Currently viewing the tag: "tuesday apocalypse"

“Hydrogen Bomb”

By Al Rex

Not to mention, “When You see Those Flying Saucers”

By the Buchanan Brothers

Don't be these guys.

Don’t be these guys.

“The Shelter,” season 3, episode 68: air date: September 29, 1961

One of my criticisms of apocalyptic fiction — particularly the alien invasion or nuclear war variety — is that most characters are not hysterical enough. For example, the early aughts CBS show Jericho, which was all about a small Kansas town surviving after 25 cities are nuked, was enjoyable and disturbing, but nobody was ever upset enough about the situation. The very first shot of a faraway mushroom cloud is seen by a little kid standing on his roof — and it’s just killer. But five seconds later, after only the kid being shown in tears, that’s it. No adults are crying, no adults are hysterical in the nightmare way that I truly believe they would be. Not that civilization would crumble, or people would eat their children in five minutes, exactly, but that in the initial moments and days of nuclear war — even in the face of a visible mushroom cloud — people would flip. Even if they later rallied, the toughest among us would break down to some extent.

The Twilight Zone is not known for its realism — social commentary notwithstanding — perhaps because old TV shows are inherently a bit theatrical to youthful eyes (or to cranky people like my father).

Burgess Meredith the bookworm is eventually suicidal after he survives the H-bomb attack in “Time Enough at Last,” but he’s still impossibly mild-mannered about it all. “Time Enough at Last”  is a classic episode for a reason, but I don’t fully believe his reactions after the world is gone. The Rod Serling-penned episode “The Shelter” — in spite of some dramatic, necessarily dated elements, and some showing, and then telling — works better.

We see that Dr. Bill Stockton is throwing a dinner party, with his wife and three other couples. A warning comes over the radio that unidentified objects have entered US airspace.  Stockton, who has previously been teased for his doomsday preparations, has a fallout shelter in the basement. The other couples run home. Stockton and his wife, along with their nauseatingly chipper ’60s son, gather supplies. There’s an eerie conversation between Stockton’s wife and himself about the point of survival at all after the missiles come. The actress (Peggy Stewart) does a fabulous job, not hysterical, but displaying a bleak, tearful terror that shows she has already given up just from imagining the world that is to come. Stockton (Larry Gates) is not quite as good, but his sweaty, wide-eyed determination to save his family still rings true enough. He’s all masculine, reasonable panic.

The true conflict arises when one by one the couples come back, some with children in tow, begging to be let into the shelter. They have no basements, or they have half-finished ones, or they simply know that Stockton has a shelter and they do not. They plead, they cry, and Stockton grimly says there isn’t enough air or supplies. Every single person with dialogue sells this episode. There are no women to be slapped back into sense, no men who have everything in hand, there is just barely-contained desperation that explodes.

And the way they turn on each other — AKA, the topical commentary of it all — mostly works. Half of them preserve their humanity fairly well, the worst man goes from zero to xenophobic — turning on the sympathetic, desperate mustached guy — and he also has the bright idea of breaking down the shelter door. This mob, with some protests from the two half-reasonable men, does so. The viewer will note that everyone crowds in once the deed is done. (No mention is made of the fact that they have doomed Stockton and family, and still not saved themselves through this idiocy.)

The moment they are inside the shelter, the radio says the objects were just satellites. There is a palpable sense of shame in the air, again done well. The final speech from Stockton — wondering whether something besides a bomb destroyed them that night — is not fully necessary. Nor is the Serling tag that says the only moral here is that “for civilization to remain, the human race must remain civilized.” This was already there for the teaching, without the postscript.

