Saturday, 26 November 2011

Apocalypse Tomorrow: The end of the World on Film

  The end of the world on film can be a risky business.  What’s the point of making a film about the end of the world when it could actually happen and there’d be no one left to patronise your movie? So what if you’d made a correct prediction; what good would that be? The end of the world is no longer merely the subject of apocalyptic hearsay, it is a serious issue,  especially when separated from the religious realm to which it has been relegated since (at least) the middle ages. The reason for this is that nuclear holocaust is an apocalypse of our own making and perhaps this is what makes it a good subject for drama.

 However audiences do not go to see movies to be confronted by reality, since instead they wish to escape from it. Serious issue movies walk the tightrope between sending out positive messages about humanity and at the same time, providing a certain entertainment value. So my theory is, if you can make a movie about the end of the world that’s entertaining, but you don’t win any awards for it,  then at least you should be remembered for attempting to walk that tightrope.

The movies in this brief list  are not science fiction. You could maybe class ‘The Seventh Sign’ as science fiction. But more of that later.  My worst   sins of omission are  War Game, and  Testament. I have seen both of these,  but so long ago, I can’t remember enough about them to write anything that would be of  interest. ‘Threads’ and ‘Miracle Mile’ I haven’t seen, but look forward to seeing in the future,  so these will also unfortunately be omitted.

As you may have figured out by now,  classifying films into a particular niche or genre is a big deal to me. What is omitted has the opportunity to become just as important as what’s not. So there’s no disaster films.  No Deep Impact,  Mad Max, or the Book of Eli. Or 28 Days Later. One of my glaring omissions is ‘Dr Strangelove’ because it’s a comedy. I don’t like it, to be honest. I think it’s too forced and obvious, as well as a tad on the cheap side. People may laugh, but it doesn’t make them feel particularly comfortable to be doing it.  Neither are there any titles that concern themselves with life AFTER the end of the world, (a concept invented by successful horror writers and the military industrial complex of Hollywood. Re-imagining  life after the holocaust makes some writers rich, but it can also lead to a misunderstanding of the basic concept of apocalypse. It is supposed to mean after all, that there will be NO survivors. But I digress.)

 I am referring to two particular examples of this sub-genre, ‘The Stand’, a television movie, and the Will Smith version of ‘I Am Legend’, and its cop-out ending, the rest  ruined by too many compromises and  its overuse of pointless Computer Generated Imagery. All  these titles are science fiction I know, but they act as a reminder of what the films I actually want to discuss,  deal with. That is, nuclear war in a realistic context, and how these titles engage the audience with important questions such as the existence  of a larger  morality,  the nature of political expediency, the advantages and disadvantages of human progress,  and other less fanciful, more earthbound  topics of interest than your normal borderline horror film with an apocalyptic scenario.

Hollywood does not have an easy time attempting to fictionalise something as disturbing as the prospect of the human race’s permanent annihilation.  In real life, the more strained diplomatic relations become, the easier it is to trot out lists like this, whose titles may have nostalgic value, but offer little  explanation of the new disputes on the world stage that have nothing in common with what’s gone on before. There is consensus for example, that the Cold War is  over; so what have the issues concerning that period in history  to do with us at this moment? There’s  sabre rattling going on right now as I write this,  concerning Iran and Russia, but the sabre rattling has nothing to do with  me  writing this particular post at this particular time. I have no control over world events and I don’t pretend to be a Cassandra, (or should I say snake oil salesman.) So, for the hell of it, (and if we’re all still here by the finish),  these are my favourite films about nuclear apocalypse and the end of civilisation as we know it today, Hollywood-style.  You may also find a  useful critical article here about The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode, a book about apocalyptic literature and other issues of interest concerning literary narrative outside my scope as a humble blogger.

On the Beach (1959): The films of Stanley Kramer are being reappraised these days,  mostly in their favour, and I think this is one of his best efforts. Based upon the novel by Nevil Shute, it has Anthony Perkins speaking with an Australian accent, and Ava Gardner wondering why she bothered to go to Melbourne to make a film about the end of the world. The population of the northern hemisphere has been decimated by an unexplained nuclear exchange, and Australia waits for the radiation to be blown in its direction, as it lays in wait as the last bastion of human civilisation. Gregory Peck is solid but unremarkable as an American submarine commander landed in Melbourne, and Fred Astaire is very touching as an Aussie scientist who feels partly responsible for what’s happened. The plot is a little slim, but these people are simply waiting to die, and I for one felt empathy for their situation.

