In Case of Sudden Civilization Collapse
Try a vintage-movie marathon of doomed futures. And remember, we're all in this alone.
Considering its age and the themes it tackles, the movie was a great starting point for a vintage sci-fi marathon—a perfect way to spend the first days of the future (a.k.a 2017). Soylent Green features several motifs obsessed over by filmmakers since the '50s, but it also provided pivotal criteria for the curation of my marathon: No Martians, no spaceships, no time travel, no freaky parallel universes; Earth was the only planet allowed. As snow outside transformed the city into a lunar landscape, I anticipated outdated hi-tech devices and the old-fashioned “apocalypsplaining” of the genre: voice-overs and stock-images heralding the rich resources of a mythological past, which eventually gave way to a terrifying, poverty-stricken present.
In Soylent Green, causes of global misery are the greenhouse effect and overpopulation—issues of serious relevance today, but so unrealistic back then as to be science-fiction fodder. In the year 2022, Heston is a policeman living just above the threshold of indigence while the rest of New York's population is mostly homeless or unemployed. A small elite enjoys all privileges, but real food is a great rarity even for them; everybody gets by on rations of Soylent Green, a hyper-energetic substance extracted from plankton.
As Heston's character investigates a murder in the high society, doubts arise about the origins of this substance. The film still delivers a singular vintage depiction of the future—with all due naiveties, but also some resonantly current-seeming imagery. As people revolt against a shortage of Soylent Green, the repressive police response evokes the eviction actions by way of armored bulldozers in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it's easy to recall Calais' refugees camp when glimpsing one of Fleischer's numerous “squatted” parking lots: improvised markets with boiling pots, bonfires, old cars transformed into precarious tents, crowded with pregnant women and screaming toddlers, dust and trash everywhere.
A product of the Iron Curtain and reminiscent of the economic boom as well as the communist threat, Soylent Green is one of those films that used class divide as a frightening device, in ways that were followed up by works such as Brazil (1985), Children of Men (2006), and most recently Snowpiercer (2013). It's also a film about euthanasia and the course of history. And Charlton Heston.
Heston, who had just changed his political agenda, was also undergoing a shift in his career, starring in the Planet of Apes series as well as disaster movies such as Earthquake and Airport 1975. He'd also been the lead in another sci-fi cult movie, 1971's The Omega Man, a Cold War-inspired version of the 1954 horror novel I Am Legend (yes, also the source of the 2007 Will Smith film). The Omega Man had its predecessor in The Last Man on Earth, an Italian-American production from 1964. This first adaptation stars horror-veteran Vincent Price and is indeed closer to the horror genre and more comedy-oriented than the '70s remake. Here too, though, some estranging elements make it an unconventional classic: The opening sequence shows a deserted, newly urbanized countryside where the attentive viewer can recognize EUR, a neighborhood in South Rome. Developed in the '30s by the fascist regime, it's still striking for its futuristic minimal architecture and unusual isolation from the city. The perfect place to stage the solitude of the modern man.
The world is indeed a lonely place, especially if you're alone in it. It helps if you're scientist, though; like the Last Man on Earth, The Quiet Earth (1985) follows a scientist (Bruno Lawrence) in his peregrinations of a world that lost all trace of human beings overnight. Directed by Geoff Murphy, this New Zealand take on the post-apocalypse genre is pure vintage entertainment. After the initial disorientation, he takes advantage of the situation and raids shopping malls, stealing fancy clothes and high-tech equipment. He then moves into a villa and during an emotional breakdown addresses previously set-up cardboard silhouettes of various celebrities (shout-outs to Bob Marley, Alfred Hitchcock, Queen Elizabeth) from the top terrace. But he is not alone after all, and soon stumbles upon a young redhead. The two become close and search the area for any other humans. A third person does appear, a tough Maori who immediately sets his eyes on the girl. The sexual tension among the trio is never violently exposed, but the entanglements between race and gender aren't completely overcome in the name of a peaceful future together. While The Quiet Earth ends on a rather ambiguous note, its original antecedent—The World, the Flesh and the Devil, from 1959, starring Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer—remains memorable for its hopeful ending.
What these two films fail to mention is usually stressed in most post-apocalypse movies: Women are the scarcest yet most desirable “good” in these future wastelands. Recently a Canadian drama—2015's Into the Forest, by Patricia Rozema—proposed an interesting critique of this narrative scheme, putting forward a clear feminist position on survival movies. But in earlier days the outlook wasn't so enlightened. Even director Luc Besson, known for portraying strong women in hostile environments, overlooked this particular issue. In his first feature Le Dernier Combat (1983), a world covered in dust is home to a few mute survivors. With the accompaniment of Eric Serra's perfect soundtrack (the only sound comment for the entire film), in the first minutes we see a man attempting an intercourse with an inflatable doll. Several vicissitudes later, the last fight between him and a very young Jean Reno revolves around a woman—perhaps the last one on Earth? Meanwhile in THX 1138, George Lucas' 1971 directorial debut, we have a world where sex is taboo and procreation is a state-controlled practice. This idea resurfaced in the 2016 near-remake Equals by Drake Doremus.
Similar is the premise of Marco Ferreri’s The Seed of Man (1969), another sample of vintage divertissement. Driving back from a summer trip, a happy couple crosses a tunnel. On the other side they learn that a mysterious calamity has destroyed civilization. With little instruction provided by the sardonic scientists who rescue them, they are set off to find shelter. Months after they've successfully settled in a house by the sea, an esoteric-looking major stops by and announces that by law every woman must be impregnated. The issue remains in the background of surreal events—an inflatable giant Pepsi-Cola bearing a Merry Christmas sign; a stranded whale; an entire parmesan cheese displayed as an artwork—and the two continue to lead a dull yet apparently happy life. But when the man embraces his new condition with the elation of the fanatic artist, his partner begins to firmly stand against the idea of having a child. Without spoiling the details: It looks like in post-apocalypse movies women don't get to choose.
A variation on the same narrative is Glen and Randa, the 1970 film by Jim McBride, in which humans have reverted to primitive individuals years after nuclear war has destroyed much of the modern world. This is the realm of a teenage couple who share the same obtuse attitude of The Seed of Man's protagonists. Here too the boy appears animated by little curiosity and drags his girlfriend along in search of “The City.” The ending is equally tragic, for death and reproduction seem to go hand in hand in these dystopian visions of the future.
If procreation is treated as a taboo, death on the other hand was a popular theme in several sci-fi films of the same years. To begin with, the only peaceful place in Soylent Green is a clinic where people seek assisted suicide. A sweet death is at the odds of Death Watch, a chilling sci-fi thriller from 1980 by Bertrand Tavernier. In an epically run-down Glasgow, journalist Harvey Keitel and TV producer Harry Dean Stanton work at the development of the popular reality show “Death Watch.” In a world where death by illness is a fascinating rarity, selected sick victims are followed by TV crews and journalists in order to capture their last days of life—death included. Romy Schneider is the chosen one, and unwillingly becomes a celebrity. She ignores, however, that she'll also be a guinea pig for Keitel's new tool: an eye-implant which immediately converts everything he sees into video material. Besides a few foreseeing inventions such as a computer named Harriet revealing the same zealous yet inefficient features of our present Siri, the film leaves no room for comedy and quickly turns into a dense, self-reflective melodrama. Here the film medium (as apart from the sci-fi genre) is the real protagonist.
To lighten up the ending of this vintage marathon, two other films confirm the genre's predilection for portraying the future of death, albeit quite humorously. Both are about survival contests fed to the masses in form of popular entertainment, in a Hunger Games style. Death Race 2000 is simply the satirical, adult version of Wacky Races, with a latex-wrapped David Carradine and a vain Sylvester Stallone as antagonist heroes. Also from 1965 and directed by master Elio Petri, The 10th Victim is a gem of Italian science-fiction: Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress chase each other to death in “The Big Race,” an international competition where civilians are randomly called to kill one another. Its motto is “live dangerously, but within the law,” and the action includes inside jokes about exploiting Rome as a film setting, a new-age sect devoted to sunsets, and glorious lines such as “Women never die.” The prize for surviving the tenth and last round of this contest is a lifelong tax exemption. As Italian as it gets.