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Monday, August 27, 2012

Robert Wise | The Day the Earth Stood Still / Byron Haskin |The War of the Worlds / Don Siegel | Invasion of the Body Snatchers / Wolf Rilla | Village of the Damned / Irwin Allen | Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea / Sidney Lument | Fail-Safe / Stanley Kubrick | Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb / Robert Wise | The Andromeda Strain / Steve De Jarnatt | Miracle Mile / Roland Emmerich | Independence Day

How to Save the World
by Douglas Messerli
 
Edmund H. North (screenplay), based on a story by Harry Bates, Robert Wise (director) The Day the Earth Stood Still / 1951

Barré Lyndon (screenplay), based on the novel by H. G. Wells, Byron Haskin (director) War of the Worlds / 1953
Daniel Mainwaring and Richard Collins (screenplay), based on a story by Jack Finney, Don Siegel (director) Invasion of the Body Snatchers / 1956
Stirling Silliphant, Wolf Rilla, and Ronald Kinnoch (as George Barclay) (screenplay), based on a novel by John Wyndham, Wolf Rilla (director), Village of the Damned / 1960

Irwin Allen and Charles Bennett (screenplay), based on a story by Irwin Allen, Irwin Allen (director) Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea / 1961

Walter Bernstein (screenplay), based on a novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, Sidney Lument (director) Fail-Safe / 1964

Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George (screenplay), Stanley Kubrick (director), Dr. Strangelove or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb / 1964

Nelson Gidding (screenplay), based on a novel by Michael Crichton, Robert Wise (director) The
Andromeda Strain
/ 1971

Steve De Jarnatt (screenplay and director) Miracle Mile / 1988
Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (screenplay), Roland Emmerich (director) Independence Day / 1996
 


Anyone who is at all knowledgeable about film history knows that there are numerous movies devoted to the subject of the world's destruction. And recent examples such as Independence Day, Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Core and the remake of War of the Worlds have been enormously successful with younger audiences.

I have chosen to focus, however, on a few films, primarily from the 1950s through the early 1980s in an attempt to discern the varying views of how our earth might be destroyed and what are possible solutions in those scenarios. I am sure some of this has been discussed before—perhaps in greater depth—but my current focus on these films is to explore if there are any coherent answers for our own times.

Given my smaller selection of choices, moreover, there is a kind of strange chronology concerning the possibilities of salvation available to mankind. In the 1951 classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, for example, there is actually no immediate fear that the planet we live on will be destroyed. Klaatu (in the form of British actor Michael Rennie), along with fearsome doomsday machine Gort, descend to earth simply to warn us that if we continue on our ways we are doomed to destruction. The masses are always dangerous in these films of possible annihilation, and the Americans of The Day the Earth Stood Still are no exception, individuals, along with soldiers and police gathering in violent groups around the space craft, while authorities try to capture and kill the peaceful messenger. Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son are among the few examples of human kindness in this picture, but even her boyfriend, Tom Stevens, is determined to turn in the alien and perhaps get rich in the process.

Klaatu quickly realizes that he cannot trust the "people," and turns instead to the help of world scientists—who today, in the frictional world of various oppositions to scientific experimentation (activists against the use of animals in experiments and Christian fundamentalists who outright oppose and disbelieve in the science itself) might more likely be represented as the least worthy of trust—who find it difficult even to come together in Washington to hear out Klaatu's warnings. But Prof. Jacob Barnhardt (played by Sam Jaffe as a kind of Einsteinian mathematical genius) at least reassures us that, if only the authorities will listen before shooting, they may be a hope for our survival.

By 1953, however, the filming of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds offers no such easy out. Here the aliens attack and win, implanting their colonies filled with their oddly tentacled bodies across the globe. While science again tries to win the war, frenzied mobs erupt in the streets, destroying everything in their path, including the vital findings of the scientists at work on the alien's destruction. While the masses huddle against the Hollywood Hills, the world's destruction appears imminent, without a hope in sight.

My companion Howard, witnessing this movie as a child, recounts his utter horror at such a breakdown in global authority, and as he walked home from the showing, his imagination conjured up a spacecraft in the skies. He was unable to sleep for nights. In the film, however, we are saved as suddenly the alien ships begin, one by one, to fall from the skies. If scientists cannot save us, science itself as represented by our natural world does; oxygen is fatal to these celestial intruders.

Once again in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we witness an outside force, this time in the form of an alien bacteria that grows into giant pods ready to take over and imitate the very form of man himself, successfully overcoming a population, if only the people of a small region of California.

I have already written on some of this film's implications in My Year 2004, so I will not repeat the underlying hysterias of the time that energize Siegel's fascinating work. What is important for my purposes is that only a triumvirate of medical doctors, the military, and police working together can save the day, one presumes, by destroying the seemingly normal but inwardly empty people of Santa Mira and the surrounding villages.

Once again the masses have to be staid before order can be restored, but in this 1956 fantasy, the destructive military is turned against its own citizens, and there is the uneasy feeling that somehow the salvation of the world may be botched. Certainly that was conveyed in Phillip Kaufman's 1978 remake. If in the original Dr. Matthew Bennell stays awake long enough to make a run for it, convincing the outside world of the dangers ahead, in Donald Sutherland's portrayal, years later, he himself screams out as an alien against a surviving human friend. In Kaufman's version it is apparent that the world may be taken over after all.

