On the Beach and other cinematic dystopias

the_omega_man_large_04A few weeks ago I watched Stanley Kramer’s 1959 film On the Beach for the first time. It’s been on my mind constantly since.

I read the book by Nevil Shute, on which the film is based, soon after leaving school. At the time I was deeply involved in the anti-uranium and peace movements and, not surprisingly, its message about the danger of nuclear conflict resonated strongly.

For those who have not seen Kramer’s film (or read Shute’s book), it is set in the aftermath of an accidental nuclear war triggered by unnamed rogue state with access to atomic bombs. All life on the planet has been extinguished except for Australia and we are on borrowed time, waiting as a huge radioactive cloud slowly makes its way towards us. The cast, which includes Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, in a rare dramatic role, and Anthony Perkins pre his performance in the blockbuster, Psycho, is terrific.

There are so many things about the film that make it a truly terrifying experience, despite the fact it was made over fifty years ago. The scenes set in a totally dead and still San Francisco and the sense of utter despondency when the crew of the US submarine find the real source of the Morse code message they had hoped would lead them to survivors, are riveting.

There’s a palpable despondency on the part of the survivors in Australia as they wait for inevitable death. The government starts handing out suicide pills and in an understated but chilling scene, Perkins has to convince his wife, played by Donna Anderson, they have no alternative but to administer a pill to their newborn infant. How totally heretical the notion of mass euthanasia must have appeared in 1959.

The ending is particular memorable. There are no rotting bodies, no mutated humans, none of the stock standard techniques used by filmmakers to signify the end of the world. There are only empty streets and silence.

The overall dramatic effect achieved by Kramer is incredible. On the Beach got me thinking about what makes a good cinematic dystopia.

First, it’s a very personal thing. What cinematic dystopia will press your button is probably dependent on your particular fears and dreams. I find the inevitability of terrible death portrayed in On the Beach, the sense of powerless to do anything about it, a fearful prospect. The concept that killing your own child may be an act of mercy, to prevent them facing an even worse fate, is also horrific.

Second, Kramer’s film proves genuine horror is not dependent on big budget special effects and showing everything down to the last gory detail. Effective dystopias are about making our worst fears for society seem realistic prospects.

The following cinematic dystopias have also had a particular impact on me: 

Soylent Green (1973)

Directed by Richard Fleischer and based on a novel by Harry Harrison, the film’s vision of a world on its last ecological legs had a profound effect on me when I first saw it. The idea that Soylent Green is made of people is something of cultural joke these days, but it was pretty radical for it’s time. Another reason I probably like this film so much is it also doubles as a remarkable tight hard-boiled crime thriller. Not surprising, given Fleischer made two great noirs, Violent Saturday (1955) and Armoured Car Robbery (1950).

Children of Men (2006)

For my money, this is without a doubt the most terrifying of the more contemporary crop of dystopian films. I saw Children of Men soon after the birth of my daughter. The film’s core concept that pollution and other unstated factors had created a world in which women were no longer able to give birth, felt horrific.

The other thing about this film is how skillfully the plot utilises current trends, Islamic fundamentalism, mad cow disease, an increasingly brutal and militarised response to refugees, to achieve a realistic, almost documentary feeling. The plotting and pace are relentless, right up to the terrifyingly inconclusive ending. It’s Clive Owen’s best role. Julianne Moore is great as is Clare-Hope Ashitey who plays the a woman who has fallen pregnant. It’s also the only role I’ve seen Michael Caine perform in the last 20 years where he hasn’t felt like he’s been sleep walking. 

Blindness (2008)

This little known film by Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles scared the crap out of me. Set in the present, society is suddenly struck by an epidemic of blindness. A group of those afflicted are dumped in an abandoned mental hospital and forgotten. Civilization quickly breaks down with truly horrendous consequences. Adding to the dramatic effect one women (Julianne Moore) who can see follows her husband (Mark Ruffalo) into quarantine and keeps her condition a secret. 

The Road (2009)

The film and the Cormac McCarthy novel it was based on are completely harrowing. I dare any parent not to be horrified by its depiction of a lone man trying to shepherd his young child through a nightmare land cape of ecological devastation in which humans have been reduced to cannibalism to survive. This is up there with Children of Men as being a very plausible dystopian vision. 

The Omega Man (1971)

This is an exception to my ‘a realistic dystopia is the best dystopia’ rule. Very loosely based on an excellent novel by Richard Matheson, The Omega Man is another film I saw as a young teen that has had a lasting influence. The story deals with the lone survivor, Neville (played by Charlton Heston), of a global biological war that has killed most of the population and turned the survivors into psychopathic mutants.

Subsequent viewings have robbed it of much of fear I felt on first watching it. That said The Omega Man still has a wonderfully eerie feel. The way it incorporates aspects of the counter cultural (including the only black militant mutant I’ve ever seen in a film), the haunting depiction of an empty Los Angeles, the strange wailing of the mutants who congregate outside Neville’s house each night, still have the power to scare me. I particularly love the opening, Neville, emerging from his umpteenth viewing of Woodstock, and uttering the line, “It’s dark, they’ll be out soon.” 



3 Responses

  1. The Omega Man, though dated, still works. I catch it every once in awhile flipping channels and have to finish watching. Heston was on quite a sci-fi high from the late 60’s to early 70’s.

  2. Heston did so some great sci fi films in the late sixties, early seventies, didn’t he? Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green. I obviously agree about Omega Man. It is possibly one of my most watched films and I still enjoy it every time I see it.

  3. This is a great post, Andrew. I have not seen On the Beach and I should. I rejected Children of Men as too dark for me, but you have convinced me to try it. All of these films sound worth a viewing.

    We have such a backlog of unwatched movies and TV series, but still I will have to make an effort to get to these.

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