10 Movies That Changed The (End Of The) World
With 2012 destroying the world in theaters this week, we look back at the seminal films of the cinematic apocalypse
This week's 2012 sees director Roland Emmerich getting back to doing what he does best -- or worst, depending on which side of the argument you fall -- as he uses Mayan prophecy as a loose pretext for laying waste to the planet in a way that would shame even his previous Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Of course, movie-makers have been depicting the end of the world since the dawn of cinema, so we decided to take a look back at 10 of the landmark films of the disaster genre. Have a nice apocalypse, kids...
Panorama of Wreckage of Waterfront (1900)
Thomas Edison's company rushed to Galveston, Texas, in 1900 to film the aftermath of the storm surge that had flattened the city and killed between 6,000 and 8,000 of the city's 37,000 population, in what remained America's most deadly natural disaster. "A most picturesque mass of wreckage" was how the the catalogue described two crashed schooners in the minute-long footage of the destroyed waterfront. The search for survivors was also documented, with the catalogue noting, "Hundreds of dead bodies are concealed in these immense masses, and at the time the picture was taken the odor given out could be detected for mile."
The Comet (1910)
Like 2012's Mayan calendar hoodoo, this was released to cash in on public fears about the approach of Halley's Comet on 20 April that year. This silent short manages to cover in just 11 minutes what it'd take future apocalypse epics hundreds of hours to portray. The set up has a comet scraping by Earth, leaving untold devastation and the few survivors heading into under underground caves. The descriptions of this one promise "sensational and exciting fun" before providing a synopsis that reads like Roland Emmerich on Twitter. Thus:
"The Garage. A motor dash for safety. The coming of the Comet. Explosion of the petrol."
"The Burning Countryside. Farm, cottage, railway station and mansion involved."
"Water at last. The passing of the Comet. Panoramic Scene of a devastated World."
There were other apocalypse scenarios, like 1924's Last Man On Earth (plague wipes out all men but one; remade as 1933's It's Great To Be Alive), and the comet returned a few times (leading to messianic religion in 1930's La Fin du Monde) but 1933's Deluge, at least technically, set the benchmark for city destruction. The film starts with eclipses causing massive earthquakes worldwide. Then comes the destruction of the West Coast, and next New York crumbles as an earthquake hits and what's left is washed away by a massive tidal wave. The special effects are still impressive and if the footage seems familiar, it may be because it was recycled into serials. Only an Italian print survives, in reduced form, which was discovered in 1981 by Forrest J. Ackerman.
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The comet scenario returns as planet Zyra approaches Earth, leading to earthquakes, volcanic eruption and Deluge-like scenes of New York experiencing the ultimate surf's up again. The other 2012 touch here, of course, is that being forewarned means humanity can build a rocket ark and escape the annihilation of Earth. Also pretty familiar are the lone scientist making the discovery, political unification and an international effort to build the spaceship on a mountain, and clamorous scenes as it's decided who goes and who stays and the word "remake" occurs.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race, filmmakers started turning away from cosmic or seismic causes for End Times. The atomic freak-out was understandable and would be riffed on for decades. But Five got there before any of them with its tale of a handful of survivors trying to work out what the hell to do now the world's been blown up -- especially as there are four dudes and only one dame. The trailer heralds that the most celebrated pop culture commentators of the time -- Walter Winchell and rival gossip queens Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons -- all thought the movie was awesome. The reason it's forgotten? Because Five's more a melodrama than anything else, with the filmmakers neglecting to include the "fun" of a radioactive mutant, which Roger Corman would soon rectify by making a similar set up but adding a monster in Day the World Ended.