Thursday, January 31, 2013

That's a Wrap: The Past and Present State of Post-Apocalyptic Cinema

Bruno Lawrence in The Quiet Earth (1985)

Last month, Turner Classic Movies – after almost 19 years on the air, still the best friend a movie freak with a cable box has ever had – had a witty idea for breaking up its holiday schedule of shoving candy canes into viewers’ stockings. On December 21, 2012, the date enshrined in urban myth as the Day of Judgment as predicted by the Mayan calendar, TCM filled its daytime schedule with movies about the threat of the end of the world, or its aftermath. Watching a slew of them served to underline how much the post-apocalypse genre has changed since it ceased to be a vehicle to address nuclear anxieties. Post-apocalyptic films and TV shows now have an angry, fatalistic, nihilist attitude, with costume and set designs out of a survivalist training manual. That may sound like a no-brainer, but during the Cold War, post-apocalyptic science fiction was largely a humanistic genre. The end of the world isn’t what it used to be.

People who claim to know about these things cite Five (1951) as the first post-nuclear holocaust movie. Five is a low-budget independent production directed, written, and produced by Arch Oboler, who even shot much of it in his own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. Oboler, who ought to have a cult following just for having been named “Arch Oboler,” was a radio playwright who dabbled in filmmaking, turning out a handful of pictures that are notable for sounding so weird that they have no excuse for being so boring. (Aside from Five, his best-remembered film is probably The Twonky, in which Hans Conried discovers that his new television set is actually a powerful and destructive supernatural force capable of mind control, a theme that must have really resonated with someone who’d built a career in radio drama.)

James Anderson, Charles Lampkin, & Susan Douglas Rubes in Five
The title refers to the five survivors of a nuclear war that may have wiped out all the rest of humanity. The pregnant heroine, Roseanne (Susan Douglas Rubes), is on her own and on the road, trying to make it to her aunt’s house and wondering if her husband is still alive. She meets Michael (William Phipps), a gentle, moon-faced fellow who talks of restarting civilization and growing crops, though he’s having enough trouble just getting his beard to grow out. In time, they are joined by Charles (Charles Lampkin), who is black, and his traveling companion, Oliver (Earl Lee), who is aged, deranged, and not long for this world. Eventually, the wild card turns up: Eric (James Anderson), a hard-bitten mountain climber with the handsome profile and trained voice of a soap opera star, who survived the blast because he happened to be on top of Mount Rushmore when everybody else was atomized.

As they say on Bunheads, the family that matters most to you may be the one whose members you pick yourself. A recurring theme in post-apocalyptic movies is that you may someday be forced to assemble a family based on very slim pickings. In the coffeehouse-liberal atmosphere of Five, Eric immediately stands out as the character least likely to have a subscription to Evergreen Review. He is also possessed of the two things least desirable in a character with whom a small band of survivors might be required to build a new world: a streak of racism, and a boom stick. He needles (and eventually murders) Charles, and flashes his gun when poor, limp Michael asks him what’s up with the bad attitude, man? But even though he’s plainly the villain of the piece, he’s the only one with enough moxie to dare to venture into the city, so Roseanne, who is still hoping to find her husband, tags along. They find the city covered with dust and prop skeletons, and when the signs of radiation poisoning break out on Eric’s skin, as if his bad personality were taking physical form, it is clear that will soon be joining them. Roseanne flees and makes her way back to Michael’s farm, and the two of them commit to each other with all the enthusiasm of two people have literally have no other choices, as depicted by two actors who, understandably, didn’t get offered a lot of leading roles.

The tighter the cast of characters in post-apocalypse movies get, the more important issues such as race and sexual attraction become. Michael in Five is one unappealing romantic lead, but even with Eric's advantages in terms of physical appearance and alpha-male magnetism, he’s such a scumbag that he’s not really a possible candidate for romance with the shell-shocked but basically good-hearted heroine. Despite its sci-fi coating, Five is the kind of earnest drama that used to dominate at Sundance in its early yearsthe kind that got tagged with the label “granola cinema.” It’s the sort of civics lesson in genre disguise that can make you really appreciate Rod Serling. The proof of the gutlessness of Oboler’s approach is that Charles, the black guy, is never any kind of rival for the heroine’s affections, even though he’s a genial, appealing fellow and seems as if, of the three non-insane men available, he might well be the most fun to hold hands with while watching the stars dying out.  

