Currently viewing the category: "Apocalypse Project"

Frequently, the most terrifying part of an apocalypse movie or show is any snatches of news that leak through the haze of confusion and fear that comes after, say, a nuclear attack. The key is to tell the audience and the main characters a little (Jericho) but not too little (How I Live Now) about what’s going on in the outside world. Sometimes a flash of something is more terrifying than seeing the whole thing. Or at least more disturbing. The Day After makes you queasy, Testament makes you cry. Pick your poison (sorry, they’re both fallout).

Knowing this, and knowing about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast — regardless of the myth of the mass panic, it’s a damned good broadcast! Especially the straight ersatz news parts! — it is no surprise that a nuclear war plot makes a fine radio play. I found The Last Broadcast thanks to Youtube algorithms which know me all too well.

We interrupt this broadcast” and sudden, dead air has been used in all sorts of scary things since 1938, and it still works. None of us have ever heard or seen a program interrupted by news of nuclear war or alien invasion, and let’s hope we never will. But we’ve seen enough bad, big news that the aesthetic still chills. There seem to be quite a few TV movies, most from the ’80s and 90s, which use this framing as well. I may dive into them next.

It’s the ’80s, and the Soviet Union has invaded West Germany and has invaded our regularly scheduled ’50s throwback hour on an Ontario radio station. The news gets worse from there, and if the static seems slightly fake, the accents suspiciously Canadian except the one news person who clearly fell out of the ’40s, and nobody can say “nuclear” correctly, it’s still an eerie and disturbing hour and a quarter. It helped that I listened while drowsy, with eyes closed, thereby enhancing the surreal feeling (especially when I got up and was still in my boyfriend’s parents’ killingly normal apartment).

The play is amateur, but impressive for all that. The only information I could find about its origins was that it was made and voiced by Canadian students. Not sure if it’s highschool, or college, but I definitely didn’t do anything this much scary fun in either. (I know I didn’t go to highschool, shut up).

tumblr_n4vjuhP4qn1rtynt1o1_1280“I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.”

–Bertie Wooster, Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

One of the best books ever. I suggest the audiobook — and I never suggest the audiobook — read by Jonathan Cecil. Once you hear that a few times, you’ll be able to summon all the voices in your head at will. Then move on to the rest of P.G. Wodehouse.

 

folderiexEpisode 2: “Fallout”

Oh, right, fallout. That thing we forgot about in the first episode. The thing that makes nukes more than just aesthetically terrifying clouds in the distance.

This is a tight, fearful episode. A storm is coming from Denver, and not knowing what kind of bomb went off, the people of Jericho are terrified of what those clouds may bring down upon them. Emily is still outside of town, clueless as to what has happened. She meets the two escaped criminals (oh yeah, that happened) who are impersonating deputies, and who have killed the sheriff and kidnapped Deputy Jimmy and Deputy Occasionally-Mean Guy.

I hate when apocalyptic fiction goes straight to “oooh, rogues are on the loose because society has broken down!” if only because a nuke is a lot more interesting than a dude with a teardrop tattoo. However, Emily versus the fake cops works better than it might. It’s drawn out tension, which is enhanced when she brings the men to the Richman ranch (girl, cops do not have mustaches like that — but it’s a neck tattoo peeking out that gives it away) and has to communicate with Bonnie in subtle signing that this is a problem. Plus, we have two relatively competent ladies here, which is nice.

This episode does signal two obligatory difficulties for our characters in a nuke setting. Cons on the loose, and the invisible peril of fallout. But though we don’t know everything about the show yet, we do already know that this isn’t Testament. This is a CBS show. It’s going to be about network TV-level of grim survival, not about slowly wasting away. And, you know, a tv show needs characters.

In short, though the episode is well done, and though people might die, this episode doesn’t give you an apocalyptic stomach ache. Just a little anxiety, and a touch of claustrophobia as the townspeople race to get their shelters ready, and Bonnie and Emily try to casually outwit the cons.

Back in Jericho, there’s a great scene where the cops have grabbed every single book about nuclear anything from the library, and one is Our Friend the Atom (“some friend” notes Gray Anderson bitterly). Hawkins again knows a little too much about what do in case of nuclear fallout — or he’s read this manual I keep almost buying because of its perfect balance of creepy and cheesy graphic design — but his explanation is only “I was a cop in St. Louis, and after 9/11 we got up to speed.”

The town’s shelter doesn’t have a working air filter, and Gray Anderson will definitely be using that in his weird macho war with Mayor Green. For once, he may have a point. Actually he has one a lot, but he’s still annoying.

