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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
t’s always good for a couple of hours of watching grainy black & white footage of European landmarks being bombed, but The History Channel – like history itself, really – doesn’t get many chances to be cool. Kudos to them, then, for taking advantage of a golden opportunity to tap the zeitgeist by glomming onto the current fascination with what the post-human global landscape might look like. Between Alan Weisman’s bestselling book, “The World Without Us.” and the Will Smith-led adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” ruling cineplexes a few months ago, THC must have been champing at the bit to get “Life After People” onto television screens this past January.
The program’s setup is all laid out in its title: “Life After People” spends 90 minutes taking a look at what life on Earth could be like after humans disappear. (And “disappear” is really the operative phrase. Like Weisman, the show’s producers didn’t envision a slow extinction, instead opting for what looks like a global rapture from which no one is left behind.) Everything you see is educated guesswork, but it’s a legitimately fascinating subject, and it’s addressed here by as many experts as the network was able to get its hands on.
The first thing the show makes clear is just how quickly nature can reclaim what’s been paved over, built on, strip-mined, or even subjected to a nuclear blast. It’s a fairly obvious phenomenon – ask anyone who’s spent any length of time in New England about the miles of stone walls that crisscross the region, signifying farmland abandoned by settlers moving West – but one that’s easy to forget if you live in an urban or suburban area. When we aren’t being frightened to death by politicians promising terrorist attacks, we like to think of our highways, bridges and great buildings as more or less permanent.
They aren’t, of course – not even a little. As the film’s focus telescopes outward, the producers give viewers a taste of what life without humans might look like after 20 years by visiting what was a bustling metropolis of 50,000 before the Chernobyl blast, and has been devoid of human life ever since. With the aid of computer-generated animation, the viewer is shown how quickly streets and buildings are cracked and broken by things like ice and weeds – and, on the flip side, how animal species vanquished by humans come rushing in to fill the vacuum left in our wake. Even the Red Forest, decimated by the Chernobyl blast, has come flooding back; in a particularly entertaining segment, the film visits a soccer stadium whose field has been wholly reclaimed by trees.
The film keeps moving further – 25 years, 100 years, all the way out to tens of thousands of years – but you get the idea. What you don’t get – what it’s difficult for words to convey – is how pointlessly distracting the show’s production is. Not content to let their subject entertain on its own merits, the producers stuff “Life After People” to the gills with cheesy video treatments, melodramatic music, jump cuts, and annoying sound effects. Something as simple as a shot of a dog looking out of a window is accompanied by the type of soundtrack you’d expect to hear during a cliffhanger episode of “General Hospital.” It completely overwhelms the film, which is a real shame, because if they’d gone the other direction, “Life After People” would have been much more compelling (and probably cheaper to produce).
For a more entertaining (and far more in-depth) look at what the world might look like after we’re gone, pick up a copy of Alan Weisman’s aforementioned book, “The World Without Us.” It’ll take you longer than 90 minutes to get through, but you’ll learn a lot more, and you won’t have to deal with editing gimmicks ripped out of MTV’s mid-‘80s playbook.