Life after People

2008, 60 mins., TVM, USA

Director: David de Vries

Producer: History Channel Broadcast

CGI Documentary

If you enjoyed the lion poking around the steps of the shambolic New York Public Library in Twelve Monkeys (1995) or the tanker floating up Fifth Avenue in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), you are going to love Life After People, the History Channel’s repetitive but ingenious CGI rendering of the megalopolis without megalopitans.

The filmmakers stake out some new territory in this documentary by starting with shots of a suburban home with a cute doggy instead of the usual collapsing skyscrapers. (We get plenty of them eventually.) Equally daring is that there is no attempt to explain why humans suddenly disappear: viewers can take their pick—plague, nuclear war, the Rapture—because the point of the film is that it doesn’t really matter how we go. What interests the filmmakers is what happens, at first one day after, then after the first few days, then after months, then years, then centuries.

The film successfully mixes both the everyday and the spectacular. We learn what will happen to most of those cute doggies—don’t ask—but are reassured that even rats and cockroaches may have some difficult times ahead. The CGI shows both how and why a simple wood frame house or skyscraper or even the Brooklyn Bridge will eventually collapse. Nothing in the megalopolis can stand up to either the power of nature as vegetation reclaims almost all of the earth’s surface or the power of chemistry as salt in the air or just plain moisture on metallic surfaces erode and eventually destroy virtually all human-made structures. (Scientists speculate that only Mt. Rushmore’s presidential sculptures will endure; the Great Wall and the pyramids will not collapse but be overgrown with vegetation.)

The scientists who talk to us in the film are unanimous in one regard: it is the labor of human beings—painting, cleaning, caulking—that keeps the megalopolis intact. The standbys of the electronic and digital ages—radio waves in space talking to the future or computer disks—really have no shelf life and certainly are way inferior to the old method of carving messages in stone. The latter will last much longer.

While some critics of the film were bothered by its seeming lack of interest in why human beings vanished, they obviously did not click on the Extinctions button of the Special Features menu of the DVD. While most futurists concentrate on natural disaster, plague, or nuclear war as the human race’s endgame, it is possible the real culprit may be our own fabled strands of DNA. Telomeres—the enzmes that cap the ends of the strands of DNA–may deteriorate, leading to a shortening and degrading of our DNA. This will be news to most of us, I’m sure, who had high hopes of our genetic superiority.

YouTube:

Day After Tomorrow (at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_nm5guuLLE), 7 mins. Tornadoes hitting Los Angeles sequence.

Other Websites:

Day After Tomorrow (at http://www.history.com/minisites/life_after_people). Official website of the film on the History Channel with numerous opportunities to explore scientific and speculative issues raised by the film.

Aftermath: Population Zero (at channel.nationalgeographic.com/episode/aftermath-population-zero-3225). National Geographic’s remarkably similar cinematic thought-experiment, perhaps lighter in terms of CGI (although we do get the decapitation of the Statue of Liberty, always a sure crowd pleaser).

Further Reading:

Weisman, Alan. The World Without Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007. A convincing thought experiment, as Weisman outlines how both the obvious infrastructure of human life (cities, buildings, bridges) as well as the ecosystems collapse or change when all human beings vanish (for whatever catastrophic reason); includes analysis of actual contemporary systems (Chernobyl, well known, and Varosa, the lesser known contested and abandoned city in Cyprus), have collapsed.

“The Day After Tomorrow: Could it Really Happen?” Pew Center on Global Climate Change (at http://www.pewclimate.org/dayaftertomorrow.cfm). Although the Center has science on its agenda, strangely enough it gives some credence to the film’s premise of “abrupt climate change” because “there’s evidence that some parts of the climate system work more like a switch than a dial: if a certain temperature level is reached, there may be an abrupt and large change in the climate. That’s why some scientists worry about a catastrophic event.” They refer the nervous viewer to their report, “Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises” (at http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/NAS%20Abrupt%20Climate%20Change%204-pager.pdf).

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