Spoiler Alert: Not everything has a happy ending.
Ever since Global Warming was invented in 2007, we’ve heard a lot about how we’re killing the Earth. Some of us were shocked to hear this news while others have known about it and been actively trying to either take over the planet or destroy it in some for or fashion since even before Earth Day was invented back in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson.
Some of these exploits were captured on film so that we might never forget their legacy of destruction. What better a day, what more noble an occasion to take a look back at a brief history of cinematically destroying the planet that we’ve been charged with protecting.
1950s – The Decade the Earth Stood Still
It wasn’t always mankind that was bent on destroying its own home. With 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, we got a look at an alien invader that brought a specific message to the people of Earth. That simple message was that we were headed for destruction, and if we didn’t curtail that soon, the other sanctified planets with their far-advanced life forms were going to be left with no choice but to blow us to smithereens.
The startling thing about this film is that its message still resonates with the core message of Earth Day. “We’re on a destructive path that will lead to the planet being destroyed.” Although the narrative featuring Gort and Klaatu deals specifically with our lust for nuclear weapons, the same lesson can equally be applied to the environment.
There’s a fascination there with the complete annihilation of the planet at the hands of a force larger than us that sparks an instant connection. After all, the greatest fear that we have collectively is of the end of the world – it is the ultimate powerless situation, a theme that crops up in hundreds of films, a fear that effects us all because there is no hope for us on the other side of it.
Oddly enough, it was another film that decade – When Worlds Collide – that delivered on its name. When a scientist discovers that there is another planet whose orbit is about to bring it knocking on Earth’s door, he pleads with the UN to create spaceships for people to escape the Earth from. Spoiler alert: it may be the earliest major movie to do it, but one of the final shots of the film is of the Earth colliding with the other planet as seen on the computer screen of one of the ships. The planet is destroyed in all its glory.
1960s – How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love This Decade
Drawing another parallel to the nuclear arms race, Dr. Strangelove delivers both black comedy and the possible outline of events that would happen if we dropped a nuclear weapon on the USSR. In the film’s world, the automatic response system set up by the Soviets, as well as American zeal, would lead to mutually assured destruction – the total obliteration of life on Earth by direct contact with a nuclear weapon or its resulting nuclear winter.
The humor and frustration of the film is derived completely by the ego and failings of mankind. The most important men in the world are reduced to blithering morons by the sheer power and scope of what they’re dealing with. On top of that, there’s the greater issue of the severe lack of preparation those men possess. The crisis hits all the harder because they are caught unawares and have very little time to do anything about impending global disaster that is coming at them as fast as gravity takes a cowboy riding a bomb to Earth.
1970s – Beneath the Decade of the Apes
There are really two significant film types of this genre that delved into killing our planet. The first was the widely popular Disaster Genre which saw dozens and dozens of small-scale (when compared to the entire Earth) disasters like Earthquake, The Swarm and When Time Ran Out (which is especially interesting to watch after last week’s volcano eruption).
There aren’t many prominent films that dared to take down the whole ball of wax (although a few B-films certainly gave it a go), but what we were seeing was an increase in films where nature was the enemy – where a natural disaster was going to kill our hero and his ensemble cast of well-known stars. In most cases, man was never the cause of that aggression, but what’s intriguing is that with the popularity and diversity of the genre, the 1970s very well may be the decade where we first really started seeing the Earth as either an antagonist or protagonist in films. At least, we’d never viewed it like that on such a grand scale.
That’s why the sheer brass buttons of the other major film entry is so striking. In spoiler-ific fashion, Beneath the Planet of the Apes built on the fact that the simian world laid out in Planet of the Apes was actually our own, and blew the damned thing up. The film deals again with nuclear weapons – specifically with a group living underground that worships a bomb – and the end of the film has the cinematic bravery to end on a truly final note after a blast of white hits the screen:
In one of the countless billions of galaxies in the universe, lies a medium-sized star, and one of its satellites, a green and insignificant planet, is now dead.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Earth is dead. We did it.