Similar, in some respects, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers are the strange births of blond-haired, blue-eyed children in the village of Midwich, England in the 1960 film, Village of the Damned. It is not apparent whether these gifted monsters intend to take over the world or not, but it is clear that in their supernatural powers they have made it nearly impossible to be a normal citizen of Midwich, and in their stolid attempts at education these children clearly have grander plans. Like the scientists and doctors of the previous movies, Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) at first attempts to investigate these incidents within a rational context, but it quickly becomes apparent, given the young terrorists' ability to read minds, that the only way to destroy them is to give up rationality and blow them (and himself) up.

The masses at are it again in Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), where in the person of Admiral Harriman Nelson we have both a military man and a scientist at the helm in his attempt to save the world from the Van Allen radiation belt, which has caught fire and is quickly scorching and torching the planet. Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) and his able assistant (the oddly cast Peter Lorre) are convinced that the only way to save the planet is to blow up the belt near Mauritius island on an specific day and time. Despite the continued destruction of earth, numerous other scientists, joined by the masses, disagree and plan to scuttle the attempts of Nelson's nuclear submarine. Eventually, he is almost brought down by the machinations of his own medical doctor, Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine) with her psychological aspersions, directed to Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling), against the Admiral. The imperiled world is saved, once again, by a kind of violence, an explosion that jettisons the radiation belt into outer space. How that might effect our continued survival is never revealed.

By 1964 the military increasingly becomes the enemy itself. That year's Fail Safe and the darkly comic Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb both feature a military world out of control and ready to release nuclear weaponry upon the enemy, resulting obviously in the total world destruction of which The Day the Earth Stood Still's Klaatu had warned. The plot to bomb Russia by military higher-ups in Fail Safe is foiled by a saner head, in the form of the President (Henry Fonda), who, however, must allow millions of New Yorkers (including his own wife) to be killed in retaliation for the destruction of Moscow. The earth is saved in Fail Safe, but at what expense?

Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove took that world destruction to its obvious conclusion. In this mad world of both military and political leadership, there is no "fail-safe," and the planet, quite obviously, is up for a totally dark comic annihilation. I have never been a fan of Kubrick's work, perhaps because it allows for no possible solution.

The 1971 motion picture The Andromeda Strain continues to explore the madness of the military, but also points its fingers at the scientific world. Discovering a small desert town completely destroyed (except for two seeming unconnected individuals, a crying baby and an alcoholic addicted to antifreeze), even the plane flying over the site is downed, its pilots' blood turned to dust. Obviously, a massive bio-chemical accident has occurred. The always malicious military suggests bombing the site to smithereens, but scientists warn that will only spread it across the area. Meanwhile, the dangerous chemicals may be caught up in the winds, killing millions, if an antidote cannot quickly be discovered. Noted scientists, already slated for this job, are gathered in a forbidding, chemically impenetrable bunker to seek an answer. For 96 critical hours in man's history (so claims the film's tagline) these specialists struggle to analyze the dangerous bio-chemical. They nearly fail, but as in War of the Worlds they ultimately discover that the natural world may provide the salvation, that heavy doses of oxygen will ultimately destroy the new virus. In their explorations, however, they also reveal the cozy—and dangerous—interplay of politics and science of which most of these films have previously hinted.

Finally, in Steve De Jarnatt's 1988 offbeat Miracle Mile, filmed almost entirely in my own neighborhood and including images of my office and home, mass hysteria is all we have left. Neither the military nor scientists appear on the horizon. We never, in fact, discover the reason for the impending nuclear bombing of Los Angeles; indeed, it is only by a fluke—a wrong number to public phone picked up by an unsuspecting visitor—that forecasts what will surely result in the end of the world. Escape to an isolated spot (as in the 1959 film On the Beach) is only a temporary salvation. And the "hero" falls, just before the bombs, into the La Brea Tarpits to be embalmed in water and tar like the mammoths of ancient days.

Most of the contemporary "end of the world" films are not as bleak. The 1996 film Independence Day, for example, returns to a triumvirate of the President, military, and scientists to save the day. But there is a strong feeling, particularly in more dystopian works such as the Mad Max movies (1979 and 1981), the Japanese animated film Akira (1988) and Ridley Scott's brilliant 1982 film Blade Runner that government, the military, and science will only make matters worse.

If in 1951, we might be have been able to hope our scientists, if only left alone, could have saved us, over the next few decades it became clearer that we the people, the military, the political forces we elect, as well as the scientific world would be in collusion to fail in the fight against any real global threat to our existence—a skepticism, I suggest, that is a horrific specter of what might happen in any natural or terrorist threat we may soon face.
Yet someone must take leadership and, although—along with most of the films I have discussed and, I might add, our founding fathers—I am somewhat doubtful that answers to any global threat will come from the "common folk." The events of 9/11 demonstrated, however, that it was the everyday fast-responding firefighters and fellow workers who saved the most lives. Scientists would only show up at the World Trade Towers in retrospect. The President remained protected in a Florida classroom and Air Force One. Even New York mayor Rudy Giuliani could do little but declare his good intentions after the fact. And that event, we must remember, threatened only a few New York City blocks, not an entire planet.
 
And it was "common folk," after all, who prevented United Airlines Flight 93 from crashing into the USA Capitol or White House.
 
Accordingly, I might now argue that the struggle to save the world depends upon everyone of us—not in the way the New Jersey Transit suggests, urging us to "Report any suspicious acts"—but by becoming involved in the world around us and acknowledging our lives as being linked to global events.

Los Angeles, December 12, 2001

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