Contrast “The Shelter” with “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” — another Serling classic — and you can see the former is vastly superior. Written at the height of the Berlin crisis, it feels credible, in spite of the aforementioned moral lampshading. “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is the story of another block dissolving into suspicion, fighting, and hatred. But they do this simply because the power is out and a few strange things are happening. Much of the dialogue feels clunky, and the episode cannot be watched today without it feeling like a hamfisted anti-McCarthyist screed. The end result that it’s all been an actual alien experiment in inducing paranoia — something the aliens feel the need to highlight, though it was clearly already shown to us — doesn’t make the conflicts feel any more believable.

And the ET subject matter isn’t the problem. Move “The Shelter” to an imminent alien invasion, and it would feel just as true, and the barely-contained terror radiating from the actors would still impress. I am an optimist about human nature, but we were told to fear fear itself for a reason. It does bad things to us. Serling, more subtle than average, shows this nicely in “The Shelter.”

Don't be this guy either.

Don’t be this guy either.

“One More Pallbearer,” season 3, episode 82: air date: January 12, 1962

Another Serling-penned episode, this mostly exists as a character study of an awful man. The setting is a bomb shelter and the stage is set for a would-be practical joke. Millionaire Paul Radin (Joseph Wiseman) invites three people from his past to come to his lair, and has readied a fake Civil Defense warning and a television screen with bomb footage to make them believe that nuclear war is now.

Present are his former highschool teacher, his former military commander, and a reverend, all of whom he has decided wronged him, but we see that only in his arrogant, nasty impression of how things were. Unfortunately for Radin, they all believe his trick, but after unpleasant conversation (the teacher is particularly good and cutting, she’s played by Katherine Squire), each one chooses to leave the shelter instead of begging his pardon, and to let them stay. This is all Radin wanted, but they won’t do it. They face annihilation rather than apologize to him — or rather, they are not interested in living out their days with an awful man in his awful, doomsday kingdom.

They leave, and he yells at their backs, and then rather abruptly he seems to lose his damn mind. The audience is waiting for a twist, and Serling plays with that expectation — maybe a nuke will really happen just at this synchronistic time! Nope. Radin has just snapped. His Twilight Zone fate is to be nuts and to believe he is the only man left after nuclear holocaust. The message here isn’t so much remain civilized in the face of the greatest imaginable horror, but don’t be a dick, otherwise people will let themselves be melted rather than spend time with you; this makes it a bit less satisfying an entry in the nuclear terrors Twilight Zone canon.

  • r4ru2qdrwzm954iylcmrNathan Salsburg, the fellow now in charge of the Alan Lomax archive has brought back his Root Hog or Die radio show, which can be listened to this a-way on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. EST to 4 p.m. Do it.
  • That very same fellow has also written up for The Oxford American a good look at the massive, Jack White-produced 400 dollar (so that’s not happening) box set Rise and Fall of Paramount Records, Volume One (1917–1927).
  • My previous experience with Root Hog or Die is this amazing playlist (forever a grateful hat tip to Jim Epstein) which contains my first experience with weird-ass shapenote singing and other important thing like that.
  • My friend Rodge has weeks and years of killer radio shows. I’ll never get through them all, but he’s a great, weird, diverse, but country and old time-loving DJ.
  • Oh hey, there will finally be a Hank Williams Sr. biopic and a…British guy will play the lead. He looks right, but will he sound right? (On a side note, British people doing bad American accents remains one of the funnier damn things in the world. We all sound like John Wayne Valley Girls, it seems.)
  • In my dreams, there’s a site like Jezebel except it only reports on documentaries about conjoined Vaudeville twins. I very much watch to watch this.
  • How to dress like Gary Cooper
  • Overwrought VICE Motherboard piece on the fax machine brings up interesting points — maybe analog right before the internet is the only way to truly, securely communicate. Also, I do — mostly while wandering in antique or vintage stores, sometimes starring at eight tracks — wonder about all the stuff not old enough to be interesting, yet useless in the digital age. (On another note, I don’t get the hipster love for cassettes, I really do not. But then, I don’t understand 1990s nostalgia either.)
  • I haven’t yet clicked all the way through Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time, but I did laugh for a solid 30 seconds upon discovering the song title “She’s Actin’ Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles.” Perfect.
  • In honor of Tuesday Apocalypse: io9’s Vincze Miklos collected some of the most amazing, eerie Soviet Civil Defense posters possible. I desperately want them all. If I were rich, I would have the creepiest house in the entire world, I really would. I would have a room of gas masks, terrifying nuke pamphlets, and old weapons and everyone would think I was a serial killer. I know this. I accept this about myself.
  • Further Tuesday Apocalypse: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog’s Alex Wellerstein on the nuanced and myriad meanings of Robert Oppenheimer’s “I am become death, destroyer of worlds”  thoughts post-Trinity Test. (He may not have thought that all in the moment, but realized it sounded all epic and full of gravity more than a decade later.  He was right.)
  • This is not related, but a plea for your strong female character to actually do something for the plot. I approve. And on a side note that is more related, if you don’t understand why this matters to anyone, read Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, then watch the 1990s movie. Compare and contrast the portrayal of “Mary” between the two mediums after 50 years of what we all thought was progress. Sob into your pillow. Thank you.)
  • Also unrelated — unless 2003 is old timey — but I was pleased to see some fight in The Independents re necon bullshit. Former Ambassador John Bolton starts off the scuffle by accusing libertarians of being pro-Saddam Hussein and it goes down from there. (I also love that even when the show is at its most cable news-ish talking over each other, the yelling is about George Orwell and Iraq war casualties. Classy.)