Towns people are taking stuff from Gracie’s store, but she stops Skyler from grabbing a diet soda (asserting her property rights, while still accepting that emergency food is being taken! Gracie is also kind of the town gossip and sort of unpleasant, but she’s not a villain, and Dale has a serious loyalty to her. All of this is interesting to me.) This leads to Dale and Skyler bonding in her sealed up house. Dale slept on Gracie’ store floor the night before, because he clearly has nowhere else to go now that he hasn’t got a mom. Skyler may not have a mom anymore either, and a sad conversation about that as the fallout-drenched rain falls brings the nerd and the mean girl closer together.

This is the first episode where Jake being in charge is assumed. Basically, this town cannot function without male Green leadership. No wonder Gray Anderson is tired of it. Hawkins is told to fix the HAM radio, and finds secret messages, then says he can’t get the thing working. Much mystery. All the mystery. We see Hawkins’ family for the first time, as they huddle together in the basement. They are not entirely likable, but they are intriguing. There is clearly tension between the son, the daughter, the wife, and Hawkins. Hawkins’ wife Darcy tells him “you always know something” and he says not to ask questions. What does he know? Is he a terrorist? Law enforcement? CIA? NSA?

Most of the scenes of people packing up bags with 90 minutes to spare are good. And the scenes of other townsfolk sealing up their houses is deliberately very early War on Terror. It’s definitely less excessive than the 9/11isms in the 2005 War of the Worlds, but it brings back mentions of how to be safe from a dirty bomb or chemical attack, if you’re the right age.

Eric — the insufferable junior version of his father — has to lecture a bar full of douchebags to go to shelter so they don’t die of radiation sickness. Good thing he has a flaw, which is his affair with the uninteresting Mary, who owns the bar. Eric’s wife isn’t interesting either.

(Somehow I hate a lot of these characters when I stop to think about, but I keep on watching. Actually, Jake may be an asshole who disappeared for five years, but I don’t blame him.

Basically, everyone is annoying except for Jake and Bonnie, and usually Heather and Stanley, but I feel like I need to apologize for finding Skeet Ulrich slightly attractive.)

Finally, realizing there just isn’t enough shelter for everyone in town, Jake decides to put people into the salt mines just in time. He, however, has heard Emily using the police radio to call for help. Which annoys me, because girl, you know nukes have happened. You’re not helpless, and are in fact quite savvy in your standoff with the cons. So you do have the capacity to realize that if Denver has been nuked, police don’t give a shit about your personal peril. Really, this is all just so Jake can come and save the day. One of the cons grabs Bonnie, Jake shoots the other con. Emily shoots the one who has Bonnie, and then she stands catatonic, so that Jake must hustle her into the Richman’s storm cellar. Unfortunately for this plot and later ones, Jake has much better chemistry with the painfully peppy brunette Heather than he ever will with sad Emily.  I mean, they flirt while in peril and it almost works.

Instead, we get Jake saying he wanted to keep Emily safe, but she says she’s “never safe when you’re around.” So, to reiterate, both Jake and Hawkins are mysterious people. And Emily is a school teacher, so that means she can shoot people, but then feel awful about it. This is — and Heather’s random technical skills — is the extent of female competence on the show. We’ll get to that, once it becomes truly tedious. So far, things are just fast-paced and stressful on the show. And that’s working very well.

The final scene — pop song propelled yet again — shows townspeople in the shelters, and then Hawkins putting pins into various cities. It sure looks like the nukes hit more than just Denver and Atlanta. (Oops, Pittsburgh was one. Pittsburgh AND Philly? Musicians can’t handle visiting both, how can nukes?)

downloadSpoilers ahead.

Oh my God, Raymond Briggs, The Snowman was traumatic enough.

The chipper, addled senior citizens of Briggs’ short 1982 comic are aggressively out of touch. Jim Bloggs is cheerful and convinced that the government will save them from impending war, even if he has enough sense to take the prospect seriously. His worrywart wife Hilda thinks there’s time to reprimand her husband for swearing, and for messing up the house. There isn’t.

The preparation is careful and deliberate. Jim follows civil defense instructions to the letter. Except that he carefully builds an inner, fallout-proof sanctum in their house, but then fails to remember that they were supposed to stay inside it for 14 days.

What first appears to be goofy, can-do, learned it from the blitz spirit becomes sort of hamfisted and impossibly oblivious in time. Nobody could actually be this stupid, right?

However, after long, overly detailed build-up, the moment the bomb drops is amazing and nauseating, which is no small feat for a comic. The art is flawless. Pastoral home lived in by two round-faced seniors turns into grim and grimmer. Any aesthetic echos of The Snowman makes both comics much worse.

