On the Beach (1959) Most post-apocalyptic films provide some glimmer of hope, however slight. Director Stanley Kramer gives the audience no quarter with this grim, star-studded depiction of a no-win situation following a nuclear war. Minus some dubious Australian accents, it’s a solid adaptation (working from a screenplay by John Paxton) of Nevil Shute’s novel. Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck) and his crew of the U.S.S. Sawfish survived the deadly exchange between superpowers, which obliterated most of the world’s population. He heads for Australia, which has avoided initial cataclysm, but is due to receive a deadly radioactive cloud within months.
On The Beach captures the final, desperate moments of Towers and other survivors. Towers grapples with denial over the death of his family in the States, while enjoying a brief, tentative romance with Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). Fred Astaire portrays a scientist with a fatalistic streak, preparing his renovated Ferrari for one last race. The saddest story is Anthony Perkins as a young Australian officer with a new wife (Donna Anderson) and baby, pondering the best time to end it all before they succumb to the ravages of radiation sickness. An overwhelming atmosphere of dread runs throughout the film, chronicling the last gasp of a doomed civilization. This emotionally devastating film is essential viewing, although I’d wager it’s not something most of us would care to re-visit.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) Director Colm McCarthy’s engrossing film, with a screenplay by Mike Carey (adapted from his novel), ranks among the best zombie films of recent memory. While it has the requisite gory flesh-eating zombie action, it takes a backseat to thoughtful exploration of the ethics of vivisection for the greater good. Melanie (Sennia Nannua), a very special teenage girl, might hold the key to humanity’s salvation. She, along with her peers, are held under lock and key as experimental subjects. Her dedicated teacher (Gemma Arterton) stands in the way of an idealistic medical researcher (Glenn Close) who claims to have the cure (at the expense of Melanie’s life). Nannua’s excellent performance as a young person caught between the human and zombie worlds is the heart and conscience of the film. The Girl with All the Gifts is the rarest of beasts: a tense, ambitious zombie holocaust film that appeals to both sides of the brain.
Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Le Dernier Combat (aka: The Last Battle) (1983) This stellar feature film debut from director/co-writer Luc Besson takes place several years after a war between unspecified countries. The main character (Pierre Jolivet) picks through the rubble, scavenging for anything that will keep him alive a little bit longer. He joins forces with a doctor (Jean Bouise), who’s created a fortified enclave within a hospital, thwarting the attacks of a brutish antagonist (Jean Reno). Besson’s film is virtually dialogue-free, complemented by stark black and white cinematography, which underscores the contrasts of this new, broken society. In this bleak, near-future scenario populated by profiteers and exploitation, there are only two options: survival or death. It’s a harsh world, with harsh choices, where wits might not be enough when battling the witless.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD
Young Ones (2014) Writer/director Jake Paltrow’s near-future film, set in the American southwest (filmed in South Africa) envisions a world not ruined by war, but by economic and ecological strife. Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is the alcoholic patriarch trying to support his family on his dusty farm, trading supplies to make ends meet. He shows the ropes to his sensitive son Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), while his daughter Mary (Elle Fanning) succumbs to the charms of her fast-talking, deceitful boyfriend Flem (Nicholas Hoult). Young Ones paints a portrait of the new west that resembles the old west, where frontier justice is the accepted paradigm. It’s a bleak view of a possible future, where vehicles run on alcohol and water is at a premium. Like a flower in the desert, however (perhaps best personified by Jerome), we’re reminded that love, persistence and ingenuity can still prevail.
Rating: ***. ½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Amazon Prime
Five (1951) In this grim, ahead-of-its-time film, written and directed by Arch Oboler, five survivors of a nuclear holocaust (each avoided the effects of the blast in unique circumstances: one was in a bank vault, one was atop Mount Everest, etc…) take up residence in a house nestled in the mountains (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). Tensions mount and tempers flare as four of the individuals try to do their best to cooperate and rebuild society. Their efforts are thwarted by the fifth survivor, Eric (James Anderson), a racist malcontent who attempts to sabotage their efforts to support his own selfish agenda. Oboler’s film doesn’t pull its punches in its depiction of the emotional and physical toll that would result from such a nightmarish situation (especially as portrayed by Susan Douglas Rubes as a young mother to be).
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime
Ever Since the World Ended (2001) Co-directors Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle present a future documentary, set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, 10 years after a plague wiped out most of the world’s population. The mockumentary, told mostly through talking head-style interviews, illustrates how the city’s population, reduced to 186 survivors, cope with their new reality, forming new alliances and developing a sense of renewed community. The film does a nice job of presenting a cross-section of different voices, although not enough is heard from the older residents, who lived most of their lives in a pre-plague world. We also hear very little about the people they lost or how they manage feelings of survivor’s guilt. It’s obvious that the film was made on an extremely tight budget, so the scope is necessarily narrow. Even if it can’t quite live up to its ambitions, it deserves praise for the attempt.
Rating: *** . Available on DVD
Quintet (1979) I’m not sure if I liked Quintet, but I respected its bold, singular concept. Director/co-writer Robert Altman’s experimental feature depicts a future ice age (filmed in Montreal, around the abandoned Expo 67 fairgrounds), where a life or death game has become the predominant pastime. Paul Newman stars as Essex, a seal hunter, who visits his brother in presumably the last city on Earth. All the residents partake in the game, called “Quintet” (devised by Altman). In a plot that parallels the game, it’s kill-or-be-killed, as Essex navigates his way through the city. It’s a near miss that suffers due to glacial pacing, a lack of relatable characters, and a future society that isn’t fleshed out nearly enough.
Rating: **½. Available on DVD