Why Can “Collateral” Be Described as a Pre-Apocalyptic Film?


Unlike the wildly popular post-apocalyptic film genre, whose tales take place after the end of the world, Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) paints us a sometimes-surreal portrait of Los Angeles before the shit hits the fan.

Some notable post-apocalyptic films include Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), based on the 1971 novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1991), and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), based on Chris Marker’s Jetée (1962).

More recent examples include John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, Bong Joon-ho’s English-language directorial debut Snowpiercer (2013), based on the 1982 graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, and George Miller’s Max: Fury Road (2015), the fourth installment in the director’s Mad Max film franchise.

As we discussed in a previous piece, the coyote-crossing scene is one of the most significant in the film. Although Vincent (Tom Cruise) shares many similarities with the uniquely North American canid native, like being able to sniff out his prey by knowing exactly what train Max (Jamie Foxx) and Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) are on, the coyotes are representative of what lies just beneath the facade of modern day Los Angeles.

“I remember driving north on Fairfax and stopping for a light when these three coyotes walked diagonally across the intersection like they absolutely owned it,” Michael Mann stated. “It wasn’t just a presence of wild animals in the middle of the city but their attitude of this is their domain.”

Another unique aspect of the coyote-crossing scene is the Chris Cornell song “Shadow on the Sun” from his Audioslave period, which is perhaps best left in the decade that the film was released. Nevertheless, the lyrics “I can tell you why people die alone” mirrors both Max’s mother Ida’s (Irma P. Hall) unspecified illness, and Vincent’s ultimate death on the subway car later that night.

While skyscrapers and electronic gizmos such as cell phones, GPS, and laptops riddle the entire film; Collateral reminds us that these minor achievements may not be permanent once the coyotes reclaim the space that modernity is only renting from them. Even the high-definition digital cameras that perfectly capture the silhouettes of the swaying palm trees are not exempt.

Collateral also highlights the convenience of modern travel. Not only does Max drive Vincent from hit to hit in his cab, Vincent is first introduced at the same airport that he plans to leave the city he hates so much by night’s end. Planes also constantly fly overhead, almost taunting Max and Vincent.

Perhaps this can be representative of commerce, globalization and multiculturalism, as Vincent is selling of a very particular service, and in doing so, both he and Max are exposed to the many different cultures of Los Angeles. Some of these include the sadly forgotten jazz bar and the techno playing Korean nightclub.

So, while no exact cause of any societal collapse is given, the audience gets the felling that the world that Michael Mann digitally shot for us is slowly becoming smaller and smaller, and ultimately, incapable of keeping the animal at bay for much longer.