Oh, mama…can this really be the end? – Top 10 End of the World Movies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 25, 2009)

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Sometimes, you see a little kicker on the evening news that puts everything into perspective. Such was the discovery this past Monday that an “object” has recently bombarded the planet Jupiter. As of this writing, experts are not sure if it was a comet, an asteroid, or whatever-but it was a doozey. By initial accounts, the impact area is nearly the size of the Earth. I’m no astronomer, but that is one big-ass event. It just makes our silly little concerns about religion, politics, war and commerce all seem so…silly, dunnit?

At any rate, the entertainment value of Armageddon (hey-there’s an upside to everything) certainly has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether it is precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues or mankind’s curious propensity for continuing to seek new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve assembled my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature (make it a Theme Night!). As per usual, I am presenting the list alphabetically, in no particular preferential order. So enjoy, er…while you still can.

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The Book of Life

The WMD: An angry God

Hal Hartley’s stylish, post-modernist re-imagining of Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I find it compelling. Set on New Year’s Eve, 1999, the story joins a Yuppified Jesus (Martin Donovan) as he jets in to New York with his personal assistant, Magdalena (British alt-rocker P.J. Harvey) in tow (they check in to their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”).

This is anything but your typical business trip, as J.C. is in town to do Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. The kid has his doubts, however about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also on hand to do hostile takeovers of as many souls as he can during the world’s final few hours.

Although it is not a “comedy” per se, I found the idea of Jesus carrying the Book of Life around on his laptop pretty goddam funny (“Do you want to open the 5th Seal? Yes or Cancel”). Clocking in at 63 minutes, it may be more akin to a one-act play than a full feature film narrative, but it’s deep in its own way.

Double bill: w/ The Rapture

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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The WMD: Nuclear mishap

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi has always been a personal favorite. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possibly imminent fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling story. Co-starring master scene-stealer Leo McKern.

Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World

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Dr. Strangelove

The WMD: The Doomsday Machine

“Mein fuhrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet (knock on wood) to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the propensity for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why they bothered to make this shit up.

In case you are one of the three people reading this who have never seen the film, it’s about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…“funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity (and oblivion) ensues. You will never see a cast like this again: Peter Sellers (playing three major characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull (who can be seen breaking character as the Russian ambassador and cracking up during the scene where Strangelove’s prosthetic arm goes awry).

There are so many quotable lines, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. I never tire of this film.

Double bill: w/ Fail Safe

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The WMD: Alien “highway” crew

The belated 2005 adaptation of satirist Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi radio-to-book-to TV series made a few old school fans (like me) a little twitchy at first, but director Garth Jennings does an admirable job of condensing the story down to an entertaining feature length film. It’s the only “end of the world” scenario I know of where the human race buys it as the result of bureaucratic oversight (the Earth is to be “demolished” for construction of a hyperspace highway bypass; unfortunately, the requisite public notice is posted in an obscure basement-on a different planet).

Adams (who died in 2001) was credited as co-screenwriter (with Karey Kirkpatrick); but I wonder if he had final approval, as the wry “Britishness” of some of the key one liners from the original series have been dumbed down. Still, it’s a quite watchable affair, thanks to the enthusiastic cast, the imaginative special effects and (mostly) faithful adherence to the original ethos.

Double bill: w/ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Original 1981 BBC-TV series)

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Last Night

The WMD: Nebulous cosmic event

A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story intimately focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way. The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop. You know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright.  McKellar also throws fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.

Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet

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Miracle Mile

The WMD: Nuclear exchange

Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000).

Double Bill: w/ One Night Stand (1984)

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Testament

The WMD: Nuclear fallout

Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

Double bill: w/ On the Beach

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The Quiet Earth

The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)

Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a tour de force performance in this 1985 New Zealand import, which has garnered a cult following. He plays a scientist who may (or may not) have had a hand in a government research project mishap that has apparently wiped out everyone on Earth except him. The plot thickens when he discovers that there are at least two other survivors-a man and a woman.

The three-character dynamic is reminiscent of a 1959 nuclear holocaust tale called The World, the Flesh and the Devil, but it’s safe to say that the similarities end there. By the time you reach the mind-blowing finale, you’ll find yourself closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s territory (Solaris). Director Geoff Murphy never topped this effort; although his 1992 film Freejack, with Mick Jagger as a time-traveling bounty hunter, is worth a peek.

Double Bill: w/ The Omega Man

…or one from column “B”: The Last Man on Earth, I Am Legend

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The Andromeda Strain

The WMD: Bacteriological scourge

What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Michael Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are essentially trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien. It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer, by the way.

Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later

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When Worlds Collide

The WMD: Another celestial body

There’s a brand new star in the sky, with its own orbiting planet. There’s good news and bad news regarding this exciting discovery. The good news: You don’t need a telescope in order to examine them in exquisite detail. The bad news: See “the good news”.

That’s the premise of this involving 1951 sci-fi yarn about an imminent collision between said rogue sun and the Earth. The scientist who makes the discovery makes an earnest attempt to warn world leaders, but is ultimately dismissed as a Chicken Little. Undaunted, he undertakes a privately-funded project to build an escape craft that can only carry several dozen of the best and the brightest to safety.

Recalling Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the film examines the dichotomous conflict of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of many other 1950s sci-fi flicks (with the possible exception of a clunky Noah’s Ark allusion). It sports pretty decent special effects for its time; especially depicting a flooded NYC (it was produced by the legendary George Pal).

Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact

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