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January/February 2016
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by David J. Skal


THE GHOST of an old movie haunts a pair of new ones this year, repurposing apocalyptic Cold War anxieties with more up-to-date tensions, arising from brands of unease more environmental than ideological. The World, the Flesh and the Devil, was a 1959 MGM release directed by Ranald MacDougall. Harry Belafonte starred as a Pennsylvania coal miner trapped underground for several days following a large scale nuclear disaster involving an "atomic poison" which somehow vaporized almost everyone else on earth, or, Rapture-like, transported them somewhere else. The idea owes more to surrealism than to science fiction, and the situation and characters borrow in equal parts from Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling—as when Belafonte's character, squatting in an upscale midtown Manhattan apartment, brings home a pair of department store mannequins for a simulacrum of companionship. A condensed version of the film might have made a serviceable Twilight Zone episode.

When some more real survivors show up, things get complicated. Wholesome blond television icon Inger Stevens and a smarmily good-looking Mel Ferrer complete an interracial love triangle, a surprising plot device for a major studio film of the fifties. Nothing is consummated on screen, but the film ends with the rather astonishing suggestion (for 1959) that the survivors will stop their infighting and agree to repopulate the world as a wholesome threesome.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil was a resounding flop (which must have been especially disappointing for Belafonte, reportedly guaranteed fifty percent of the film's never-to-materialize profits.) Stanley Kramer's similarly themed but much grimmer On the Beach, released the same year by the United Artists, also tanked despite an all-star cast and excellent reviews. By contrast, the highly-sublimated atomic monster movies of the period, with no overt messages about nuclear war, made money hand over fist.

It is, therefore, fascinating that a failed picture of mid-century yesteryear has had the staying power to provide a template for a new pair of similarly understated apocalypse films, Z for Zachariah, directed by Craig Zobel, and Air, helmed by Christian Cantamessa. Both films are modestly budgeted, independently produced, character-driven chamber pieces devoid of digital effects—exactly the sort of science fiction film no major studio would produce on its own these days. Z for Zachariah is by far the better film, adapted from the award-winning 1974 young adult novel by Robert C. O'Brien. Like the book, the film presents the story of a teenage girl, Ann Burden (played by Margot Robbie), who has survived a vaguely described but highly radioactive conflict in the protected micro-climate of the Eden-like Appalachian valley where she was raised. Her father, a preacher, unwisely ventured outside the valley and never returned. She spends her time farming, caring for her dog, and making hazmat-suited forays into an empty nearby town for library books and various provisions which can be had for free. But her life is upended with the arrival of another survivor in protective gear. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) unwisely assumes that a beautiful bubbling brook is as safe to splash in as the valley's air is to breathe, not realizing that the water supply emanates from the poisoned outside environment. He contracts a bad case of radiation sickness and is nursed back to health by Ann, a virgin whose solid Christian values don't preclude her cultivating a carnal interest in her patient, and probably encourage her. After all, being fruitful and multiplying are bedrock virtues in a depopulated world.

At this point, the film takes leave of O'Brien's book, and, to some viewers/readers, goes completely off the rails, latching on to The World, the Flesh and the Devil like some kind of desperate flotation device. The novel didn't deal with race at all, nor did it introduce a second man to compete for Ann's attention. But suddenly we have Caleb, played by Chris Pine as a scruffier version of Captain Kirk, who arrives to offer Loomis some stiff competition, and you're free to read that any way you like—the wholesale changes to the source plot are sufficiently crass to invite cheap wordplay. Sexually awakened by Loomis, Ann is emboldened to do some comparison shopping, and a previously interesting character comes close to a tired stereotype: the flirty woman who can't decide what she wants, gets everyone hot and bothered, and generally brings down chaos.

Ann's fictional incarnation, by contrast, was an increasingly self-aware young woman who bridled at Loomis's abusive attempts to control her, and was finally unwilling to be part of his repopulation plan. Yes, even if that meant the world would have to go unpopulated. Would it really have been so difficult to render such a provocative character as originally written?

