It's the end of the world as we know it, and movies, books and theater feel fine.
That's because the apocalypse — a staple of pop culture now on display in M. Night Shyamalan's movie "Knock at the Cabin" as well as the Jungle Theater/Trademark Theater world premiere "5"— is the gift that keeps on giving to creative types. Using the end times to force characters to decide what's important offers rich possibilities, according to JuCoby Johnson, who wrote and stars in "5" (now in previews, it opens Saturday).
"It felt like the end of the world," Johnson recalls of the COVID-19 lockdown.
In 2020, he already was working on a play about friends (played by Johnson and Eric Hagen) who run a convenience store and who quiz each other about music. But the pandemic suggested a way of introducing conflict in "5": Maybe there's an apocalypse on the way. And maybe the men and their friends disagree about it.
"Knowing you don't have a lot of time, I think it makes you a bit more urgent, more direct," said Johnson. "The patience you would usually have in some situations, you don't have now. Maybe you don't mince words the way you used to. And that can be a good thing or a bad thing."
In the same way that all of us are dying but an actual death can bring that into focus, we also know the world will end someday but not when. Johnson thinks forcing characters to deal with the "when" is a great way to raise the stakes for them.
He's not alone. "Knock at the Cabin," in which that knock introduces mysterious visitors who tell members of a family the world will end if one of them doesn't sacrifice themselves, uses the threat of apocalypse to zero in on moral choices. Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" (and the movie version, starring Viggo Mortensen) depicts a post-apocalyptic world that seems to contain just two people, a man and his son. Having lost everything, they learn what they can't do without.
"When you think that everything you see could be gone, it changes the way you live," argues Johnson, who grew up in Florida, in a Southern Baptist tradition that emphasizes that the end is near. "While I don't spend every day thinking, 'Today is my last day on Earth,' I do understand better how much is out of my control. I think accepting what you don't know changes how you do things."
Lots of apocalyptic popular culture turns on that premise. "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" is a film that is similar to "The Road" in that its depiction of the end times boils down to two people realizing they need another human to rely on. But it's dissimilar to the bleak "The Road" in that it's a romantic comedy, starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley as strangers who bond in the face of global disaster.
The absurdity gets pushed even harder in "This Is the End." The silly comedy takes place at a housewarming party that evolves into a world-ending party. Between bong hits and hookups, the characters figure out who they can count on and what — if anything — they'll leave behind.
Obviously, facing the end times is no fun for anyone (even, in "This Is the End," Seth Rogen and Channing Tatum), but it can be cathartic. Johnson — whose favorite TV series is the apocalypse-adjacent "The Leftovers" — says the pain that came during the pandemic helped him figure out how to deal with some tough stuff. The same happens for the characters in "5."
"It forces them to talk about things they pushed to the side because they thought they'd have more time," Johnson said. "Resentments from little things that happened when they were younger, ways they have failed each other, or taken up for each other but not been acknowledged."
Although the apocalypse would be huge, Johnson and other artists are drawn to how that big event affects the tiny interactions of everyday folks. Whether it's the frenzy of "Mad Max: Fury Road," Denzel Washington protecting the printed word in "The Book of Eli" or a family pulling closer together in "The Quiet Place," contemplating the end makes characters focus on what they value.
"When I say goodbye to a friend after dinner, it doesn't have to be a full-on cry fest every time, but there is more intention in saying goodbye, making sure a friend knows I love and care about them," Johnson said.
In the end — sorry — he, Shyamalan and Seth Rogen offer a timely reminder of something very familiar: the importance of living each day as if it could be the last.
Who: By JuCoby Johnson. Directed by H. Adam Harris.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 16.
Where: Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: pay-as-you-are to $45, jungletheater.org.