. The majority of mankind on the planet, the ‘leftovers’ of the title, feel they have been abandoned; they are nihilistic and morally adrift. If there is a higher power but the standards by which it judges us do not correspond to our concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, how are we to govern our lives? What is the point of existence for those who have been left behind, and what awaits them after death?
In both stories, people’s lives have been stripped of any sense of purpose; we, as a species and as individuals, have no meaning. Characters search for patterns in the world around them, try to find meaning to events.
With traditional ‘end of civilization’ narratives, something catastrophic happens to a large portion of humanity and those remaining are left to adjust, survive and try to carry on. With the narratives presented to us in The Leftovers and Trees, however, the humanitarian impact is small and society continues largely uninterrupted. The psychological damage to the species is, however, just as brutal. These are more cerebral apocalyptic scenarios where mankind is left to face the darkness of our insignificance alone.
These stories light a slow burning fuse on a world where we ultimately, individually and collectively, do not matter. And that is a more devastating a blow than any zombie outbreak, asteroid impact or alien army that Hollywood can visualize.