The top-drawer acting of Robbie, Ejiofor, and Pine is engaging enough to elevate the proceedings considerably above Nissar Modi's problematic script. They're all thoughtful performers who employ subtle technique to find oodles of nuance and ambiguity in otherwise pedestrian dialog. They're as good listening to each other as they are delivering lines, and make it look effortless. It isn't. The standout is Ejiofor, best known (and Oscar-nominated) for Twelve Years a Slave, with previous apocalyptic genre excursions including Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men and Roland Emmerich's 2012, as well as next year's much anticipated Marvel outing, Dr. Strange. Robbie is yet another smart, striking Australian actress who plays American characters exceedingly well. Had this been a bigger picture, her performance would have been welcomed as a major career breakthrough. Pine is so disarming in looks and manner that you truly don't know whether he's intended to be the snake in the tree, or a more benevolent interloper in Eden.

Director Zobel was responsible for the unsettling 2012 film Compliance, itself arguably a work of social science fiction (based on a real story) about a sick, felonious prank aimed at revealing ordinary people's frightening capacity to submit to authority. As in Z for Zachariah, Zobel demonstrated a remarkable facility for eliciting understated performances that constantly challenged the viewer's allegiance to the characters. In the new film, the characters similarly jockey for audience sympathy. Therefore, when the resolution of the story is left entirely to each audience member's estimation of the characters, it does feels like the storyteller has shirked a basic responsibility.

It is not at all surprising that Air, the first feature from video game maven Christian Cantamessa, often feels like a claustrophobic digital maze, including long tracking shots down corridors and tunnels, but with no joystick in sight. Like The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Z for Zachariah, it features an interracial trio wrestling with the end of the world, though hardly a love triangle. Norman Reedus, the redoubtable Daryl of The Walking Dead fame, adopts virtually the same cynical, survivalist persona as Bauer, a custodian of a Rip Van Winkle-like assemblage of humanity's best and brightest who will be rebuilding the Earth when its toxic atmosphere becomes breathable again and they can safely emerge from hibernation. Bauer has a partner, Cartwright (Djimon Hounsou, who also appeared with Chiwetel Ejiofor in Stephen Spielberg's Amistad), and the two men periodically emerge from their own oxygen-saving hibernation to see that the sleep fortress is running properly. The air is in such short supply that they're allowed only two hours of wakefulness every six months. It's scut work from hell, but somebody has to do it. Unbeknownst to Bauer, one of their sleeping charges is Cartwright's wife, Abby (Sandrine Holt), who appears as a communicative hallucination. Egged on by the discovery that similar, adjacent facilities have failed, leaving all their occupants dead, Cartwright considers awakening Abby from suspended animation, if only to guarantee a temporary reunion. The accidental destruction of one of the custodial sleep pods raises the ugly necessity of sacrificing one of the deep sleepers for the greater good. Unless, of course, one of the guardians sacrifices the other.

The script, by Cantamessa and Chris Pasetto, posits a classic stratification society wherein a technologically pampered and protected elite is maintained by an overburdened underclass, but does nothing interesting or original with the conceit. The production values are generally competent, and the cinematography often a bit show-offy, as if to catalog every variant way to light and frame repetitious action in a limited, claustrophobic space. At feature-length, the proceedings seem padded, and Air might well have worked better as a taut, tightly edited short, or as an episode of an anthology series.

The film's small budget shows badly in the slapped together sets, which (perhaps unintentionally) convey the idea that the whole hibernation project is shaky and underfunded. The actors aren't given much dialog to work with—just enough to keep the overly schematic story moving—and the characters are not so much characterized as attitudinized. Reedus in particular phones in a resource-conserving performance, and, frankly, radiates all the excitement of a reluctant guest at a snoozer fan convention. He's here, of course, because Robert Kirkman, the erstwhile wellspring of The Walking Dead, is among the film's extensive list of producers (along with Reedus, who served as executive producer).

Both Air and Z for Zachariah had the briefest of theatrical releases, with simultaneous on-demand availability from your favorite streaming service. This increasingly common trend may well portend the end of the world, or at least the continuum of film distribution and consumption as we have come to know it. Just like the denizens of post-apocalypse cinema, we may soon face a future that rarely requires an excursion anywhere outside of our familiar, protective bubbles.

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