By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 27, 2023)
I don’t feel safe in this world no more
I don’t want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an apeman
-from “Apeman” by The Kinks, written by Ray Davies
(With apologies to Douglas Adams) So long…and thanks for all the fish:
There’s no reason to panic — an asteroid will shoot past our planet harmlessly [this past] Thursday night, NASA says. But still, the space agency says the object — the size of a large moving truck — will make one of the closest approaches to Earth ever when it zips over the Southern Hemisphere.
NASA describes it as “a very close encounter with our planet.”
The asteroid, dubbed 2023 BU, will be only 2,200 miles above the Earth’s surface when it passes over South America’s southern edge at 7:27 p.m. ET, NASA says.
For comparison, that’s a little shorter than a straight-line trip from New York City to Las Vegas, which is about 2,230 miles through the air.
“In fact, this is one of the closest approaches by a known near-Earth object ever recorded,” said Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, as the agency announced the close passage.
Even if it did hit our planet — which it won’t, scientists repeat — the small asteroid’s main effect would be visual, at it would become a fireball in our atmosphere, with some debris likely falling as small meteorites.
Obviously, it shot past us, and they must have known way ahead of time, right? Oh shit…
The asteroid is arriving on short notice: 2023 BU was just discovered [last] Saturday by Crimean amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov, who has previously been credited with discovering a number of comets and asteroids, including the first confirmed interstellar comet.
NASA’s Scout system, which assesses potential hazards, quickly determined that 2023 BU wouldn’t hit Earth but “make an extraordinarily close approach,” said Farnocchia, who developed the system.
News of the looming visit comes at a time when NASA has put new emphasis on planetary defense, detecting and analyzing objects that could pose an impact hazard. Last year, it even tested a just-in-case plan to ram an asteroid, if it someday becomes necessary to redirect an object away from Earth.
We dodged that one! And the important thing is, I’m OK, you’re OK. Right? Oh dear…
This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.
The war in Ukraine may enter a second horrifying year, with both sides convinced they can win. Ukraine’s sovereignty and broader European security arrangements that have largely held since the end of World War II are at stake. Also, Russia’s war on Ukraine has raised profound questions about how states interact, eroding norms of international conduct that underpin successful responses to a variety of global risks.
And worst of all, Russia’s thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons remind the world that escalation of the conflict—by accident, intention, or miscalculation—is a terrible risk. The possibility that the conflict could spin out of anyone’s control remains high.
Oh, that. Well, aside from the looming nuclear threat…we’re in pretty good shape?
The rise in emissions in 2022 accelerated the ongoing increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which will continue so long as emissions of carbon dioxide continue. Not only did weather extremes continue to plague diverse parts of the globe, but they were more evidently attributable to climate change.
But aside from the nuclear threat, and global climate catastrophes…what else ya got?
The existing biological threat landscape makes clear that the international community needs to improve its ability to prevent disease outbreaks, to detect them quickly when they occur, and to respond effectively to limit their scope.
Devastating events like the COVID-19 pandemic can no longer be considered rare, once-a-century occurrences. The total number and diversity of infectious disease outbreaks has increased significantly since 1980, with more than half caused by zoonotic diseases (that is, disease originating in animals and transmitted to humans). As such, zoonoses put the human population at significant risk for pandemics.
Ah. Apart from the nukes, climate catastrophes, biological threats…anything else?
Developments regarding potential threats from disruptive technologies told a mixed story last year.
On the disinformation front, there was some good news: For the most part, the American electorate rejected election deniers in 2022, and in France, President Emmanuel Macron overcame a historic challenge from his country’s far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Meanwhile, the Biden administration continued its efforts to increase the role of scientists in informing public policy.
See?! Something positive. So we are good to go now, correctomundo?
On the other hand, cyber-enabled disinformation continues unabated. In the United States, political opposition to a “Disinformation Governance Board” proposed by the Department of Homeland Security was grounded in willful misrepresentation and the politics of personal destruction. But non-substantive and misleading as its messages were, the opposition succeeded in causing the department to withdraw its proposal. These types of attacks are hardly new but are emblematic of corruption in the information environment.
Inside Russia, meanwhile, government control of the information ecosystem has blocked the wide dissemination of truthful information about the Ukraine war. Chinese use of surveillance technology has continued apace in Xinjiang. As we stated last year, the extensive use of surveillance technologies has disturbing implications for human rights and poses a distinct threat to civil society.
[via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists]
You must be a laff riot at parties. Good day to you. OK, enough gloom and doom. It’s time to get to the entertainment portion of our program. Stand by. Just breaking today:
U.S. four-star general warns of war with China in 2025 https://t.co/5MGSe4s4yp pic.twitter.com/ZYAShlnhKH
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 28, 2023
To allay any panic…just in case you missed this part, it’s worth repeating:
The general’s views do not represent the Pentagon but show concern at the highest levels of the U.S. military over a possible attempt by China to exert control over Taiwan, which China claims as a territory.
He’s not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. Here’s my metric: If Top Gun Maverick wins Best Picture, don’t forget to say your prayers. If it doesn’t win, I wouldn’t worry.
Anyway, the pure entertainment value of Armageddon has not been lost on film makers over the years, whether precipitated by vengeful deities, comets, meteors, aliens, plagues, or mankind’s curious propensity for seeking new and improved ways of ensuring its own mass destruction. With that joyful thought in mind, I’ve curated my Top 10 End of the World Movies, each with a suggested co-feature.
So enjoy…while you still can.
The Book of Life
The WMD: An angry God
Hal Hartley’s stylish, postmodernist fantasy re-imagines Armageddon as an existential boardroom soap. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, a yuppie Jesus (Martin Donovan) and his P.A., Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) jet into NYC, checking into their hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. DW Griffith”. J.C. has arrived to facilitate Dad’s bidding re: the Day of Judgment. However, the kid has doubts about all this “divine vengeance crap”. His corporate rival, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) is also in town. Trials and tribulations ensue.
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 engrossing and thought-provoking.
Double bill: w/ The Rapture
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
The WMD: Nuclear mishap
This cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) was written and directed by Val Guest. 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 possible 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 has a compelling narrative. Co-starring veteran scene-stealer Leo McKern.
Double bill: w/ Until the End of the World
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
The WMD: The Doomsday Machine
“Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet 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 tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.
It’s the one 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. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks. (Full review)
Double bill: w/ Fail Safe
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The WMD: Ornery aliens
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)
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 McKellar employs a similar quiet, deliberate manner of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.
Although generally somber in tone, there are plenty of wry touches (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). The powerful denouement packs quite a wallop.
Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie and Tracy Wright. McKellar tosses fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg into the mix in a small role.
Double bill: w/ Night of the Comet
The WMD: Nuclear exchange
Depending on your worldview, this 1998 sleeper 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)
The WMD: Nuclear fallout
Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.
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 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.
As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”
Double Bill: w/ When the Wind Blows
The Quiet Earth
The WMD: Science gone awry (whoopsie!)
Bruno Lawrence (Smash Palace) delivers a mesmerizing performance in this 1985 cult film, playing 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). New Zealand 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
The Andromeda Strain
The WMD: Bacteriological scourge
What’s the scariest monster? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that replicates with alarming efficiency. The team is restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this a nail-biter from start to finish.
Double bill: w/ 28 Days Later
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 dichotomy of human nature in extreme survival situations, which helps this one rise above the cheese of 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). Rudolph Maté directed; Sydney Boehm adapted his screenplay from the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie.
Double Bill: w/ Deep Impact