With the launch of disaster/apocalypse movie 2012 last weekend, a new question has popped up on the Net: Are dystopian movies more popular when the world is already gloomy from an economic depression? You'd think perhaps yes, wouldn't you?
The Wall Street Journal has noted that 2012 is just "one of a flood of postapocalyptic stories" (hohoho) on the way to the big and little screens, where you can expect to see your heroes "fending off cannibals, picking up day-to-day survival skills and struggling to maintain their humanity amid the ruins." On first thoughts it would seem reasonable that the global economic downturn is probably behind this impending slew of disaster films—perhaps the creative types behind them are being influenced towards negative thoughts, or they're tapping into the current social feeling in the population, feeding them films that match that mood.
Daniel Drezner over at ForeignPolicy.com asks that very question, and notes that the last time he remembers a big bunch of dystopian flicks all coming at once was "in the 1970's, another period of economic and political upheaval." Drezner mentions the Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, Meteor, and Virus as examples.
But here's the surprising beef: The link between economic upheaval and dystopian movie releases actually goes the other way: When times are shiny and happy in a global financial sense, that's when dystopian pictures get made. Well, io9 did all the legwork and analyzed 30 years worth of movies to produce this graph.
Its conclusions are obvious: The biggest spike in disaster movies in the U.S. was in 1995-1998, when the American economy was "at its bounciest." (io9 also looked at trends in post-apocalyptic fiction going back 200 years, and the results show a dramatic change starting 20 years ago.)
The psychology behind this is fascinating, but it's probably an impenetrable problem to tackle scientifically. Shall we just imagine that when times are good movie audiences like to see a film that reminds them of how bad things can be? Either to boost our feelings of contentment, or worry us that everything's probably going to get worse—take your optimistic or pessimistic pick.