By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 18, 2013 at 2:05PM
In this weekend's slick, sleekly-realized "Oblivion," Tom Cruise stars as a technician in charge of a decayed radioactive wasteland version of Earth. (Short version: moon was destroyed by alien somethings; shit got fucked up.) Sure, this is a post-apocalyptic vision (one soundtracked by a propulsive M83 score), but it also falls into the more niche category of the "last man on earth" sub-genre, one that will quickly get another entry in the form of Will Smith's "After Earth" (opening later this summer). In something of the spirit of the lone, lonely survivor who wants to collect around him his favorite things, we've foregone the apocalyptic event and started a small collection of our own -- our favorite "last man on earth" movies.
These are the films we chose, movies in which an individual (or a small group) faces off against the great unknown, usually following some kind of cataclysmic event. While the line between the straight-up post-apocalyptic movie and the "last man on earth" sub-genre can be hard to discern, these are the films we think walk the right side of that division, and are the ones we'd loot a deserted video store to search out, before driving off in our stolen Ferrari, to watch them in our empty silent penthouse apartment.
Having been adapted three times (not including 2007's DTV version), in three different eras, author Richard Matheson's story "I Am Legend" could be considered the Grandaddy, Daddy (and, um, cool elder brother?) of all "last man on earth" movies. Indeed the first screen version is actually called "The Last Man On Earth," filmed in 1964, starring Vincent Price, and it's a really quite terrific black-and-white B-movie from that era, that would be followed by the pretty-decent Charlton Heston-starrer "The Omega Man" in 1971, and then the promising but ultimately disappointing "I Am Legend" starring Will Smith in 2007.
They all share the bones of the story: a plague of some sort has wiped out most of humanity, and those it hasn't wiped out have turned into fearsome mutants -- all except one man, a scientist who alone has some sort of immunity to the disease. Having seen everyone he knows die (or having had to kill the mutants they turned into), the scientist roams the deserted city alone by day (the mutants can't abide sunshine), and hunts or hides by night, in a lonesome and monotonous existence until he discovers that not only may other people be alive and uninfected, he may have the key to a curative serum.
The films differ most notably in the portrayal of the mutants: Vincent Price battles what we have to call "zompires" combining elements of zombiedom (shuffling walk, rising from the dead, being kinda stupid and almost mute) with vampirism (aversion to mirrors, garlic, sunlight, need to be killed by a stake through the heart). Heston's foes, by contrast are, if not much faster, then certainly chattier, with the leader of "The Family" a much more sophisticated creature than just a ghoul, even staging a mock trial at one point. The weakest for our money are those in the Will Smith incarnation: they may be faster and more ferocious, but what should be truly terrifying about the creatures are the vestiges of humanity we can discern -- vestiges that big waxy CG thingies simply can't display.
But in each case, philosophical questions about the nature of humanity, fear of scientific progress, and the way that society evolves, are raised. And two times out of three, a dog dies. But whichever version you prefer, there's no denying the story plays in such a fertile arena that we may not have seen the last of it. We'd certainly be up for one more -- maybe a more impressionistic, Tarkovskian take?
"The Quiet Earth" (1985)
A bizarre 1985 New Zealand sci-fi movie directed by Geoff Murphy and based (however loosely) on an equally bizarre 1981 New Zealand sci-fi novel (by Craig Harrison), though bearing very strong similarities to 1959's "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (see below) "The Quiet Earth" investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth's population. Grizzled everyman Bruno Lawrence plays the last man on earth, who was at least partially responsible for whatever happened (thanks to his involvement in "Project Flashlight") and who now finds himself in existential disarray (in one of the best, most shocking scenes, he goes into a church and fires a gun at a crucifix). Wonky visual effects and occasional overwrought, overtly expressive camerawork sometimes undercut the intriguing premise, but like "Oblivion," it soon wisely introduces two more characters and then creates a love triangle. Also, like "Oblivion," it's not afraid to get weird – the reason why these three survived, partially given away in the film's trailer – is pretty nuts. "The Quiet Earth" isn't going to be remembered as a stone-cold classic but it is a pleasurably ambiguous, often confrontationally philosophical sci-fi bobble that has rightfully collected a fair amount of cult recognition. Although wholly unrelated, it's worth noting that director Geoff Murphy would go on to have one of the most bizarre directorial careers ever (he directed "Young Guns II," "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" and a way after-the-fact "Fortress 2" before serving as a second unit director on Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy). We blame Project Flashlight.
