Monday, October 25, 2010

Not Quite the Last Man on Earth

I love the narrative idea of someone being the last person on earth or, at the very least, a last group of survivors, holed up and fighting off the inevitable. For instance, I love the story of the Richard Matheson book I Am Legend, and like the Vincent Price (Last Man on Earth) and Charlton Heston (The Omega Man) adaptations very much. But I don't love them, and the reason I don't love them is because last-man-on-earth scenarios almost never travel down the road I want them to. Oh sure, I like those movies on their own terms but, for me, there's still something missing, and that something is simplicity.

You see, my biggest problem with end-of-the-world scenarios is their complexity, which I would say is needless. The draw of watching, or being, the last man on earth is that there's no one else around! All complications, dropped. Full exploration of the character, on. This has been done a few times to semi-success, The World, the Flesh and the Devil and The Quiet Earth being the two best examples, but in both of those someone else eventually shows up, and then another. Why, oh why, can't they just make one person, man or woman, the last person on earth?! Castaway, with Tom Hanks, proved a great success at the box office by letting the audience watch one man, by himself, interact with the world around him. They gave him a volleyball to talk to, to be sure, but essentially made him the last man on earth by removing him from civilization, rather than remove civilization from where he lived. In that way, it plays like a last-man-on-earth scenario, even if it isn't one. And while that film doesn't do much for me, I like that they didn't have a woman suddenly appear from the other side of the island and then, later, another man so we could all be "enthralled" by their love triangle.

The Quiet Earth does this very thing, as does The World, the Flesh and the Devil and in that exact order. There's a last man for a third or even half of the movie before the screenwriter and director stop trusting the audience will be intelligent enough to follow this person through to their ultimate psychological demise, or victory, and introduce a woman that can become a love interest until another man pops up and becomes a rival. Excuse me one moment - yaaaaaaaawwwwwwnnnn. When I'm going into a story about the entire population of the planet earth being wiped out, the last thing I want to see is a goddamn love triangle! Aren't there more interesting things to direct our focus?

So, to any screenwriter out there looking to reinvent the "Last Man on Earth" scenario for a new generation of moviegoers, give this a try:

Don't have a "last" man and hordes of zombies/vampires/infected crazies trying to kill him. That means he's not the last man.

Don't introduce a woman or man, depending on the gender and orientation of the last person, to become their love interest. Couldn't give two shits less.

Don't introduce another man or woman with a slightly sinister edge, who may or may not become the antagonist to the so-called last man.

Instead, make the last man on earth the last man on earth! Have him talk to corpses in varying stages of decay if you want to give him some company. Have him live a kingly life off of all the preserved food and material goods until, a few years down the road, even those aren't good anymore and watch him slowly become a wild man living off the land. Fuck reinventing civilization, show him becoming feral again (I'd love to explore what happens to Burgess Meredith's character in the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last" after he breaks his glasses) until the last moment when, with his death, the human race is gone. Then pull the camera back on a chimpanzee or a gorilla or hell, a cockroach for all I care, and indicate that now it's their time.

The above rules apply to end-of-the-world disaster scenarios as well. If an asteroid's going to hit, let it! If neutrinos or solar flares are going to destroy or engulf the earth, let them! Don't show me Frodo on a motorcycle climbing a mountain, Liv Tyler being told her dad's a helluva guy or some kid who has trouble making potty declare she shall no longer wear diapers. And don't destroy the world only to show some kids running around a Thomas Kinkade painting with a bunch of creepy angel-types. Show the world destroyed and when the last human's dead direct our attention to some multiplying microbes as we realize it's all going to start anew.

I just want to see a movie about human-made civilization gasping its last breath and think, done right, it could be a compelling and powerful film. The earth itself has been wiped out before (When Worlds Collide, The Martian Chronicles, Knowing) but there's always survivors starting over somewhere else, and there's nothing wrong with that, I just want the scenario explored where humanity is done, it's over and there's no turning back. And, surely, I can't be the last man on earth to want that.