Posted by David Kalat on December 22, 2012
If you are reading this, then the world didn’t end. I never put any stock in that whole Mayan calendar silliness–if I had, I wouldn’t have spent any time writing this. And so it is with absolute confidence in the continuation of the world that I am writing this, marking the non-pocalypse by paying tribute to some of my favorite end-of-the-world movies.
Let’s start by noting that in most cases, what we really mean by end of the world movies are not movies about the literal destruction of the planet. Every once in a while you get a Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where the world is actually blown to smithereens, but those are the exceptions. The real point is to explore the end of the world as we know it, that is, the end of civilization.
In my mind, you can divide these movies into three sub-categories, and I’ll offer an example of each.
The first category is what I’ll call the End of the World Procedural. Like a police procedural, these are focused on the specific details of their individual cataclysms. As such, these movies position the actual end of the world towards the end of their own running times. Failsafe, When Worlds Collide, Colossus the Forbin Project–these are fine examples of the form, but I’m going to highlight Phase IV because a) it’s an actual honest to gosh movie directed by Saul Bass fer crissakes, b) it’s about monster ants, and c) it’s completely awesome.
If you haven’t seen Phase IV, the thing to know is that unlike other killer ant movies like Them! or Empire of the Ants, these ants are just… y’know, ants. They’re small, and they mostly behave the way that ants do. Sure, they exhibit extraordinary intelligence, but importantly they do so in the film as a collective–you don’t get individual genius ants. And in our real world, ant colonies do exhibit startling intelligence and human-like abilities, when viewed in the aggregate. Ant colonies have been studied as metaphors for human intelligence–where our brilliance is identifiable only in the collective work of countless “dumb” neurons. The ant colonies in Phase IV show a marked leap forward in intelligence beyond what we know in our real world, but it’s a plausible leap, and that gives the movie a grounding in real terror.
Additionally, where most other killer ant movies make their insect villains into enormous critters, Phase IV keeps them tiny–because that too is scarier. The desperate scientists trying to find a solution to this disaster have zero room for error, but because they’re dealing with almost invisible pests in an environment designed to ignore problems of that scale, the likelihood of error is high.
This too is grounded in reality–as a people we are well adapted to dealing with problems on a human-sized scale, but when we confront problems out of scale to our experience we lose it. Only the rarest of the rare of people are equipped to comprehend the enormity of space, the vastness of history, or the infinitesimal realm of subatomic particles.
I used to work as a teacher’s aide at a Montessori school, and one of my favorite lessons was one where the teacher would demonstrate the history of the Earth with a visual aid. She had a timeline, printed on a strip of cloth, delineating the history of the planet to the present day in scale. She would roll this thing out, with it spilling out of the classroom and across the playground into the parking lot, showing the age of dinosaurs and the ice ages and so on, but the entirety of human history was too tiny in this scale to even register on the timeline. Everything we care about, everything we know, was too small to even show up in this history at all. It was gloriously humbling.
Phase IV doesn’t explore what the world is like after the conquest of the ants, and the main characters aren’t meant to represent any more of humanity than just “these are two of the guys who tried to deal with this.” It makes no grand statement about the human condition, other than: boy are we fragile and exposed when confronted by a problem out of scale to our frame of reference.
By contrast, The Day of the Triffids spends little time explaining how the world fell apart and focuses its attention instead on the human response. There are giant, mobile, intelligent, killer plants, but they recede quickly into the background in favor of setpieces exploring different post-apocalyptic societies and their relative merits. I’ll call this an example of the Man vs. End of the World film, in which the point is to use the apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic setting to dig into some larger satirical commentary. (Other examples would include Romero’s of the Dead series, The Walking Dead, or Lost).
We don’t need to spend much time noting that the idea of giant, mobile, intelligent, killer plants is completely absurd, and makes Phase IV seem like a freakin’ documentary by comparison, but it should also be self-evident that giant, mobile, intelligent, killer plants are absolutely terrific monsters.
You may find this disorienting–if you’re more familiar with the 1963 version by Steve Sekely and Freddie Francis. That B-movie staple is OK, but is a watered down adaptation of John Wyndham’s novel. In 1981, the BBC mounted an almost word-for-word faithful adaptation, produced by ex-Doctor Who director David Maloney. There was a 2009 remake by Nick Copus which made a few tweaks but more or less stayed close to the book. I think the 1981 BBC version is the best, but the 2009 version has the advantage of being faster paced and bigger budgeted, if those things matter to you.