Today’s video: Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua singing an unrecorded Fuqua number, to get us all jazzed for the new Old Crow album next month:

(and not to cry too much over it being sans Willie Watson — whimper). I did not see this show, nor have I seen them play this song, but I did catch their reunion tour, and it was amazing.

Oh, okay. Here. My hat is basically the first thing you see.

ILM-War-of-the-Worlds-After-092310-PSSeminal sci-fi invasion fiction, legendarily terrifying — and really quite wonderful – radio play that launched Orson Welles’ career, War of the Worlds has crossed mediums, but never has it had a solid movie adaption. Steven Spielberg’s incredibly 9/11-y, starring Tom Cruise at the height of his weirdness version is a very frustrating example. Not because it’s a total wash, mind you, but because it’s incredible in spots, and then goes off a big cliff.

In April, Lindsay Ellis, your Nostalgia Chick (who is always a fun reviewer), correctly describes the movie’s gorgeous design, its kick-ass tripods (which Roger Ebert hated! But he’s wrong, damn it!) as well as its myriad flaws, as well as by contrast the mysteriously wonderful quality of the thousand-fold cheesier Independence Day. The latter movie has more character arc and more things actually change, it’s rather odd.

and part two:

Now some film-dorks are too cool for Spielberg, but I never understood that. (J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, is cold, derivative Spielberg and I hate him!). I also am incredibly susceptible to alien paranoia. I was scared of both The Blob and Mars Attacks! as a child, I watched and then cowered at The X-Files (still do in fact!), and I am only slightly ashamed of being 15 and scared to death of Signs when I saw it in the theater. (I shrieked out loud in one spot. I don’t believe I have done that before or since, and certainly not in a crowded theater.) So for all that, plus my fondness for the book and radio play, plus my undying love for Jurassic Park to this day, it seems like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds should be perfect. It is not.

This 2005 War of the Worlds, like the also watchable 1953 one, is incomplete as an adaptation of the book, first and foremost because it has been modernized and turned American. But the book is a rambling narrative itself. Our nameless describer of the horrors even swaps places with his brother for a time for no clear reason beyond faux-journalistic reasons that to describe, one must be there. Those scenes are only memorable because one of the two women with whom the brother flees is bracingly competent for 1898 fiction.

