"It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine."
There's something rather appealing about the end of the world. Maybe it's that misanthropic streak in me that likes the idea of seeing the human race eradicated, but the post-apocalyptic world is one I really respond to as a science fiction story setting, a decaying planet in which the survivors are stripped of technology and are returned to a tribal or even nomadic hunter-gatherer state. It's kind of ironic that since we've had the ability to create such a world in photorealistic detail, modern filmmakers have failed to do anything substantial with it (I have, I'll admit, yet to see John Hillcoat's The Road). Even the most convincing of these stories tend to get a little creative when it comes to how our towns, cities and even rural areas would look once there were no people to populate and maintain them. It's the question of what would really happen if humankind was suddenly removed from the planet that the sometimes fascinating History Channel documentary Life After People energetically attempts to answer.
Although speculative in nature, this is a traditional documentary given a rock 'n' roll sheen, a bend of expert interviews, explanatory voice-over, CG animations and real-world examples, driven by a music score that alternates between sinister chords and a driving electronic beat, plus an array of post-modernist visual tics, including the sort of woosh-accompanied accelerated imagery that suggests the camera has been suddenly sucked through a vacuum. The film was made for television and is American in origin, so it's no real surprise that it has an American voice-over, which may initially prove a small stumbling block for a UK audience more accustomed to the matter-of-fact and low key UK equivalent. American documentary commentaries often have a dramatic edge that can sound a little like the voice-overs on movie trailers, their delivery sometimes suggesting that the commentator is only a few steps away from an awed gasp of "Oh...my...God!" But given the programme's overall tone, it's surprisingly easy to live with and even rather appropriate.
But the presentation is merely an audience-aware conduit for the content, and that's where the film's real hook lies. Starting the first day after the departure of man and hopping forward in ever-increasing steps to ten thousand years, the film takes a theoretical look at how the current urban landscape would change if nature were free to reclaim what for so long has been controlled and dominated by humankind. While some of this will not be a complete surprise – buildings will eventually rot and collapse, greenery will flourish – it's the specifics and the science of the process that prove compelling and intermittently eye-opening. Some examples serve to highlight the fragility of our urban existence – without its pump-powered drainage system, the subways beneath New York would flood in less than two days – while others provide an insight into the durability of building materials, with old-style concrete winning out over wood, iron, and masonry. There are also a couple of surprises in how the animal world would fare, particularly the survival prospects for creatures you might not have thought were dependent on our presence.
A few myths are dispelled involving the generation of electricity: with no-one to consume their output, nuclear power stations would quickly shut themselves down, and even wind turbines would soon fail if their bearings were not regularly lubricated. Favourite to outlast the others is the Hoover Dam, proposed as one of the only power stations that would continue to generate electricity for more than a few days without maintenance, though even this mighty structure would eventually fall victim to nature, brought to a halt by a mollusc the size of your fingernail. Credence for many of the proposed theories is provided by real world locations, notably the abandoned buildings in Cambodia that have been swallowed by trees and the Ukrainian ghost city of Prypiat, abandoned following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and left to decay without human interference for over twenty years.
CGI is used to simulate everything from the nature's reclamation of urban space to the decay and eventual collapse of iconic city structures. The quality of the CG varies wildly here, suggesting a number of effects houses with differing budgets and software or material sourced from older programmes – the collapse of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building and Seattle's Space Needle are impressively rendered, while the animation of the destruction of smaller dwellings has a distinctly retro feel. A detailed breakdown of how cars would corrode, meanwhile, concludes with an image that could have been lifted straight from Fallout 3, a video game whose post-apocalyptic world is more atmospheric and convincing than any modern movie equivalent.
The film is a little selective with its examples, focussed primarily on the effect on specific American cities and structures (the filmmakers clearly have a fondness for New York and the Hoover Dam), and I'd have personally liked a bit more detail on what happens in that first year, but for the most part Life After People gets the balance between theoretical science, apocalypse fascination and showmanship about right. It's certainly absorbing enough for the feature-length running time to fly past, and could well serve as the starting point for someone, somewhere to make that definitive doomsday drama we've all be morbidly waiting for.
One of the problems with HD is that if your source material is drawn from a variety of media then the differences between them really start to show. No sneakily trying to pass off WW2 stock footage as part of your filmed material here. The interviews in Life After People have been shot in HD and the more sophisticated CG has been rendered in HD, but a sizeable proportion of the film has clearly been constructed from borrowed footage from a variety of sources and media, resulting in some very visible variance in picture quality, sometimes on a shot by shot basis. The best material is crisp and pleasing to the eye, but while the non-HD footage has been graded to match the newer material, the resolution is noticeably lower, resulting in some jagged diagonal lines and softer detail. There is also some occasional shimmering on detailed surfaces and some juddering on camera moves on some shots. It's a pretty good transfer within these restrictions, but Planet Earth it's not.
The soundtrack is Dolby 2.0 stereo only, which is doubtless how it was originally mixed for transmission by still a little unusual for Blu-ray, particularly when this very same week Fritz Lang's 1931 M has been released with an uncompressed DTS Master Audio soundtrack. As straight up stereo mixes go this is solid one – speech is always clear and music and sound effects brightly rendered, though you'll need to reroute the bass though the sub to give it the kick it cries out for.
Additional Footage (18:34)
8 short pieces that can be watched separately or as a chaptered sequence. The first is a brief nod to the film's visual effects, while the next two compress the film's key subject areas into a couple of minutes, a bit like trailers that are trying not to look like trailers, if that makes sense. The rest are all deleted scenes, the first four of which look at possible ways in which humankind could become extinct, namely meteor strike, all-out nuclear war, pandemic virus and a new theory of human extinction regarding the telomerase enzyme. But it's the final piece that is of primary interest, providing some surprising facts about the durability of our garbage and providing a definitive answer to a question left open in the film itself over whether any evidence of our civilisation would survive more than a few thousand years.
Life After People may not tell anything like the whole story and could well be as accurate as the average weather forecast, but it presents its hypotheses in persuasive and engrossing fashion, and if humankind were to disappear from the planet there would be no-one left to question its findings anyway. The History Channel's Blu-ray disc highlights the pitfalls of multi-format material in a high-definition age, but the presentation does its best to distract you from the picture inconsistencies and the strength of the content survives intact.