Either version–and to a lesser extent the 1963 movie too–explores a series of communities as microcosms of contemporary (non-destroyed) society. We see dictatorships, martial law, a misfired form of communism that made happy noises about helping everyone equally but turned into a self-destructive police state, and so on. The version of society the story most admires is the self-sufficient DIY rural idyll that is full of stiff-upper-lip British stoicism but speaks equally deeply to American obsessions with survivalist individualism. It’s a fragile form of society, vulnerable to exploitation, but that only sets up the story’s absolutely brilliant finale. If you haven’t seen either the 1981 or 2009 versions, I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say that these triffids aren’t going to be put down by something stupid like sea water.
Our last category are End of the World Whodunnits. These differ from the Procedurals in that they aren’t concerned with the scientific understanding of the apocalypse, but do care about the human one. They are focused on the human dimension, and as such are full of satirical commentary, but they aren’t about exploring what happens after the apocalypse but about what happened to cause it. Dr. Strangelove might be the most perfect exemplar, but I’m going to call out These Are the Damned.
There’s a lot about These Are the Damned that is just plain odd. For one thing, it’s a sci-fi thriller from Joseph Losey, a man best known for pointedly realist (or socialist-realist) dramas. On top of that, it’s Joseph Losey doing a sci-fi thriller for Hammer, a studio best known for excessively exploitative fare–and so here’s this low-key black and white almost arthouse aesthetic from a studio normally cranking out as much blood and breasts as the screen would hold.
For a good chunk of its running time, These Are the Damned doesn’t even feel like a sci-fi thriller at all. It’s pitched as if it’s a serious drama about Those Messed Up Kids Today. Macdonald Carey, a B-list American star perhaps best known for playing the detective in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, is the stand-in for the most stable expression of middle-class values. And as the movie opens, he is attacked by “teddy boy” Oliver Reed, a troubled youth whose absolutely social alienation and boredom has turned into psychotic violence. Reed’s sister is the space cadet Shirley Ann Field, whose sense of self is so fractured by her brother’s control she can’t tell if she’s a sexual adult or a helpless child, and there are dark hints that Reed’s protective stance has incestuous overtones.
And the movie chugs along, happily telling this story of a love triangle in which Macdonald Carey seeks to rescue Shirley Ann Field from Oliver Reed, and how this struggle between them is a metaphor for generational conflicts, American imperialism, and other 60′s era concerns you’d expect someone like Joseph Losey to have on his mind…
Until, suddenly, this movie accidentally crashes into a different one, and these characters from the realist drama are suddenly racing around an underground cavern full of radioactive children and evil government conspirators in Haz-Mat suits. Amazingly, the main characters continue to hash out their interpersonal drama even as the evidence mounts around them that they’ve stumbled into a completely different genre.
As a work of storytelling, a bravura act of cinematic showmanship, and just plain hutzpah, you have to give it to These Are the Damned. I mean, yeah, Hitchcock was daring to kill off Janet Leigh in the first half of Psycho, but everyone coming into the theater expected to see a gripping thriller and that’s what they saw all the way through. If after killing Janet Leigh, Psycho suddenly turned into a Busby Berkley musical, then maybe we’d be talking about something comparable to the profound weirdness of Damned‘s final act.
But that’s Losey’s point–and it’s the sucker punch behind the film that makes it so grim and depressing. Damned is about people who are anticipating the inevitable end of the world and are preparing for it–and their plan, as awful and immoral and nightmarish as it is, is also actually fairly clever. Faced with a nuclear holocaust, the characters of Dr. Strangelove hacked together a half-assed plan of how to engineer the survival of society, but as plans go it was 90% sexual fantasy and 10% actual plan.
The conspirators of the Damned have put together a plan that might genuinely work–except for one thing. They are people, and their plan depends on people, in a world populated by people, and people are stupid and unpredictable so the things they do will go wrong. You can spent a ton of money on a secret government program to cultivate radioactive children, and then one day a couple of numbnuts having an argument over a girl will blunder in and ruin everything.
Nuclear war? No problem–we have a foolproof plan for how to outlive that. But send in a handful of teenagers with a grudge, and that same plan is no proof against fools. Oops.
Or, put another way, you can have a perfectly functioning technological civilization that can come crashing down because it doesn’t know how to deal with ants, or because one day the garden shrubs will rise up in revolt. The whole Mayan calendar prediction was silly most of all because it presumed human knowledge of the future–when clearly the problem is, humans just don’t know what they’re doing.
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