Life Sucks

History Channel's apocalypse documentary Life After People misses the mark

It wasn't too long ago that the television event was the exclusive province of the broadcast networks. If we wanted big specials with movie-quality effects and a months-long ad campaign, we tuned into the big four. No longer. The event has moved off the dial and onto basic cable, which, if you remember, is where we used to go when we wanted 24-hour Wings marathons.

Of course, it's been headed that way for years. But it got a big jolt last year with the Discovery Channel's Planet Earth, a visually stunning and shockingly entertaining wildlife miniseries that was so ambitious it put even premium cable's multi-million-dollar-per-episode programming lineup to shame, let alone anything on broadcast.

The History Channel, on the other hand, has come late to the game. While Discovery and the National Geographic Channel have been churning out high-quality niche documentaries since the late '90s, History has largely remained mired in Luftwaffe stock footage and nightly tours of the Sarah Winchester house. But in January, the network finally attempted an event: Life After People.

The show is a feature-length documentary with an intriguing sci-fi premise: a look at Earth after human extinction. Recently released on DVD, Life After People seems to have all the earmarks of a Planet Earth-level special—a clever idea, a Hollywood visual effects team (George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic), and a nifty tagline ("Welcome to Earth, Population: Zero").

But sorry, it's the History Channel, the T.G.I. Friday's of television. And what could have been a big step forward for the network is held up by its trademark myopia and penchant for hokiness. Life After People is, at best, just a bit better than the History Channel's regular fare.

Some of the show's weaknesses—its corny, cliché-laden script ("Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" follows a description of structural corrosion), its "In a World Where…" movie-trailer-ish narrator, its obvious and dated cyberpunk editing style—are pretty common to TV documentaries, and it's easy to let them slide, especially if you're really rooting for the show to work.

But then, there are some other things, too.

In the first minute of Life, the narrator tells you that "this isn't a story of how we vanish," but a story of what happens afterward. Right away, this feels like a cop-out. The "what" would depend on the "how," wouldn't it? A nuclear war extinction would leave a different kind of world than a pandemic extinction.

The show deals with that problem by assuming a Rapture-type apocalypse scenario, where the world's population just vanishes without a trace, leaving its cities fully intact, its coffee pots percolating, and its pets locked indoors. A magical disappearance may fit easily into the short 94-minute documentary, but it's still hugely unsatisfying. And a bit too neat. You get the feeling that the producers took the Rapture route in part to avoid the unpleasant issue of six billion corpses. But apocalypses are supposed to be morbid and messy. That's why they're cool.

Life After People begins with extinction Day One and traces a 10,000-year "history" of the post-human world, concentrating heavily on the decline and fall of big, iconic stuff like the Empire State Building, Seattle's Space Needle, and the Hoover Dam. Using computer animation, Life shows the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Chicago become overgrown and animal-filled, until, after about a thousand years of maintenance-free natural corrosion, they collapse. And therein lies a major problem. Because of its premise, Life After People is necessarily heavy on the CGI. But despite ILM's involvement, the graphics are embarrassingly cartoonish and old-fashioned. You want to know what Manhattan looks like 150 years after human extinction? Myst. First-generation Myst. The visual effects may be breathtaking by 1998 standards; in 2008, though, Life looks downright quaint.

Life After People comes closest to redeeming itself when the narrator shuts up and lets the experts do the talking. The interviews with civil engineer Gordon Masterton are a treat for explaining just how automated our cities aren't. Without a regular staff, New York's subway tunnels would be completely flooded within 36 hours, he says. And a tour through the wrecked, abandoned cities near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine give an eerie look at an actual place 20 years into humanlessness.

But good interview subjects are not complemented by good production or a thoughtful vision in this documentary. They make it entertaining and informative but no better than any other cheap cable special. Life After People, like the rest of the History Channel's programs, isn't unwatchable. It's just disappointing.