Life After People is a family-friendly, science-based documentary targeted at post-apocalyptic film enthusiasts. The premise of this made-for-television, History Channel production is an investigation of how terrestrial plant and animal life would respond if humans suddenly disappeared, and what would become of human infrastructure absent our caretaking.
The production relies on four elements: computer-generated imagery (CGI), narration, expert speculation, and sound effects. CGI is used to postulate changes to man-made infrastructure following the sudden disappearance of our species. The CGI appears most realistic when displaying cityscapes from a great distance. Closer landscapes are more problematic, while the CGI-rendered animals are laughably bad. Hence, I was shocked to find that the History Channel's website and Amazon's product description attributed the CGI to Academy Award-winning visual effects studio Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). However, a little deeper digging finds that ILM did not in fact do the CGI for Life After People, Look! Effects did. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Look! Effects appears not to have gone out of its way to correct the misattribution at the History Channel and Amazon.
Life After People relies on an unseen narrator and a large cadre of engineers and academics to flesh out its speculations about what would become of Earth after the sudden disappearance of human beings. The narrator hyperbolically delivers a bombastic script that makes EVERY! WORD! SEEM! AS! THOUGH! IT! IS! FOLLOWED! BY! ITS! OWN! EXCLAMATION! POINT!! While this emphatic narrative style may work for a 30-second trailer for the latest summer blockbuster, it quickly grows tiresome in the context of a 94-minute documentary. The script is extravagant, purple, and ever anthropomorphizing animals and nature. This line of dialogue is typical: "Now without armies of gardeners and repairmen, modern cities are laid bare to nature's revenge."
The engineers, scientists and academics interviewed for this production are, for the most part, fairly interesting, at least when they stay away from being wildly speculative (e.g., urban cats may become physiologically capable of gliding from skyscraper to skyscraper in just 150 years) or engaging in their own bit of melancholic anthropomorphizing (cockroaches will "mourn" our passing).
The sound effects for Life After People are every bit as bad and over the top as the CGI and narration. Typically, there are multiple levels of sound effects playing simultaneously throughout, even underneath the speculations of the program's experts. For example, a photograph of children dancing gets a double blast of ominous electronic percussion and the ghostly sound of children's laughter. Even sunlight and plant growth each get their own emphatic sound effects.
That this documentary was intended for an inattentive or listless television audience is also frequently made painfully clear. Every segment ends with a tantalizing teaser intended to keep viewers from turning the channel and every segment begins with some splashy special effects designed to alert viewers what show they're watching. Additionally, every few minutes there's a brief recap of everything that's gone before accompanied by the rerunning of earlier CGI sequences. Well before the program ends, it becomes apparent which CGI bits the producers liked best as they use them over and over again during the near endless series of recaps.
Having disposed of the mechanics of Life After People, we can briefly consider the substance. The basic premise of this documentary is untenable. Short of a biblical rapture that beams everybody away, there simply is nothing that could cause the instantaneous disappearance of all human beings on Earth while leaving everything else untouched. This is not to say that humanity couldn't be wiped out in a fairly short period of time, but such a calamity would be very messy. But, accepting this premise at face value, it's interesting to see what aspects of life after people preoccupies the interests of the producers.
The producers are keenly interested in the loss of electricity, the structural decay of man-made infrastructure, the return of man-made habitats to natural conditions, and the subsequent flourishing of flora and fauna. The producers are keen to figure out how long various man-made structures would last, and gleefully speculate through CGI on the collapse of cities through swift natural calamities and gradual reclamation by plants and animals. They settle on the Great Wall of China as the structure likely to last the longest at a few thousand years. What's fascinating is what doesn't interest the producers. The only discussion of the waste that our species leaves behind is in the extras. Given that plastic milk jugs will last a million years, and Styrofoam cups will never decompose (or so we're told in the extras), it's risible that the program selects the Great Wall of China as mankind's legacy when surely the Styrofoam cup is our true legacy. Curiously, there's no discussion, even in the extras, of the fate of toxic waste and artificially-elevated levels of Greenhouse gases.
This A&E DVD includes no subtitles or insert.
The image is in a letterboxed 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The image appears to be high definition video and looks fairly good, though the colors and contrast appear to have been turned up to eleven. Given the high definition image and the CGI-intense focus, it's disappointing that this DVD was not enhanced for widescreen.
The disc sports a 2.0 stereo audio with good separation, a wide audio range, and without dropouts or distortion.
The extras consist of nineteen minutes of excerpts consisting of "making of" materials, theories on how mankind could disappear (none of which would produce the instantaneous, non-messy disappearance of all humanity), and the aforementioned trash segment.
Viewers that make it through Life After People, especially school-aged children, may get a bit of food for thought, but unfortunately, it'll be coated in layers of rotten narration and CGI. While the question of what would become of Earth after the passing of mankind is itself fascinating, Life After People substitutes a fantastical premise, bad execution, and a myopic exploration for thoughtful analysis. Skip it.