The 10 Best "Last Man On Earth" Movies

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by The Playlist Staff
April 18, 2013 2:05 PM
14 Comments
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"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.

"Waterworld" (1995)
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.

"Wall-E"(2008)
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.

Honorable Mentions: There are many more "last man on earth" movies that just missed the cut, including "Resident Evil: Extinction" (Russell Mulcahy, 2007), the undisputed highlight of the long, groaning "Resident Evil" franchise (thanks largely to Australian director Mulcahy's lively staging); "Five" (Arch Oboler, 1951), in which the population of earth is reduced to the titular number after an atomic blast; "The Testament" (Lynne Littman, 1983), which is based on the biblical Last Testament and was originally produced for PBS, it eventually got released and even snagged Jane Alexander a Best Actress Oscar nom; and "Night of the Comet" (Thom Eberhardt, 1984), an occasionally funny, occasionally scary, way-too-long horror romp about the end of the civilization in the eighties (which means the mall is like totally empty). "Panic in Year Zero!" (Ray Milland, 1962), which was both directed by and starred Milland, is an eerie picaresque following a family on vacation as the world starts to burn; "Mulberry Street" (Jim Mickle, 2006), is an above-average, low-budget horror movie about six people who battle for survival after a deadly virus starts spreading through downtown Manhattan; while "A Boy and His Dog" (L.Q. Jones, 1975), based on the stories by sci-fi heavyweight Harlan Ellison is about a boy and his telepathic dog who wander around a post-apocalyptic earth, and was clearly an influence on "Oblivion."

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

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14 Comments

  • templerman | July 6, 2013 4:06 AMReply

    Though not a movie, I would suggest "Earth Abides" a 1949 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer George R. Stewart. A non-vampire/zombie centered version of "The Last man on Earth", " The Omega Man, and "I am Legend". It deals with how an average person might cope with mass death and the fall of Civilization. Likewise it deals well with the concept of being alone forever. Some surprises, and plot twists but well worth the read. May have been considered for movie but not being an action movie I doubt it. Another gem that could be the base of a story was The Twilight Zone - Episode - "The Lonely". One other movie I would add to the list is “Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)”. Though not a true last man on Earth candidate it deals well with loneliness.

  • Drotog | April 28, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    What about "The Bed-Sitting Room"? A wonderful stage play owing much to the Theatre of the Absurd, made into a less-wonderful film, starring a fine collection of British character actors and directed by Dick Lester with his most swinging-Sixties attitude.

    Nothing like as bleak as the stage play, it is worth a look for the cast and the locations. All the rubbish was lying around, Dick Lester later recalled, "we didn't have to bring any of it".

  • Xian | April 23, 2013 3:32 PMReply

    "...and was clearly an influence on "Oblivion.""

    Which can only mean, Harlan's gonna sue. ;P

  • Xian | April 23, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    Thinking that the writer perhaps confused "Testament" (not THE), with Michael Tolkin's "The Rapture" (featuring David Duchovny, Mimi Rogers). "Testament" has little or NOTHING to do with The Last Testament (you meant Revelations, right?), but "The Rapture" most certainly does. And what a creepy film that one is... sheesh, four horsemen and all. Yikes.

  • Xian | April 23, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    SAY WHAT? ""The Testament" (Lynne Littman, 1983), which is based on the biblical Last Testament and was originally produced for PBS, it eventually got released and even snagged Jane Alexander a Best Actress Oscar nom" Nooooooo... it's actually a story about a family coming together after a limited nuclear exchange dumps radioactivity over their town (untouched by the bombs, the family with a quickly, and sadly exiting, William Devane, a young Roxana Zal and an early Lukas Haas role)... needless to say, they are (*spoilers*) as doomed as if they had been incinerated and blown to ashes. It's a sad, tragic, devastating, but not entirely depressing look at nuclear war during the time of increased tensions in the early Reagan years (it came out around the time of the vastly inferior ABC special event, "The Day After" and was followed by the BBC's own "Threads" (one of the most utterly depressing and downright scary movies about nuclear war you'll ever see IF you can find it... used to be on YouTube in its entirety, very rare, not on disc so far as I know, but worth seeking out and seeing once). Perhaps the writer of this article (not half bad) could have looked closer at "Testament" to see that the only thing "biblical" about the movie is the title... other than that, it's got little to say about religion other than the feeling that god has abandoned the world in cinders. A little more research please, Playlist writers :)

  • Tom | April 20, 2013 2:29 AMReply

    What about 'The Road' or even 'Book of Eli?' And I guess TV doesn't count (The Stand, The Langoliers, The Walking Dead, Revolution, Falling Skies...), but I think post-apocalyptic entertainment has never been more popular.

  • Bryan | April 19, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    Day of the Triffids ... the 1962 version.

  • TheoC | April 19, 2013 5:12 AMReply

    Excellent stuff, love the Quiet Earth.

  • owdl114 | April 18, 2013 8:10 PMReply

    Fun (QI) Fact:
    A community in Thule, in north-western Greenland, was so remote that until the start of the 19th century they believed themselves to be the only people in the world.

  • the great and powerful turtle | April 18, 2013 6:52 PMReply

    "A boy and his dog" terrific film very dark ending..another one not mentioned "No Blade Of Grass" quite a bleak film though

  • MAL | April 18, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    Glad you mentioned The Quiet Earth but I definitely think Testament deserves a spot on the main list rather than as an honourable mention. It is the single most crushingly sad movie I have ever seen (or at least a very close second to Grave of the Fireflies).

  • tristan eldritch | April 18, 2013 3:16 PMReply

    Would personally disagree with your take on Last Woman on Earth - its a very modest but interesting little film.

  • JD | April 18, 2013 2:57 PMReply

    Hey, where is Patrick Swayze in "Steel Dawn"?!

  • droop | April 18, 2013 2:34 PMReply

    fuckin'a! water world rules, costner is the man!

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