It’s The End Of the World As I Know It…


It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice — there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia. ~Frank Zappa

OK, so the title of today’s entry isn’t about darkness or depression or overwhelming paranoia, although that’s part of it. Today, I thought I’d unleash my inner pop culture geek and give you a Top 10. In this case, it’s about one of my favorite subjects: The End of the World.

I know, I know. Some women like movies about boy meets girl, or Meg Ryan finding the man of her dreams, or men with various foreign accents. I have to be in precisely the right mood for those. Usually, I can be perfectly happy watching a story unfold filled with apocalyptic mayhem, nuclear bombs, the undead run amok…all that “happy” stuff. Why, precisely, I’m not sure (one of my earliest memories is about fantasizing to be Burgess Meredith’s character in that famous Twilight Zone episode, only not having my glasses break.) Postapocalyptic fiction appeals to me for several reasons: it cuts down on the number of people in the world, usually only the very smart or clever survive, and hell, it’s just Interesting with a capital I. It seems to be largely an invention of the 20th century (Gilgamesh, the Noah story, and the Gitas being notable exceptions.) Maybe because, in that most horrible of centuries, man found ways to poison, kill, maim, and wound in new and exciting ways. It was only a matter of time before the world got completely fooked up and out of control, wasn’t it?

I may have to do one of these lists for post-apoc literature as well, because as we all know, the book is ALWAYS better than the movie. And there are so many post-apoc novels that haven’t been messed up by Hollywood (The Hunger Games, Z for Zachariah, Swan Song, The Forest of Hands and Teeth)…yet. Today, I’ll just stick to movies. In no particular order, I give you:

10. WALL-E (2008)

And this...is my BOOM STICK

 This one is not really an end-of-the-world movie as such…it only depicts a world in which the only living creature is a cockroach, and the only sentient being left is the title character, a tiny, determined trash compactor robot who’s been plugging away at his job for 800 years. This world IS over, though: humanity has fled earth, which is covered with centuries’ worth of garbage, for cruise liners in deep space.

I think of WALL-E as a sort of reverse version of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Humanity has de-volved to the point that they’re a bunch of flabby, motionless, brain-dead globs who float around on hover chairs and can’t even notice the beauty of the deep-space vistas. The machines have enslaved them without even trying, and only the machines have any part of humanity left in them. It’s up to Wall-E and his newfound love EVE, a probe droid, to bring the humans back to the destroyed Earth and see the error of their ways. Some didn’t like this offering from Pixar, thinking it too cerebral or dark, not a “children’s movie.” I loved it. (From an Aspie’s point of view, it was refreshing seeing a robot’s perspective on love, loss, and freedom.) And yes, if you can get through it, it DOES have a happy ending.

9. The Day After (1983)

I didn’t watch this one when it first came out, as I was too young. But boy, did it touch a nerve! Made in the latter days of the Red Scare, it was a visual representation of my worst fears: that the Soviets were going to blow up the world with their nukes. More real than War Games or any other contemporary, and it was a TV movie! If they ever did a film version of Alas, Babylon or Swan Song, I hope it might be something like this.

8. The Last Man On Earth (1964)/The Omega Man (1971)/I Am Legend (2007)

Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore

Can’t really separate these three; all are based upon the same source material (the wonderful Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend). All are distinctly different approaches to the same basic story: a virus causes everyone in the world except one man to mutate into savage, bloodthirsty vampire/zombie/undead critters (I wonder how the recent novel The Passage escaped the plagiarism test.) Each is a product of its time: the 60s version is an Italian-made pulpy B-movie starring Vincent Price, the 1971 version stars Charlton Heston and reflects the weariness of American in Vietnam, and the 2007 Will Smith version is a metaphor for the War On Terror/mailed anthrax era.

Matheson is often described as one of the first modern masters of American horror. But, like the best “science fiction” writers (Bradbury, Asimov, Burroughs), Matheson’s novel is really about the human condition. It’s about painful loneliness and alienation, and the attempt to break that cycle. In fact, I was moved to tears by the scene in the 2007 version in which Smith goes to his local Blockbuster, empty and deserted, and engages in conversations with cutout standees. If I were the last person on earth, would I not do the same thing?

7. The Stand (1994)

My life for you!

I’ll admit, this IS my favorite post-apoc novel, and arguably one of the top 3 of all time. I read it at least once a year or so. When you think of the genre, you automatically think of this one.  So what is it with Stephen King novels/stories being turned into films? Guess it’s just too hard to appropriately get the imagery from the page to the screen. This one gamely tries, and largely succeeds. It’s got a huge ensemble cast of familiar faces and some beautiful scenery. And it’s a miniseries…8 hours for an epic novel; fair enough.

It has its flaws (the cheesy special effects being way up there.) But these are the characters as I envisioned them. Gary “Lt. Dan” Sinise as Stu, the My Favorite Martian guy whose name I can never remember as Glen, Patrick Star as Tom Cullen, and Matt Frewer (NOT to be mistaken for Howlin’ Mad Murdock) as Trashcan Man. It’s also overacted in spots, but hey, it’s the end of the world, right?

6. 12 Monkeys (1995)

Why won't Angelina stop adoption these kids, man?

This is the only movie featuring Brad Pitt I’ve ever really, really liked.

