Sunday, 9 December 2012

Coping With The Cloud

So after the smoke has cleared and the world has been devastated by nuclear holocaust, what then? Should society be rebuilt as it was, or should the remaining mankind adapt to the situation in a wholly new level? There are a number of ways the world might turn up after the drop of the bomb, but unfortunatelly they are mostly not very fun. Mostly.

Damnation Alley (1977)
Director: Jack Smight

Taking place in the futuristic year of 2012, Damnation Alley is based on Roger Zelazny's 1967 novel, which has been seen as an important predecessor to all sorts of post-apocalyptic stories since. In the book, a ragtag group of survivors take the role of pioneers and drive across America's radioactive wasteland. The loose film adaptation however, released on the same year as Star Wars, is more of an old-fashioned adventure romp than a truly horrifying cautionary tale with barbarian motorcycle tribes. Nevertheless, it does have several quite effective scenes.

First, we have a lengthy opening scene that explains the background of the holocaust of World War III. Lieutenant Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Major Denton (George Peppard) of the US Air Force see incoming missiles on their radar and launch a nuclear counter-attack. The nuclear apocalypse turns the weather unpredictable and mutates the flora and fauna all across the continent. The world turns increasingly hostile against mankind.

Two years later, Tanner and Denton, still surviving in the Southern California military base, have been waiting for a radio signal to give sign of any other survivors. They finally manage to capture one in Albany. As an explosion destroys most of the base and kills most survivors, they, along with Airman Keegan (Paul Winfield) equip a truck to take them through "Damnation Alley" all the way to Albany. On their way they face numerous dangers and various survivors.

Most of the film is spent (cost-effectively) in the cockpit of the military truck with the survivors arguing. This is not very intersting to follow. But bits here and there make the film worth your while. We meet Tanner two years after the holocaust as he drives a dirt bike across attacking hoardes of giant radioactive scorpions, and lures them away by dropping a decoy woman among them. Later on, there's a particularly nasty scene featuring a swarm of flesh-eating roaches. The story has cannibal mutant hillbillies involved! And a very young Jackie Earle Haley! And we get to see post-apocalyptic Las Vegas (much like the Vegas of our time, except the people).

The special effects are also noticeably striking for their time, particularly the odd-colored and deadly nuclear storms on the sky. It's a fairly entertaining film, but the setting of the thing post-Apocalypse is incidential at best. It could be a space tale, featuring the new pioneers just as well.


On the Beach (1959)
Director: Stanley Kramer

In the late 1950's, as Hollywood's studio system had started to crumble, and the Cold War about to reach its peak, even major ensemble Hollywood films could be surprisingly dark and morbid. Case in point is this film about the holiday village at the end of the world, which somehow also reflects some features of WWII-era romances but turns their optimism completely upside down. This is a movie with a message, and it's not afraid to rub the audience's face in it.

An Australian harbor town hosts the last surviving Americans after an apocalyptic nuclear war. The American nuclear submarine USS Sawfish comes to the shore. The vessel's commander Towers (Greogory Peck) still harbors hope that his family had survived the nuclear war. He meets the lonely old maid Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), the owner of a nearby farm. Even though the pair start to harbor feelings for eacho other, Towers can't come to terms with his past and his wife and children's death. At the same time it dawns to the surviving scientists that the Nuclear cloud is heading to Australia and wiping all life in a mere month. This news is taken the worst by the Australian Lt. Holmes (Anthony Perkins), whose wife is expecting their firstborn child.

As post-apocalyptic stories go, this one seems to be adamantly of the opinion that even the most extreme conditions won't disrupt well-worn societal structures. Even with the certain Apocalypse looming in, the rich go to their gentleman's club to enjoy vintage wine, and to be served by common folk. Also military ranks remain, and the end of the world has no effect on their work shifts, nor the respect they receive from the people. Only on the last day of his life, does the faithful butler dare to take a sip of fine wine himself.

As a holiday resort for the damned, the people have the opportunity to do everything that they ever wanted, such as the race car-building and competing Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire). At the same time the looming doom does bring down spirits in even the happiest occasions. There's an odd feeling of uncertainty all through this film, which creates quite an unusual mood to surround it.

Moreso than any season of Lost, this is a movie where it's easy to come to the conclusion that between the lines all the characters are already dead and just spending time in limbo before their final judgement.


Akira (Japan, 1988)
Director: Katsuhiro Ôtomo

Of course, the petty western fears of nuclear annihilation can't hold a candle to horrors in the Japanese subcosciousness. That country is the still only one that has suffered through actual nuclear attacks. The most visually stuning representation of life under the threat of atomic annihilation is of course this classic anime film, based on director Katsuhiro Ôtomo's own multi-part manga series. Whereas the manga series featured gigantic nuclear explosions after another in pretty much every volume of its run, the film has to keep things more streamlined. It's a good decision, since it places more weight on the megalomaniacal explosion that does occur.

Neo-Tokyo has been rebuilt from the rubbles of a gigantic explosion that totally vanquished it 30 years prior. In 2019, the city is still military led, that at least attempts to keep a society together. In reality, however, the city belongs to criminals, juveline delinquents and their bike gangs. The leader of the Capsules, Kaneda keeps a tight leash on his best friend Tetsuo. While the gang is fighting their rivals, The Clowns, Tetsuo is kidnapped by government agents.

It turns out Tetsuo has powerful psychic skills, which has been caused by a government project to create mind weapons even stronger than nuclear weapons. Akira, the child-god that caused the destruction of Tokyo in 2019, was such a weapon. Unfortunatelly, drunk with power, Tetsuo sets out to search and awaken Akira from his hibernation. It's up to Kaneda and the young revolutinary Kay to stop him.

Despite Hollywood's best efforts, Akira is really a story that can only belong in 80's Japan. The dark, nihilistic world-view is connected to the growing fears of nuclear war in the Reagan era. The film's body horror caused by biotechnological fusion also shows that being blown to molecyles isn't really the most frightening thing about nuclear holocaust. The mutating survivors would envy the dead. The film is also very unremoreseful, killing people in a massive scale.

As a teenager when first viewing this classic, I didn't care for the main character, the frankly quite assholish Kaneda. But Ôtomo's strength as a storyteller comes from the fact he's not doing a straightforward hero's journey story. Rather, the case is a little like it is with Clockwork Orange: the youth is fucked up. We can't do anything about it, but the future will belong to them no matter what we do. In both, the sociopathic, druggy individual is the creation of the society that surrounds it. Stronger, militaristic grip on the little people just creates starker resistance. As the government, also the people opposing give as many shits about collateral damage while fighting against it.

There's only one thing this pill-popping fiend really cares about.

So this decay may be the biggest thing to fear in the case of societal collapse: a lot worse than any radioactive cloud or radiation disease.


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