MUBI's series Apocalypse Now is showing February 29 – April 13, 2020 on MUBI in the United States.
In 1959, an interviewer asked a 70-year-old T.S. Eliot whether he would today write his prophecy from 1925’s “The Hollow Men”:
This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
He would not. The interviewer writes that “one reason is that while association of the H-bomb is irrelevant to it, it would today come to everyone’s mind. Another is that [Eliot] is not sure the world will end with either.”
Perhaps we’ll face doom with a sigh of relief. Decades of Hollywood sturm-und-drang offer the violent spectacle of our own demise, magnifying latent death wish into popcorn fare. But do we truly crave annihilation, or do we just want something, anything, to change? The more powerless we feel about altering institutions, the more studio-sanctioned societal destruction seems to blare back at us. Hollywood’s cataclysms are prescriptive, doom as a safety valve to maintain status quo. Fortunately, there are end-of-the-world films cutting closer to the bone, their human scale hitting harder than any CGI mega-tsunami wiping out a city. The Quiet Earth, Threads, and Last Man On Earth each have an outsize impact belying their small budgets, showing The End through absence, not onslaught—quiet apocalypses. To paraphrase Eliot properly, Threads shows us fear in a handful of Rice Krispies and ketchup (the film’s cut-rate, effective makeup for radiation burn victims).
Previous apocalypses came from without, the wrath of deities washing the earth clean or sending waves of plague. On July 16, 1945, the successful Trinity test kicked off our modern era of annihilation, offering a new, operational form of megadeath: instant, in fallible human hands instead of the unfathomable divine. We’ve been living in the shadow of atomic fear ever since.
No film better stages that dread than 1984’s Threads, lulling viewers with British kitchen-sink realism before following through with the same verisimilitude after society ends in a flash. When a countryside picnic results in pregnancy, young couple Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) decide to get married. Ruth’s middle-class parents worry Jimmy, a working class lad who loves bird-keeping, won’t be able to provide. Jimmy’s parents don’t want him cutting off his future with a forced marriage. Even as the background noise of Russian/U.S. tensions rises to feverish shriek—information more frightening for its flat delivery via teletype and narration—no one, including viewers, can imagine there won’t be a future. As director and producer Mick Jackson told The Guardian, “There are some things so far outside our experience or comprehension that they are unthinkable. Nuclear war is one.” A year earlier, Jackson filmed British science show Q.E.D.’s “A Guide To Armageddon,” dryly demonstrating the effects of a one-megaton bomb exploding over London. It laid bare the realities behind Britain’s Protect and Survive civil defense program, stripping away comforting illusions of control in the face of nuclear holocaust. Jackson brought the same rigor to Threads; with a shoestring budget of £250,000, it’s the film’s strength.
47 minutes in, an atomic attack on the city of Sheffield hits at ground-eye view. The scene of mass confusion and terror followed by unrelenting desolation reveal Hollywood’s heroic survival narratives for the lie they’ve always been. It’s a difficult movie to recommend—he BBC dubbed Threads’ first broadcast date “The Night the Country Didn’t Sleep.” But with the 2020 Doomsday Clock closer to global catastrophe now than at the height of the Cold War, it’s a necessary viewing, one that asks the hard question most disaster films skirt: if this is the reality of survival, would you want to live through the cataclysm?
The Last Man on Earth’s Dr. Robert Morgan doesn’t give himself a choice, spending duty-bound days killing in a dead world, wallowing nights away lost in memory as humanity’s diseased remnants claw at his door. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has been adapted for screen a number of times, but this 1964 picture is the first and most faithful version. Despite Matheson penning the script, he was dissatisfied enough with the final result (rewritten for a lower budget at AIP), to use a pseudonymous credit. Part of his beef was believing Vincent Price miscast as Morgan, lone human survivor of a worldwide plague. But the film’s actual flaws—it’s an unevenly paced, low-budget Italo co-production lacking strong direction—are allayed by Price’s performance. Who else could enunciate with equal relish and ennui sharpened stakes being “just wide enough to keep the flesh apart”?
Price thought the film was fine, but said the story “should be done as a great spectacular, just buy a city and empty it out.” 2007’s $150 million variant I Am Legend did exactly that with New York, creating a film empty as the city and twisting the ending so the scientist’s “legend” is a martyred hero to a surviving humanity. The Last Man on Earth offers a portrait of desperate human loneliness soothed by institutional obeisance. “Another day to live through,” Morgan sighs. “Better get started.” Morgan’s long given up seeking a cure—there’s no one to use it on. Staking plague victims could be bitter penance for failing to find a scientific solution in time, but it’s also the closest thing Morgan has to human contact. It’s as if, believing himself the last remnant of society, it’s on him to maintain its beadledom.
The Quiet Earth sprung from sentiments similar to Threads. Its 1985 release came between New Zealand’s 1984 barring of nuclear ships, and 1987’s Nuclear Free Zone Disarmament and Arms Control Act, outright declaring the country nuclear-free. Bruno Lawrence plays Zac Hobson, another scientist, who quit secretive “Project Flashlight” after realizing his work was part of a larger, dubious plan. Hobson’s misgivings were once thoughts troubling J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer assuaged his pacifism with tenets from the Bhagavad Gita, a tale of a reluctant soldier convinced to live his dharma and fight by an avatar of Vishnu (whose reveal as a god gave Oppenheimer’s apocryphal reaction to the first bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”) When fellow Trinity physicist Edward Teller tried circulating an anti-bombing petition for President Truman, Oppenheimer stopped him, saying “our fate was in the hands of the best, most conscientious men of our nation. And they had information which we did not possess.”
Oppenheimer’s submission to scientist dharma and the will of government superiors mirrors Morgan’s dutiful disease research. “You’re the only one who wasn’t afraid to come here today,” says lead scientist Mercer, assuring Morgan, “Mankind won’t be destroyed. The fact that you and I are working today is evidence of that.” Yet that evening Morgan sees his daughter’s body taken away, his wife dying shortly after. As Vishnu said, the duty is devotion, not concern over life and death. When Morgan veers from protocol, burying instead of burning his wife, she returns, confronting him with the full horror of his own scientific failures.
Hobson rebels, believing withheld information isn’t part of karmic order, but a disturbing sign of scientific ethics hijacked by corporate greed. Unable to reconcile his role he abjures, setting himself up as the last man in doing so. Hobson’s isolation is worse than Morgan’s—like a neutron bomb decimating flesh but sparing real estate, there’s no corporeal trace of humanity left. The absence drives him first suicidal, then megalomaniacal, to the point of booting God for poor performance and taking his place. All three films are irreligious, but in The Quiet Earth Hobson’s actively furious, storming into church with a shotgun to re-martyr and knock Jesus off the cross, wearing tattered remains of the closest thing to another human.
When bright coquette Joanne appears, Hobson’s overjoyed, but with tempestuous Maori Api’s arrival, three’s a crowd even in an empty world. Hobson’s jealousy is brief—scientific curiosity takes over as he realizes his work’s destabilized reality. Their triangle, fraught with social and racial implications, is ultimately resolved through sacrifice, but clearly would have been through acceptance—like Threads’ Jimmy and Ruth, The Quiet Earth’s trio aren’t heroes or types, just human.
Mankind persists in one form or another through each film’s apocalypse; it’s this culpable civilization that dies. Whether emerging from its corpse we enter a new era strange (The Last Man on Earth) or horrifying (Threads), or even an entirely new realm (The Quiet Earth), remains to be seen.
Those who have crossed With direct eyes, to death's other kingdom Remember us - if at all - not as lost Violent souls, but only As the hollow men