Total Recall

Total Recall: Resident Evil and the Three Movies of the Post-Apocalypse

Nuclear cinema: The Omega Man, The Road Warrior, and Night of the Comet

by | September 19, 2007 | Comments

The T-virus has decimated billions, zombies have taken
over, and, in the middle of a Nevada desert, only
Milla Jovovich
and her caravan of survivors stand a chance of saving the world. Such is the
premise to
Resident Evil: Extinction
. Its the final installment to the popular
action/horror trilogy and this week we’ll inspect its cinematic roots.

Post-apocalyptic movies are experiencing a surge in
popularity.
Children of Men
(91 percent on the Tomatometer) was a Certified Fresh,
Oscar-nominated phenomenon, while
28 Weeks Later

(72 percent) fared well with critics and audiences alike. And the future boasts
two lit adaptations about wiped-out societies:
I Am Legend
by
Richard
Matheson
and The Road by
Cormac
McCarthy
. The rush of bleak futuristic movies likely stems from the issues
we face today: political scandals, global warming, and nuclear fears. But the
subgenre also represents a unique challenge to filmmakers. Whether the budget’s
$350,000 (Mad Max,
94 percent), $175 million (Waterworld,
38 percent), or, like Resident Evil, somewhere in-between, how effective
a post-apocalyptic flick is limited only by a director’s ingenuity. They can be
grand in scope and small by design, and explore not only themes of loss and
isolation, but also the possibility of hope and renewal.  Let’s take a look at
three earlier genre flicks that have given the barren and desolate wasteland its
good name.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s,
Charlton
Heston
starred in a trifecta of sci-fi classics that are still making waves
through pop culture today:
Planet of
the Apes
(86 percent),
The Omega Man
(61
percent), and
Soylent Green
(72 percent). Thanks to a memorable spoof in a Simpsons
Halloween episode, a new generation of viewers is aware of
The Omega Man
‘s
plot, which revolves around Heston’s Robert Neville as the "last" man on Earth. 
He’s on the run from decaying ghouls who believe he represents the technology
that previously destroyed the world whilst being courted by a small band of
survivors who need his untainted blood.

The Omega Man is definitely a product of its time:
Heston sings along to footage of
Woodstock
and
eventually shacks up with one of the Foxy Brown-ish survivors. But the film’s
lengthy scenes of downtown Los Angeles, deserted and ruined, remain eerie and
effective. A clear inspiration for films like
28 Days Later

and Night of
the Comet
.  Director
Boris Sagal
portrays Neville as an obvious Christ figure (another common conceit nowadays),
creating a movie that Variety calls "an extremely literate science-fiction
drama."

Any post-apocalyptic movie that takes place in the outlands
will always owe a small debt to
George
Miller
. While his wasn’t the first to depict nuclear deserts (Miller has
cited A Boy and
His Dog
[77 percent] as a major influence), his Mad Max
popularized the presentation of it, grossing over $100 million against a
miniscule budget in 1979.  Returning for the 1981 sequel
The Road Warrior

(100 percent),
Mel Gibson
, as Max, wanders the open desert and dry plains, scavenging
precious gasoline for his V8 Interceptor.  Aside for chastising humanity for
pollution and war in the opening scene (a Miller obsession, as evidenced even up
to his latest movie,
Happy Feet
[74 percent]), this is a ravishing and convincing vision of
post-apocalyptic cinema.

With its terse dialogue and gorgeous desert cinematography, the movie is like the greatest graphic novel come to life. Miller films his car
chases with the same kind of daring invention that made
The French
Connection
(97 percent) legendary, but the freedom of the Australian
outback allowed him to use elaborate camerawork, more rhythmic pacing, and
stunning, death-defying stuntwork. The Road Warrior raised the bar for
pure, CGI-free car chases that has rarely, if ever, been met. As Paul De Angelis
of culturevulture.net notes: "Relying mostly on image and motion to tell its
story, [The Road Warrior is] a classic action film representative of
cinema at its purest."

Three years later,
Thom Eberhardt
took post-apocalyptica to the streets. Though none of this versatile director’s
films are widely remembered, the one that seems most primed for cult
resurrection is
Night of the Comet
(83 percent).  Everything you’d expect from a 1984 horror/comedy is
here: zombies, a 20-song pop soundtrack, and humanity’s destruction, with the
burden of civilization falling on two boy-obsessed Valley girls. Night of the
Comet
also takes the kids-versus-the-establishment ethos prevalent in the
1980s to an amusing extreme: not only do the girls have to contend with zombies,
but resentful adult scientists who need the girls’ blood in order to create
anti-zombie serum.

While the premise seems to invites broad caricatures and
dumb jokes, Eberhardt is surprisingly subtle.  After humans turn into red dust
when a comet passes over the Earth, Eberhardt juxtaposes an empty Los Angeles
with shots of useless suburban creature comforts (sprinklers automatically turn
on, pools chlorinate themselves) that have outlived their human masters. There
are some great one-liners, decent gore, and a unique wit that set the tone for
future post-apocalyptic comedies like
Tank Girl
(36
percent).  Vincent Canby calls Night of the Comet "[a] good-natured, end-of-
the-world B-movie, written and directed by Thom Eberhardt, a new
film maker whose sense of humor augments rather than upstages the mechanics of
the melodrama."

These movies, and Resident Evil: Extinction, admittedly conform to a very entertaining, very Hollywood view of the apocalypse. As further reaches go, Japan naturally takes a more
personal and disturbing inspection of life after holocausts with movies like
Virus
,
After the
Apocalypse
(89 percent), and the anime masterpiece
Akira
(86 percent).

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