"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.
"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.