The famous ending is anti-climactic, because, well, the common cold does the invaders in. The whole thing is both early sci-fi, and invasion literature (a fascinating subgenre that seems really, really of the time and that time was like 50 years up to WWI and that’s all) and extremely anti-imperialist. Which is awesome. But big budget Hollywood alien pictures don’t want to end with germs saving the day. Spielberg, to his credit, gives us the classic ending without any final, tacked-on, grand battle.

I do wildly disagree with Spielberg about whether a movie set when the book was written would be boring. (Hell, such a version is on my secret list of movies I would make if money, skill, time, and nationality, were no object.) Nevertheless, though Spielberg’s WotW goes off a cliff I would say exactly when the annoying teenage son says “you’ve got to let me go, Dad” and then hits the ground and smashes into a fiery wreck when Tim Robbins appears to gnaw on the scenery, it’s worth watching and including in my Tuesday Apocalypse list. It is extremely flawed, but has just enough to it that I have rewatched it more than once, and am likely to be entranced (at least for a time) if it is on TV. And when I watch, I rant about how it could have been so good.

Why? Well, Ellis covers it aptly in her reviews above, but some of the scenes in Spielberg’s WotW are just so fucking good you want to pause the movie and just revel in their awfulness. I’ve previously mentioned in Tuesday Apocalypse, that the j nes se quoi dread is what makes a good apocalypse piece, be it cinema or book. Call it dread-porn, or something else, it needs to actually frighten me and it needs to be just so. I know it when I see or hear it.

The radio WoTW’s highest caliber moments of that are its use of dead air interrupting frantic, Herb Morrison-esque “reporting.” Spielberg’s opening shot when the tripods arise is as fantastic as Ellis says and has an element of this searched for quality. So do the scenes of grim panic when Cruise and the kids are carjacked (which is rare, since the humans are your enemy aspect is always least interesting in this kind of fiction, at least to optimist me). Hell, the pulling back camera shot of bodies floating downstream, and particularly the shot of an out of control train entirely ablaze are worth the price of admission (this is an expression we used to use in the pre-piracy days, children).

On the opposite side of that, the completely dull aliens themselves are not scary, even in the claustrophobic, derivative of the raptors chasing the kids in the kitchen in Jurassic Park scenes. How much less frightening they are in design, and in auditory exclamation than the tripods themselves, which look menacing and sound worse!

In spite of his couch-jumping, glib-accusing ways, the acting from Cruise circa 2004 is the most solid of the three characters that matter. Maybe I have a soft spot for jerk-dads, but Cruise is such a believable one here. My father is nicer than Cruise is portrayed as being, but he’s also not some softy, or some Alpha Hero. Desperate, flailing, terrified Cruise has no idea how to help his kids at the start of all this madness. But he never abandons them or freezes, he simply reacts in a human manner to completely insane happenings the best way he can. Later, post movie-cliff, he becomes a hair too action hero, but never completely. I believe him, is the main point. And that is rare in any end of the world fiction, particularly the alien invasion movie types. Most people are much too calm, and much too heroic, unless the are of the screaming, teaming masses.

Some downsides, or at least some oddly dated moments: the 9/11 nods are not subtle. There are missing flyers covering walls. There are (fair) questions from screeching Dakota Fanning asking whether the invaders are terrorists. There’s an alarming downed plane in our heroes’ yard (I can’t do plane crashes in movies, cannot do it). And most effectively disturbing of all is how Cruise is covered in dust as he staggers back into the house after the aliens first appear. His clueless children are clueless, and grab his arm and he flips out, then does so again when he stares shellshocked in the mirror and realizes that the gray matter that covers him must be made from people.

Now, as Ellis points out in her review, the worst, most hamfisted 9/11isms in the film are the teenage son’s desire to “get back at” the alien invaders. Which is a fair impulse, except, well, why would he have that need so desperately compared to any other character? Is he just a teenage moron? Why doesn’t he have the self-preservation to run the other way instead? He doesn’t because 2005 war in Afghanistan and Iraq parallels demand he doesn’t. His motivation is not clear, neither is his loathing of his father. Cruise is the only one with strong characterization, but even he doesn’t change much over the course of the movie. He starts off jerk-dad, and gets a little nicer and a little braver. But even jerk-dad never faltered in trying to rescue his kids.

