Robert Frost famously wrote, “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice”. That was in 1920, and it’s safe to say that those limited options seem almost quaint today. These days, you can pick your apocalyptic poison from an almost endless menu.
The “zombie”-infested 28 Days / Weeks / Months Later franchise ditched the cosmic radiation of the Night of the Living Dead series in favor of a good old-fashioned human-engineered virus. I Am Legend sets a lone survivor against infected masses that, for all practical purposes, are vampires. Children of Men envisions civilization as a flame guttering out because the human race has become infertile. The Jericho TV series documents a town’s fight for survival after a nuclear attack.
Apocalypse is all the rage in this age of bird flu scares, global warming debates, wars, and saber-rattling political standoffs. Heck, the baby-eating cannibals of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road even got their ashy fingers all over Oprah’s Book Club.
Probably the most important variable, with so many choices available, is the individual viewer’s / reader’s level of misanthropy. How pessimistic are we about humanity’s chances? How long do we think the center would hold as the water and food and hope run out? How far do we want to see humanity fall? Do we want to see ourselves descend into chaos, or band together for the common good of community and survival?
The faux documentary Ever Since the World Ended falls into the latter camp, depicting a world where a plague has wiped out most of the world’s population. San Francisco contains approximately 186 survivors, two of whom decide to make a documentary recording the thoughts of their fellow inhabitants. The survivors, it turns out, get by surprisingly well; constructing their own power sources from backup generators, solar panels, and car batteries that fill the city, and benefitting from the area’s gravity-fed water system (all via some engineering expertise courtesy of Adam, played by Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame).
Twelve years after the plague, these fortunate few have apparently gotten past the initial struggle for survival, and now find time for esoteric pursuits like creating art. Classes are even held to teach the children what little bit of knowledge remains.
Not everyone gets into the communal spirit, though. One survivor concerns himself with scavenging for three high-demand items — liquor, prescription drugs, and cigarettes — in order to profit. A couple of slackers simply exist on the fringes, following packs of dogs to places where they can find food, and generally enjoying themselves. Others just want to be left alone on the outskirts of the city, or in the woods.
The film follows several storylines. Along with the survivor interviews, the film crew also follows a group of hikers who leave the city to explore the wilderness for a few days. Both groups encounter crises that bring them face-to-face with the harsh realities of their situations. Back in the city, folks must contend with the return of Mark, whom they’d exiled from the city for setting at least a dozen fires and damaging food supplies after the collapse. In a private meeting, a handful of them openly discuss the merits of imprisonment versus exile versus execution. The hikers must decide what to do with an injured comrade after it becomes obvious he won’t survive the trip home. In a world where life is literally a precious and rare commodity, such decisions hold enormous implications.
Equally interesting, though, is the film’s treatment of the divide between the adults, who remember life before the plague, and the children, who don’t. Early on, we see teenagers breaking into apartments and houses, scavenging for anything useful and not even giving a second look to the mummified bodies they find. The teenagers are less than sympathetic to the adults, seeing weakness in memories and fondness for the past. For their parts, the adults alternately worry about the kids and feel hope in them, wondering if their children’s status as natives of this new world hinders them or gives them advantages. Adam, for example, hopes that his kids and everyone else will eventually migrate from town in favor of a more agrarian existence. He worries that extended life in the city, with its water and electricity, will make everyone soft.
The city’s denizens do seem to exist in an unlikely bubble, without even a coherent idea of what people outside the city are like. One character claims that they’re crazy freaks, while another insists that outsiders are basically good and friendly. This is one area of several where the film asks you to suspend your disbelief. These people live in a city full of resources, one which would be a magnet for any nearby survivors; it’s hard to believe that the residents don’t have an idea of what exists outside their own borders.
That myopia, and that sense of stasis, is perhaps the most frustrating thing about the inhabitants of Ever Since the World Ended. Perhaps it’s a natural byproduct of the film’s documentary slant; in its attempt to record a moment in time, it doesn’t really lend itself to a dramatic narrative arc. Or perhaps it’s just a subjective response; watching the film, you can’t help but ponder how you might do things differently if put in the same situation. Still, there’s not much sense that these people are moving toward anything.
Overall, though, the film succeeds. The acting is, with only a few exceptions, excellent. The faux documentary format doesn’t lend itself to much visual lyricism, but there are some beautiful shots of things like rusting ships, a tattered Golden gate bridge, and what look to be prehistoric cave paintings — only they’re in a manmade tunnel (a nifty idea in and of itself, and one that hints at the larger state of the world). And the film does do a nice job of exploring some of the larger issues that might become important to the vestiges of humanity once the trauma has subsided.
As far as bonus features go, the DVD travels light, containing a trailer and some deleted scenes. For the most part, the deleted scenes are good, but in a couple of cases, you can see why they were cut out, as they made some of the film’s themes too explicit.