1980s – Escape From This Decade
With the rise of technology and the continued strain of the Cold War, this decade brought a melting pot of ways the planet could hit the skids. However, the preoccupation was mostly on surviving a cataclysmic event, so even with disaster looming, there were still a ton of people walking around on a planet that was very much still alive. Escape From New York leads the way of post-apocalyptic (strikingly livable) environments caused by mankind’s awesome lust for war. In fact, there were many of these, but even with a lot of copycats putting people in leathery Mad Max gear, the death of the disaster film (or the end of its Golden Era) really affected the significant output of successful films (or at least memorable ones) in which the planet was in total peril.
Or perhaps it was because people wanted to see people surviving an event like the one they kept being promised on the nightly news.
There were plenty of alien invasions like They Live, and science fiction hybrids like Night of the Comet, but there were also some great environmental flicks that attempted to display the death of the planet. Slipstream (from, Steven Lisberger, director of Tron) opened in a new future where mankind’s wanton disregard for the planet eventually created an ecological death sentence involving a jet stream forming which wiped out whole cities with its force. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was the birth of Studio Ghibli, but it showed both the aftermath of global devastation as well as the new environmental threat of a massive toxic wasteland that populates the planet. And, of course, there’s Solarbabies, which should not be watched by humans, but is set in the future where almost all the water is gone.
As much as these seem to threaten mankind, and even though films started exploring ecological harm, the decade really began a stretch of time where the planet itself wasn’t exactly in peril. People can be wiped out, but the planet will still be spinning even if all of its water is depleted.
1990s – Deep Decade
As CGI got better and better, the ability to end the planet became more real. However, most of the decade was still unconcerned with doing so. There were still wars leaving post-apocalyptic wastes, but the films were few and far between. Terry Gilliam tried to kill everything with Twelve Monkeys, but Bruce Willis’s wig saves the day. Aliens attempt to take the planet over in Independence Day, but we unfortunately fight them off.
We got to see the opposite of Solarbabies – a world that was covered entirely with water and the people attempting to figure out how to scrape out the last years of life they have before dying slowly of dehydration. Waterworld doesn’t exactly end it all, but it does offer a striking visual to counteract the current Global Warming scenarios wherein the coastlines rise as a result of glacial melting. If all of those videos of sad polar bears are accurate, Waterworld may very well end up being the most prescient of all Earth-destroying films.
The end of the decade saw the collision of two films that wanted giant objects to collide with the Earth. Deep Impact and Armageddon finally utilized advanced technology to force Aerosmith to write a sweeping ballad and to make a black man president. They also took the themes of early science fiction and applied realistic imagery to what might happen if a huge heavenly body did find itself hurtling toward our unsuspecting, already pollution-riddled planet.
The 90s also saw Captain Planet not getting a feature film adaptation for some strange reason.
2000s – Decade A.E.
After a huge drought where films refused to actually destroy the planet, and a dearth in films that even challenged the people of Earth with such a catastrophe, we finally arrive at a decade that opens with the planet dying.
Titan A.E., albeit an animated film, blows up the damned thing in the first ten minutes or so. In fact, the initials in the title stand for “After Earth.” Clearly, it had to deliver on that promise, and we reap the benefits of it. In a way, and this is a bit of a stretch here, Titan A.E. delivers on the alien promise made back in the 1950s in The Day the Earth Stood Still from another world that threatened to blow up the planet if our hubris wasn’t contained. Plus, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was able to violently end the planet and the movie studio that made it when it flopped at the box office.
On top of that, 2005 saw The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy deliver two breathtaking visuals – the total obliteration of the planet Earth and the jaw-dropping reconstruction of a new version of it. Not only does the film begin with the planet waving goodbye, it also deals (through the main character) with the harsh reality of everyone we know being gone forever, every place we’ve been to being gone forever, everything we’ve ever owned being gone forever. When it happens, make sure you bring a towel.
The Distant Future
With any luck, CGI will continue getting better and filmmakers will be braver in their attempts to kill us all. We can handle it. Hopefully, there will be a few films coming down the pipeline that actually succeed in turning the planet we love into crumbling space dust. If we all help, we can make it happen. We’re in this fight together, and if we all pitch in just a little bit, we’ll be able to witness the complete death of our Earth many times during our lifetime.