Spielberg’s WoTW is worth a watch for some stunning scenes — the look and sound of the tripods, the tipping boat scene, the burning train, the morose darkness in shots that works, instead of making you wonder what happened to the color correction! – but it does remain oddly unsatisfying for how fabulously it begins.

And I still want my serious period piece with aliens, dammit.

15752340I have no idea why people join cults, and certainly the fear of cults as moral panic has caused its own misery (Waco being the most prominent example). But followers and leaders of Jonestown, The Family, Heaven’s Gate, and yes, the Branch Davidians themselves caused plenty of suffering. And every single survivor of these horrors that I have heard of speaks of their cults in the same fashion — they always say it was wonderful at first. They talk about how people loved each other so much.

I saw the ghastly Jonestown photos years before I learned that the members of the People’s Temple started out feeling as if they had found a place of benevolent communism and racial harmony. The Manson Family was hippie farm living for lost souls until it was stabbing Sharon Tate and painting the walls with her blood.

My mom is always skeptical about the trope of the neighbor who thought the BTK killer was just a charming fellow. She tends to think people can see who will go bad, or who always was bad, if they only look a little harder. But brainwashing works wonders, as does a mixture of kindness and cruelty and charisma. People join cults. People voted for Hitler. There’s got to be a reason, and we all endlessly wonder about the reason. Young Adult novels, with their angsty first person narratives and their action — not their “Oh my God, the suburbs are like, totally artificial, bro” whining — are a great format with which to explore why someone might give up their free will and what they do when it comes creeping back thanks to teenage hormones and rebellion.

In Gated, by Amy Christine Parker, our narrator is Lyla. Her parents, and her three friends, and the leader known as Pioneer are the main characters. Cute son of the local sheriff Cody is mostly a plot device for some serious faith questioning, but then, that’s lampshaded enough to be fairly unannoying. The whole idea there is that Lyla — “intended” toward her friend Will — has never had the pleasure of teenage attraction. It doesn’t matter if Cody is important himself, just that Lyla has been deprived of the pleasures of youth. Yes, all the teenagers in the cult are engaged to be married to someone picked by Pioneer, but this ain’t the Children of God or even the Branch Davidians. Everyone is 18 when they are married, so it’s nice and legal. But they do have an awful lot of guns! And a bunker!

Lyla, 17, and her family have been in the cult for ten years, since her older sister was kidnapped from the front yard and 9/11 happened all in the span of a week. The book opens with a demonstration of Lyla’s inability to shoot the human-shaped targets in the head and chest, and her scolding by Pioneer. (Yes, it’s Chekov’s gun-y.) Yes, well, it’s sort of silly to be unable to shoot a damn target. But we quickly learn this group is preparing for a time when they may need to shoot unworthy, desperate outsiders who may come for their supplies or to hurt them once they realize the truth — that the apocalypse is only months away.

For someone well versed in real cults and some of their disastrous endings (with or without an outside authority making things worse) the only question is how things are going to end for the group. Will it go Jonestown, Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, or Waco? Parker mixes in hints that suggest it could be any of them, upping the tension for old fogy readers like me.

Though law enforcement characters are disappointingly not at all bad, the cult itself is pleasingly gray. Most of the people Lyla lives with she truly loves, but she and they are all true believers to varying degrees. The community is rigid, but pleasant and pastoral. Pioneer is all “brothers and sisters” and mood swings between joyful and wrathful God. (Very Koresh and Jim Jones, and most every other big and small molder of minds and sapper of free wills, it seems). Some of the best bits are when Lyla questions something small about Pioneer’s teachings, but demonstrates in that narration that she has yet to even consider that maybe the Brethren, the alien-god types, have not chosen her and her loved ones. Maybe they are not at all real. Instead, it’s maybe that Pioneer didn’t need to punish Lyla and her friends so hard, but certainly the apocalypse is only months away and the Brethren are watching from above. That slow build of questioning in someone already more skeptical than average, and less willing to harm potential outsiders, works flawlessly well. I suspect there would be levels of realization like that.

