Planet Earth is no stranger to being destroyed by Planet Hollywood. We’ve been annihilated, or at least significantly dinged up, by icy hurricanes, comets, alien gourmands, San Andreas fault shifts from which even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can’t save us, and towering inferno-earthquake combos that felled our most beloved comedians. (It bears noting that a genre so heavily reliant on massive budgets and extensive CGI actually began with cheapo B-movies; what Roland Emmerich churns out now is a far cry from Roger Corman’s body of work.)
Do disaster films, ancient or modern, have any basis in reality? The question is boring, and irrelevant. The average American filmgoer does not shell out $13 to analyze the scientific merits of The Day After Tomorrow. We go to be entertained by our doom — to slacken our jaws at crumbling skyscrapers, to cheer as heroines sweep children away from danger, to feel the thrill of reaching safety from a flood or fire or zombie or alien.
In that spirit, I’ve divided the following films into two categories: practical advice for an apocalypse vs. frankly impractical and inadvisable behavior during an apocalypse. The sad news for humanity: There’s far more of the latter than there is of the former. The happy news: When Armageddon does come, it won’t be directed by Michael Bay.
‘On the Beach’ (1959)
An impressive pedigree kickstarts this post-nuclear holocaust film. Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer (Inherit the Wind, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and based on Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name, On the Beach stars Gregory Peck as Captain Dwight Towers, in charge of the only American submarine left after World War III. Nuclear fallout has extinguished life everywhere except Australia. Anthony Perkins plays Royal Australian Navy officer Peter Holmes, assigned to work with Peck, and the pair set out to investigate the damage, fully aware that clouds of radiation are blowing toward Australia and may kill everyone they know before their return. The film’s cast includes Ava Gardner as Moira, an alcoholic who shares a few moments of bliss with new boyfriend Peck, and Fred Astaire (!) as Osborne, a scientist who kills himself by revving a beloved racing car in his closed garage; the pacing is grim and methodical.
The characters of On the Beach use several methods that I would like to endorse in advance of the apocalypse: They fish, swim, throw parties, and conduct a Grand Prix in which many men (who have nothing to lose) die in gruesome accidents. The alternative is euthanasia: The government issues suicide pills, and the scene where Holmes’ wife Mary administers them to their baby daughter and herself is particularly heartbreaking. Captain Peck leaves Moira in order to commandeer his men back to the United States; they want to die at home.
Conclusions: Fishing, swimming, partying — good! Self-administered euthanasia — some people will probably want it!
Verdict: Most practical advice for the apocalypse.
When I was growing up in India in the 1990s, about a dozen American blockbusters played on loop on local television each month. One of them was the Tommy Lee Jones film Volcano, wherein oceans of lava descend on Los Angeles. Geologist Amy Barnes (Anne Heche) finds cracks in the ground that issue steam all over the city while toxic gases are killing passengers on the subway and lava bombs begin lobbing themselves out of the ground. Soon a volcano comes to life aboveground, spewing lava all the way down Wilshire Boulevard. Perhaps the filmmakers never sat in traffic on the aforementioned street — lava speeding down Wilshire would be a welcome change of pace, compared to rush-hour commutes. Jones is Mike Roark, head of the city’s office of emergency management who has the bright idea to demolish tall buildings in order to create a dam that will channel the lava to the Pacific Ocean. This being an American disaster film from the ’90s, the plan is successful! Roark is safely re-united with his daughter Kelly (Gaby Hoffman, of all people)! Dr. Barnes survives! Talk about creative destruction.
Conclusions: Unlike most disaster movies, Volcano focuses in part on a very real threat — one that Kathryn Schulz won a Pulitzer Prize this week for writing about: an earthquake. Read paragraphs 10–14 in Schultz’s piece for a bone-chilling lesson in just what’s going to happen. Then turn back to the screen and admire the makeshift civil engineering that created those glorious lava-sluices. Then, if you live on the West Coast, pack your bags and get the hell out.
Verdict: Practical from an engineering standpoint; scary for Californians.