  There are no pyrotechnics,  nor are there any big dramatic scenes of panicking people doing emotionally stressed out things. It seems that people die in their beds, and a hush of deathly quiet comes over a city once it’s been contaminated by radiation. ‘On the Beach’ is less interested in politics and/or history and more concerned with emotional trauma involving what it feels like to know that you are not a survivor at all, but just another victim. This is a downbeat message, but ‘On the Beach’ is admirable in that  it doesn’t pull its punches. It’s as honest as it was possible to be,  about the devastation which a worldwide  nuclear war would unleash, and the cruelty of a distant power elite who are never seen, but are the cause of this human catastrophe.   4 ½ stars

The Day After (1983): This was originally made for television, but ‘The Day After’ has its own stature as fine piece of work and at the time of its broadcast, the highest rated TV movie yet made up to that time. Set in the seemingly bucolic American state of Kansas, its folksy feel is undercut by a feeling of apocalyptic dread when revealed that a vast population has been set up for death by a smattering of nuclear installations that will be struck by  Russian missiles if World War III ever breaks out, which of course it does. There are a number of different storylines and sub-plots. But the story mainly concerns the survival of a farming family, and  an idealistic doctor (Jason Robards) who somehow carries on despite losing his family and home. There are a number of memorable set pieces including the onset of the Russian nuclear attack, taking place on a crowded highway of people in their cars attempting to leave ground zero. Another near the end of the film seems like a homage to the sequence in ‘Gone with the Wind’ that has Scarlett O’Hara tending to literally hundreds of sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. To me, this sequence is a superb visual metaphor for everything the film has been trying to say, the terrible cost of political brinkmanship in a crisis situation, and how a combination of government negligence and stupidity can mean the end of humanity as we know it. 

 The makeup is very good, in that injured people really seem that way and they haven’t been made up – their physical injuries somehow equate with what has happened to them and it’s not meant to be pretty.   ‘The Day After’ issues a disclaimer of sorts  at the end of the film, by warning the viewer that what they’ve just witnessed is nothing compared to the reality of what would happen if there was actually a nuclear attack against the United States. Directed by Nicholas Meyer with an excellent ensemble cast including Steve Gutenberg, Amy Madigan, and local Kansas people who were cast for the sake of the piece’s authenticity.  4 ½ stars

The Seventh Sign (1989): Not a big hit when first released, ‘The Seventh Sign’ was initially  dismissed as a load of religious hokum. This may be so, but its hokum  well produced and acted, with a believable and appealing female protagonist in the person of Demi Moore who gives a performance that would  best be described as heartfelt. She plays wife to a yuppie lawyer in Los Angeles, and a prospective mother who falls pregnant, but is worried about carrying the child to full-term. In walks a Christ-like figure who wants to rent their spare room, played by Jurgen Prochnow. Meanwhile,  husband Michael Biehn is struggling to save a man from execution who murdered his parents, his only defence being that it was a sin before God that they go on living without some kind of divine intervention. A young Jewish biblical scholar is consulted by Demi, in order that she brush  up on some of the pertinent prophecies as set down in the Revelation of St John.  Demi becomes convinced that the end of the world is nigh, and that the guff of souls is empty because God does not wish us carry on any longer. Curiously enough, not being religious myself,  I fell for ‘The Seventh Sign’ hook, line and sinker when I first saw it at the cinema.

