A perennial movie topic is the end of civilization. There are several popular ways it all ends. First, nuclear misadventure.
Picture a film about global warming caused by the folly of the Americans and the Russians testing super-big bombs at the poles just to see what will happen. Now make this a feature length drama and combine the rat-tat-tat of Ben Hecht dialogue, the cinematography of Elia Kazan, the story telling of Alfred Hitchcock and the sets of George Lucas.
Now shoot it in black and white and, near the conclusion, gradually morph into desiccated over-saturated sepia. Add a believable love story and sheezam! you’ve got a hit. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Oh, did I mention it was made in 1961? Stunning on all fronts, most notably the directing. I could feel the director’s hand pushing the rapid fire dialogue in every scene. I’m not exaggerating–this is one amazing movie. The Day the Earth Caught Fire takes place in a London newspaper office, a real one, and many of the actors actually worked at the paper. You can get it on Amazon prime or dig deep into the web to find it. It was this film that prompts me to tell you about movies that deal with the END OF THE WORLD. Here you really want to cue R.E.M.’s hit It’s the End of the World as We Know It.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
On the Beach was based on a famous book written 60 years ago. It stars Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner and pre shower-stabby Tony Perkins. Greg (I say Greg as I knew him many a year ago) was in his early 40s but the stark lighting reveals the lines in his careworn face. His acting is so good it rivals his role in To Kill A Mockingbird. It takes place after the big one. The radiation cloud has wiped out everyone but the Australians, and they know it’s descending in a few weeks. Particularly compelling is the periscope scene from a U.S. submarine (ironically atomic powered) as it comes into San Francisco Bay looking for survivors because they have had a strange radio signal from California. I can see my oldest son’s home in one shot above the abandoned and lifeless streets. Yikes! Duck and cover!
When I was about 12 I saw this film and with all the talk in schools about staying clear of the windows and hiding under your desk when the inevitable bomb went off I started digging a hole in the backyard and covering it with plywood following the imperatives of the day. We lived in a rented home and I was particularly aggrieved when we moved house and I couldn’t take my hole. When I think about it though it isn’t the hole but everything around it that makes it a hole so in a way I still have the hole. Jiminy Cricket, there are holes everywhere!
The musical score in On the Beach is terrific with Waltzing Matilda drifting lightly and then more forcefully throughout. The is a spectacular car race around a track with plenty of fiery accidents since the drivers are not into self-preservation. Some of the cars actually wrecked are Ferraris which are worth 20 millionish today but in 1960 you could smash em up in a movie.
This film was produced by Stanley Kramer who has a staggering list of hits. The Wild One, Cain Mutiny, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and High Noon. This is a timeless work of art even more relevant today. It premiered in the U.S. and simultaneously was the first U.S. movie premiere in Moscow.
There is little doubt that the movie with the most impact on society around nuclear extinction is The Day After. “The Day After is an American television that first aired on November 20, 1983. More than 100 million people, in nearly 39 million households, watched the program during its initial broadcast. With a 46 rating and a 62% share of the viewing audience during its initial broadcast, it was the seventh highest rated non-sports show at the time and set a record as the highest-rated television film in history—a record it still held as recently as 2009. The film postulates a fictional war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact countries that rapidly escalates into a full-scale nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action itself focuses on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas as well as several family farms situated near nuclear missile silos.” Wikipedia
This is a top drawer Hollywood production with Jason Robards and Steve Gutenberg in the cast. It was shown in prime time and in schools around the world. Ronald Regan said this film was the catalyst that caused him to sit down with Gorbachev and talk about disarmament. This film is so realistic and the outcome so grim that you might just want to whistle Dixie instead. Back then when we were worried about ‘the bomb’ Carl Sagan famously said that our situation is like two angry men standing in a room full of gasoline and one has 6,000 matches and the other 8,000 matches. And both want more matches.
Things are different today. Now there are nine angry men and about 17,000 matches. In real dollars, gasoline is fairly cheap right now so that’s a plus.
If you are asked who is the most important person ever in human history what would you say? Jesus? Darwin? Aristotle? Kim Kardashian? I’ll bet you wouldn’t say Stanslov Petrov. He might be the most important single individual because in 1983 Stan detected five incoming ICBMs from the U.S. The attack checked all the boxes. It was his job to report this to his superiors but he was quoted later as saying, “I didn’t want to be the guy to start World War III so I didn’t report the attack.” It turned out to be an error and he was reprimanded for not following protocol but they forgave him and later gave him a puny trophy as a hero for saving civilization. There is a documentary called The Man Who Saved the World. Hey, thanks a lot, Stan. It would have been hell on my career.
