All a movie tagline has to do is ask the Big Question: “Could this be the End of Mankind?” (or some variant thereof) and I’m there. I guess I’ve always had an apocalyptic mindset, and so have always been a sucker for anything that promised to show the collapse of civilization, the annihilation of the human species, or the end of the whole damn world.
In the same way, I’ve always been a sucker for sideshow banners promising “The Human Jellyfish! Alive on the Inside!” In cinematic terms the end of civilization has been promised via any number of means, from giant monsters and alien invasion to nuclear war, asteroids, and deadly viruses to environmental catastrophes and the technological nightmares of computers and robots run amok. The problem is, as with those sideshow banners, the promises rarely pay off. In the end human ingenuity (or what passes for it in Hollywood) always saves the day at the last minute and I leave the theater disappointed again. But still they keep promising, and still I keep buying my tickets.
The reason for all the thousands of End of the World pictures released since the silent era is simple: it’s a weird mix of human insecurity and arrogance. Our deep insecurity has us fearing that something really awful is always waiting next time we open the door. Scan through the newswires any random day and it’s amazing we’ve survived this long. The movies help us realize this on a grand scale, experiencing the worst possible scenario by proxy. But our complacent arrogance in our own abilities as a species allows us to take comfort in knowing the worst will be averted at the last minute by some clever joe with access to a hydroelectric dam or a flamethrower. What’s rarely mentioned is that it’s usually that same complacent arrogance that got us into that trouble in the first place.
I got a note from a friend the other day who was, in his own words, “upset and moody” over the imminent release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Like all thinking people, he takes his Apes films very seriously. Here’s how he explained it: “As you recall in Conquest, the apes simply rebelled and totally kicked our asses fair and square (well maybe they had some help from that chimp from the future). They are the superior race and we are hopeless. No stupid virus let them win, they owe it all to their superiority.”
That got me thinking. Yes, there have been a few films in which mankind has fought the good fight and lost, but they’re definite rarities. Hollywood is more than hesitant to release a film with a downbeat ending, especially one that seems to say the human race may not be the smartest, strongest, best-looking, most morally upright lot of bastards the universe has to offer. Even if you remove nuclear war from the mix of possibilities (that’s a subject for another story), a few bummers have snuck over the transom to hint we may not be as invincible as we’re cracked up to be, especially when we try to go head to head with the natural world around us. Here are a few notable (and less than notable) films in which mankind is roundly trounced, usually by something he foolishly considered a lower form of life.
The Birds (1963)
A decade before the arrival of the new environmental consciousness spawned a slew of “Nature in Revolt” films like Bug, Food of the Gods, and Rattlers, Hitchcok laid down the blueprint. Difference was, while at the end of most of the “Nature in Revolt” films of the ‘70s mankind finds a way to assert his superiority and put nature back in its place, Hitchcock offers no such comfort. No, the human race has not been wiped out or enslaved by titmouses, grackles, and ornery sparrows, but they’ve certainly shown us who’s boss. Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedron may drive away again presumably to resume their normal lives, but it’s not because they defeated or outsmarted the birds. The birds just took a break to catch their breath and stare ominously for a spell, and Hitchcok leaves us with little question that they’ll be finishing the job sometime soon.
Rats: Night of Terror (1984)
Bruno Mattei, the Italian auteur behind Hell of the Living Dead and never a director known for his imagination or creativity, brings us this hilariously derivative mix of sci-fi, post-nuke, and “Nature in Revolt” films. A group of people living in a house in the desert find themselves besieged by a horde of gerbils painted to look like fearsome rats. It may not sound very scary, and to be honest it’s not, but those gerbils just keep on coming, I tell you. When not tossing gerbils around, our protagonists (an international cast that includes Cindy Ledbetter, Johnny Franco and Fausto Lombardi) whisper about an underground civilization. Without giving too much away about what films Mattei is shamelessly and clumsily ripping off here, lets just say the end reveals that the film takes place in a world where human beings simply don’t matter anymore, and haven’t for some time.
