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Life After People

(History Channel; US DVD: 18 Mar 2008)

Life After People is a rather strange documentary that shows what would happen to the Earth if people suddenly disappeared. It begins around 7:30 in the morning in a rather nice house somewhere in the US.  The inhabitants disappear (for no given reason) after a few cups of coffee and before the beds are made. The family dog is still there though, looking quite confused and abandoned. The viewer is quite confused, as well, since one would think that any story about the Earth after people would have to begin by telling how the people disappeared.


So the Earth is like the Marie Celeste, the ship that was found drifting about in a completely normal state except that the crew and passengers were gone without any explanation. The gradual erasing of the human footprint and the adaptation of certain species are thoroughly explored and are strangely fascinating. Though disappointing as an apocalyptic tale, Life After People is a remarkable depiction of decay and adaptation.


The aftermath of humanity is depicted on an ever-expanding scale of days, months, years, decades, centuries and millennia. We find out what happens to the buildings, cars, cities and roads. The process of nature taking other is described very well with sound science backing it up. We have the science because of the Chernobyl disaster 22 years ago, in which an advanced society quickly disappeared due to a nuclear accident. The area is still being monitored and its rapid decay is stunning.


The CGI effects of Life After People are stunning, as well. We are treated to the collapse of the Eiffel Tower, the Hoover Dam, and both the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges. We see Manhattan’s streets being reclaimed by vegetation and the return of streams that had been paved over for centuries. We witness the flooding of London and Amsterdam and a beautiful rendition of an interstate highway turning into a forest.


The most fanciful depictions are those of the vertical ecosystems that may form in the skyscrapers as vegetation and animals move into office buildings. The dominant predators are descendents of housecats, but their glory is short lived as the skyscrapers are only expected to last for about 300 years. The vertical jungle of Chicago is an awesome (if imaginary) scene.


There’s a hopeful aspect to this documentary, and that is the explanation of just how resilient life is. The oceans rebound with teeming life, no longer suffering from human-induced pollution and over fishing. Species that have been hemmed in by roads and loss of habitat, again thanks to humans, should recover remarkably quickly. None of this is fanciful, because humans have caused similar recoveries before, such as the repopulation of North American wolves, thanks to human intervention (after the species’ near demise, also thanks to human intervention). There’s a strong suggestion in Life After People that we can learn how to save the planet without dying off.


But should we die off, who will miss us? Dogs of course, most of which will be gone about a week after we disappear. Cats will as well, although to a lesser extent. Coyotes, pigeons and seagulls will have a harder time of it, as they’ve learned to live off our leavings. Without humans’ waste to feed off, rats and mice will be forced to make an honest living. But surprisingly it will be the cockroaches that may miss us most of all. Apparently they are totally dependant on humans wherever winter occurs – we provide them with a warm, cozy home. The farm animals aren’t mentioned at all but lions and rhinos are expected to thrive if enough of them can escape from the zoos.


As Life After People progresses, the traces of our existence become harder to find as nature takes over. Our books, CDs and DVDs rot away. The concrete crumbles, the dams burst and the cities turn into earth-covered rubble. After 100,000 years only the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and Mount Rushmore are recognizable—barely. The question of whether the next intelligent species to arise on Earth (if any does) will have any clue to our existence is debated.


Then a really disheartening point is brought up. A staple of science fiction is that our radio broadcasts travel out into the universe forever, and hopefully will be picked up someday, somehow, by a willing receiver. It’s a comforting thought that we have been broadcasting our presence to the universe for almost a century. Every year our presence is announced in an ever expanding sphere that is light years across and constantly growing. Surely any alien with a radio telescope will eventually be able to hear the whole cacophony of our radio and television broadcasts. Not according to Life After People, though. Apparently the signals disperse and become little more than background noise – static—after a light year. Aw hell…


So we are left with a rather gloomy yet fascinating show that is best watched when the viewer is receptive to the end of humanity. (A Bush speech got me in the mood.)  But even after entering such a state of mind the show is still a bit silly. My Persian cat who was beside me the whole time wasn’t in the least alarmed at the prospect of humanity’s demise, presumably any roaches that may have been watching weren’t, either. But the special effects are really worth seeing.


There are several short extra features each about two and a half minutes long. Most of them are various scenarios of human extinction that seem a bit far-fetched. There’s the portrayal of a plague, nuclear winter and an asteroid strike. An interesting theory is that our genetic material may slowly degrade. The best extra is about the trash that we leave behind. Apparently styrofoam really is forever and the garbage that the sea washes up on Midway’s beaches is shocking. I guess we may as well survive, after all, someone has to clean up the mess.

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George Tiller has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Eastern Illinois University and a Masters degree in Elementary Education from National Louis University. An Air Force brat with roots in South Mississippi, George stumbled upon his adopted home of Chicago as the result of falling in love with an actress in Montgomery, Alabama. His interests include the actress previously mentioned, History, Theater, Politics and nervously following scientific developments.


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