High Museum of Art: Films

Goodbye Cruel World by Linda Dubler

As I wrote in an earlier post, landscape photographer Richard Misrach’s On the Beach, a show of exquisite, large scale pictures shot from an overhead vantage point in Hawaii after 9/11, is currently on view at the High. Some of the images are populated, some devoid of human presence, but all suggest both seaside paradise and doomsday unease. Earlier posts looked at the beachy aspect of the Misrach pictures, so now we’re turning to the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic currents that run through the series.

What are your favorite movies from this genre?

I’m not a huge sci-fi and/or horror fan, so apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies aren’t my strong suit. Though I enjoy cinematic suspense, the surreal, and things blowing up real good as much as the next gal, I tend to avoid the gore and gross-outs that pop up in most sci-fi and horror. (I remember next to nothing about Soylent Green, which I saw when it first came out, but I still feel vaguely icky even thinking about it).

Johan Harper, a security officer and the High’s resident B-movie connoisseur, steered me to this brilliant post-apocalyptic cheat sheet, which rates a bunch of films based on such PA hallmarks as cannibalism, warlords, mutants and degraded culture. You’ll hear more from Johan when we run staff picks on Friday.

The guy is sneaky though — when I was researching films to accompany the High’s First Emperor exhibition he convinced me to watch a low budget kung-fu fantasy featuring adorable children dressed as monkeys and  neon-green killer rays. After I viewed it in its entirety and sent him a sensitive e-mail saying that I didn’t think it was right for the series (ever the diplomat) he laughed and said he couldn’t believe I actually made it through the movie. So be forewarned.

There’s lots of smart writing about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films on the web. Check out Greg Bloom’s piece for the Duke Chronicle, “Apocalypse Now,” in which he points out that long before WALL-E and Planet of the Apes, the  Bible set the bar for large scale havoc and destruction with Noah’s flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the parting of the Red Sea.

At newsvine.com, you’ll find one of the many ten best lists out there, as well as a fascinating discussion of  how before the 1970s and the birth of the environmental movement, movies warned of disasters to come, while after the ’70s, society’s anxiety about our species’ impending demise led to movies in which disasters have already happened.

My nominee for the best apocalyptic movie is Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 Children of Men. Based on P.D. James’s novel of the same name, it opens in 2027, when the world is ending with lots of non-nuclear bangs and one long whimper. Women  have become infertile, and in the 18 years since the last baby was born, poverty, chaos, terrorism and despair have spread across the globe.

England has emerged as a haven in this lawless landscape, and it’s there, amidst London’s garbage, graffiti, religious fanatics, caged immigrants and neo-fascist security squads, that we meet Clive Owen’s Theo. A reluctant hero (think a distant cousin of Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca) Theo carries the arc of the story, which involves his connecting with an underground network to smuggle a young woman out of the country. Some critics called Children of Men a thriller because of its extraordinary tension and momentum. The film climaxes with an escape/battle scene that’s beautifully choreographed and gripping in its realism and suspense — I can’t think of its equal except perhaps in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. And though the movie’s locked down, steel gray world is grim, it’s not unrelievedly so; Michael Caine’s wry performance as a onetime political cartoonist turned hippie recluse is a case study in how a small part can have an enormous impact, and the movie’s redemptive ending strikes a note of universal optimism.

Write us with your nominees for the top ten apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic movies and share your thoughts.

Linda Dubler

1 Comment so far
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I read in a commentary by one of the crew of Children of Men that you need to look closely at the set, as well as follow the story. When I watched the film a second time, I was struck by a photograph at the home of Michael Caine’s character. It was of his wife smiling and lively – and then I realized what she had been like before being tortured. It was an extraordinary movie on many levels – that the set designer had a quiet but also major part in the storytelling.

Comment by Julie Chautin

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