 There are a number of compelling and beautifully photographed sequences of nature gone awry in various parts of the world, indicating that all is not well and that God is not  happy with us. These scenes are undercut by the constant flow of television images in the couple’s living room,  of constant war and unrest in a mad slaughterhouse of a world in which time may be running out, and divine intervention could provide relief to all our woes. I found this take on apocalypse within its original context of divine retribution compelling and strangely believable, because I think that director Carl Schultz does such a good job of making it  audience friendly. Personally I wouldn’t label ‘The Seventh Sign’ as either science fiction or religious fiction. It’s more a genre horror film that concerns itself with the end of the world in a refreshing and interesting way that is as thought provoking as it is entertaining.    3 ½ stars
The Bedford Incident (1965): Starring (and produced by) Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, Martin Balsam and Eric Porter, ‘The Bedford Incident’ makes the prospect of nuclear confrontation seem as suspenseful as it is onerous. Set on an American naval military boat as it patrols Arctic waters on the lookout for Russian submarines, ‘The Bedford Incident’ takes place at the height of Cold War tensions. It   illustrates a possible scenario where we have the case of a commander who is unfit to command, along with a demoralised and weary crew, pushed to their limits and liable to make disastrous mistakes because they are simply…human.  The film is carried along by audience expectations of how long it will take for someone in the crew to crack, or for the commander (Widmark) to stop playing a game of cat and mouse with a Russian sub he will not allow to surface.  A showdown seems inevitable,  with one side or the other pressing the nuclear button, thus starting a nuclear war between Russia and America. 

The macho atmosphere of all the guys together using a lot of technical, naval language running around giving each other orders is a bit of a turn-off, but this is undeniably  exciting and a reasonably thought-provoking film regarding first-strike capability and which side should have the right to claim it as their own.  By the last scene, the audience is mentally drained, and has pause to wonder what difference it makes who strikes first, if the result will eventually lead to annihilation. If I’m not mistaken, the James Harris who directed this is the same James Harris who produced a number of partner Stanley Kubrick’s films. It’s an excellent effort and I think still relevant today, when one considers the broken minds, as well as bodies that have tragically resulted from the extended wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  4 stars.

Failsafe (1964): The brainchild of produce Walter Bernstein, ‘Failsafe’  calls into question the nature of computerised warfare in which the parts have built-in  malfunction, and can inadvertently cause provocation toward the so-called enemy where none was originally intended. There seems to be a lot of trauma in the military, caused by their awareness of their responsibility.  They are protecting us in spite of ourselves, but not doing a very good job of it in the process.  Dan O’Herlihy and Walter Matthau represent opposing sides of the coin as respectively a military dove who believes in nuclear containment, and a civilian hawk who believes in the inevitability of nuclear war and the responsibility of America to rise out of the ashes and build a brave new world after. Washington’s political elite are portrayed as a bunch of careless hedonists who use the prospect of war as fodder for their pointless and trite dinner party conversations, whilst the rest of the population is left helpless in the face of possible destruction by its own side.

 ‘Failsafe’ is for a Hollywood movie, extremely downbeat and austere. I guess for a film about the end of the world, you couldn’t ask for more than that. An ensemble cast put together by director Sidney Lumet are all exemplary (listen to the audio commentary on the DVD for Lumet’s illuminating comments about the cast and other aspects of the making of the film.) This is probably the big daddy of all films concerning the end of the world, and for good reason. O’Herlihy’s dream of being the matador at the beginning of the film becomes a fulfilled prophecy by the end, and ‘Failsafe’ is perhaps the only commercial American film that does justice to its subject matter.  5 stars.

I gotta go to the zoo Mac. There's a tiger having a birthday party.
The China Syndrome (1979): As a suspense thriller about an accident at a nuclear power plant, and how an attempted cover-up is exposed by a television crew working for a local station, I would propose that The China Syndrome is an excellent film about the possibility of the end of the world, and how it would transpire.   Made, and then released at the time of a real accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, the film initially caused a stir at a time when there was a significant anti-nuclear lobby attempting to limit the power and influence of the nuclear industry in the United States.  The  death of anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood in mysterious circumstances is reflected in an attempt on the life of one of the characters in this film in a sobering evocation of what can happen to whistle blowers when they dare to tell the truth to power.

 Looking back on ‘The China Syndrome’, to portray the film as merely a thriller would be doing it a disservice.  It is also a serious reflection on the need of a vigilant media in order for a democratic society to operate effectively. Among other things, The China Syndrome exposes the scary lack of public accountability within an industry that exists for profit, without taking into consideration the safety and well-being of its consumers, who are after all, citizens with their rights. Starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, all three who have their big moments, but Lemmon was a revelation to those of us who were only familiar with his comedic roles. Everything about ‘The China Syndrome’ works, and even the idea of the possibility of a ‘china syndrome’ situation happening in future, was enough for many of us to start building bomb shelters. Or at least move to Tasmania. 4 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment