Category Archives: Post-apocalypse

Blu-ray reissue: Five (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 17, 2021)

Five (Imprint Films; region-free)

Writer-director Arch Oboler’s 1951 film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as “seminal” Cold War era nuclear survivor dramas like On the Beach, Panic in the Year Zero, or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil-but it predates them all by at least a decade. Despite its low budget, no-name cast and relative obscurity, Five is Oboler’s magnum opus (especially compared to the rest of his oeuvre, which is largely comprised of psychotronic fare like Bwana Devil, The Twonky, and The Bubble).

The setup is familiar; a handful of survivors from disparate sociopolitical and ethnic backgrounds find each other after a nuclear holocaust. They end up living together in an abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house on a California mountaintop. It doesn’t take long for the joy of newfound camaraderie and spirit of egalitarianism to wane, as the story becomes a cautionary parable a la Animal Farm.

When I re-watched the film recently, I was surprised at how relevant certain elements are to our current political climate (particularly when one survivor outs himself as a fascistic white supremacist-which begs comparisons to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat). Oboler’s choice of exterior locales is imaginative (e.g., a haunting scene that features characters wandering through a devastated cityscape is quite effective and belies the modest $75,000 budget).

Image and sound on the Imprint Films Blu-ray displays a marked improvement over the Sony Pictures DVD. The new commentary track with film critic Glenn Erickson and Oboler expert Matthew Rovner is packed with insightful observations and fascinating trivia about the making of the film. There is also an engaging 25-minute video essay by journalist and film critic Kim Newman, who sheds light on Oboler’s earlier career producing radio dramas in the 1940s. A must-have for the “post-apocalyptic” completist.

Blu-ray reissue: 12 Monkeys ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

12 Monkeys – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of the human race. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he what the psychiatrist is telling him-a delusional schizophrenic actually living in 1996? There are many more surprises up Gilliam’s sleeve here.

Arrow Films’ 4K restoration is a marked improvement over Universal’s previous Blu-ray; picture and audio quality are outstanding. The commentary track (by Gilliam and Charles Roven) and an 87-minute documentary (The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys) have been ported over from the Universal edition, but Arrow adds several new features-including a video appreciation by Ian Christie and an image gallery.

Blu-ray reissue: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [TV series] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [TV series] – BBC Blu-ray

I’m not sure if it’s possible to “wear out” a DVD, but I’ve probably come closest to doing so with my copy of the original BBC-TV version of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy cult classic.

In a nutshell, the Earth is obliterated to make way for a hyperspace bypass by a Vogon construction fleet (as the result of bureaucratic oversight the requisite public notice was posted in a basement-on a different planet). One member of humanity survives-Arthur Dent, a neurotic Englishman who “hitches” a ride on a Vogon vessel just before the Earth-shattering “ka-boom”, thanks to his friend Ford Prefect, whom Arthur never suspected was an alien doing field research for the eponymous “guide”. Zany interstellar misadventures ensue, with a quest to find the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.

While the 2005 theatrical remake was a hoot, it lacked the endearing cheesiness of the 1981 series. As it was originally shot on video and 16mm, the very idea of a “restored” Blu-ray edition is a bit silly, really…but it actually is an upgrade, particularly in audio quality (it’s mostly about the wonderfully cheeky dialog anyway). And with 5½ hours of extras, Adams geeks will be in 7th heaven (or at least somewhere near Alpha Centauri!).

See me, feel me: Perfect Sense ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 18, 2012)

David Mackenzie’s post-apocalyptic drama, Perfect Sense  tackles the age-old question: Can a chef and an epidemiologist find meaningful, lasting love in the wake of a pandemic that is insidiously and systematically robbing every human on Earth of their five senses? I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of all of the sleepless nights I’ve had contemplating that scenario…or is it just me?

Alright, fellow hypochondriacs, listen up. According to screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson, it starts like this: A spontaneous onset  of melancholia and despair, followed by uncontrollable weeping; after which you realize that (sniff, sniff) you have lost your sense of smell. Then, days (maybe weeks, maybe months) later, a spontaneous onset of fear and paranoia, turning into the worst panic attack imaginable. This is immediately followed by an insatiably ravenous hunger; you grab anything that’s handy and looks edible (from lipstick to pet rabbits) and stuff it in your mouth. Then, you realize you have lost your sense of taste. Then…well, you get the idea.

