This Friday, Take Shelter opens in New York and Los Angeles only, so my review of the Michael Shannon-led feature must wait for a week or two. The film is one of two apocalyptse-based movies opening over October (the other, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia also looks terrific). Additionally, there was this week’s premiere of Terra Nova.
In honor of the end of the world, we look at the post-apocalypse. A nuclear blast, an asteroid crashing into Earth, environmental collapse, economic collapse, zombies, robots, God’s rapture, and question mark can all serve as reasons why precious few are forced to survive amidst a lawless and dangerous landscape. Of course, it needn’t be all bad. Sometimes it can lead to one of the most memorable animated sequences in years. Sometimes it can force humanity’s remnants to band together and start a new and better society. Sometimes it can cause Ape-Men to lord over us with an iron fist. And sometimes it can permit our best and brightest to live in incredible underground caverns with a ratio of ten women to every man and where animals can be bred and slaughtered.
On The Beach (dir. Stanley Kramer, 1959)
Humanity was probably never closer to self-annihilation than in the 1950s/1960s. That generation’s fear of nuclear Armageddon is probably something we cannot quite comprehend today. While science-fiction movies of the era usually took on the topic, some dramas also brought these concerns to light. One of the most notable was On the Beach, Stanley Kramer’s epic about the final survivors following a global nuclear war in the 1960s. These individuals, which include an American submarine crew looking for refuge before heading to sea to hopefully discover any non-contaminated area on Earth and a young couple with a baby, are stuck on a small area in Australia.
Everyone knows that their location isn’t safe and that the radiation levels are rising, but we follow them as they attempt to live their “regular” lives while acquiescing to their tragic fates and waiting for the day when nuclear fallout kills them all. Although the people are generally nice and seem comfortable about what must happen, On the Beach is not an uplifting movie and particularly depressing, especially for the era. Yet 50 years later, it still remains one of the better films to take a look at the aftermath of the end of the world.
Another, albeit lesser known, film from the time, 1962’s Panic in Year Zero! also recognizes the human drama in dealing with nuclear destruction. Directed by and starring actor Ray Milland, Panic features a family who left Los Angeles right before a nuclear attack hits the city. The film follows them as they seek safety and fellow survivors while running dangerously low on supplies and remaining uniformed about what exactly caused everything to break down. A very dark and cynical film that presents the debasement of humanity, Panic serves as a counterpoint to the more heartfelt On The Beach and deserves recognition as a Cold War apocalyptic classic and as a predecessor to The Road.
The Twilight Zone: Time Enough At Last (dir. John Brahm, 1959)
1959 also brought us the premiere of one of the greatest television shows of all time: The Twilight Zone. Chain-smoking host, philosopher, and borderline poet Rod Serling still represents one of the most important voices of the era whose introductions, closings, and scripts for his anthology series allow us to experience the time better than the vast majority of his contemporaries.
The end of the world was a major motif in the show, and one of its most famous episodes was Time Enough At Last. Time starred Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, a meek bookworm who just wanted to be left alone so he could read. An accidental survivor of a hydrogen bomb explosion, Bemis finds himself the last man on Earth. After realizing that he finally got his wish and could spend the rest of his life buried in books, he gets Twilight Zoned.
The Terminator Series (dir. James Cameron, 1984 and 1991)
In James Cameron’s first, and arguably best, film, he presents the skull-strewn landscape of our bleak and grey future. Robot warriors who seek to kill or enslave human survivors are adapting by creating fake-yet-lifelike skin that enables them to sneak undetected into the cramped bunkers of the last remnants of humanity.
In an original timeline, our world ended on August 29, 1997, when SkyNet, a global defense network, became self-aware. To stop its deactivation, it launches nuclear missiles at Russia, which in turns launches a counterstrike at America, which in turn destroys us all. The robots turned the surviving humans into slave labor, until one of them, John Connor, strikes back.
Cameron’s Terminator films are significantly different from the others in the series. Despite never spending too much time in the future, he provides enough glimpses to create one of his most memorable universes. The visions we get, which almost seem like PTSD-induced flashbacks, show Cameron’s talents better than his more recent films such as Avatar or Titanic. Especially impressive for the tiny budgeted first film, he imbues this world with a grittiness lacking in the second two sequels.
Terminator: Rise of the Machines and Terminator: Salvation don’t live up to the standards established by the first two films. Terminator: Salvation was especially disappointing, because it’s the first movie of the series set exclusively after SkyNet launches the missiles. For over two decades, we were looking forward to seeing the epic battle of man vs. machine, instead we got Transformers.
