Adrian Graham

man hiding in grass
The Survivalist

The human extinction story

With global warming, floods, health pandemics... the human extinction story is back in fashion. In the 1970s it took shape in the post-apocalyptic story where a wondering lone hero (or a band of heroes) survived in a post-nuclear Armageddon, a petrol-starved wasteland, while also attempting to rebuild a viable society.

Outliers like Silent Running (1972) focused in on the wider eco-system, not just the plight of humanity itself. Most of those 1970’s stories were tonally upward journey’s, surprisingly optimistic. Although much of humanity had been wiped out, the message was simple: we’re tough and we will prevail. There’s always hope. In The Road (2009), The Survivalist (2015), and High Life (1919) the tone is altogether darker. It is about maintaining hope in an otherwise hopeless world that’s filled with destruction and barbarity. But, even in a world like this there’s still selflessness and sacrifice – there’s still a moral choice to be made.

In Aniara (2018) journey is a downward one, away from optimism, which makes for a tough sell. It is a bleak but intelligently handled story about materialism and human meaning – ‘High Rise’ set in space, an imploding micro-society meets ‘Silent Running’. In essence it is saying that hope is wrapped up in other bigger things, like a wider social context, connection, belonging, and an earth-like natural environment which people feel at one with. The mainstream Hollywood story is usually has an up tone, the little person winning against the odds, justice being fought for and attained, positive change, good winning against evil, finding harmony. In essence it says: there’s no need to worry.

The mass extinction story (often in the form of the low budget science fiction indie movie) is one of coming to terms with a grim new truth, a new reality. In blockbuster Hollywood films the global floods, earthquakes, ice-storms and meteorites never lead to extinction. There’s always someone with a nifty idea just in time to save the day. With independent films the audience doesn’t always have that certainty. The tonally downward journey is, in a way, a modern morality tale about love and sacrifice.

Planet of the Apes

I’ve been meaning to read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1963) for a while. I’ve seen the 1975 Hollywood film a number of times. It’s something of a cultural icon. But it’s always surprised me how the author of The Bridge over the River Kwai (1952) could also have written Planet of the Apes. They seem so entirely different.

Although the novel is quite an intellectual mind-game, as a story I prefer Rod Serling’s film version. The gloriously simple visual reveal at the end is cinematic genius, and the 1975 film seems to make more chronological sense. To put it in simple terms it’s just more satisfying. I’ve always assumed that the 1975 film was a relatively faithful adaptation of the novel, but this isn’t the case. Now, having finally read Planet of the Apes I can see parallels with The Bridge over the River Kwai. They are both post-Second World War novels about human folly.

The space opera

We take it as a given that the human story is integrally woven into this world, our ecosystems, the land and the sea – planet Earth. When we leave the bounds of this planet we’re literally taken out of our element. Any story that takes place in space or on distant planets is a relatively new kind of story, a new kind of adventure. Flash Gordon is a classic example of the 1930s space opera. It involves a ‘rocket ship’ that travels across space to the planet Mongo, the discovery of non-human races, advanced technology, mind control, death rays (and other terrible weapons), and a grand power struggle between an Imperial ruler and subjugated peoples.

In Forbidden Planet (1956) a scientist and his daughter, and their robot (the only remains of an interplanetary expedition) are visited by a rescue team intent on investigating the mysterious disappearance of the expedition. This space story’s strong Freudian influence, its electronic soundtrack, and special effects created a more realistic, mysterious and atmospheric vision of life on another planet. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the thinking person’s space story. It bumped up the realism of interplanetary space travel, taking it to new heights. It threw in questions about the meaning of life, space as the new landscape, and a psycho AI.

Star Wars (1977) returned the space adventure back to its roots, back to the original 1930s film serials. It had action, adventure, romance, a story with good triumphing against evil, drama, and more drama – possibly making it the definitive space story. The post-Star Wars space story continues with Interstellar (2014), which reaffirms the space story in a climate where NASA’s funding is being cut, where America’s boundless optimism has been clipped and people question the relevance of travelling in space.

In Interstellar we get the global eco-threat facing Earth, which creates a new call to adventure, a brilliantly minimalist robot (with a sense of humour), and a tesseract in space that resonates with metaphysical implication. There’s still life out there in space.

Blast of Silence

A hitman returns to New York, his home-town, to carry out one last job, but things go wrong. Straight from the opening of 1961s Blast of Silence, a black screen with the gravelly voice of the narrator speaking directly to the audience, the film offers a different take on the classic Film Noir: ‘Remembering. Out of the black silence you were born in pain.’ The voice-over is spoken in the second person (‘you’). The narrator is outside of the story looking in, omniscient, seemingly all knowing, goading and mocking the protagonist, sometimes condescending or patronising, sometimes anticipating the protagonist’s thoughts. At other times the narrator acts in the role of the protagonist’s conscience. It’s a bold stylistic device that’s perfectly exploited.

The cinematography is shot in the Film Noir style, black and white with heavy shadows. The distinctive gravelly tone of the voice-over, and ambient jazz music provide an auditory motif to complement the noir look. A scene in the club is almost completely without dialogue, the music does the talking.

For an early 60s film it still feels remarkably fresh. While it’s a very different film to Seconds (1966), both films share the same brutal fatalism. ‘A killer who doesn’t kill gets killed,’ the narrator goads Frankie. The narrator’s comments provide a revealing insight into Frankie Bono’s mindset, as well as creating empathy for an otherwise oppressively dark character. Frankie Bono dispenses violence and is the victim of it. This late Film Noir has a trace of the Counter Culture about it, existential angst, and the French New Wave even with the gravelly voice of the narrator sounding like the narrator in Alphaville (1965). It’s not an easy film to watch, but the narrator keeps it moving with his dry humour, making it a rewarding experience, and certainly a memorable one:

And this is it, baby boy Frankie Bono. You’re alone now. All alone. The scream is dead. There’s no pain. You’re home again, back in the cold, black silence.

The Dark Room

Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room (2001) is made up of three separate novellas. The title of each story comes from the first name of the protagonist: ‘Helmut, ‘Lore’, and ‘Micha’. Although they are different stories they’re thematically related, because they are all about German identity, guilt, and the main character’s inner conflicts. The first two stories take place during the Second World War, while the third one occurs during the 1990s. All of the stories have a brilliant sense of linear progression, and a gradual shift occurring in the central character’s internal world.

In ‘Helmut’ the character’s feelings of guilt (because he is unfit for military service) run in parallel to the devastation of Berlin around him, which he chronicles as a photographer’s assistant. The increasing tension is palpable and culminates in Helmut eventually finding his place in a completely ruined and dysfunctional environment, seemingly unaware that the people around him have changed. The second of the three stories ‘Lore’ follows a group of children wandering through war-torn Germany without adult supervision as they attempt to find their Grandmother’s house in Hamburg. It was made into the film Lore (2012), an emotional and shocking journey portrayed by brilliant child actors. The story in the film has been tweaked slightly, and I think I prefer it, but it’s mostly a faithful adaptation of the written story. These are three powerfully told stories, each one different in its own way, gripping, and psychologically tense. They explore three troubling and uncomfortable situations, where the protagonists face difficult choices. Due to the subject matter it isn’t exactly a ‘light read’, but it’s a rewarding one.


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