It’s like a kaleidocope…every time I see it, I see something new. The plot (like Terry Gilliam’s other films) is somewhat hard to explain, but involves Bruce Willis as a prisoner of the future volunteering to go back in time to save humanity from a plague in the past. It defies genre. Partly science fiction, partly a black comedy, partly a time-travel movie…and yet none of the above. Pitt plays a paranoid schizophrenic. No wonder I enjoyed it so much.

Not for everyone, but well worth watching. One of those rare movies that actually makes you stop and think.

5. Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Also not to be confused with H.M. Murdock

OK, I like my post-apoc movies with a little bit of comedy.

This one is arguably the blackest of black comedies ever made: a series of events leading up to a full nuclear strike on the Soviet Union by the U.S. All because a crazy general was worried about the Russkies contaminating his “precious bodily fluids” with fluoride in the water. You get Peter Sellers in three roles, George C. Scott as a blustering general, and Slim Pickens as the gung-ho Texas pilot of the B-52 carrying the Bomb. All the while, a dark look at U.S.-Soviet relations with some hilarious lines.

Not to spoil the ending, either, but there’s some really nice stock footage used. And those days are long behind us now…or are they really?

4. Dawn of the Dead (1968)/Zombieland (2009)

Zombies ALWAYS know when there's a sale

Again, I have to group a couple titles together, as one is distinctly the ancestor of the other. Dawn of the Dead along with its contemporary Night of the Living Dead are the godparents of the modern undead movie. As with many zombie flicks, it’s not really explained WHY people became zombies, it just sort of happened. Just like we don’t necessarily ask WHY people drag themselves out of bed at 3 AM every Black Friday to get a laptop for $199, it just sort of…happens. (Note the similarities in the grunting, moaning, and hunger for fresh brains in the two groups.)

Both movies genuinely frightened me. Still do. The concept of a large group, brainless and motivated by one thing alone, relentless and undying in their thirst. I mean, it’s a bit like Jehovah’s Witnesses, if you think about it.

Zombieland, on the other hand, did not scare me, but made me literally laugh until I cried. One of the sleeper hits of 2009 (along with my current fave District 9), it’s a bloody caper about a small group of survivors against an overwhelming tide of the living dead. The end of the world was never so funny. And remember…always double tap.

3. The Matrix (1999)

Why the hell are we fighting in the Louvre, guys?

Perfect example of a movie whose original vision was great, and then got dragged down by two needless sequels. The first Matrix remains a favorite of mine, not just because it started an entire wave of bad imitators, but because it defined a generation.

This might be the only movie on the list whose characters, with the exception of a few, don’t even realize it’s the end of the world. They are asleep in permanent comas, enslaved to a world that has been taken over by artificial intelligence. They have no idea. In fact, even those who are “awake” have no idea what year it is. They’re too busy trying to stay alive from evil droids that want them dead.

Does this sound like World of Warcraft to anyone else?

2. Independence Day (1996)

Throw cat food at them; maybe they'll go away!

This is the guilty pleasure on the list. If this movie is on TV, I have to stop whatever I’m doing and watch about 10 minutes of it. You may be asking yourself why the hell I would put this unabashedly cheesy film on this list.

The apoc films usually fall into one of several categories: either a virus runs rampant and kills nearly everyone, or the world gets blown up with a hail of nuclear weapons, or it’s an act of God like flooding or global warming…or in this case, the Evil Aliens Who Want To Kill Everyone.

Yes, the world very nearly does end and lots of Shit Gets Blown Up (the hallmark of any Emmerich movie; he’s probably blown up more miniatures than a 3-year-old pyromaniac gone wild). But it’s a lot of fun too look at, and in between nerdy Jeff Goldblum and square-jawed Bill Pullman (Lone Staarrrrrr!) and cocky young Will Smith, in the end the alien menace is defeated by none other than a crazed, Vietnam vet paranoid lunatic in a red bi-plane who again, I regret to say, is NOT named H.M. Murdock.

But he could have been. And oh, yeah, the aliens apparently flew a million parsecs but forgot to install Norton Plus on their mainframe. Somebody explain that one to me.

1. A Boy And His Dog (1975)

All but defies description…this quirky little gem deserves viewing. If you imagine that Will Smith could telepathically communicate with his German shepherd in I Am Legend, that’s sort of it. Throw in a measure of the old “Daisy Girl” anti-nuclear ad somewhere in there too.

Honorable Mention: The Road (2009)

I literally just watched this film, and like all of Cormac McCarthy’s work, it’s dark and darker. Pretty much the entire film, with the exception of the flashback sequences, is shot in shades of grey. Starvation? Check. Flat, dead wide shots? Check. Bloody cannibalism? Check. Very grim, very poignant all the way. I think time may put it in my top 10 list. I won’t be watching it again any time soon just because of its intensity. It would be like drinking aged whiskey two nights in a row.

Questions? Comments? Got your own end of the world faves? Let me know at wikusandmurdock@yahoo.com!

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on September 1, 2010.

One Response to “It’s The End Of the World As I Know It…”

  1. An interesting and entertaining list with at least one of my own favorites on it, DR. STRANGELOVE. I haven’t read THE PASSAGE but I’ve seen innumerable references to that and I AM LEGEND in the same breath, so I’m guessing that where there’s smoke, there’s (apocalyptic) fire. Glad to see you included the film versions of LEGEND as a group. Each has its strengths and weaknesses in addition to being, as you correctly pointed out, a product of its time. Ditto NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which was of course inspired by the same novel. For further information, see my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN (http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-4216-4), tentatively due out in early October.

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