The prose is all basic, but YA-serviceable. It’s superior to the later Hunger Games novels, but not as interesting as the more flawed 5th Wave. Lyla herself isn’t a terribly compelling character, but then, perhaps she hasn’t yet become one due to her upbringing. Making her both solidly brainwashed and sympathetic is a hard narrative task, but Parker pulls it off well. Lyla’s friend Marie is also similarly deftly drawn. Marie is both a stauncher believer and more prone to small acts of rebellion (sneaking out with the boys, smuggling in verboten Coca Cola) than her friend. Lyla’s dad is clearly struggling with belief, whereas her mother, it is implied at the end, may never recover and go back into the world. They both commit unforgivable betrayals, but they both care about their daughter. They are credible people. They are good people who suffered, and began to believe something stupid, then wrong, then evil. You can make a whole life out of what’s been poured into your head from people who swear they know everything, and you are a cipher for their will — or the will of alien gods who have been telling you their will, depending.

The tension in Gated builds admirably towards what becomes an early deadline for the group to hide in the bunker and await the end. The ATF and police come, though Lyla sees almost none of it. The bunker is closed. Pioneer goes even more mad; and I have to say, I prefer either a true-believer villain, or one who knows exactly the evil he does (shades of The Operative in Serenity). A con man or someone enjoying the process of evil is no fun.

The very end (spoilers) is relatively happy. Only a few of the cult members die. And the final scenes are of Lyla and Will (not intended for marriage anymore, but friends again after his disbelief in her) staring at the stars with the other members of the group on The Day, waiting to make very sure that an apocalypse doesn’t come. This has shades of the Great Disappointment, but it’s more a melancholy moment of crumbling belief combined with hope that the real world might be worth living in after all. (Apocalypse averted is also important as a theme — hell, it’s the whole damn Cold War, now that I think about it.)

Gated is a satisfying picture of the types of people who need someone to follow, and then do so at the cost of their own lives. The strangest thing about it is how true it is to varying degrees for so many people in the world. There are people waiting for the end of the world every day, because they’re bitter or because the Messiah had tarried long enough. And there are many, many individuals who are quite keen on other individual wills being subservient to that of someone who knows better. Most people may not be alien doomsday cultists, but everyday nationalism and statism and much religion seems to be a difference in degree, not kind.

In honor of the topical terrors of a new Cold War (thanks, Vlad), I offer this unsubtle — it is folk punk, so that is nearly redundant — 58 second tale of how “everybody just forgot about” nuclear weapons after a while. But those bombs are still there, and somebody might use them someday. So sleep well.

I was alive when the Berlin Wall fell, but I don’t remember it. And though I know the situation — and how the Wall came down, partially through bureaucratic error — was more complicated than just joyous people streaming through the holes their sledgehammers built, that footage never fails to bring a tear to my eye. So little world news is happy news. This was. When I build my time machine, I will definitely watch the USSR and the GDR crumble. (And again, being entirely antiwar and anti-empire doesn’t mean I can’t extra object to countries that, if nothing else, do not let their people travel freely or leave. That tells you all you need to know about a country, apologist lefties. If you can’t leave it, it’s a bad place.)

Did you fear the Russians when you were younger? And do you remember stopping at some point? It’s hard for people who don’t remember it to suss out how all-encompassing the anxiety really was, but popular culture and history so often suggest it was everywhere all the time.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times in movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we will also branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries about alien invasion.

