I’ve always been interested in society’s morbid fascination with its own demise; the day that society shudders to a halt. End of the world scenarios have been popular in the science fiction genre for a long time. Often, they are based on underlying fears that society already contains the roots of it’s own destruction. Either that our own rapid expansion might spell our end, like an over-crowding algae culture in a petri dish. Or that nature itself will move on, leaving us behind, in much of the way of the demise of the dinosaurs. Or indeed, the true notion that all life on Planet Earth is doomed in the first place, as one day, our sun will burn out, leaving human society to suffocate on a dying planet, forcing us to board interplanetary arks and to abandon our patronage of the solar system.
Hollywood has certainly thrown us a few ‘end of the world’ movies in its time, but many of these exist as technical demonstrations of special effects departments, and their abilities to portray falling metropolises using cutting edge computer graphics. Such movies have storylines so weak, that it is hard to extract any interesting points. (Yes I’m looking at you, ‘Independence Day’, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, ‘2012’!)
The Day Of The Triffids (1962)
1962 saw the release of ‘The Day Of The Triffids’, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s classic novel, filmed at Shepperton Studios in London. The screenplay by Bernard Gordon and Phillip Yordan varied hugely with Wyndham’s novel and featured a completely different emphasis. These fundamental differences are key to understanding exactly what society in 1962 thought of itself. Wyndham’s book was published in 1951, a decade before the release of this adaptation. The book takes the angle of observing what happens to human society as a series of unfortunate coincidences trigger the dominance of the planet’s new primary lifeform. The monsters in the book are not so much the murderous, man-eating plants, but the soulless, self-serving remains of society who seize opportunities ruthlessly and prove the failure of society’s communal spirit. The flaw is mankind’s failure to work as communal unit, and instead to be ruled by selfish preservation and greed.
The 1962 film is a strange affair. Details that remain the same are the iconic start, in which the protagonist wakes up in a hospital to a world that has fundamentally changed, and the monster threat: hordes of shambling, stinging, man-eating vegetation. Also, people of the world are affected by a blindness, after having witnessed a cosmic event in the sky. The main character retains his sight due to having his eyes bandaged up after eye-surgery. That’s where the similarity ends, as the film takes a completely different direction. The lantern-jawed American and eventual ‘Dallas’ actor, Howard Keel, takes on the main role. He picks up a schoolgirl travelling companion, played by Carole Ann Ford, who eventually played a similar role for William Hartnell’s Doctor Who. The film features an incredibly dated depiction of women. Nicole Maury’s role as the love-interest seems to fulfill no greater function than to scream piercingly, like an insecure klaxon, whenever a triffid is in sight. And a blind French girl at a triffid-free safe-haven seems to instantly fall in love with Keel, and implores him to return soon with suggestive pathos. Amusing that this French girl is dressed up to appear attractive, as if being newly blind provided no obstacle to her make-up and presentation skills.
Wyndham’s original idea is lost within a script that is essentially crowd-pleasing, and one that panders to family values and the safety net of a happy ending. If anything, Danny Boyle’s ’28 Days Later’ (1998) has more in common with the original book than this 1962 adaptation, but this is because the film’s goals were aimed towards achieving a shiny glow of optimism in an era where society ironically really could have been heading towards annihilation. The doomful overtones of the Cold War, culminating with the Cuban missile crisis in 1963, left people needing positive escapism, rather than the notion of the bleak nihilism of apocalypse. Even by 1962, people did not want reminding of such negative outcomes.
Half a century later, we no longer live under the obvious threat of nuclear annhiliation. However, doomful rhetoric still manifests itself somewhere in the lower tones of our world’s ambient noise. Lars Von Trier contributed to the apocalyptic genre with his film, ‘Melancholia’, released in 2011. The origins of the film came from communications between actress Penelope Cruz and Von Trier. An end of the world scenario was envisioned. Cruz was pencilled in to play the movie’s protagonist, but by the time the production was ready to roll, Cruz turned out to be otherwise engaged, and so Kirsten Dunst was handed the key role.
The movie’s structure is in the form of two halves. Each half focusing on events surrounding a pair of sisters. Before we are introduced to the sisters, a sumptuous and painterly prologue to the film makes it clear that a cataclysmic event is unfolding, as we witness a future glimpse of the Earth crashing into the surface of a huge planet, which we later find out has been named Melancholia. The first half sees Dunst’s portrayal of Justine as an advertising executive and focus of an exuberant wedding party as the bride. Her sister, Claire, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Claire’s husband, played by Kiefer Sutherland attempt to guide Justine through her special day as it becomes clear that Justine suffers from severe bouts of depression. The character drama is of exceptional quality and Von Trier, as is typical of his style, masters an uneasy atmosphere and sense of dread. Interestingly, this dark cloud does not come directly from the impending planetary disaster, but from the unfolding drama of the wedding party. The second half of the film focuses on Claire, and the contrast is markedly different. The film communicates the observation that while sufferers of depression can fail to function under normal circumstances, because of their ability to come to terms with inevitably terrible events, they can remain calm in the face of devastating situations.
‘Melancholia’ is a pure science fiction film. Von Trier ventured into fantasy and horror, with his television series, ‘The Kingdom’, but this is his first venture into science fiction. The minimal reliance on special effects and the deep exploration of the characters and their interactions are what make this film an extremely powerful one. The only odd point for me was the casting of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of John. While Sutherland was excellent in his delivery of the role, it was near on impossible to separate John’s persona from that of his tough, ass-kicking CTU alter-ego.
In bleak but real terms, humankind is ultimately doomed, although probably not within our lifetimes. Where human beings may have started out at numbers of a few thousand and have grown to the monstrous proportions of 7 billion plus, resourceful as we are, we can not avoid our inevitable swansong.