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without Neville’s death because he was the last representative of the old guard, the true Omega Man who had to be superseded by religious zealots as the clock of civilisation was reset.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.images.duckduckgo

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.


6 comments on “The End Of The World Keeps Changing”

  1. raedarius says:

    The Will Smith film would have been better if it had been called “I Am Not Legend” to reflect the changed ending’s negation of the meaning of the book’s title.

  2. Vivienne says:

    I sometimes think the end of the world has come when I’m walking in the suburbs. Even on a sunny day, no one walking, no one in the front gardens, and eerily quiet, but it seems you’re safe from whatever brought it on if you’re in a car with L plates.

  3. Karyne Corum says:

    Pontypool envisioned a world ending through a virus transmitted by words. The apocalypse brought on by the subversion and corruption of the the basic feature of humanity’s socialization. Great movie and incredibly disturbing concept.

  4. Jackie Hayles says:

    Your comment about Phase 7 reminded me of 50’s drama, particularly “Epitaph for George Dillon” whose world ends in a danse macarbre with his landlady whose daughter he has impregnated. He is forever trapped and entombed by the mores of that particular time and its moral straight-jacket. Similar themes were explored in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “A Kind of Loving”, etc. Not as dramatic as a plague of zombies, but the effects are equally devastating to the person whose coffin-lid is closing.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    The situation goes back to H.G. Welles and Conan Doyle – War of the Worlds and Professor Challenger – the idea that humanity and the Earth are fairly insignificant and can be easily wiped out by events beyond our control.

    Themes later developed by John Wyndham and J.G. Ballard and continued with humans being replicated by huge bean pods, or Roy Thinnes investigating an alien takeover in ‘The Invaders’.

    Zombies, giant plants, duplicitous aliens, hidden organisations run through 20th century writing like a virus.

    In the 21st century the threat is from technology and our individuality being taken away by multinational surveillance coupled with corrupt officialdom, weak government, terrorism and unrestricted big business. And that’s just the banking industry.

    I’m happy to go back to dangerous plants.

  6. Wayne Mook says:

    We also have natural threats from space and nature getting ugly, in the 70’s it was critters going bad, Phase IV brought in that plus evolution as ants get a mass intelligence. No we have weather, Asteriods as well as zombies et al.

    I forget what it was called, but on TV there was a tornado with zombies in it, I wonder who would win if it went up against Sharknado (there are now 3 of these, and the 2 headed shark now has 3 heads plus Lavalantula has a giant volcano that releases lava breathing Tarantulas, and we still have room for Zombie Shark. I still miss the days of giant blood sucking were-moths from the 60’s The Blood Beast Terror.)

    I have also been reading some of Fred M White’s tales of almost near disaster in London just past the turn of the century, natural disaster and pollution and in some a combination, plus financial, how the world changes. The big worries remain the same, it’s how they are spun as admin notes that make them appropriate for our times.


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