‘A Boy and His Dog’ (1975)
Based on a novel by Harlan Ellison, the film follows Vic (Don Johnson), an 18-year-old orphan who has no sense of ethics or morals, and his telepathic dog Blood as they go about life in the hellscape that is the year 2024. In exchange for food, Blood studies scents on the path and locates women for Vic to rape. New (and ostensibly consenting?) sex partner Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton) lures Vic underground to a biosphere named Topeka. Blood angrily refuses to follow. The mise-en-scène of Topeka is like a nightmare from pre-World War II America. Everyone is sporting white make-up with painted rosy cheeks. Dead-eyed maidens, dressed in wedding gowns, are impregnated artificially via “electroejaculation.” Vic was initially delighted at his “stud” status, but realizes he won’t achieve physical pleasure. He escapes with Quilla June. Back outside, they find Blood near death. Quilla June pleads with Vic, saying she loves him, and that they should leave Blood to find shelter and food. She’s summarily roasted and eaten. The final scene features Blood calmly thanking Vic: “This is awfully kind of you.”
Conclusions: The film was lauded by critics upon its release, but I could barely sit through a single viewing. Compared to what follows, the nuclear holocaust in A Boy and His Dog is infinitely preferable.
Verdict: Frankly impractical, inadvisable, and outright disgusting behavior during and after the apocalypse.
‘Soylent Green’ (1973)
In the wake of the development and sale of an actual meal replacement substance called Soylent, I was only too delighted to re-watch this film, set in 2022. Charlton Heston plays a New York Police Department cop named Rob Thorn policing a city of 40 million people. Overpopulation and diminishing resources make it impossible to regularly obtain fresh food. Edward G. Robinson plays Sol Roth, a wise elderly man who helps Thorn solve crimes. (This was Robinson’s final performance, and a fine one.) Sol and Thorn’s investigation leads them to the company that manufactures Soylent Green, the substance that most people buy and consume to stay alive. Thorn comes across a scientific report commissioned by the Soylent Corporation and has it analyzed by the Exchange, a collective of scientists. Plankton, the primary ingredient in Soylent, has disappeared from overuse, and therefore can’t be a part of the product. Roth is euthanized at a facility called Home. (Robinson would die a mere 12 days after filming was completed.) After a desultory chase scene, during which Thorn watches corpses being ladled into machines at Soylent Corp., and after being shot by the company’s henchmen, he seeks shelter in a cathedral; when he is finally carried out of the cathedral, Thorn cries to his partner, Thatcher, the famous phrase: “Soylent Green is people! Tell everyone! Soylent Green is people!”
I am almost certain the current product isn’t made of humans.
Conclusions: Overpopulation and diminishing resources aren’t unrealistic doomsday scenarios. They plague communities around the world even now. But I don’t plan on subscribing to military-industrial cannibalism just because I want to live.
Verdict: Frankly impractical, inadvisable, and outright disgusting behavior during and after the apocalypse, Roth’s suicide being the only exception.
‘Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)
The apocalypse is vastly more appealing when Peter Sellers is playing three primary roles, and Stanley Kubrick directs, and Terry Southern scripts the whole thing. This nuclear holocaust spoof-classic features some of Sellers’ best comic work, plus incredible cinematography (bless you, Gilbert Taylor). You could ask me to watch this film every week for the rest of my life and I’d relish the task. Sellers plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, who is ordered to place B-52 bases on alert; American President Merkin Muffley, who is routinely outraged that orders are issued without his approval; and, best of all, the mysterious Dr. Strangelove. The combination of American male testosterone, mad scientist dreams of glory, and military domination create a visually spectacular, albeit philosophically horrifying, portrait of Earth’s destruction. Strangelove does pause to recommend that Americans be sheltered underground, with a 10:1 female-to-male ratio for re-population purposes.
Conclusions: If disaster cinema is any indication, come doomsday, women will serve as sex-only objects (even more so than they are now!). I, for one, will be getting in line for the government-issued suicide pills before that happens.
Verdict: Frankly impractical, inadvisable, and outright disgusting behavior during and after the apocalypse. But beautifully written and really funny.
Armageddon Awareness Day is Pacific Standard’s special report for Earth Day 2016, in which we confront our fears about the apocalypse while celebrating those things that make our planet worthwhile.