It appears that Patient Zero resides somewhere in Scotland. That’s what brings an epidemiologist (Eva Green) to a Glasgow lab to help analyze the data as more cases pop up. Fate and circumstance conspire to place her and a local chef (Ewan McGregor) together on the particular evening where they both suffer the initial emotional breakdown that signals the onset of the disease. As they have “taken leave” of their senses in tandem, they begin, naturally, to fall in love (there is lots of room for metaphor in this narrative).

Since this is a malady with a relatively leisurely incubation, people do have a certain (if indeterminate) amount of time to adjust to each progressive sensory deficit. Also (if you can make it over the hump of that suicidal despair part), it isn’t necessarily what one would call a “death sentence”. That’s what makes this film unique in an already overcrowded genre. While there’s still an understandable sense of urgency to find a cure, the question is not so much “can the human race be saved?” but rather “can the human race make lemonade out of this lemon?” I suppose your chances for survival would hinge on how you answer the old “half-empty or half-full” conundrum.

As far as any “takeaway” goes, there are likely to be as many interpretations as there are viewers of this film. I mean that in the most positive way; that’s the beauty of it. The director and the screenwriter do an admirable job of suggesting possible philosophical and sociopolitical reverberations that could result from such a scenario, without getting too heavy-handed. The film is strikingly photographed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens.

Most central to the film’s appeal, however, are McGregor and Green, who deliver performances that are at once broodingly intense and deeply compassionate. There’s great supporting work as well, particularly from Denis Lawson and McGregor’s  Trainspotting alum Ewen Bremner (retaining his crown as the most unintelligible Scot in the history of sound films). See it, while all your senses are intact.

Life after people: The Road **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2009)

Sadly, this is pretty close to how I envision my retirement.

You know what they say-“Misery loves company”. The dark shadow of apocalyptic doom looming over every other Hollywood release recently would seem to bear this out. “Hey, half my friends and relatives might be out of work, no one can afford health coverage, food bank cupboards are bare and we may be headed into a Hundred Year’s War in Afghanistan…but at least I’m not as bad off as that poor random bastard getting swallowed up by a huge molten crack in the earth on the screen-woo hoo!”

And now The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel) has trudged into theaters, close on the heels of 9 and 2012. This one makes the latter two films look like a carefree romp in the fields.

Unlike 2012, which is the equivalent of disaster movie porn (utilizing just enough perfunctory bits of narrative to justify stringing together all the “money shots” involving volcanic eruptions, violent temblors, tidal surges and other assorted earth-shattering ka-booms), The Road is more concerned with the post-coital conversation, as it were. The earth moved, a few of us survived…now what? How do we live? How do we eat? How do we get from “A” to “B”? How do we treat each other? Will civilization eventually rise from the ashes and right itself, or is it back to flint arrows and re-discovering the wheel?

The nature of the World Changing Event that put them in their predicament is not quite specified, but the latter film’s two protagonists, notated in the credits simply as Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kody Smit-McPhee) are wandering about in a cold, ashen environment resembling a nuclear winter. Curiously, we see stands of brush or trees spontaneously combusting on occasion, although there is no obvious scientific explanation offered or inferred as to the cause.

This is not a post-apocalyptic milieu a la Beyond Thunderdome, with relatively well-scrubbed characters sporting pearly whites, fashionable post-punk wardrobes and colorful personalities. The people in this hard scrabble landscape actually look like people would look without access to a hot shower, a bar of soap, toothpaste or a change of clothes for months (possibly years) at a time. We are talking grime. Serious grime. Let’s not even discuss the teeth (dental hygienists are warned: The Road will give you nightmares).

Nearly everybody appears malnourished, as well. It’s survival of the fittest, but hardly anyone is fit. Have I mentioned that this is a pretty bleak and depressing scenario? The story (such as it is) is pretty simple, really. The Man and the Boy are slowly, painfully making tracks to the coast, where they hope that the environment is more palatable (one would assume; the reasons are not made quite clear).

Along the way, they scrounge for food and shelter, ever on the lookout for roving bands of post-apocalyptic highwaymen, who would just as soon blow you away first and then search your corpse for whatever meager provisions you might have squirreled away in your clothing. The pair’s desperate walkabout becomes progressively more nightmarish; they barely escape the clutches of a motley crew not unlike the mountain men in Deliverance, only to then run into the family from The Hills Have Eyes.

The only respite from the relentlessly grim proceedings is provided by sporadic flashbacks in the form of the Man’s uneasy dreams about his long-dead wife (Charlize Theron)-although those memories are not necessarily all pleasant ones, either.

I have not read the book; I will take the word of my friend who I saw it with that it is a pretty faithful adaptation (by Joe Penhall). Perhaps it is too faithful, as the film is a somewhat static and stagy affair. Director John Hillcoat (who helmed the 2005 sleeper The Proposition, which I really liked) sustains a dark and foreboding atmosphere; thanks to  DP Javier Aguirresarobe (quite a contrast to his sunny photography for Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Still, something was missing for me, although it is tough to pinpoint. It certainly was not the fault of the cast. Mortensen and Theron are always interesting to watch, and I thought young Smit-McPhee was very good. Robert Duvall is barely recognizable for most of his brief appearance, and if you blink you’ll miss Guy Pearce’s cameo (everyone’s well-disguised by those stunt teeth). I wasn’t bored, but I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, either. This may not be the road you want to take. Then again, misery loves…oh, never mind.

Fissure & sun: 2012 **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2009)

Prime beachfront property! Low, low prices! Going fast!

Day after day, more people come to L.A.

Ssh! Don’t you tell anybody-the whole place is slipping away.

Where can we go-when there’s no San Francisco?

Ssh! Better get ready to tie up the boat in Idaho.

from Day After Day (It’s Slippin’ Away) by Shango

Depending on who you talk to, the numbers 12/21/12 signify either a) The Day the Earth Gets Hosed, or b) A day in 2012 that will be preceded by December 20th and immediately followed by December 22nd, in the course of which we will all go about our daily business as per usual. According to 2012 director Roland Emmerich, when Winter Solstice, 2012 rolls around, we better get ready to not only tie up the boat in Idaho, but to hang ten in the Himalayas as well. It’s gonna be a doozy (best get your affairs in order).

Taking full advantage of all the ballyhoo surrounding the upcoming terminus of the ancient Mayan calendar, the Master of Disaster has once again assembled a critic-proof, populist spectacle, unencumbered by complex narrative or character development (then again, one doesn’t board a roller coaster for the express purpose of engaging one’s mind).

So…it’s been, gosh, what…at least 12,012 years since his last film (10,000 B.C.) Let’s see if we can catch up. For one thing, in the Future, loincloths and spears are no longer de rigueur. However, I have some good news, and some bad news.

Good News first? Humans are now much less likely to suffer getting crushed by mammoths and/or mauled by saber-toothed tigers, since both of those species are now extinct (yay!). The Bad News is, humans are now in imminent danger of becoming extinct themselves, because the sun is bombarding the planet with neutrinos, seriously compromising the stability of the Earth’s crust-or some kind of pseudo-scientific gobbledygook to that effect.

At any rate, any and all pending natural disasters you could envision are now likely to all come at once. And that can’t be good. An international consortium of scientists and world leaders are in the loop, but in compliance with Rules and Regulations Regarding Mandatory Plot Points for End of the World Movies (rev. 2007), it’s kept strictly off the record, on the Q.T., and very hush-hush.

After the obligatory prologue set in a remote corner of the world, where we are given an inkling that a global threat might be brewing and/or a cosmic mystery is afoot (a requisite since Close Encounters of the Third Kind) the scene shifts to the good ol’ USA, where the Concerned Preznit (Danny Glover) receives grim counsel and furrows his brow (just like Concerned Preznits Bill Pullman and Perry King did in Emmerich’s two previous end of the world epics, Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, respectively).