One of the classics is Omega Man from 1971 with Charlton, Chuck to his friends, Heston. Let me say here I am a big fan of Heston’s with his seemingly four rows of gleaming teeth and his I’m-the toughest-dog-at the-dogpark snarl. You might remember him as an old fool who threw himself out of his own house when Michael Moore interviewed him about guns (he really did just walk out of his house and down the street) but to me he will always be Moses (he was just 30 when he played Moses), the guy in The Planet of the Apes guy and Omega Man. Omega Man costarred Anthony Zerby who was sitting next to me at dinner at a restaurant in Montecito before that town nearly washed into the ocean a couple of years back–much of the housing half buried. Sort of like the Statue of Liberty stuck in the sand in Apes, no? Anyway Heston was also in the dystopian film Soylent Green where he wails past all his magnificent teeth at the end of the movie, “Soylent Green (the food the government passes out) IS PEOPLE!” Sort of like the Impossible Burger…but possible.
Chuck is remembered is some circles (mine for instance) for one of the slickest tricks ever played on an unsuspecting leading man. This was in Ben Hur when Steven Boyd expresses his deep love for his comrade Ben Hur. It takes place in jolly old Rome and is an undeniably gay scene with two muscly men intertwining arms, lifting their golden chalices and embracing. Heston thought it was supposed to be like a towel snapping locker room thing sort of thing. But the screen writer, Gore Vidal, said he definitely wrote it as you see it. This all got by Heston and the censors but if you doubt me look it up. It was a BIG deal then. Now its…eh.
Another—oops there goes the bomb—movie is Kubrick’s, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Bomb. It was very like the Cuban Missile Crisis which wasn’t a movie but just one more near miss. I find it funny that some people I know are working diligently to track incoming asteroids and still others worry about global warming when the very real threat is from a serious warming which, once launched, would take less time than it will take you to eat lunch. 18 minutes. Miracle Mile takes place in a diner at night when a guy gets word from his son who is at a missile launch site that the button has been pushed. Rare and excellent.
About a year ago I sat at the console where Stalin was all set up to have his men jab in the twin keys and tappy-tap in the launch code back in the late 50s. It’s in a bunker 100 feet deep in central Moscow and it’s now an ignored museum. The tour guide directed my cousin Will and I to sit at the consoles enacting the procedure to light the world up. Once we turned the keys he cranked up a scratchy 16mm film showing the launch of ICBMs from a Kansas corn field heading to Russia from the movie The Day After. Hey, get your own damn film!
If all this hair trigger talk scares you…that’s probably the right response.
If course, there are other ways to turn out the lights. Pandemic!!! 1971’s Andromeda Strain still holds up and it’s one of the films where the world doesn’t completely expire but people are still made out to be fools. The Happening is a pretty good one from a few years back with Zooey Deschanel and Mark “Marky Mark” Walberg. This is where folks breath in some sort of virus which makes everyone kill themselves all over the world. Watchable.
Then there the great movie Wall-E where were we all just die of filth and over consumption. In contrast to this is 2004s The Day after Tomorrow. This movie is about how we messed with the world’s temperature causing the ocean currents to change direction and this allowed the ionosphere to be sucked down with 150 degree below zero and most everyone freezes. Great special effects but this movie is also stuffed full of people who were just getting their first roles and later became big stars. Impossible science but great special effects.
And finally the aliens. A truly great film from the 50s is Day of the Triffids. One night there is a spectacular meteor display. It’s everywhere the world and in all sorts of colors. The next day everyone who witnessed it has gone blind. Ouch! There is even more hell to pay because spores have landed and alien plants quickly spawn. They like to eat people and they can walk around. The movie’s great because it’s a tight story and succeeds even better because of the cheesy effects.
These Final Hours is a modern story about a meteor that hits the far side of the earth from Australia and folks there have a few hours before the big sizzle! It’s a compelling tidy film.
Super volcanos, giant earthquakes and big rocks are not Man’s fault but films depicting these forms of annihilation are not as common as those in which humans take the blame.
Of course there are lots of Zombie films. Always our fault somehow. The Night of the Living Dead is the grandfather of all of them and we haven’t been safe since. 28 Days Later is a new version of this and instead of slow zombies they are really, really quick. World War Z with Brad Pitt moves right along and it has the record for the most zombies. Millions of them and they are not fun.
The Center for Disease Control has actually issued a procedure to warn folks how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse. It is very detailed and they had a lot of fun using Zombies as a metaphor for actual disaster preparedness. But in this age where irony is not only very much alive but runs the country some people believe the CDC is serious. You can read the report and it doesn’t seem so tongue in cheek with statements like “Maintain emergency plans to employ nuclear weapons within (the continental United States) to eradicate zombie hordes.” Maybe there is too much regulation.
Sometimes the End of the World is funny, like in Zombieland or Zombies and Hillbillies. Some have the animals or the plants turning on Man like in The Birds. Maybe that wasn’t the end of the world but that school teacher sure took a hit. Other times the theme is utter hopelessness like the depressing light comedy The Road.
The alien invasion takes all sorts of forms. I’m talking Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The original is a real tight film, the remake so so. There are countless alien invasion movies and sometimes humans win (seems unlucky.) Other times they think we’re a little bit cool and they just put a hurt on us and let us live as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The 1951 one is pretty good; the 2008 one has a very cold, human-looking but wooden alien, who mumbles and doesn’t change expression. This is the one film where Keanu Reeves gets to play himself. How does this man keep getting work?
