By R. Graeme Cameron
THE COMET (1910) is generally held by film historians to be the first film depicting the end of the world (as we know it). It was rushed into production to
take advantage of the hysteria and hype that came with the close approach of Halley’s comet that year. This American film was only 11 minutes long but
managed to pack quite a bit of drama in. Perhaps for the first time in cinema, we witnessed roads jammed with automobiles as the panicked populace flee
cities for the imagined safety of the countryside. Entire forests burst into flame. Everything burns. An elderly miser clutches his hoard of melting coins
as the comet glares down. A few fortunate people find shelter in vast cave systems. The final scene depicts the ash-strewn blasted surface of the planet
offering little hope for the survivors whenever they finally emerge.
THE COMET’S COMEBACK (1916) is a minor American comedy playing on the notion that people have become too obsessed with speed and efficiency to live decent
lives. A comet speeds by and showers the earth with gases that turn everyone into slow-moving automatons. Professor Peedeeque (pun on PDQ = pretty damn
quick) seals his laboratory from the outside atmosphere with just enough oxygen for himself, his daughter, and her two suitors. Surprise! Not enough
oxygen! The suitors draw straws, and the one named Fuller Speed (whose passion had been exceeding the speed limit in his automobile) is ejected through an
airlock. Sadly, he waves goodbye in a languid, ever slowing motion, then turns imperceptibly to drift aimlessly into the lack of a future. Sooner or later,
the three ‘normals’ will have to join him.
VERDENS UNDERGANG aka THE END OF THE WORLD (1916) is a Danish film which features lots of orgies as people do their best to ignore the impending collision
of a comet with the Earth. Since the best orgies (or at least the most elaborate) are put on by the rich, class warfare erupts and much violence ensues.
The final scenes of ultimate destruction are quite disappointing, consisting of sparks dropping onto the roofs of a model city. Presumably nobody survives.
THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924) has the premise that all male humans over the age of fourteen die via mysterious disease. This American comedy is extremely
misogynist (as one might expect for the period) but it is kinda neat that the woman President of the United States insists that her horde of cats be free
to roam the White House. Turns out there is still one—rather shaggy&emdash;guy hiding in the woods. Not to be missed is the boxing match between two female
Senators to decide who gets the bearer of “maleness.” Not to worry, he winds up with his childhood sweetheart who promptly gives birth to twin boys who,
like their father, are immune to the disease. Never quite sure what happens to all those teens when they turn fifteen, but I have an inkling it is quite
different than what awaits those twins!
LA FIN DU MONDE aka THE END OF THE WORLD (1930) is a French film directed by Abel Gance (most famous for his 1926 film NAPOLEON) in which he plays a
Christ-like figure admonishing the French to find God as yet another comet prepares to smack into Earth. Instead of God, the French prefer holding lots and
lots of orgies. The Messiah's brother Jean preaches a new order, declaring “Humanity must cast aside those who are not born for victory. Only the strong
shall remain.” I wonder if that applies to the orgies too? Film historians tend to view the film as an unpleasant paean to early Fascism. For what it’s
worth, the art direction re: the orgies is said to be extraordinarily erotic. In general the film upholds the idea that mankind does not cope well with
impending doom (although does manage to have a lot of last-minute fun!).
DELUGE (1933) is the first film to focus on the survivor's post-apocalyptic challenges. This American production sees the entire world shaken with massive
earthquakes and inundated with tsunami. The entire Earth is flooded but for a few small islands here and there. The destruction of New York City was so
impressive (even by today’s special effects standards) that the sequence reappeared in numerous serials and movies for years afterwards. The bulk of the
film is a bit naive. The good guys give all power to one individual claiming to know what democracy is all about. The bad guys steal as much food and
women as they can get their hands on. I know who I'd place my bet on for survival. Depressingly, neither of the heroine’s two suitors win her hand. Instead,
she goes swimming off alone into the great ocean, possibly to drown, or maybe to find another island… and a better man? We’ll never know.
IT'S GREAT TO BE ALIVE (1933) is a sound remake of THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, both by the American studio Fox. A disease called “Masculitis” kills every male
human on Earth but for one guy stranded on a desert isle. The female President of the US urges all women scientists to develop a race of synthetic men,
with ghastly results. Then the lone survivor is discovered. Female crime syndicates try to kidnap him to auction him off to the highest bidder. The
President wants to share him with other world leaders. Somehow he winds up marrying his childhood sweetheart. This time there is no indication of the
children they will spawn. The fate of the human race is left open.
THINGS TO COME (1936) This British film is one of the most important SF films ever made, not to mention one of the silliest and most pretentious.
Nevertheless it is an amazing film (partially scripted by HG Wells, the author of the novel it was based on). WWII breaks out and lasts for decades,
resulting in the utter destruction of civilization and the return of barbarism. (My mother was only 13 when she saw the film in its first release. The
scene of the unfortunate suffering from ‘The Wandering Sickness’ gave her nightmares for weeks.) Eventually a few enlightened fascist types (because those
who master technology of course know what’s best for the human race…) build gigantic flying machines and drop peace bombs on all the squabbling, warring
factions below. Mankind becomes thoroughly advanced, thoroughly civilized, and thoroughly bored. Hmmm, not quite sure what Wells was trying to say here. At
any rate, a film staggering in scope with magnificent art direction. And sadly, as well all know, rather prophetic. The air-raid sirens that cut through a
peacetime Christmas celebration in London are genuinely chilling. In the political climate of the day, this was one hell of a scary film. Of all the films
listed in this article THIS is the one you MUST see: it’s a classic—a silly and pretentious one, but still a classic.