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Yet, they’re both so dumb. Impossibly dumb, unless they are really simple folk. Yet, one can more easily imagine simple folk not trying as hard as Jim and Hilda do to survive. It’s like they almost would have made it, but no, they never had a chance.

The reader knows. We know Jim and Hilda are sick long before they do. We know that the smell of roasted meat in the air isn’t barbecue. The chipper cluelessness of both of them is too much to believe or stand. And that’s the genius of it. The condemnation of doing your bit, the sympathy towards and gentle mocking of people who trust the government to not leave them in the post-apocalyptic lurch. Who assume that if you have the right checklist, nuclear war will be nothing but a bit of a bump in the road. We’ll tighten our belts and ration food for a time, but then we’ll be fine. Not so. Not so.

The end is so on the nose, it’s practically WarGames. You know, “strange game…the only way to win is not to play” as it applies to global thermonuclear war. It’s not hard to figure out the meaning of Hilda and Jim passing away from radiation sickness, while Jim quietly recites “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He doesn’t know why that bit of stirring, stern, sincere poetry comes to mind. But we do.

folderiexIn which I bravely begin to rewatch the 2006-2008 cult, yet also CBS TV show Jericho, so as to always have Tuesday Apocalypse fodder in the weeks to come. The show stars Skeet Ulrich, Lennie James, and other luminaries, but don’t hold the Skeet part against it. Also, there is going to eventually be libertarian subtext, but you have got to be patient.

Episode 1: “Pilot”

Jericho begins with a Killers song, which might be the dealbreaker for some of you folks. But it’s one of the catchier ones. And, as we follow Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) driving from San Diego to home in Jericho, Kansas, the band’s semi-nonsensical lyrics hint at the plot to come. “When there’s nowhere else to run/Is there room for one more son?…the cold hearted boy I used to be/ I got soul/but I’m not a soldier.” Angst! Prodigal son! It works! It’s the mid aughts!

And technically, actually, the show begins with its eerie, minimal theme music, and the sound of morse code. That’s the show for you. Forever warring between legitimately unnerving and “emotions must be propelled by pop songs.”

Jake pulls into town, and meets several of our main characters before he makes it to the old family home in order to claim his inheritance. There’s the goofy farmer Stanley Richman (Brad Beyer) and his stern sister Bonnie (Shoshannah Stern), who is deaf. There’s the frustrating and blonde Emily (Ashley Scott) who is The Ex. Jake gives a different answer each person who asks where he has been for the past five years. We know he’s either a pathological liar, or he’s ashamed of something. There’s also the moderately annoying IRS agent, who is auditing the Richman farm, but she isn’t much of a character yet.

Jake’s mom is Leslie Knope’s mom, though much less bad-ass in this role. His dad is Raymond Tusk on House of Cards. His bearded brother Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) is married to the local doctor, but having an affair with the local tavern owner. Oh, and Johnston Green — the dad — is also the mayor of town, and has been for 100 billion years.

We also meet Dale (Erik Knudsen), employed at the town busybody Gracie’s store (she is starting to doubt your commitment to sparklemotion).  And we see his crush, mean girl Skyler, who will soften later. We meet the cops, the most prominent being Jimmy (the goofy one) and the other guy (the douchey one). And we meet new in town Robert Hawkins, who just drips with mystery.

Having realized his beloved grandfather is dead, Jake decides to leave town sans inheritance. (I was never quite sure why people didn’t tell him in earlier scenes. I suppose when he tells Stanley and Emily he’s there to visit, they must think Jake just means visit the old man’s grave. But only TV cuts justify the jump from family home to grandfather’s grave.)

And then our build-up begins. TV, radio, and cell phones go out. The music is horror-delicate and menacing. Deputy Jimmy’s son is the first one to see the mushroom cloud. He’s playing hide and seek with his sister, and has climbed onto the roof, and we see his back to the camera as he stares aghast. His little sister, whining a little, says “no fun, Woody, you have to hide better.” Here the show has the sense to show a little kid first in dumbfounded horror, then in tears. You don’t need to know your Cold War history intimately to know that you should weep if you see a mushroom cloud.

On the highway, Jake sees the cloud with his wide, Skeet Ulrich eyes and crashes into another car full of similarly distracted people. A woman named Heather (Sprague Grayden) — who will immediately begin dancing the line between endearing and annoyingly cute Mary Sue for the rest of the series — sees the cloud while we only see the reflection in the school bus window. She is on a field trip with a bunch of pipsqueaks who will soon need protecting. At the Richman ranch, Bonnie stares transfixed from her porch, until her brothers pulls her away.

It’s all fantastic. All beautifully shot. It’s restrained, but palpable sickness. Something unimaginable has happened, but it has happened far enough away that everyone is physically fine, making it all the more surreal.

