Sep 20, 2007

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

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 its miniscule budget in 1979. Returning for the1981 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 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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