“The Bodies Left Behind”

“The Bodies Left Behind” is the pilot episode of the ‘Life After People’ series by the History Channel. The resume of the episode states:

“In the first episode of new series Life After People, we’ll see what happens to some of the bodies left behind. Most are embalmed and buried, some are mummified, while others have been cryogenically frozen. Will any of them truly achieve immortality? Or will they be outlived by other memorials to mankind, like the Statue of Liberty or the Sistine Chapel.

This is just part of a journey that will take us to the future of cities such as Boston and Houston, as well as haunting sites already devoid of man.”

The series is an exploration of what will happen to our planet – should the catastrophic happen and we all suddenly disappear a week from next Tuesday. As a concept, it’s thoroughly intriguing and the first episode certainly does a good job of teasing the audience with enough visuals and hypotheticals. But there’s a catch to it all. There’s a new aesthetic to documentaries – one which focuses on flashy transitions and quick-hit facts which tends to emphasize breadth, rather than depth. That is precisely the impact of this episode – which, unfortunately, doesn’t serve the overall concept as well as it might have otherwise.

The structure of the episode is to follow the fate of humanity’s quest for “immortality” from the mummies of Ancient Egypt, to our proudest architectural creations, to cryogenics, to the “Immortality Drive” (a computer representation of the human genetic code) in orbit on the international space station. The problem here is a bit of disconnect with the episode’s title – which implies a discussion of the human “bodies” that are left after the end of our species. Getting by that minor inconsistency, there’s quite a bit of intriguing information to be had.

Jumping from one day to months, years, decades and millennia into the future, the episode describes the fate of landmarks such as the Houston Astrodome, the Statue of Liberty, Boston’s Old North Church, and Michaelangelo’s frescoes. The emphasis, of course, is to detail just how long these relics of humanity will hang around. In case you’re wondering, most of these structure won’t last much more than two-hundred years after people are gone. And the episode convincingly portrays the ravages of time by way of computer-generated effects.

The centerpiece of the episode is an extended tour of Hashima Island, in Japan. Nicknamed “Battleship Island” (because of its shape), it was once a town of thousands built around a coal mine. But it was abruptly deserted thirty-five years ago and has been without humanity ever since. As a result, Hashima Island is a case study in how concrete and steel structures withstand the elements – particularly those of a marine environment.  If there’s a reason to watch the episode, it’s the Hashima Island segment.

The segment features Brian Burke-Gaffney and the way the documentary puts the story of the island (with his help) is a little bit like this:

“35 years after the disappearence of people, homes, offices and factories are cracking and subsiding, as nature takes over. It’s a future that has already come to pass in one remote corner of the world. Several miles off the southwest coast of Japan a forsaken island stands lifeless and decaying. Hashima Island was once a thriving coal-mining town and homes to thousands of people. Now it’s abandoned offices and residcential buildings are literally exploding under nature’s relentless hands. Because of the unsafe conditions Hashima is strictly off limits to visitors. In the 1890s Japan’s Mitsubishi company began mining coal from the seafloor beneath Hashima. At its peak in 1959 the 15 acre island was home to more than 5000 workers and their families, the highest population density recorded on Earth. In 1974 as Japan began favouring petrloium over coal Mitsubishi closed the mine and relocated the entire population to the mainland. 35 years later, nothing remains but decayed buildings and ghostly memories. These rooms once echoed with the laughter of children playing, now all that remains is the corroded remains of their toys. Overgrown and forgotton the school playground in now rusting scrap metal. Hashima is a laboratory for showing what happens to reinforced concrete in a savage environment. Every year the typhoon season delivers rains and winds up to 100mph, wlilst huge ocean waves smash into buildings. Scienctific studies of concrete core samples reveal that the buildings most exposed to the ocean had a salt content 15 times greater than the others. The concrete buildings themselves gave the island a warlike profile and even a new nickname “Battleship Island”. The wooden fasades of balconies were quickly destroyed, the many passageways and stairs that connected the buildings are now falling apart.”

You can watch this here – “Life After People: The Bodies Left Behind”. The segment starts at roughly 19 minutes and 37 seconds.

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