Oddly enough, television spinoff Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles accomplished more in its two seasons than the big budgeted hyper-movies and performed as a worthy successor to the throne. Recognizing that Terminator was more about characters dealing with their situation than an action-adventure spectacular, TM:TSSC asked the questions about fate and humanity that made the first two films rise above “unstoppable robot kills people” while showing a future closer to what Cameron imagined.
The Road (dir. John Hillcoat, 2009)
Based on a Cormac McCarthy novel and directed by John Hillcoat, 2009's The Road is one of the best of the genre. We never learn why everything goes to hell, all we have is Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trying to survive on their way to the “promised” land of the coast. The road is barren and ashy. All trees are dead. All animals are dead. The vast majority of the people are dead, and many of the survivors they meet are practically monsters.
The film does not take an easy look at what would happen if people were forced into virtually prehistoric times. Finding a bomb shelter full of food or a Coke might seem like heaven, but those are only blips on the landscape of utter misery. Even the protagonist Man succumbs to a self-destructive paranoia that risks making him as dangerous as the people he wants to protect his child from. Woman (Charlize Theron), Man’s wife/Son’s mother, leaves their house never to be seen or heard from again. They encounter roving bands of marauders who have no qualms with killing, or probably eating, people. We get a sense that some form of jungle law has started to emerge (mostly involving removal of thumbs), but no society is to be found. Strong character actors such as Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Parker, and Michael Kenneth Williams round out the cast of this practically hopeless tale.
Waterworld (dir. Kevin Reynolds, 1995)
Waterworld fought a hard battle with The Road Warrior for a spot on my list. However, the latter proved useful in a discussion last summer about automobile-centered movies. Waterworld is useful in a discussion of post-apocalyptic stories and not much else. One of the most notorious flops of the 1990s, it is known by virtually everyone, including those who never saw it. I myself resisted the temptation until a few years ago. The film presents a world covered almost completely by water in the wake of a polar ice cap meltdown. Many of the survivors have settled into a primitive existence aboard boats, rafts, reefs, and manmade floating villages. Legend tells that there is still a place the waters have not touched – the mythical “Dryland” – but nobody knows where it is.
Kevin Costner stars as a drifter whose body has already begun to evolve in favor of aquatic life. Sailing from port to port to trade, he becomes entangled with some nasty pirates led by Dennis Hopper. These “Smokers” are searching for Dryland, so they can continue their reign of terror in petrol-powered watercraft. The secret lies in a quiet, mysterious orphan (Tina Majorino) who has had the map etched on her for some strange reason. Time for Costner to step up and protect humanity’s most vulnerable secret.
You have to admire Kevin Costner a little. No matter how doomed his projects may seem, it is clear that he invests heart and soul in each without shame. Waterworld is no exception, and it is refreshing to know that at least one person seems to have believed in this film, even though he could not save it. To be fair, it did enjoy a number one opening weekend at the box office, but that simply was not good enough. Not that it discouraged Costner in the least. Two years after the release of Waterworld, he went charging back into post-apocalypse territory in The Postman, which most people wisely ignored.
As with many movies of such inflated reputation, Waterworld is not nearly as awful as you may have heard. However, it is still pretty bad. Much of its failure has to do with the outrageous production budget ($175 million), which would have required a much more entertaining finished product to earn back. The premise is clever, but the script and design of it all are terribly hokey. The world as presented by the movie gets old after about twenty minutes. Stretch that out to a 135-minute running time, and you’ve got yourself a big, brine-stinking mess. Still, on the right rowdy night it would be worth settling down in front of, if only for a few good laughs.
Dawn Of The Dead (dir. George A. Romero, 1978)
Though Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead is arguably more of a mid-apocalyptic story, it is one of the really great ones in the overall saga. There is no beating Night Of The Living Dead, but that is even further up the timeline – pre-apocalyptic, perhaps? – and has altogether a different tone than Dawn or any of the others that followed. At this point, humanity is in a fairly desperate position, and percentage-wise has been mostly wiped out by the zombie hordes.
We join the surviving humans in the middle of chaos, as they come to the conclusion that long-term refuge is needed. Local law enforcement is having just as much trouble controlling the panicked civilians as the flesh-hungry living dead. A small group of folks holes up in the local shopping mall, blocking the doors from the outside menace. It soon dawns on them that the peaceful anarchy of their new existence allows them to raid the unguarded resources of the mall and live like kings and queens of their own private island. For a little while, at least.