Then there is good ol’ God lowering the boom movies, such as The Rapture. This is a film about the Biblical prophecy–the end of times. The idea of The Rapture is right out of the Bible though the word really isn’t written on the pages but is slivered between the lines. Many folks think the Bible is mostly about brotherly love and how best to stone gay people but near the end it gets quite grim when only 144,000 people are saved and all the rest from Mr. Rogers to Gandhi get an eternal timeout in the hot box. (Maybe Mr. Rogers made it but Gandhi was a Hindu so no room on the cloud for you Mr. Ghandi.) I was telling my friend Phil Spickler about this and he said…hummm my daughter starred in that movie. Waaaa? Yes, his daughter is Mimi Rogers, once Mrs. Tom Cruise, who starred in the remake of The War of the Worlds. This I find out after writing my crack about Mr. Rogers who was Mimi’s husband…though a different Mr. Rogers…keep up with me here.
Noah (which I made myself watch by propping my eyes open with toothpicks) is a Darren Aronofsky disaster (I think the film was the bigger disaster then the Flood itself) also about the end of the earth, though there are few tough survivors like giraffes and dinosaurs. (Don’t mention the fish – it just confuses the issue). Darren got bored with the actual story because the extinction of most of the human race wasn’t dramatic enough. So as Noah and his lads build the ship (in record time) the going gets rough when all these giant demons are summoned to thwart the enterprise. Maybe they are the ‘fallen angles’ but they are 60 feet tall and made of rock. This isn’t in the Bible.
I carefully read the Bible about 10 years ago because as the most popular book of all time and as the source of a great many quotes it’s part of my education. But there is a general confusion around what it says and what it means. For instance, most people think that Noah brought all the animals aboard 2×2. It does not say that. In fact, it says something quite different. You can look it up. Many parts of the Bible are grand and poetic like, “Let there be light.” Other parts are oddly trivial like in Leviticus where you are instructed how to construct a latrine. Oddly pragmatic.
Another note on the Bible: Most people know it is the most widely distributed book in history. Did you know it is also the most shoplifted book as well? Or was, when we had bookstores. The Gideon’s claim they have printed and given away over 6 billion Bibles. Frankly, I doubt that figure though the Gideons I know seem honest enough. 6 billion Bibles if stacked up would be, well, very high and would defiantly fall over taking the Motel 6 with it. Here’s another fact I find compelling. The first printed book as the Gutenberg Bible. It was there the most valuable book at the time because it was the only printed book. If you bought one hold on to it. It is a good investment as it has always been the most valuable book.
Most religions are set up to sweep back the darkness about one’s life ending. Apocalypse movies are made to bring the darkness back. Gee thanks. There are more TV sets than churches so one side’s winning. The Lord giveth and Hollywood taketh away.
Anyway back to the Rapture, the film. It was a lowish budget (3 million) film in 1991. It only took in 1.3 million which is strange considering the book’s author claimed he sold 28 million copies of his book on which the film is based (probably not true). In the end 144,000 go to heaven so this is a pretty healthy haul compared to man-caused annihilation films so the odds are actually really better with Bible. I guess you might say that the End Times was Man being somewhat perfidious so I guess, once more, it’s all my fault.
More films I like are A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max and (since I’m the author here) I’m including one that isn’t really about the end of the world but I include it because it’s terrific and the world sort of ends He goes so far into the future that civilization as he knew it is gone (in the book). The Time Machine is the short novel by H. G. Wells. The 1960 movie with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux is pretty good. As a young teenager there was no better role model for me than Rod (also starred in The Birds) and no more ideal woman than Yvette.
But the book is far better. Read-the-book. In the book there is great passage at the end where the time traveler seemingly goes to the end of the earth. The rotation of the planet has stopped and everything is just oozy and gray. Sort of like western Uzbekistan.
A near miss for the end of the human race is in Well’s War of the Worlds, 1953 and 2005 where the pathogen kills the aliens for a change. Yeah, germs!
Did someone say books a minute ago? Oh yes, books. My second favorite book of all time is called Earth Abides. It takes place in Berkeley in the 1940s and is about a man who is badly rattlesnake bit and recovers in the desert only to find no one about when he drives home. He spends the next 50 years in his childhood home in the Berkeley hills. In time he meets a few survivors and they tribe-up as the artifacts of civilization decay around them. Stewart Brand told me the book made a big impression on him as a young man The author, George Stewart, was popular creative writing professor at UC Berkeley and it was George who devised the naming of hurricanes after women (initially it was just women). Remember Irma and Katrina? It’s as bad as being named Stormy today, right? Hum, there is good material here… Anyway a few years back an acquaintance of mine who I visited with at Buck’s from time to time had the bad taste to die on me and I never knew his name until the obit. George Stewart Junior. Aggghh! It’s as bad as not knowing that Herman Melville’s son was sitting on table 10.
If you are going to look up only two of these suggestions don’t’ miss the Day the Earth Caught Fire and On the Beach. Tell me what you think.