By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 3, 2024)
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
Don’t put that umbrella away…the forecast is cloudy, with a chance of cosmic debris:
Meteorite hunters have successfully recovered fragments of an asteroid that impacted Earth over Berlin, Germany, on January 21st— and the space rocks could be very rare indeed.
The 3.3-foot (1-meter) wide asteroid dubbed 2024 BX1 was spotted by NASA around 90 minutes before it hit Earth’s atmosphere. It burned up upon impact, exploding and creating a fireball seen by observers across Europe.
Following the event, on January 22nd, intrepid meteorite hunters were out searching for fragments of Asteroid 2024 BX1. One team that hit pay dirt was led by SETI meteor scientist Peter Jenniskens; the crew found the second and third fragments to be uncovered. […]
The meteorites, weighing 5.3 grams and 3.1 grams respectively, were finally discovered by Freie Universitaet students Dominik Dieter and Cara Weihe at around noon local time on January 26th, with the team uncovering yet more samples on January 27th and 28th.
Well, no one got hurt, right? And besides, what are the odds of another one…oh, crap.
A “potentially hazardous” football stadium-size asteroid will zip safely past Earth on Friday (Feb. 2), and, in doing so, will reach its closest point to our planet for more than 100 years. It will also be at least several centuries before the space rock ever gets this close to us again.
The massive asteroid, named 2008 OS7, is around 890 feet (271 meters) across and will pass by Earth at a distance of around 1.77 million miles (2.85 million kilometers), according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). For context, that is more than seven times further away than the moon orbits Earth.
Obviously we dodged that one (after all, it’s Saturday-and you’re reading this). Now I think we can relax. That should cap the gloom and doom for this week …oh, FFS:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 23, 2024 – The Doomsday Clock was reset at 90 seconds to midnight, still the closest the Clock has ever been to midnight, reflecting the continued state of unprecedented danger the world faces. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, stewards of the Doomsday Clock, emphasized in their announcement that the Clock could be turned back, but governments and people needed to take urgent action.
A variety of global threats cast menacing shadows over the 2024 Clock deliberations, including: the Russia-Ukraine war and deterioration of nuclear arms reduction agreements; the Climate Crisis and 2023’s official designation as the hottest year on record; the increased sophistication of genetic engineering technologies; and the dramatic advance of generative AI which could magnify disinformation and corrupt the global information environment making it harder to solve the larger existential challenges.
But aside from the nuclear/environmental/technological threats…we’re in good shape?
Rachel Bronson, PhD, president and CEO, the Bulletin, said: “Make no mistake: resetting the Clock at 90 seconds to midnight is not an indication that the world is stable. Quite the opposite. It’s urgent for governments and communities around the world to act. And the Bulletin remains hopeful—and inspired—in seeing the younger generations leading the charge.”
I’m getting mixed messages. You’ve seen the X-rays, so just give it to me straight, doc.
A durable end to Russia’s war in Ukraine seems distant, and the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in that conflict remains a serious possibility. In February 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his decision to “suspend” the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In March, he announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. In June, Sergei Karaganov, an advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urged Moscow to consider launching limited nuclear strikes on Western Europe as a way to bring the war in Ukraine to a favorable conclusion. In October, Russia’s Duma voted to withdraw Moscow’s ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as the US Senate continued to refuse even to debate ratification.
Nuclear spending programs in the three largest nuclear powers—China, Russia, and the United States—threaten to trigger a three-way nuclear arms race as the world’s arms control architecture collapses. Russia and China are expanding their nuclear capabilities, and pressure mounts in Washington for the United States to respond in kind.
Meanwhile, other potential nuclear crises fester. Iran continues to enrich uranium to close to weapons grade while stonewalling the International Atomic Energy Agency on key issues. Efforts to reinstate an Iran nuclear deal appear unlikely to succeed, and North Korea continues building nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Nuclear expansion in Pakistan and India continues without pause or restraint.
The candidates’ suitability to shoulder the immense presidential authority to launch nuclear weapons should be a central concern of the US election in fall. This is especially true given the concerns at the end of the previous administration, which prompted then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley to take steps to ensure that he would be consulted in the event the former president sought to launch nuclear weapons.
And the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas has the potential to escalate into a wider Middle Eastern conflict that could pose unpredictable threats, regionally and globally.
Jeez. I bet you guys are fun at parties.
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.
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/ Another Earth