“Welcome to Earth, Population Zero”
In January, 2008, the History Channel broadcast a heavily advertised documentary called “Life After People.” Running in a two hour time slot, it featured extensive CGI to demonstrate what would take place to the remains of human civilization if all the humans simply disappeared. The documentary was a coup for the History Channel, bringing in over 5.4 million viewers, the highest viewership in the channel’s history. They brought back the concept in 2009 as a 10 episode mini-series that episodically zoomed in on particularly interesting tidbits.
“Life After People” takes the basic premise of the end of the world, strips out all pretense of plot and characters, and films the spectacle as a documentary. It even uses the conceit of refusing to explore why or how humans might have disappeared (disease, mass suicide, the singularity, the rapture) and focuses exclusively on what would happen after us, boilerplate apocalypse. The show raises the bar for anyone who wants to pen a post-apocalyptic tale, mapping out dozens of set pieces into which intrepid survivors could be dropped.
The original documentary and show have three basic components that are mixed and matched throughout each episode: footage taken from an existing ghost town, CGI of buildings falling down, and tightly focused explorations of particularly interesting case studies. While the second component can get repetitive at times, the other two stay fresh over the course of the season.
The footage from real ghost towns helps ground the speculation in science, and has that voyeuristic charm that draws us to photo galleries online of abandoned and decaying towns. Prypiat, Ukraine, the small city a mile from Chernobyl that was abandoned quite literally overnight twenty years ago hosts a soccer field that’s become a forest, a ferris wheel set up a few days before the disaster and never used, trees growing on roofs of buildings. Each subsequent episode uses a different abandoned area: Hashima Island, the temples of Angkor, Centralia, Pennsylvania. These bits add texture to the speculation and CGI, weighing down the proceedings with the implicit warning that this isn’t just speculation, this has happened before, albeit on a smaller scale.
The weakest parts of the series is the recurring motif of giant buildings falling down. It gets a bit repetitive from episode to episode: windows break, water leaks into the foundations, beams and foundations gradually weaken without maintenance, and then one day fifty years down the road, it all comes tumbling down, repeat next week with the next famous skyscraper on the list. Though on paper it would seem to be the most exciting, it fails for the same reason that most giant disaster movies fail to strike home. It just isn’t personal enough. It’s enormous and impressive, but it just doesn’t resonate the same way as the more nuanced explorations of how smaller and more tangible bits of our civilization will fade away.
Those more focused segments are the best part of the show, zooming tightly in on particularly intriguing ways that things will go spectacularly wrong: breweries detonating as the fermentation tanks build up pressure, the New York City subway system flooding within 36 hours as pumps shut down, sandstorms slowly burying Phoenix, the colonization of skyscrapers by cats hunting birds hundreds of feet above the decaying asphalt, seagulls dying out by the millions once humans stop producing garbage.
“Life After People” reminds me of how the best part of The Stand was the first few hundred pages as we watched the world disintegrate without us, watched the entire Rube Goldberg edifice of our civilization tumble as the clockwork tripped without our hands. There’s an entire sub-genre of horror and science fiction premised on the exploration of the apocalypse. When Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich get on board it’s naturally idiotic, but like all genre memes, when it’s done good, it’s done really good. If part of the appeal of horror is the thrill of our own mortality, there is something in armageddon fiction that whispers to us about the mortality of our entire species.
There’s something pornographic about it, the appeal of raw spectacle. Tension and veiled references aren’t enough, we want to see the details on the screen. Apocalypse fiction doesn’t work subtly, if it was horror or porn it’d be banned in the South. We want to watch the camera linger luridly as nature ravages our civilization’s corpse back into dust.
The show alternately stresses permanence and impermanence as themes. We stored records of human DNA on the “Immortality Drive” on the International Space Station, explicitly so that if we were wiped out by something, then if someone or something else ever came along with the brains to figure it out, we might live again in some form. Hilariously though, without humans the space station would burn up in the atmosphere within a few years. Within 10,000 years, virtually no trace would remain of our civilization, but plastic Mardi Gras beads would endure in the soil essentially forever. “Life After People” works best when highlighting the tragic fragility of our greatest accomplishments and the stubborn persistence of many of our most trivial.
If you are into science fiction or those particular strains of horror that obsess over the hungry curiosity at being the last person left on Earth, “Life After People” is a truly enthralling show.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.