Today I wrote four mini reviews of two books and two movies  — they cover nuclear war, alien invasion, a vampire plague, and a comet. All four of them are worth three out of five stars, worth reading or watching, but ultimately sort of unsatisfying. Post your howls of outrage in the comments.

61aUlQj4PSLI Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954):

Though I am a good Twilight Zone fan and Matheson wrote some of my favorite episodes, I learned about the ending in the original novel through a Cracked.com list. This, contrary to the half-assed 2007 Will Smith movie (which started quite good), is that (spoilers) Robert Neville, the vampire slayer hero of our story has turned into an ironic villain once he is the new minority, and vampires begin their new society. One of the novel’s many high points is that Neville is well aware of how darkly amusing that is, and even dwells on it before he dies.

Though the novel has good details of the zombie-vampire plague, and describes the monotony of Neville’s life so well that it is almost a fault (it becomes a bit monotonous to read), something about it remains unsatisfying. Its scope is so limited, and every chapter and section seems to end with Neville getting smashed, then restraining himself from running outside to feed himself to the vampires. The whole thing is clearly influential in terms of both vampire, zombie, and post-apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done better in later works. And apparently the various loose movie adaptions all changed Neville to a scientist. That would make his autodidactic solving of the plague’s mystery a lot more believable. As it stands in the book, I can’t quite buy it when Neville seems to have begun his task with no scientific knowledge at all.

Oddly enough — if only because this feels very Hollywood — the most emotionally powerful bit is when Neville finds the stray dog, and when he loses it again. His desperate hope and his careful patience in building up the dog’s trust, only for it all to go to hell at the end, is one of those perfect apocalypse fiction moments. Neville’s tiny interactions with the dog are more moving than the destruction of the whole damn world.

51NVOjbTQJL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey (2013):

This is a YA (that is to say, for teens more or less) novel that starts off feeling new and terrifying, but gradually goes downhill once the plot starts moving. This is the story of Cassie Sullivan, a 16-year-old who is alone and surviving on an earth that is nearly extinct of real humans. An alien invasion has brought “waves” of attack that began with an EMP attack that disabled all electronics, and has culminated in extraterrestrials who look a lot like humans roaming the countryside. The final twist — the title reference — is that aliens have managed to trick the survivors into picking each other off through paramilitary training.

The opening scenes are phenomenal in their bleakness; Cassie and her father walking home from school after the EMP, the plague that kills her mother, the mysterious army of apparent survivors who move in to eliminate a refugee camp, the simple fact that the alien ships spends a week in utter silence, lurking above the earth, when they first arrive — there is some great stuff here. I read it all with an unpleasant feeling in my spine, which is all I ever want in such works.

And that it goes all YA-ish. As a character, Cassie has to walk a careful line between credible teenager that was pre-invasion and current grim survivor now in a new world. And she does more or less. But the mandatory trimmings of a love triangle and an attractive young man who isn’t who he seems don’t pack the same weight as the opening chapters of horror did. The plot really gets going when Cassie begins her quest to free her little brother from alien captivity, and though there is no reason to believe that the aliens would be flawlessly competent, it seems like they should be able to counter Cassie and friends’ revolutionary actions a bit better. The book also drags when it leaves her head and enters that of the other two members of her unfortunate triangle.

Things pick up in tension after a draggy second third, but I was almost disappointed to learn this was just part one of a planned trilogy. I rather liked things ending with a moment of quiet relief for our survivors, but with the overriding knowledge that humans are completely fucked.

MV5BMTkwMzEzMTI4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDc5Nzk1MDE@._V1_SX214_Ladybug, Ladybug directed by Frank Perry (1963):

This small Cold War panic film waffles between righteous antiwar flick and precious propaganda. The plot is simple: an alarm is tripped at a country school (filmed in Pennsylvania) and a few phone calls by teachers and the principal (played by Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World, FYI fellow-millennials) suggest this may not be a drill. The teachers are told to walk the students home in groups, and that’s the whole thing. Some of the kids are unafraid. Some are deadly seriously and slightly too well-spoken. A female teacher stuck in heels for the long walk is not comforting; the fear in her eyes shows. The groups get smaller and smaller as kids go home to tell their doubting parents what happened.