The original poster art for what was one of the earliest of the ‘70s “Nature in Revolt” films featured a giant bullfrog with a limp human hand hanging from its mouth. Okay, just so you’re warned, there are no giant frogs in Frogs. At best they might be called “pretty big,” but the cheap deception (which sure worked on me) pissed off a lot of audience members at the time.
Taking another look now, it’s not nearly as bad a film as I recalled. It’s slow and deliberate and atmospheric (that sort of thing was allowed in horror movies once) and the payoff, though not as flashy and loud as the others that would follow, is still effective as it takes Hitchcock one step further. Ray Milland plays the same arrogant, crotchety rich old bastard he’d play throughout the decade. This time he’s an aging patriarch who lives on an estate on an island in the Louisiana bayou. Milland has gathered his extended family together for an annual week-long Fourth of July celebration, and tagging along is Sam Elliot as a serious, slow-talking environmental photojournalist.
As such an early entry in the “Nature in Revolt” genre, the film makes no bones about what it’s up to. The waters surrounding the island are heavily polluted after years of dumping pesticides and poisons in an effort to kill off any annoying wildlife, and the local fauna are getting large and uppity. Milland states flat out that he considers Man the dominant ruler of the planet, and everything on it is there for our use and entertainment. Since members of his family are annoyed by the constant croaking of the big bullfrogs (a sound that runs constantly on the soundtrack in an unnerving touch), he’s doing what he can to wipe them out. Elliot, noting how uppity the local reptiles are getting, asks him if he ever thought that maybe nature was starting to strike back at us for the mess we’ve caused.
So there you have it, and you can guess what happens. Although the story is localized to the creepy crawlies on that single island, the clear implication is that it’ll be happening everywhere before long, and all the poison in the world won’t be able to stop it.
Soylent Green (1973)
In Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! it’s not some tangible external threat like gerbils that has robbed man of his dominance over the planet and made life icky. Nope, it was his own plain old dumbness. By insisting on driving cars everywhere and breeding like bunnies, he’s scratched the ozone layer completely away.
Now the world is perpetually hot and sticky thanks to the greenhouse effect, nobody has anyplace to sleep thanks to grotesque overpopulation, and the food supply has run so low it’s led to daily riots. The plot’s irrelevant here. Background becomes foreground in Fleischer’s hazy green portrait of a species that fought itself and lost everything it once was, reducing itself to an animal state. When given no other options, chickens and rats will resort to cannibalism too.
Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
The summer of 1977 was a banner season for “Nature in Revolt” films. It also marked the end of the genre’s heyday as low budget directors shifted from marauding animals to space operas. Former stuntman Bud Cardos found his tarantula invasion picture running up against Bert Gordon’s Empire of the Ants and William Girdler’s Day of the Animals.
To its benefit in the scuffle, Kingdom of the Spiders was set apart by three things. First was a cast that included William Shatner and Woody Strode, who trump the stars of the other two (Joan Collins and christopher George) any day. Second, regular sized tarantulas are a helluva lot creepier than bobcats and giant ants. Then there was the ending. Although both Gordon’s and Girdler’s pictures offer closing shots that hint the story isn’t quite over yet, the big story is that man will always conquer nature in the end. In Kingdom of the Spiders, well, not so much.
Shatner is in fine form as a large animal vet (!) who discovers his small Southwestern town is smack in the path of a marching battalion of millions of migrating tarantulas. You’d think such a thing would be easy to stop, but apparently not, especially after they get a taste for cattle and people. Still, it seems fairly standard “Nature in Revolt” material (the same story had already been used in a couple killer bee, killer fish, and spider movies). Shatner tries everything at his disposal, poisons, gasoline, explosives, all to no avail as the audience sits patiently (maybe scratching themselves on occasion) waiting for him to save the day. Then you get to what remains one of the greatest final shots the genre had to offer. That’s all I’ll say except it makes it clear we don’t have a rat’s ass chance in hell.
