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On Sci Fi and Loneliness

By Bert Ehrmann
August 15, 2008

There’s a sub-genera of science fiction that’s been around for the longest time – the “last man” on the Earth story. These stories, almost always involving some sort of worldwide catastrophe to remove the rest of the population, are a good way for storytellers to examine a character’s true nature. If the easiest way to find out what someone’s like is to watch their actions when they think no one is watching, then the best way to find out what someone’s really like is to watch their actions when they’re completely and utterly isolated from all human contact.

I Am LegendProbably the most famous of these “last man” stories is I Am Legend (2007). Here, character Robert Neville (Will Smith) finds himself the last man on Earth after a virus sweeps the planet killing most but turning some into cannibalistic mutants. Neville spends his days scouring NYC for supplies while also trying to find a cure for this virus.

One theme that’s a constant in these “last man” stories is that when someone is subjected to this extreme degree of isolation some level of insanity is sure to follow.

In Legend, Neville is so alone that he sets up manikins around he city and talks to them as if they are real. He also thinks of his dog more like a human friend rather than pet animal. At one point, Neville risks his own life in order to rescue the dog from the mutants. Neville is so desperate for any connection he’s willing to risk the future of humanity on saving his dog. 

The Quiet EarthMuch like Legend, in the movie The Quiet Earth (1985) character Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) awakens one day to a world where everyone has seemingly vanished in mid stride. At his most desperate, Zac is so unable to cope with his situation that he dons a dress, puts on makeup, takes a shotgun and begins blasting the city around him.

There’s also an unwritten rule about these stories; the last man on Earth is almost never the last. Both Neville and Zac find that there aren’t really alone and that there are other survivors.

In the original The Twilight Zone TV series several “last man” stories that lead to madness spring to mind. The first is “Where is Everybody?” In this episode, a man (Earl Holliman) finds himself in a small town devoid of people. No matter where he goes, be it the local diner or movie theater, it seems as the people who once were there have vanished just moments before. Just as this man begins to slip towards insanity, we find that he is the subject of an isolation experiment meant to study the effects of long duration space flight and everything that he had just experienced was a figment of his imagination.  

In the episode “The Lonely,” character Corry (Jack Warden) might not be the last man but he’s the sole prisoner on an asteroid located far from the Earth. Corry becomes so obsessed with a robot woman sent to keep him company that he doesn’t want to leave the prison when his robot friend must stay behind after his sentence is commuted.

Twilight ZoneTo Corry, any human connection, even a false one, is preferable to being alone.

The one “last man” story I could find that dealt with a “last woman” was a segment of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone entitled “A Little Peace and Quiet.” Here, character Penny (Melinda Dillon) finds a pendent that can magically stop time at her will. However, when World War III breaks out and nuclear missiles begin raining down, Penny must choose her and quite possibly all of mankind’s destruction to the prospect of stopping time and spending the rest of her life alone in a world full of people frozen in time.

The film Sunshine (2007) had a truly unique character that was actively trying to be the “last man.” Here, the character of Pinbacker (Mark Strong) is the sole survivor of a failed mission sent into space to restart our dying Sun. When a secondary mission finds his ship, Pinbacker, after years of isolation, decides to kill that crew and let the Sun destroy the Earth since him being the last man alive in the universe must mean he gets a direct line when speaking with God.

If that’s not insanity, I’m not sure what is.