Not with a whimper, but with a bang. Whether it’s the result of a meteor, a fireball, tidal wave or nuclear catastrophe, the Earth has been annihilated on screen hundreds of times over. Sometimes a few survivors battle the elements, marauding bandits or zombies; sometimes, as in the new Australian film These Final Hours, they all know they’re going to die. Welcome to the apocalypse!
Trailer: These Final Hours
A self-obsessed young man makes his way to the party-to-end-all-parties on the last day on Earth, but ends up saving the life of a little girl searching for her father.
Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)
The world is suspended in an eerie twilight, with extinction due to some unnamed cause due at midnight; while the radio counts down a glutinous list of “500 all-time hits”, a disparate group of Torontonians find ways to spend their last six hours that will somehow give their lives closure and a measure of grace. Filmmaker David Cronenberg, for example, plays a gas company manager who plays out his time ringing customers to thank them for their patronage. High-minded and intriguing.
Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
Doom approaches in the form of a fiery rogue planet on a collision course with Earth, but most of the characters introduced by Danish maverick Von Trier in the first half of the film are bizarrely fixated on their version of normality – a wedding, the comically bitter feelings between family members, and the venal determination of the bride’s boss to seal a deal between the speeches. They are all in terrible denial. Only the bride, a customary sufferer of depression, can look death squarely in the face; for the first time, she is the strongest person in the room. Kirsten Dunst deservedly won a best actress gong at Cannes for her complex, careful performance.
Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998)
An asteroid “the size of Texas” is heading our way, promising to smash the Earth to bits. Can Bruce Willis get inside that speeding asteroid and blow it up before we all become stardust? Come on! Is the Pope Argentinian? Does Michael Bay make big piles of schlock? See also Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998), a somewhat less triumphalist take on the same premise. A meteor/comet/asteroid may not really have been on its way in 1998, but the millennium certainly was.
On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)
After nuclear war obliterates life in the north in the hemisphere, the people of Australia wait out the months before slowly drifting clouds of radiation kill them, too. There is, admittedly, fun to be had in spotting Melbourne locations in what is essentially a Hollywood film – it stars Gregory Peck as a naval officer on a marooned American submarine and Ava Gardner as the compatriot he meets on shore – but the film’s stance against Cold War militarism is deadly serious.
The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1961)
Not to be confused with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), this is a gripping merger of Cold War thriller and a newsroom drama. A journalist on London’s Daily Express discovers that simultaneous nuclear testing by the United States and the Soviets has thrown the world off its axis and set it spinning towards the sun. As the heat rises and civil order collapses, scientists gamble on a counter-explosion to get the Earth back on track. Meanwhile the real Express editor, playing himself, prepares two possible front pages – Doomed! and Saved! – for the morning.
The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977)
Defending a group of indigenous men charged with murder, a Sydney lawyer (Richard Chamberlain) finds himself first besieged by weird weather, including a cascade of frogs and a rush of water from his car radio, then psychically linked to one of his clients (David Gulpilil.) Through their shared dreams, the lawyer begins to realise the apocalyptic portent of these unexpected storms. Weir wades into deep water here; would a white director presume to interpret traditional law and beliefs for a mass audience now? Probably not, but Weir’s film remains eerily convincing.
Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
The one true masterpiece among the dozens of films about the threat posed by the H-bomb features Peter Sellers in three roles, including that of Strangelove, the crazed scientific adviser to the American President. He is one of a bungling coterie of boffins who must try to reverse a bombing attack on the USSR triggered by a right-wing American general gone rogue. Kubrick had intended to make a straight thriller, but the sheer absurdity of nuclear proliferation persuaded him to make this pitch-black (and pitch-perfect) comedy instead.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Lorene Scafaria, 2012)
Curious mix between comedy, an apocalyptic scenario – yes, there’s another asteroid hurtling our way – and romance that pairs Steve Carell improbably (creepily, even) with Keira Knightley. With the end nigh in three weeks, both are trying to re-connect with loved ones for the last time; they hit the road together and love erupts. See also cult indulgence Miracle Mile (Steve De Jarnatt, 1989), in which the missiles spearing towards LA allow new romantics Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham only an hour before the clocks stop to get it on.
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)
Is Curtis (Michael Shannon) following his mother into paranoid schizophrenia, or are his dreams of coming catastrophic storms to be trusted? Watched by his increasingly frantic wife (Jessica Chastain), he builds an underground shelter and rants at his fellow midwest rurals, losing his job when the boss decides he’s got too many screws loose. Or has he? Indie auteur Nichols masterfully maintains both this uncertainty and a relentless sense of dread right up to the final – absolutely final – shot.
These Final Hours (Zak Hilditch, 2014)
A rolling curtain of fire – the result of an asteroid’s collision with Earth in the northern hemisphere – is steadily rolling down the globe, peeling it like an onion. In Perth, James (Nathan Philips) has resolved to party to the max in a haze of drink, drugs and high-pressure sex with the trophy girlfriend for the few hours before the curtain falls on the south; meanwhile, his girl-on-the-side wishes he would join her on the beach to see the end come. When James rescues a little girl from some rapists on his way to the party, however, he finds his focus changing. Sharp, pacy genre film makes the most of the Wild West’s sunshine, suburbia and sybaritic lifestyle.
These Final Hours opens on July 31