And no such doomsday narrative is quite complete without its rumpled Everyman protagonist, embodied here by John Cusack, divorced father of two who still sorta has a thing for his ex-wife (even though she’s now married to a smarmy yuppie), and who happens to have custody of the kids on the very weekend that the Apocalypse is scheduled for kickoff (see: Tom Cruise in The War of the Worlds). And guess where Dad is taking us all camping this weekend, kids? Why, Yellowstone Park…Ground Zero for the caldera of one of the largest super-volcanoes in the world (I don’t want to spoil anything for you…but I think Yogi and Boo-Boo are fucked).

What ensues is a mash-up of Dante’s Peak, The Poseidon Adventure and When Worlds Collide, peppered with every disaster movie cliché extant. The special effects are quite spectacular, and there is a pulse-pounding, show-stopping (if highly improbable) escape sequence early on (as L.A. experiences the mother of all earthquakes).

However, by the time the third, fourth, or fifth pulse-pounding, show-stopping, highly improbable escape sequence rolls around, with no substantive narrative sandwiched in to give you a breather in its two and a half hour running time, it becomes a case of mind-numbing overkill. Maybe a mystery angle involving the Mayan prophecies would have added something?

The cast slogs through as best they can, considering that most are relegated to cardboard caricatures taking a back seat to the CGI wizardry. Cusack has his moments, but you definitely get the sense that this is only a paycheck gig. Woody Harrelson briefly livens up things a bit, as a conspiracy nut talk show host (most likely modeled after Art Bell), but talented players like Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor are wasted.

If you enjoyed the director’s previous films, I suppose this one is no better or no worse; you will  want to see it no matter what critics say. If you are intrigued by the premise, but not about parting with your ten bucks, I’d say wait for the DVD. Or- just hold out until 12/21/12.

Who knows? It could be more entertaining than the film.

Zippy little number: 9 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 12, 2009)

A stitch in time saves…oh, never mind.

I haven’t been shy about relaying my general aversion to the Pixar school of animation. It leaves me cold; it doesn’t feel “lived in” and lacks the relative warmth of hand-drawn cel animation. It’s too…digital (I liken it to the “vinyl vs. CD” argument). Perhaps I have an innate fear of technology that I have yet to come to grips with.

How ironic that one of the first such animated films to catch my fancy is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale about a world where the warmth of the human imprint has been eradicated by cold, detached machines. That is the premise of 9, an imaginative variation on a well-worn genre, directed by Shane Acker and produced by Tim Burton.

The story centers on a diminutive, sentient, semi-organic laboratory creation named “9”, a cross between Frankenstein and Pinocchio who looks like a voodoo doll stitched together with recycled burlap and held intact by a handy zip-up front. He awakens one day on the floor of a lab, Rip van Winkle style, to a decimated, desolate and very strange world, alongside the scientist who created him (long dead).

As he wanders about getting his bearings, it becomes apparent  the machines have “taken over”. Very nasty machines, like a frightful predatory contraption resembling a T. Rex that might be constructed in a fever dream by a demented Erector Set enthusiast. When a chance encounter throws “9” in with a tribe of similar beings who have also survived the apocalypse, a possibility arises that some spark of hope and humanity might still remain-somewhere.

The “fear of technology” theme has been a sci-fi film staple, from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, to The Terminator and beyond. In fact, while I was watching 9, I was thinking that if Fritz Lang were alive today and were to work with computer animation, he would probably cook something up that “looked” very similar to this film.

At times I was also reminded of the otherworldly films by the Brothers Quay (Street of Crocodiles), all set to a moody soundtrack by Danny Elfman. The film is so wonderfully atmospheric and visually stunning that I was willing to overlook its (inevitable?) disintegration into loud, repetitive action sequences and an abrupt denouement.

I’d be curious to know if the director (who created the original story from which Pamela Pettler adapted her screenplay) was inspired by The Lord of the Rings. His film is, after all about a “fellowship” of nine who set about  on a quest to save their world from the dark forces which are bent on destroying it (and the fact that our little Frodo-like animated hero is voiced by Elijah Wood adds fuel to that fire). Other familiar voices: Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, and the ever-loopy Crispin Glover.

So what’s with all the “nines” at the box office? Numerologists must be having a field day with the convergence of District 9, Acker’s 9, and the imminent Nine (the film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on Fellini’s 8½). Hmm…maybe the machines should take over soon. It might be time to hit the “reset” button for Hollywood.