"28 Days Later" (2002) [also: "28 Weeks Later" (2007)]
Leave it to the impish Danny Boyle to reinvent the zombie genre, even when he claimed to have no affinity for it (there are several direct shout-outs to the original George Romero zombie movies). "28 Days Later" starts out as one of the best last man on earth-type movies, with Cillian Murphy playing a bike messenger who wakes from a coma, only to find the hospital (and most of London) completely empty. In those 28 days, a virus has been unleashed that turns those infected into flesh-eating ghouls, and it's up to Murphy and a band of merry survivors to try to eke out a living for themselves amongst the ruin. As "28 Days Later" moves along, it picks up more and more characters, and more and more elaborate plot embellishments (leading to a third act borrowed heavily from "Day of the Dead," which could also have featured on this list, but we didn't want it overrun with zombies), but its most eerie and memorable moments are in those early sequences, where Murphy is wandering around an empty London (captured, like the rest of the movie, via the magic of low-tech video cameras, which gives the whole thing a you-are-there immediacy). Murphy's loneliness is reflected by the cavernous urban surroundings, a kind of abyss-stares-back-type atmosphere where bleakness settles over you like a heavy blanket.
Such moments are wholly absent from the sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's "28 Weeks Later," which takes a more comic book approach to the same basic thematic material (original director Boyle was a producer and second unit director) and instead of post-9/11 destruction, is more concerned with the escalated military activity of the United States (this was when we were neck-deep in Iraq), envisioning a depopulated London patrolled by American armed forces. The "last man on earth" approach doesn't quite apply to "28 Weeks Later," if only because there are far too many characters, although it does have a creepy, cluttered vibe all its own, and anytime a helicopter is used to decapitate dozens of bloodthirsty zombies, we're happy.
"Mad Max" Trilogy (1979, 1981, 1985)
One of the most influential science fiction trilogies of all time, this is a grungy, low-rent ode to lawlessness, muscle cars, and rough-hewn individualism. The original "Mad Max" set the stage for the trilogy – it's a post-apocalyptic wasteland where gasoline is more valuable than gold, violent gangs ride through the dusty outback and one man, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is all that stands between a loose sense of law and order and complete chaos. But by the end of the first "Mad Max," even Max is disillusioned and becomes an outlaw himself, mired in existential doubt. The hellzapoppin' sequel, "Mad Max 2" (or "The Road Warrior"), takes the first movie's western vibe to an outrageously literal dimension, with Max defending a small town against invading marauders. The reason that the "Mad Max" trilogy easily falls in line with the "last man on earth" motif is because Max is such a loner – even when he's around a ton of other characters (like in the hopelessly overstuffed third installment, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"), he's the only character to straddle the line between civilized society and outright anarchy, between good and evil, and between the past and the future. Gibson, fully embracing his Australian heritage, is the perfect Max, a beloved antihero who makes shooting people and engaging in illegal and highly dangerous cross-country road races seem downright triumphant. We wonder how Tom Hardy will do with the same role in next year's "Mad Max: Fury Road." No matter what, his performance can't be as wonderfully Australian-y.
"On the Beach" (1959)
In a post-World War III world (set in the then-somewhat-futuristic 1964 – you think they could have made it a little more distant), nuclear fallout has killed almost everyone on Earth. The northern hemisphere is more or less totally gone, with survivors living in far distant southern locations like Australia. After a mysterious signal is discovered originating from San Diego, several of the remaining humans on earth, including a submarine captain (Gregory Peck) and Australian naval officer (Anthony Perkins) go in search of the source. But when the signal turns out to be bunk, they return to Australia to live out their remaining days in peace. "On the Beach" is incredibly bleak – Cold War anxieties taken to a truly depressing extreme, with things like the Australian government handing out suicide pills to its remaining citizens and Perkins coaching his wife (Donna Anderson) how to go about murdering their infant child and then killing herself. (Keep in mind this was a year before "Psycho.") Still, there's something admirably beautiful and calm about "On the Beach," with Stanley Kramer's stark direction a perfect compliment to the desolate setting (the black-and-white photography is draped over the film like funereal cloth) and charcoal-black thematic undercurrents (peppered with equally black humor). Also, with its elongated running time and eclectic supporting cast (including Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire) it seems to predate the disaster movie craze of the seventies, but instead of a toppling building or a crashing plane, here the few survivors are facing the end of everything, and no one gets out alive.