Harry Belafonte in The World, The Flesh, And The Devil (1959)

In 1959, The World, The Flesh, And The Devil stuck part of one toe into the waters that Oboler didn’t even think to churn up. Harry Belafonte plays a coal mine inspector who is trapped underground for several days. When he finally digs himself out, he finds that he missed the big show and there’s no one left alive, except for hot blonde Inger Stevens and horny white dude Mel Ferrer. Unfortunately, the writer-director Ranald MacDougall by a funny coincidence, that was Ronald McDonald’s name, before he came through Ellis Islandbows to the perceived constraints of the time by having Belafonte deflect Stevens’ every come-on, even after Ferrer shows up. Belafonte and Stevens look great together, and if they’d been allowed to strike some sparks together, they could have blown the roof off the theater. But MacDougall and his producers must have been more concerned about theaters being burned to the ground.

Belafonte simply won’t have it, because, even with a disapproving society wiped off the face of the Earth, for a black man and a white woman to consummate their attraction wouldn’t be “right.” After Ferrer joins the party, Belafonte tries to shift Stevens in his direction. But when Stevens is unable to get interested in the new boy in town, the unappreciative Ferrer goes after him with a gun. The movie ends on a listlessly optimistic note, with the two men coming to their senses (with the help of a Biblical inscription at the United Nations building), throwing down their guns, and walking into the bright future, hand-in-hand with Stevens. The words “The Beginning” appear on the screen. They will rebuild civilization, but for reasons of decorum and in the name of keeping the peace, nobody is ever going to get any, so they’d better get started perfecting cloning technology. (The World, The Flesh, And The Devil is a postcard from a moment in history when cloning technology must have seemed historically closer than social acceptance of interracial marriage.)

Lawrence, Alison Routledge, &  Pete Jones in The Quiet Earth
Twenty-five years later, the New Zealand director Geoff Murphy made a film with a similar set-up. The Quiet Earth (1985), starring the late, great Bruno Lawrence as a scientist who was working on a risky project and attempted suicide in a fit of guilty despair. He wakes up to an uninhabited world: the fact that he was dying at the exact moment that his project snuffed out other life on the planet somehow kept him alive, and ain’t that about a bitch? Eventually, he meets two other people who also survived the apocalypse by dying at just the right momenta woman (Alison Routledge) with a challenging stare and tantalizing mop of red curls, and a Maori (Pete Jones) to whom the woman is instantly attracted. The Quiet Earth revs up more voltage than The World… not just by allowing the interracial couple to act on their attraction, but by casting the white man who’s shut outthe loser as the hero and central consciousness. Lawrence is human enough to feel ugly, murderous thoughts welling inside him over his rejection, but he’s heroic enough to fight his feelings and make the ultimate sacrifice for the last lovers on Earth.

Still, The Quiet Earth like the more recent Will Smith movie I Am Legendis most entertaining in its early stages, when it’s a one-man show that invites the viewer to imagine what he’d do if everyone else was gone and the world was his playground. Rather than finding a radio transmitter and broadcasting distress calls to every corner of the world 24/7, Lawrence puts on a woman’s nightgown, stands on a balcony haranguing cardboard cutouts of world leaders, and shoots up a church. This strain of gonzo lunacy links Murphy’s films to such black comedies as Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), a 'veddy British' attempt to draw choking laughter from post-radioactive death and mutations Ralph Richardson appears in the title role and counterculture head trips such as Jim McBride’s Glen And Randa (1971), about a couple of post-apocalyptic teen-agers too young to remember civilization, and A Boy And His Dog (1975), a first feature (starring Don Johnson as a gun-toting lout traveling the blasted landscape with his telepathic dog, whose thoughts are voiced by Tim McIntire) from L. Q. Jones, a much-loved character actor best known for his appearances, especially in several Sam Peckinpah Westerns, as guys who were lucky to have even Strother Martin for company. In their different ways, each of these films is a real litmus test for hipness, giving the viewer a chance to demonstrate just how much nastiness he’s prepared to find amusing.