Outside the walls of the abandoned mall, the world continues to die. Lack of contact with other survivors, and a growing sense of isolation, leads the survivors to understand that they are not free, but trapped in a situation of their own making. Meanwhile, their defenses deteriorate under the strain of growing zombie ranks. It is only a matter of time before everyone must face the undead menace before pulling up roots in search of a more viable future.
In addition to being an iconic horror film, Dawn Of The Dead is chock full of grim satire about the moral and psychological bankruptcy of hyper-consumption in American culture. Thousands of zombies stumbling blindly around a shopping mall. Get it? Romero milks this joke at length, and by gosh, it works! The dark humor mixes nicely with the violence and horror, and the sheer number of imitations and parodies to arise since this film is a testament to its enduring legacy.
Six-String Samurai (dir. Lance Mungia, 1998)
And now for something completely ridiculous. Six-String Samurai is a cult footnote of the late 1990s, but definitely worth enjoying. A twisted homage to martial arts exploitation films, it envisions a bombed-out America (by the dirty Russians, no less), which has mutated into something between Return To Oz and Buckaroo Banzai. The city of Lost Vegas (yes, that’s right) has become the new center of civilization, and the King has just died. By that, I actually mean Elvis, who was naturally proclaimed king after the nuclear holocaust.
The search is on for an heir to the throne of rock and roll. Among the pilgrims to make the dangerous desert trek to Vegas is Buddy, an ultra-cool bespectacled guitar picker, decides to head west and throw his axe in the ring. Along the way he picks up a lone kid, who becomes his charge and ultimately his ally against the forces of evil. Death is on Buddy’s heels, you see, and in front of him is a whole nation of degenerate weirdos ready to fight.
Remnants from the Russian siege on Vegas, plus a number of other crazies, have formed roving gangs which Buddy must confront and defeat in turn. He relies not only on his fists and feet, which he uses to impressive effect, but also his skill with samurai swords and guitars. Death, you see, is a picker himself, and the stage is set for a final rock and roll confrontation.
Six-String Samurai is made for drive-ins, late night movie slots, and anytime you need a measured dose of grinning insanity without any pretense to impressive filmmaking. It does feature a rather celebrated surf rock soundtrack by the Red Elvises. If you are not on board yet, then search elsewhere for your wasteland tale. If it sounds like fun, then chances are you’re going to have a lot of it.
The Stand (dir. Mick Garris, 1994)
Mick Garris, now famous for his role in creating the Masters Of Horror series, made his name with this one. A miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s popular end-of-days novel, The Stand does a pretty fine job of bringing the epic, character-heavy tale to life. A government-created plague escapes its laboratory and sweeps the country with horrifying speed and potency. The Project Blue virus, known familiarly as “Captain Trips” wipes out all but maybe 0.5% of the US population. The survivors are left to wonder what happened, how they survived, and what should be done now. The world as they know it is dead. In theory, they can do just what they want.
Predictably, that is what most people do. Our good and decent protagonists like Stu Redman (Gary Sinise) Frannie Goldsmith (Molly Ringwald), and Nick Andros (Rob Lowe) set out to find others who will not rob, kill, or exploit them in the chaotic aftermath. They have all lost their loved ones, you know, and have no idea who else is left out there.
Then, something interesting happens. The situation begins forming the human remnant into two natural groups: the good and the evil. Those prone to good receive visions from Mother Abigail (Rub Dee), a kindly old woman living in Nebraska who gathers all the nice folks to her home so that they may be strong against the others together. You see, there is another faction, led by the mysterious and diabolical Randall Flagg (Jamey Sheridan). He is rounding up the wicked and cowardly to set up an evil regime based in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ruling his subjects with a bloody fist of iron, he puts them to work securing his position as dark lord of Vegas.
On the westward road, there are many alliances, betrayals, romances, and other less desirable encounters. Garris had a lot of characters to juggle in translating King’s work, and he does a mighty good job with only minor practical changes to the story. The cast is quite strong overall, and the main weakness of the piece is the occasional foray into supernatural special effects. But hey, it was mid-1990s television. They still knew how to put a miniseries together back then. It might not have the quite dignity of something like Lonesome Dove, but it made the jump to TV much more gracefully than, say, Stephen King’s It.
The Stand has its flaws, but has stood the test of time as one of the better King adaptations that did not deviate too sharply from the original idea. The author did a better than usual job of rewriting his novel for the screen (see Pet Sematary… or don’t. Uggh!), and even got a cameo as a wide-eyed weirdo, a role he was born to play. It also features a number of very good performers at their prime in this era. Gary Sinise, Miguel Ferrer, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe and Ed Harris are just the starting lineup. Invest a day or two in it and be entertained by the end of the world as you know it.