The rest of the plot involves the town freaking out a bit, trying to get organized. We see a power struggle between Mayor Green and a guy named Gray Anderson. Hawkins (Lennie James) knows a lot about preparing for something like this, which might be a little odd.

And basically, Jake has to hobble away from his own car wreck, and go save the school bus that has crashed due to acute “holy shit, a nuke-itis.” He apocalypse-cute-meets Heather, and saves all the children, and even performs a tracheotomy on one. He returns to town to find a curtly proud father, and a very relieved mother. He has truly returned home now.

In the mean time, poor teenage Dale has come home to a terrifying message left on his answer machine. His mother, seemingly vacationing with her gross boyfriend, had called to check in, but the message cuts off with “oh my God! What is that?” It’s clear wherever she is has been hit by a nuke as well. A scene where Dale listens to the message over and over again in the dark is correctly awful. So is the moment where Dale comes to a neighborhood meeting with the news, and needs to clarify that his mother was not in Denver, but Atlanta. We now know that two bombs have gone off.

The safety of Jericho is too safe. The brief panic is too CBS primetime, though at least the townspeople have their moment of it. Nobody — arguably since Threads and The Day After in the 1980s — really has the guts to portray pissing yourself levels of terror, or catatonic horror in response to nuclear strikes. And I think that’s how a lot of people would react. Even the heroes should have a moment of dumbfounded stillness. That’s why I love the pilot to The Walking Dead, and the first half of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In these stories, even the strong patriarch needs a moment to express, than rise above, his bafflement and fear. Unfortunately, slightly tiresome patriarch Mayor Johnston Green isn’t given quite enough of that moment here. And his wife’s dread-cry of “Oh, Johnston” isn’t quite nuke-horror. It’s more like the dog got hit by a car level of upset. One can argue that there’s good eye acting (see the extras in Titanic as the stern sinks, for a perfect example) here, but it’s still a bit too subtle for my taste.

On the other hand, Jericho is supposed to be in a sweet spot. Everyone is safe, and until starvation or fallout, or other end of the world threats some a-knocking, perhaps a dazed sort of disconnect is believable. This is only the first day.

We have had too many inspirational speeches (though one that fails) from the mayor and from his rival Gray Anderson, and too much TV logic, but we also have two mysterious men, family drama, and moderately interesting side characters in a small town dealing with the unimaginable. Not bad.

Though the woman who plays the one that got away from Jake is one of the weakest actresses on the show — and their chemistry has never been there, ever — her final scenes in the pilot are good. Her character Emily has missed it all. She was driving to pick up her fiance in Wichita, and only when birds begin falling from the sky at dusk does she realize something is terribly wrong. The final scene leans too heavily on a moody pop song, just like the opening scenes did, but the camera pulling back on bird armageddon is a good capper for the episode.

zn2ravyul9264mzv8cneJalopnik has the skinny on the video that Ted Turner wanted played before the apocalypse. Spoiler alert, is an Army brass and woodwind band playing one version of “Nearer My God to Thee.” That sounds inane, or a little too close to the maybe-apocryphal Titanic band’s choice of last song. However, if you have any spine-chills available for this kind of mood-piece (and I have it in excess), you should watch it all the same.

My favorite quote from the entire piece is in the image to the right: “HFR till end of the world confirmed.”

So modest, funny, and unnerving.

Even though the video is so insubstantial — though its simplicity, and its analog quality makes it appear to have crawled out of end of the world ’80s classics like Miracle Mile, Testament, or Threads — it has a creepy quality of belonging in two worlds. It’s a more true version of when real newscasters have bits parts in apocalypse or alien invasion films. Instead of imparters of fact playing a part, the video is the real real world playing at something that — thankfully — hasn’t happened yet, and so remains the stuff of nightmares and fiction.

I wonder if any other networks have such a thing on standby. I keep picturing Ted Turner planning this out late one feverish night after a bad dream.

Simply because I was only a toddler for the end of the Cold War, I cannot tell how true this idea of apocalypse in the air was; whether kids really thought they wouldn’t grow up; whether everyone was damn sure the big one would be dropped at some point. I can’t tell, because I wasn’t there for all intents and purposes so I can only trust a narrative, and a simplification. And because the simple version is, we all thought we were going to die from the bomb, and then in the world of This Bike is a Pipebomb, “everybody just forgot about it.” (As I read today, one reason the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists objects to the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is that is plants the threat of nuclear weapons as squarely in the past.)

Tell me how it was, readers. And tell me if you know of any other network or media versions of this CNN apocalypse video. I want to collect them all, like the morbid, gasmask-collecting lunatic I know I can be.