Judge Adam Arseneau always carries at least two pairs of eyeglasses on him at all times, just in case.
Welcome to Earth, population: 0.
Conceived as a serious rumination with scientists, biologists, and futurists about the fate of the planet in the absence of humanity, Life After People takes its own dramatic narrative far too seriously, affecting the air of a hyperactive apocalyptic summer blockbuster rather than anything even remotely educational.
Facts of the Case
What would happen to the planet Earth if, suddenly, all humans simply vanished? This is the question posed by The History Channel's Life After People, a hypothetical examination into our world through the years without human intervention. Our buildings, our accomplishments, our history, and our culture—all of it subject to the eroding powers of Mother Nature. What would become of the things that define our presence on this planet without us to maintain them?
A feature composed entirely of speculation, assumption and hypothesis, Life After People at first glance seems a strange choice for the History Channel, a network that primarily develops programming exactly the opposite of the aforementioned. However, considering that 5.4 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched show in the history of the channel, the risk certainly paid off. But to call this a serious narrative would be doing your brain a serious disservice. It's a barely restrained cash-in on the recent plague of popular apocalypse-themed films, like I Am Legend and 28 Weeks Later; never has a simple television documentary wanted to be an apocalyptic thriller film so badly as Life After People.
The premise, straight out of good science fiction, asks the simple question: what would happen to the planet if people suddenly vanished? How or why we would vanish is irrelevant to the scope of the documentary, and the feature wisely avoids that logical train wreck entirely. Instead, Life After People goes through the effects of human absence on our planet at large, discussing how plants, animals, infrastructure, and architecture would weather the years without intervention from Homo sapiens, using CGI to simulate the decay on notable locations throughout the world—New York, London, Paris, and so on.
The point (one assumes) of Life After People is to ruminate on how our world as we know it is a constant struggle against the environment and against nature, and that, without our ever-present diligence, nature would rapidly take back the planet in short order. Plants would creep over concrete, decaying and re-growing over the years, forming a new layer of soil. Buildings would crumble due to lack of maintenance, water damage, and erosion. Animals would soon invade abandoned metropolises, finding new habitats. Within a few hundred years, you would be hard-pressed to see any remnants of our presence ever having been on the planet. So what is so surprising about this? Anyone with any understanding of basic scientific principals, history, biology, and healthy doses of science fiction will shrug, say, "well, duh" and flip the channel. There is nothing surprising, shocking, or scandalous about this declaration, yet Life After People carries on in dripping dramatic fashion like it just uncovered the secret love tomb of Jesus, Mother Teresa, and L. Ron Hubbard.
Here is where the feature seals its own fate. So desperate to be dramatic in its narrative, all glimmering scraps of reality soon float into the wind of ominous narration, apocalyptic animation, and doom-and-gloom proclamations about the end of the world as we know it! Nature will take over! Woe unto our planet! Wild dogs will roam the streets! Buildings will collapse under their own weight! All trace of humanity will be gone…gone…GONE! Calling this feature "overboard" would be akin to calling the Titanic a "nautical incident." Yes, the awesome power of nature to survive and adapt to its surroundings is a worthy subject to explore, but so much of Life After People is spent imitating disaster-themed blockbuster films that all the science just evaporates away into irrelevance.
Though the dramatic voiceover narratives are annoying, the production values on Life After People are admittedly good, and the History Channel clearly put some money into this show. The CGI borders on corny during some poignantly stupid sequences, like the Eiffel Tower crumbling, but mostly looks impressive, usually adding overgrown flora and fauna to city landscapes for dramatic effect. It doesn't look "Hollywood blockbuster" good by any stretch of the imagination, but the production values are higher than one would expect of an average TV documentary. Likewise, the audio is a simple stereo presentation, with good production values and audio effects, but minimal bass response.
In terms of supplemental material, the only inclusions are 20 minutes or so of additional scenes—some "making of" scenes, some bonus sequences, and some material that obviously didn't make the final cut. Each of the sequences is selectable, and a "play all" feature runs through all eight.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of the film is a write-off in terms of substance, offering nothing but pointless interviews with talking-head "scientists" and CGI images of crumbling city skylines, but nestled here and there within the feature are some gems worth considering. The most stellar material involves the exploration of Pripyat, Ukraine, a city spontaneously abandoned by all people during the 1986 Chernobyl incident. Having been completely absent from all human intervention for the last two decades, it is the perfect real-life example (albeit anecdotal in nature) to illustrate how nature can persevere and reclaim an urban landscape in a short span of time in the absence of humans. Although haunting in its emptiness, the abandoned cityscape teems with a surprising amount of life, undeterred by the deadly radiation, and the imagery captured is nothing short of surreal. This is exactly what Life After People needed more of—reality.
Far too overdramatic and faux-horrific for its own good, Life After People eschews all serious examination of a fascinating issue in favor of corny voiceovers and CGI effects of major world landmarks falling into the ground. As ominous proclamations of doom and gloom go, this would make Roland Emmerich proud, but everyone else will probably be put off by the over-the-top delivery.
Avoid it like the plague that will wipe out humanity…forever…FOREVER!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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