Virus (aka Day of Resurrection) (1980)
I love Japanese disaster movies. When they set out to do their version of Irwin Allen, they pull out all the stops. First you get your all-star cast, which here includes Henry Silva, Chuck Connors, Glenn Ford, George Kennedy, Edward James Olmos, Sonny Chiba, Bo Svenson, Robert Vaughn, Bo Hopkins, I mean, do I even need to go on?
Then you get the disaster itself. Or I should say disasters.American disaster films of the ‘70s were always satisfied with just one disaster. An earthquake, a capsized boat, a high-rise fire, and that’s it. Set it up, let it go, and forty-five minutes in suddenly there’s nothing more to look forward to.
But Japanese filmmakers always cram in as many disasters as they can. Here, a plane crash releases a bioweapon that spreads around the globe and kills every last man, woman and child on the planet. Presidents, everyone. I mean it just wipes the planet CLEAN, save for a small handful of big name stars living in a research compound in Antarctica. But wait! There’s more! Throw in a rash of violent earthquakes and an unstable doomsday weapon, and you’ve got the makings of a hugely entertaining movie about how mankind’s stupidity and paranoia (and untrustworthy aircraft) will kill us all! Sure, George Kennedy and his bunch do some talking about rebuilding civilization, but you get the feeling they don’t believe it for a second.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (1978)
Before the studio got hold of it and insisted on a new opening and coda in an effort to soften the blow, Don Siegel’s original film about a quiet, insidious, almost undetectable alien invasion (interpret it however you damn well please) was a shockingly dark picture for the era, with a nihilistic ending that offered no salvation. Kevin McCarthy pounding on passing cars screaming “You’re next! You’re next!” still haunts me with its utter hopelessness.
Fortunately Philip Kaufman didn’t have any such trouble with the studio in the ‘70s when he set about making his sort-of sequel, sort-of reboot. By then I think events over the previous two decades had made it clear to everyone we were doomed and fucked and hopeless, so there was no need to sugarcoat anything. McCarthy, the last sane man, has moved up the coast to San Francisco, still trying to warn people who don’t want to listen. No matter I guess, given it was too late anyway. The pods had won. We’d more than lost the fight with the invaders, we were willing captives. Well, god bless him for trying I guess.
Phase IV (1974)
Ants have always made for the perfect threat to mankind. No matter how many cans of Raid you go through, there are always more ants waiting. There are zillions of them, they’re tiny, they’re enormously powerful for their size, and they’re a hell of a lot more organized than we are. Who knows WHAT they might pull? So it’s no surprise sinister ants have been creeping their way into literature and films for a very long time (the Naked Jungle, Them!, It Happened at Lakewood Manor, etc.). But no sinister ant film can compare with Saul Bass’ Phase IV.
When a colony of ants in the Arizona desert begin building enormous towers, carving elaborate geometric symbols in the sand, and according to the locals, “just acting weird,” two foolhardy entomologists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) set up a high-tech lab in a reinforced dome in the middle of the colony’s activities to see if they can get a handle on the what-for. The problem, though, is that these are superintelligent ants who can immunize themselves against insecticide, know just what wires to gnaw through once they get inside a computer, and don’t much appreciate these nosy new neighbors. What begins as a scientific investigation soon becomes a war, and the war takes a very strange and mystical turn. In the end let’s just say it’s made clear our new ant overlords only have the best in mind for us, but the best they have in mind involves a few basic adjustments.
Day of the Triffids (1963)
The same year Hitchcock released The Birds, Steve Sekely (and an uncredited Freddie Francis) took that film’s dark and menacing implications and shoved them over a cliff. It wasn’t a matter of wondering when nature would strike back and defeat us; we got to watch it happen right there on the screen without any final comfort that humankind would eventually prevail. No such luck. Burn up a dozen Triffids and the next day thousands return to take their place. In the end we lose and lose badly, and those few who survive will spend the rest of their lives running and hiding.
