By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 18, 2013 at 2:05PM
"The World, the Flesh and the Devil" (1959)
A pretty terrific, and criminally overlooked entry into the "last man on earth" genre, director Ranald MacDougall's splashily titled "The World, the Flesh and the Devil" plays out a little like "The Quiet Earth" with added race and gender politics. Ralph (Harry Belafonte, given slightly extraneous reasons to sing on more than one occasion) is trapped in a mine when an apocalyptic event occurs, and then digs himself out to safety when he hears rescue efforts cease. Uncomprehending, he wanders the deserted streets of New York City (it was evacuated prior to everyone dying, which accounts for the lack of rotting bodies) slowly piecing together what happened. This first third of the film does lag a little, but it's interesting how many of the staples of the genre occur here, like befriending store mannequins, and occasionally bursting into maniacal, lonely laughter. But things get interesting when Sarah (Inger Stevens, a ringer for Mischa Barton) shows up, the two become friends, and start to fall for each other despite the pre-apocalyptic racial barrier. Things get really interesting, however, when a third point completes the triangle in the shape of Benson Thacker (Mel Ferrer, always great in everything). Two men, one black, one white, one noble, one grasping... and one white woman, but what's surprising is how unpredictably the film oscillates between being a hot-button B-movie about race and society and being a hot-button B-movie about sex and society. There are some great touches, too, like Ralph neatly stacking dishes then throwing them out the window, or fixing the telephone when there's only one person to call. But the real mini-miracle here is how even-handed is the film's treatment of its principals, and this in the thick of the civil rights movement and pre-women's lib, and how very hopeful its conclusion is, despite the pessimism of its premise. Then again, perhaps at that time for many on the frontlines of those particular conflicts, an apocalypse may have seemed like the best possible chance for an equitable future.
"Planet of the Apes" (1968)
The single most memorable "last man on earth" image in all of movie history might be Charlton Heston, as stranded astronaut Taylor, knee-deep in the sand, looking up at a partially destroyed Statue of Liberty, bellowing at the top of his lungs ("You blew it up! Damn you!") This, as we all know, is the end of "Planet of the Apes," the first in a highly influential series of films that would include a handful of sequels, a high-profile remake, a surprisingly good recent reboot (the sequel to which is out next summer), an animated series, and a television show. The end of the world never seemed so profitable. But in the original Franklin J. Schaffner film, Taylor, along with a couple of other astronauts (a third, female astronaut is killed on impact, which speaks more to the sexism of the time than the demands of functional plot mechanics), winds up on the titular planet, where he is, to all intents and purposes, the last "man." This is because so many of the planet's inhabitants aren't men – they're anthropomorphized apes and monkeys, who talk and make laws and philosophically discuss and debate just like humans do, while the other humans on the planet are primitive, barely possessing the ability to speak (which of course doesn't keep Taylor from hopping into bed with one of them, love being a universal language). The joke here is that while Taylor's aware he's pretty much the last of his kind on this planet, he doesn't actually know what planet it is, until the end. But hey, wormhole.
"Reign of Fire" (2002)
There's an ingenious concept at the heart of the sorely underrated "Reign of Fire" – in the future, dragons have been reawakened from their eternal slumber and have laid waste to modern society. The handful of remaining humans (led by a hammy Christian Bale) hide in old castles in the English countryside (see – ingenious!), while a team of brash militaristic Americans, commanded by an off-his-fucking-rocker Matthew McConaughey, comes to the aid of the survivors. His plan is to end the dragon menace once and for all. It's a cool concept, and one that Rob Bowman, a former director of "The X-Files," executes admirably, particularly in a scene where McConaughey's team skydives through a flock of flying dragons. In terms of the "last man on earth" slant though, "Reign of Fire" focuses on the practicalities of being the only ones left – agricultural concerns like tending to crops and cultural concerns like passing down the story of "Star Wars" to future, electronics-free generations. "Reign of Fire" is a charming, suspenseful piece of blockbuster entertainment and the movie's studio, Disney, thought it was going to be such a big hit that they had planned to devote a section of its newly opened theme park, Disney's Animal Kingdom, to the movie (look at the logo for the park – see that dragon?) Sadly, it wasn't much of a hit, and has since been regulated to cult notoriety. Bale brings a characteristic intensity to his role as one of the last men, but it's punctuated by moments of levity that are missing in his career-defining, three-movie turn as the Dark Knight. Then again, dragons are so much more fun.
In the case of "Waterworld," the "last man on earth" is actually the "last man in the water," as Kevin Costner takes on the role of "The Mariner," a gill-breathing mutant in a world where all the polar ice caps have melted, forcing humanity to live in floating, derelict cities. The Mariner is sort of like a soggy Mad Max, dodging vicious gangs and searching for salvation on a place called Dryland (aka actual earth). On a technical level at the very least, "Waterworld" is much better than anyone gave it credit for. Back when the movie came out it was mostly defined by its cost overages and creative in-fighting (especially between Costner and director Kevin Reynolds), but time has been kind to "Waterworld," thanks largely to a more sturdy director's cut release and the fact that its junky, hodgepodge future seems to have aged better than movies in which every surface is sleekly technological. Costner's character is interesting because he's in the classic antihero mode, which most last men on earth find themselves saddled with, with a few complications – one, he's made to fit into a makeshift family unit (with Jeanne Tripplehorn and Tina Majorino) and two, he's something more than a man – his gills give him an evolutionary advantage. He's the last man on earth who's also a little bit extra. Now that's intriguing.
As much as many of the films on this list may have brought their influence to bear on "Oblivion," it was the similarities, during the first half especially, to scenes from Pixar's beloved, Oscar-winning "Wall-E" that really stood out. The Cruise character's habit of magpie-ing little bits of bric-a-brac and feathering his secret nest with them felt very familiar, as did even elements of the look of the film -- the lo-fi mounds of trash, sand and rubble contrasted with the sleek whites of futurist Apple-inflected technology. But one area where "Oblivion" can't compete is in the sweet, clear emotiveness of the animated film. Wall-E, the little robot left alone on a devastated earth to shamble through its mounds of trash deserves his place on this list because even though he's not a man, he has more relatable humanity coursing through his diodes in the form of sentimentality, bravery and of course his capacity for love, than the off-world people he's supposedly serving. There are plot inconsistencies and at times it may feel like logic has been jettisoned in favor of emotion, but from the bravura opening that plays wellnigh wordlessly for half an hour, to the dippy action later, and the touching love story elements, if "Oblivion" leaves you wanting a "last x on earth" story with a bit more heart, you know where to look.
In the rather more dishonorable mention category, however, we can easily lump the turgid "Sound of Thunder" (Peter Hyams, 2005), based on the beloved short story by Ray Bradbury about "time tourists" who inadvertently fuck up the time stream continuum; ultra-low-budget oddity "Robot Monster" (Phil Tucker, 1953), infamous for having one of the worst creatures of all time (in 3D, no less); and "Last Woman on Earth" (Roger Corman, 1960) which isn't the porno it sounds like, and instead, rather wastes its interesting premise in surprising (for Corman) dullness. In fact, Robert Towne-penned (!) this movie about three survivors of an apocalyptic event and he also stars in it, but the story goes that was just because Corman couldn't afford to pay to have both a third actor and a screenwriter on set. Sometimes, Armageddon is the better option.
What did we miss? Let us know in the comments, or call us or send a radio signal -- anything. Just let us know you're alive, and we're not alone. -- Drew Taylor, additional contributions Jessica Kiang