The End Of The World Keeps Changing
In 1954 Richard Matheson wrote a science fiction novel called ‘I Am Legend’, about the only man on earth not afflicted with a kind of vampirism. In 1964, AIP made a cheap film version starring Vincent Price, acknowledged as the template for all ‘living dead’ movies that followed.
In 1968 ‘The Omega Man’ was the second version of Richard Matheson’s story. Although much of the film now plays like a cheesy action flick, it had a brain. The war between scientist Robert Neville and the infected was one of conflicting ideologies; Neville’s technological determinism was the cause of the world’s end while the sick turned back to faith in order to save the planet. Once the relationship between Neville and his infected opposite number, the intellectually conservative Matthius, had been established, we knew the conflict could not be resolved without Neville’s death because he was the last representative of the old guard, the true Omega Man who had to be superseded by religious zealots as the clock of civilisation was reset. Complicating this was the fact that Matthius was himself infected, while the scientist Neville was not.
Therefore there could be no real winners. While the virus might be halted, it couldn’t eradicate the new ideology, and to that extent Neville was as extinct as a dinosaur. This was the idea that drove the story and gave it resonance. The book and the second film each suited their time, the first fitting with persecuting McCarthyism, the second with hippie ideology.
The third ‘re-visioning’ in 2007 starred Will Smith, and now the ideological impasse was the first thing to go. ‘I Am Legend’ had nothing but CGI zombies and cheap shocks. The infected were replaced by computer animations.
Instead of a white Neville having sex with an independent black woman, we now had a black man chastely hanging out with a God-fearing (and safely light-skinned) Brazilian girl. When scientist Heston sat in a cinema and mouthed the dialogue from ‘Woodstock’, he overturned our assumptions about him. Will Smith duplicated the scene by mouthing dialogue from…’Shrek’. The film reflected the time’s infantilism.
More pernicious was the creepy subversion of the ending. Instead of heading off to live in a flawed, argumentative commune built around new alternative families, something to replace the failing model of family life, we had the survivors arriving in a heavily guarded fortress that looked like an isolationist Mormon Disneyland sponsored by the National Rifle Association.
In recent films the end still arrives via ravaging viruses, thanks to the [Rec] series, but the way in which people react has changed. In the terrific ‘Phase 7’, a building’s inhabitants barely acknowledge that the end has come and put their faith in a disconnected government helpline number, while the endearing slacker hero and his wife turn inward, arguing about changing light bulbs and cataloguing breakfast cereal.
In ‘The Last Days’, the end is brought about by something different – a dependence on TV and phone screens, a closing into an entirely internal life – leads people to become so overwhelmingly agoraphobic that they can no longer leave their offices.
In ‘Fin’ and ‘Vanishing on 7th St’ people simply vanish one by one without any explanation; this is the ultimate peer group fear – fear of being rendered invisible.
When the end of the world comes, it’s often depicted as being brought about by invading aliens. Several years ago Paramount commissioned me to rewrite ‘The War of the Worlds’ and I set it just after WWII to punch up the analogy to fears of German invasion. Now, though, the end is often seen as being brought on by us.
The moral is simple – apocalypse movies always reflect the hopes and fears of their era.