Of course calling the deadly and mobile flower monsters “nature” is pushing it a little, as we’re told they were created originally for the military, and the supposed meteor shower that blinds ninety-nine percent of the world’s population (making them easy targets for the killer plants) may well have been another military experiment gone wrong. And if that’s the case, well, then it’s just another example of the species screwing itself over big time as a result of unexamined paranoia and the aforementioned dumbness. Me, I’ve always had a deep and abiding fear of plants, and given how many plants there are in the world (and how many of them hate me) I have no problem ditching the conspiracy and simply saying well, one day they’ll kill us all.
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Let’s face it, we’re all slaves to our computers no matter what form they take. I am, you are, and chances are good your mom is, too. College kids are no longer aware there was even a world without cell phones and the internet. Walk down the street and five-sixths of the people you see are staring at a screen, anciously awaiting their next orders.
That’s why I’m either very surprised or not surprised at all (can’t decide, though I’m leaning toward the latter) more people haven’t latched onto Colossus, as hamfisted and cartoonish as it may have seemed forty-five years ago. Together with Demon Seed it’s the ultimate early expression of a justifiably suspicious attitude toward our ever-accelerating technological advances. We keep computerizing everything from our medical records to the power grid to the entire worldwide banking system, and one of these days it’s gonna bite us on the ass but good.
Shortly before his turn as the villain in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Eric Braeden played the brilliant but naive computer scientist Dr. Forbin, who creates the worlds largest, most powerful, and most impregnable artificial intelligence machine in the world for the US government. It’s purpose is to make completely rational decisions on questions of national security. Well, then, see, the damn thing starts thinking on its own (damn artificial intelligence!), recognizes how much power it has over these puny humans scurrying about, and decides to make the most of it.
Oh, things go downhill pretty fast as far as the human race is concerned, and there’s not a goddamn thing we can do about it, what with it being invulnerable and all. The HAL 9000 ain’t got nothing on Colossus. Going back and taking a look (as I do a couple times a year whenever my computer lets me) I’m amazed again at how very prescient a film it was.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
With a violent revolutionary climax inspired in part by the Watts riots, the fourth film in the original Apes series, as my friend pointed out above, is ultimately a movie about what nasty, self-satisfied, sniveling weaklings we are, and how we deserve a solid ass whipping from a bunch of jumpsuited gorillas. After all the beatings and electrocutions the humans dole out over the course of the film, how could we not expect a little resentment to build up? Or maybe we couldn’t, and that’s the problem. And when push comes to shove humans are revealed as helpless and pathetic and whiny, even with their guns and riot gear and tasers, against a wave of real anger armed only with the most basic of tools.
Even though the studio toned down Caesar’s final speech, shifting him from Eldridge Cleaver to Martin Luther King, the message is still the same: “it’s our planet now, and believe you me, we aren’t gonna be as shitty as you’ve been.” Funny to consider over the entire series, with only a few rare exceptions, humans are usually portrayed as creepy, shitty, and helpless. The one brief moment, Apes films-wise, when we are allowed a little taste of power, we blow it big time and get pounded to the pavement. Oh well. Guess we deserved it.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
In Plan Nine From Outer Space, one of the aliens asks, “It’s an interesting thing to consider the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened of those who cannot, the dead.” He’s got a point. The dead don’t shuffle very fast most of the time, they aren’t that handy with power tools, and they don’t get drunk and talk loudly in restaurants. Apart from that whole “flesh eating” business, the most terrifying thing about them is their exponentially expanding population, and the fast-shrinking population of thinking humans.
At the end of AIP’s The Last Man on Earth, Vincent Price finds an antidote to the virus that was turning the world’s population into the walking dead. Romero offered nothing of the sort. In fact not only does he not offer salvation at the end, he offers no explanation at the beginning save for a vague radio report that may or may not be accurate. Corpses simply stand up and start eating the living, is all, and most people aren’t marksman enough to slow their spread. Throughout the first three, maybe four of his Dead films, humanity really doesn’t (and can’t) put up much of a fight. We try for a bit maybe, then run and hide and bicker and hope they can’t find us. Interpret it in whatever political terms you care too, but the final nihilistic message is the same: as a species, boy oh boy are we useless.