Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- "Ozymandias"; Percy Bysshe Shelley
Life After People starts with the initial aftermath: a power infrastructure that'd almost immediately fade into darkness, the flooding of underground tunnels, and the fates of both family pets and household pests. As the months turns into years, we begin to see sprawling urban areas become overrun by plant life...meek deer and predators alike starting to swarm into cities. Wildfires consume everything in sight. Central Park quickly begins to look like more of a forest. The more time that passes, the more our mark on the planet begins to fade. Some of the most iconic cities the world over are submerged underwater. Suburbs fall apart at the hands of dryrot and termites. Skyscrapers, bridges, and our greatest monuments crumble into ruin. Cars rot into unrecognizable piles of metal, and the streets they used to drive on collapse. As the centuries drag on with mankind a distant memory, high rises become hills. The ocean enjoys an abundance of life it hadn't seen in many thousands of years. The world moves on without us, and it's not long before it's as if we were never here in the first place.
Life After People blends speculation with science, telling its story of a world after mankind has come and gone with some ambitious imagery. The "movie-quality effects" promised on the cover art are hit or miss, but its visual eye can be striking...the sight of a grizzly bear crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, for instance, or a group of feral cats attacking their prey in what looks like an untamed jungle until the camera pulls out to reveal that it's an upper floor of a Manhattan high rise. There's something inherently unsettling about seeing an otherwise familiar city setting devoid of people and ensnared in vines. The documentary takes particular glee in ravaging some of our planet's most iconic landmarks: everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Brooklyn Bridge. The effects work is better at destroying than it is at conveying life -- the CG animals are stiff and unconvincing, and even some of the crumbling buildings are awkwardly blocky -- but the scale and research that clearly went into it all is still thoroughly impressive. Life After People has assembled a compelling selection of experts as well. Rather than bringing together a group of random professors speaking about the future in broad strokes, the documentary chooses instead to speak to people with backgrounds in very specific disciplines: a metallurgist explaining why and precisely how a suspension bridge would inevitably collapse over time, for instance. There's something that carries more weight about having a representative from the Hoover Dam note how long it'd take to wind down rather than some random expert speaking in general terms. It's that sort of specificity that makes the documentary what it is.
What Life After People is ultimately saying is that as towering as mankind's achievements over our short history have been, they're unlikely to survive us for long. If some alien civilization were to find their way to Earth ten thousand years after the extinction of our species, there'd be little left to suggest that we were ever here. Our most colossal creations as well as centuries of art and literature will have either corroded away into nothing or have been transformed into something completely unrecognizable, and nature will have fully regained its dominance over our planet.
Certain topics do drag on a bit too long, and Life After People will occasionally repeat some of the the exact same imagery and nearly identical comments virtually the exact same way. The computer graphics can be dodgy as well, but all in all, it's an intriguing look into what the future may hold after our reign over the planet is over. The greatest letdown has nothing to do with the documentary itself; this just doesn't look like a Blu-ray disc, and its routine audio and limited extras make it difficult to recommend as a purchase. Life After People is worth seeking out, but I can't say I'd be willing to spend $20 to own it, especially with the way it's presented here. Rent It.
Life After People never gets around to looking as if it had been produced in high definition, exactly. A fair amount of the footage is clearly sourced from low-quality, extremely low-resolution video, but even the newly-recorded interviews and visual effects are soft, lacking in detail, and occasionally heavily aliased. The 1.78:1 image is further marred by moderate banding, video noise, and hiccups in the compression, including one shot that probably gets the nod as the worst macroblocking in any of the hundreds upon hundreds of high definition releases I've reviewed over the past few years. The framerate has a nasty tendency to seem kind of choppy and jittery, especially as the camera pans. I'd shrug this off as mediocre if I were watching it on History's high-def channel on my bitstarved cable system. For a newly-minted Blu-ray disc, though...? Even worse.
This hour-and-a-half documentary fits comfortably on a single layer Blu-ray disc, and its 1080p video has been encoded with AVC.
Life After People sports a fairly unremarkable Dolby Digital stereo track (256Kbps). It's fine, really -- the narration as well as the comments from the talking heads are consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, and the design of the sound effects is reasonably well-done -- but there's nothing to set it apart from anything I'd expect to hear on cable. No startling increase in clarity, no particularly punchy low-end...it's every bit as routine as its very modest tech specs would suggest.
There are no subtitles or alternate soundtracks on this Blu-ray disc.
This Blu-ray disc also features 19 minutes of additional material, and it's been unconvincingly upscaled from standard definition to 1080i. The first microfeaturette touches on the collaboration between documentarians, civil engineers, and visual effects teams that brought about this peek into the potential future of our planet. After a couple of featurettes that really just condense a couple of segments of Life After People down to a minute or two a pop, this material then dives into several of the threats that could completely wipe out humanity. Finally, oddly enough, is a segment about the legacy of our garbage.
The lack of so much as a bonus episode of the series that followed is disappointing, especially considering the hefty $29.95 sticker price.
The Final Word
As intrigued as I am by the concept of Life After People, it has an unfortunate habit of repeating itself more than a 90 minute doc really should, and the lackluster presentation of this Blu-ray disc doesn't really set it apart from something airing on cable for free. Rent It.