The cinematography is lovely and menacing. The acting is occasionally a bit theatrical and 60s-earnest, but everyone (the kids are mostly amateurs) carries it as well as could be expected. The dialogue is hard to trust as really realistic, except when I remember how everyone claims kids during the Cold War used to say “if I grow up” not “when.” (Remind me to check on the realness of that.)

A highlight is the completely heart-breaking moment when a little girl runs home to tell her mother about the alarm, and she just doesn’t believe her. She is a completely believable harried, old-school mother; her daughter is a believably desperate little kid who just wants the older people to understand what is happening. It’s a basic, banal conflict, except that the stakes are apocalyptically high.

Things peter out a bit when the alarm is revealed to be a mistake (probably). The moody conversations during the students’ long walk don’t have the same terror then. The confusing and ambiguous ending is also unsatisfying. I like question mark endings in terms of Lost in Translation or Jim Jarmusch pictures of humanity that leave people after spending a while with them. But I prefer to know whether a nuke was dropped on some children or not.

MV5BMjE4NDE3MjA1NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQxMDM5._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_Deep Impact directed by Mimi Leder (1998):

Oh, the warring comet movies of 1998. In some ways I should just embrace Armageddon for its unsubtle, Aerosmith-sountracked picture of Bruce Willis saving the earth. But Deep Impact is better and worse of a film, in that it manages to provoke some human feelings, but it still wallows in disaster movie absurdities.

Ever since I was little, I was disturbed by scenes of panicked masses in movies. Even in movies I knew were cheesy, I was troubled by the unhinged hysteria and the general trampling each other bits of humanity. Deep Impact has those action-packed scenes, but it has something worse, it has waiting. In fact, most of the movie is about waiting for the end. And that is the most disturbing part about the apocalypse, trying to figure how to live while it inches closer (this is why On the Beach is so good).

The movie follows three main stories: Elijah Wood as the youth who first spots the comet; Tea Leoni as the reporter who breaks the story (this is the only film in which I have ever liked her, maybe because with a bob and a character profession as a cable news reporter, her stiffness magically changes into hey, she’s my old journalism adviser who used to work for CNN!); and finally and the least interesting, the team of astronauts who are going to save us all from doom. The movie also includes the gravitas-tastic Morgan Freeman as the president and some other side characters.

I don’t know that I could defend the whole movie — certainly not Elijah Woods’ last minute, highly bullshit efforts to rescue his ladylove Leelee Sobieski. Except that the moment where Sobieski’s parents put her on Woods’ motorcycle, pass her her little sibling, and basically pry her fingers away as she hysterically says “I’ll see you soon” is lovely and gets me in the gut every single time. As is the moment when the parents, instead of fleeing in vain from the comet-made tidal wave just turn and smile at each other at the end.

Less effective, but still powerful is Leoni’s characters’ end. And there are the visuals — the last-minute helicopters in the sky over New York City; the crowds of hysterical people trying to enter the sanctuary of the caves (though in real life I think there would be a lot more soldiers machine-gunning people)… and they all work too well for something so popcornish. And they have no business working in what is still a cheesy, impossible action movie. But they are like the extras and the secondary characters in Titanic who act circles round the main characters and the tedious love story plot. They give heart and stomach-churning anxiety to what may be a crap movie in the end.

Half-good movies are more frustrating than entirely awful ones. But halfway good movies can still raise a chill and make me think about how people spend their last moments before the end of either their world or the world entire. Deep Impact does this, and that’s not bad for a summer thriller.

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And today’s video:

Hurray for the Alan Lomax archives.