End of the World-Last Man on Earth dramas
As part of TCM’s Martin Luther King Day marathon in 2008, the channel showed The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), one of the earliest of so many "last man on earth" sci-fi dramas that have been produced for the big screen or as "movies of the week" for television over the years. The first one that I can remember seeing was The Omega Man (1971), featuring Charlton Heston (in the title role) as Robert Neville, and in December, 2007 I saw Will Smith play this Richard Matheson character in I Am Legend (2007); both follow Vincent Price in the original adaptation (The Last Man on Earth (1964)). There’s something innately fascinating about the concept of being the last person alive on an empty planet earth, which is probably the reason that writers and film-makers keep revisiting the topic.
Of course, "end of the world as we know it" or "beginning of the end of civilization" themes have been popular entertainment since Orson Welles’ hour-long Halloween War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938. World War II and the advent of the nuclear age added reality to the equation and postwar audiences’ fears were exploited by Hollywood in the 1950's with an explosion of films which spawned the science fiction genre. These sci-fi (primarily) B-movies not only included a plethora of Martian-based plots or visits from otherworldly aliens, but also featured an entirely new set of "monsters": mutations wrought from our own atomic activities, like oversized insects! The Cold War’s MAD (mutually assured destruction) standoff between the United States and Russia beget higher budget productions with more serious (or blackly humorous) examinations of the then thought inevitable apocalypse. Over time, many of these movies devolved into less cerebral disaster flicks featuring expensive computer generated imagery (CGI). Directors have been seduced by this technology with limitless possibilities - there seems to be something irresistible about blowing up or otherwise destroying well known buildings and institutions, like in Will Smith’s first blockbuster Independence Day (1996). Even Steven Spielberg, no stranger to the genre when he chose to direct The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) sequel as his first film after finally winning Academy Awards for Schindler’s List (1993) admitted that he couldn’t resist adding the "dinosaur reeks havoc in San Diego" scenes to the end of Michael Crichton’s novel. More recently, the director revisited CGI-enabled civic destruction in his War of the Worlds (2005) remake, and the post 9/11 exploitation continues: if you haven’t seen the latest New York City landmark decapitation in Cloverfield (2008), then you probably couldn’t escape its trailer in theaters or on television. Personally, I prefer the ways that Alfred Hitchcock utilized our national monuments (the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur (1942), Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest (1959)) in his thrillers.
But none of these other sci-fi disaster films have captured my imagination as much as the post civilization stories found in the "last man on earth" dramas. The circumstances by which the character ends up being (or at least thinking that they’re) the last one on the planet are varied: nuclear, biological, pick your favorite WMD. Though at the time I wrote this essay, I had yet to see The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), I'd watched the trailer in TCM’s media room and read the associated article. Put simply, the channel’s schedule summarizes: "A black man (Harry Belafonte), a white woman (Inger Stevens) and a racist (Mel Ferrer) are the only people left alive after a nuclear disaster." The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was one of only a handful of films directed by the Oscar nominated writer Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce (1945)). From the trailer, one sees the requisite images and elements: empty NYC streets with newspaper and other litter being blown by wind across vast acres of deserted concrete landscape among canyons of skyscrapers - like tumbleweed in a Western ghost town, a vacant Times Square - always the money shot, even in non-apocalyptic thrillers like Vanilla Sky (2001), a lonely and frustrated (black) man shouts and then shoots his gun into the air hearing only echoes in return (a nearly identical scene is found in I Am Legend (2007)), and the survivor’s appreciation for the finer things, whether they be paintings stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, music, wine or even lines from Shrek (LOL!). It’s been too long since I last saw The Omega Man (1971) with Heston, who became one of the genre’s icons (nearly 30 years before Smith) by appearing in the original Planet of the Apes (1968) and its first sequel, so I won’t attempt a detailed comparison. I do recall that Heston’s Neville had to match wits with his "opponents", or at least their leader (Anthony Zerbe) was a thinking man, versus the ill-defined mutant zombies that Smith battles. Otherwise, I think that the latest version - which I just had to see as soon as it was released given my fascination with the concept presented by its predecessor - contains some compelling scenes that should entertain most moviegoers, particularly to those who haven’t read Matheson’s novel (or aren’t bothered the differences). However, to paraphrase part of Roger Ebert’s review, the more one thinks about the movie after the fact, the bigger the nonsensical plot holes become.
In any case, these movies make me wonder what I would do if I were (or thought I were) the last man alive after some manmade holocaust. Besides the usual - cursing at the culprits, searching for other people, and trying to find a ready supply of uncontaminated foodstuffs (how long do canned foods last anyway?) - I think that I’d try to figure out a way to travel, instead of staying in one place. One problem would/could be all the abandoned vehicles strewn along the roadways, if I was lucky enough to find a workable form of transportation (with a renewable energy source) for myself. Traveling increases the possibility of finding others (food, water, etc.), but there would be risks like running out of fuel (or ammo) and into mutants. The ability to fly a small plane would be a terrific skill to have, but doing so would be fraught with even greater hazards, and maintenance would be critical! I think that several of these issues were addressed in a made-for-TV movie I watched decades ago, not The Day After (1983) but Where Have All the People Gone (1974), which was remade as Night of the Comet (1984). Instead of a nuclear war, it was a solar flair or comet’s tail that caused most of the world’s population to disintegrate into powder - leaving only their clothes behind - right on the spot where they’d been exposed. Despite their flaws, these two latter movies - and the more recent Armageddon (1998) - hold a certain attraction when compared to the others that I’ve included in this article: they aren’t based on the tired guilt trip premise that man will be the cause of his own demise.
© 2008 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog