This week’s 2012 sees director Roland Emmerich getting back to doing what he does best — or worst, depending on which side of the argument you fall — as he uses Mayan prophecy as a loose pretext for laying waste to the planet in a way that would shame even his previous Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Of course, movie-makers have been depicting the end of the world since the dawn of cinema, so we decided to take a look back at 10 of the landmark films of the disaster genre. Have a nice apocalypse, kids…
Thomas Edison’s company rushed to Galveston, Texas, in 1900 to film the aftermath of the storm surge that had flattened the city and killed between 6,000 and 8,000 of the city’s 37,000 population, in what remained America’s most deadly natural disaster. “A most picturesque mass of wreckage” was how the the catalogue described two crashed schooners in the minute-long footage of the destroyed waterfront. The search for survivors was also documented, with the catalogue noting, “Hundreds of dead bodies are concealed in these immense masses, and at the time the picture was taken the odor given out could be detected for mile.”
Like 2012‘s Mayan calendar hoodoo, this was released to cash in on public fears about the approach of Halley’s Comet on 20 April that year. This silent short manages to cover in just 11 minutes what it’d take future apocalypse epics hundreds of hours to portray. The set up has a comet scraping by Earth, leaving untold devastation and the few survivors heading into under underground caves. The descriptions of this one promise “sensational and exciting fun” before providing a synopsis that reads like Roland Emmerich on Twitter. Thus:
“The Garage. A motor dash for safety. The coming of the Comet. Explosion of the petrol.”
“The Burning Countryside. Farm, cottage, railway station and mansion involved.”
“Water at last. The passing of the Comet. Panoramic Scene of a devastated World.”
There were other apocalypse scenarios, like 1924’s Last Man On Earth (plague wipes out all men but one; remade as 1933’s It’s Great To Be Alive), and the comet returned a few times (leading to messianic religion in 1930’s La Fin du Monde) but 1933’s Deluge, at least technically, set the benchmark for city destruction. The film starts with eclipses causing massive earthquakes worldwide. Then comes the destruction of the West Coast, and next New York crumbles as an earthquake hits and what’s left is washed away by a massive tidal wave. The special effects are still impressive and if the footage seems familiar, it may be because it was recycled into serials. Only an Italian print survives, in reduced form, which was discovered in 1981 by Forrest J. Ackerman.
The comet scenario returns as planet Zyra approaches Earth, leading to earthquakes, volcanic eruption and Deluge-like scenes of New York experiencing the ultimate surf’s up again. The other 2012 touch here, of course, is that being forewarned means humanity can build a rocket ark and escape the annihilation of Earth. Also pretty familiar are the lone scientist making the discovery, political unification and an international effort to build the spaceship on a mountain, and clamorous scenes as it’s decided who goes and who stays and the word “remake” occurs.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race, filmmakers started turning away from cosmic or seismic causes for End Times. The atomic freak-out was understandable and would be riffed on for decades. But Five got there before any of them with its tale of a handful of survivors trying to work out what the hell to do now the world’s been blown up — especially as there are four dudes and only one dame. The trailer heralds that the most celebrated pop culture commentators of the time — Walter Winchell and rival gossip queens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons — all thought the movie was awesome. The reason it’s forgotten? Because Five‘s more a melodrama than anything else, with the filmmakers neglecting to include the “fun” of a radioactive mutant, which Roger Corman would soon rectify by making a similar set up but adding a monster in Day the World Ended.
Less high-profile than many other major “serious” apocalyptic productions, such as 1959’s On the Beach, 1964’s Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, this nevertheless contains the synthesis of the above apocalyptic strands by having it that mankind’s nuclear tests have set the Earth on a collision course with the sun. The only solution? Setting off more nukes to tilt the globe back towards “safe”! A-bombs as our friends? Armageddon would both pick up this thread in 1988, and 2003’s The Core would take it on the down-low. Danny Boyle — who must’ve salivated over the empty-London-streets scenes — also adopted the idea in 2007’s Sunshine.
While made for TV — and watched by a staggering 100 million Americans — The Day After was screened theatrically around the world, so we’re including it here. The story, which focused on Kansas characters living their lives out against news reports of escalating Cold War tensions, made the destructive sequences all the more terrifying. The real horror lay in the title, though, and the film’s graphic depiction of cities reduced to rubble, Jason Robards’ hair falling out from radiation sickness, looters desecrating bodies and a baby born amid the grim spectacle of a clinic packed with the walking wounded. The finale offered little in the way of hope as John Lithgow’s plaintive voice asks on the radio, “Hello? Is anybody there? Anybody at all.” Could you really expect anything different in a future where Steve Guttenberg was one of those spared? The Brits’ BBC-TV efforts, 1965’s docudramatic The War Game and 1984’s harrowing TV series Threads were of the same ilk, minus the Gutt.
It was long enough after the Cold War nightmares generated by real history and the likes of The Day After for Roland Emmerich to provide unbelievably epic scenes of carnage as entertainment in Independence Day. And because the genocide was caused by things we couldn’t possibly create or control, it came totally guilt free! In what was essentially a reimagining of War of the Worlds, with a good dose of V thrown in, the alien threat stood in for environmental or nuclear disaster. After capitols and metropolises and monuments the world over were demolished in start-of-the-art detail, Will Smith and a rag-tag bunch of geeky mavericks got to kick E.T.’s ass. Of course, after September 11, Emmerich would take a less campy, more reverential approach with The Day After Tomorrow. And then, of course, he’d go back to populist popcorn disaster porn with 2012.
While Armageddon won the meteor-aimed-at-Earth box-office battle that year, it was Deep Impact that adhered closest to the disaster-movie conventions and provided the biggest spectacle as it wiped out New York in the same watery fashion as Deluge has some 65 years earlier. The special effects were better, of course, and the dead-serious tone (witness The Day After-like road sequence and the fact that this was willing to kill off its heroine) make this an underappreciated and unusually heartfelt entry into the genre. Its inclusion of an African-American president seemed wishful thinking at the time.
It’s rare that two movies are released so close together that provide totally different takes on similar material. But The Road is the anti-2012, and this adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel is an apocalypse movie like few others. This eschews explanations — there are none of 2012‘s “mutant neutrinos” or Mayan stuff here, folks, let alone comets or environmental catastrophe or aliens. This is simply set many years after the world burned, with a man and his son trying to find enough food to survive while avoiding been made into lunch by rape-for-starters road cannibals. It’s a stark and terrifying vision of the practicalities of not the day but the years after — and whether it’d be worth living at all.
Michael Adams is the author of the upcoming book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic’s Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made