Don Johnson , and dog, in A Boy and His Dog (1975)
They also chart a clear evolutionary, or de-evolutionary arc, since each of these films, which were released over the course of just half a dozen years, seems less pained about the prospect of the loss of civilization and civilized human companionship. The Lester film, for all its shrillness and unpleasantness, is really haunted by the thought of millions of people gone in an instant and a few people left behind to wonder how thoroughly they should be incapacitated by mourning. Its big joke is everyone’s inability to say or do anything that seems proportional to the horror of the situation, because they’re trying to just get on with the rest of their lives but what else are they to do? Jones’ film, which is based on a Harlan Ellison story and has the flavor of both drive-in exploitation pictures and satirical underground comics, takes more of a theme park approach to the potential pleasures of post-apocalyptic life; it scorns the middle-aged, puritanical dumbasses who want to re-create “the American way of Life” as they remember it from Andy Hardy movies and Saturday Evening Post covers, and who are probably somehow to blame for whatever led to the final cataclysm, but it also can’t really think of anything better to do after the apocalypse but eat canned food and have sex with young women, who may respond to love-making overtures with varying degrees of consent.

Even this brand of anarchic nihilism may be preferable to the poker-faced, survivalist nihilism of the current strain of end-of-the-world fantasies, seen in movies such as The Road (2009) and Stake Land (2010) and TV series such as The Walking Dead and Falling Skies. Without the bomb to worry about, the creators of these fantasies may offer many different reasons for the apocalypse vampires, zombies, alien invaders, illness or no reason at all, but the preferred response is always the same: put your camping clothes on, load up on arms and ammunition, take the road, and, if possible, form an army. Given that the genre has really blossomed since the global economic meltdown, it seems a safe bet that these joyless, strangely interchangeable fantasies touch a nerve that has been exacerbated by changes in the economy and workplace that clearly just terrify a lot of people. These terrible fantasies may, on some level, be wishful fantasies, of a world in which, as Travis Bickle predicted in Taxi Driver, a real rain has finally come and washed away the scum that is, the bankers, the grossly rich and minimally useful, the Ivy League-educated and well-connected, leaving behind the people who can aim a gun and dress venison and build a shelter. The collapse of society changes everyone’s priorities, so they make sense again. When the zombies come for you, nobody cares about your credit rating.

Ray Milland with Jean Hagen in Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

The “classic” end-of-the-world movie that has the most in common with the current strain may be Panic In Year Zero!, directed by its star, Ray Milland, in 1962. Milland plays a Los Angeles suburbanite who is on vacation with his wife (Jean Hagin), son (Frankie Avalon), and daughter Karen (Mary Mitchell), when ominous news reports on the radio are followed by the sight of a mushroom cloud over the City of Angels. The highways fill with cars and terrified refugees, but Milland has to choke down whatever pity he feels for them; he has to keep his family together and protect them, on the assumption that everyone else out there feels the same way. At one point, he enters a country store to buy supplies, converses pleasantly or as pleasantly as he ever does anything in this movie with the owner, then takes what he wants at gunpoint when the owner refuses to accept his check. The combination of ‘50s-style, low-pressure civility and ruthlessness justified by need as Milland sees it, the store owner is condemning his family to death by demanding cash payment is typical of the movie, and feels completely crazy, but who knows how that situation would have played in real life, at that time?

After holing up in cave for a while, Milland’s family has a run-in with some punks who rape the daughter and take another girl hostage. Milland and Avalon wipe them out, because what else can you do with destructive thugs when order has broken down and you can’t call the police? The insanity of the situation is underlined by the way the family remains freshly laundered and properly maintained throughout their feral ordeal: Milland’s hat seems to be sutured to his head. But he’s just a dad doing what he has to do in extraordinary circumstances; June Cleaver could only hope that Ward would do as much, if he had to. As tight and effective a piece of work ever to come out of AIPPanic In Year Zero! feels less dated than any other post-apocalyptic film of the Cold War era. It’s the one most in tune with current apocalyptic fantasies, the one most likely to have started out as a spec script by a retiree who stockpiles gold in his basement. Somehow, that gives it a special, nervy sadness: the fears it reflects have outlived the more hopeful feelings of some of its competitors.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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