Filming the apocalypse
Karl Quinn explores the current fascination of apocalyptic films with Zac Hilditch, director of "These Final Hours", and Lawrence Johnston, director of "Fallout". Both films will premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival.PT5M53S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2qoqj 620 349 July 26, 2013
The end is nigh - or so you might reasonably conclude if you have ventured anywhere near a cinema in the past few months, or plan to do so in the next few.
We've had sci-fi glimpses of our post-apocalyptic future in Tom Cruise's Oblivion and Will Smith's After Earth, and are about to get another one in Matt Damon's Elysium (with some class warfare added to the environmental meltdown for good measure). We've seen what the zombie apocalypse looks like in Warm Bodies and World War Z. The Devil has come to town in the pseudo-spiritual comedy This is the End. And next week, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright finish the comedy trilogy they started with Shaun of the Dead with The World's End, in which a pub crawl is interrupted by the shocking news that it's closing time for humanity.
The reason for the fascination with the end times is pretty simple, say two local filmmakers whose own contributions to the genre are debuting at the Melbourne Film Festival this week.
The infected scale the Israeli walls in World War Z. Photo: MPC/Paramount Pictures
''It's a scary world we live in … Any morning you turn on your daily news there's usually something horrific that's happened,'' says Zak Hilditch, whose These Final Hours follows party boy James (Nathan Phillips) across a sweltering Perth as he awaits the ball of flame that is about to engulf him and everyone else in 12 hours' time.
''We live in unstable times,'' says Lawrence Johnston, whose documentary Fallout looks at Nevil Shute's nuclear war novel On the Beach and Stanley Kramer's 1959 film of it, made in Melbourne with Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire. ''There are a lot of things that threaten us. Mortality permeates daily life.''
Human beings have been contemplating their individual and collective demise since they attained consciousness, but the cinema's obsession with the apocalypse has ramped up since the advent of computer-generated imagery (CGI). From Roland Emmerich's serial destruction of the White House - he has had it reduced to rubble by aliens (Independence Day, 1996), tsunami (2012, 2009), and terrorists (the forthcoming White House Down) - to the Armageddon-out-of-here shenanigans of This is the End, Hollywood, and its audiences, can't get enough of large-scale ruination.
Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in On The Beach.
The end is far less splashy in Hilditch's These Final Hours, as befits a film with a $2.5 million budget. ''There's no Ben Affleck on an asteroid or anything,'' the 30-year-old filmmaker says of his doomsday scenario. ''Personal, intimate films that focus on characters dealing with a cataclysmic event are the sort that interest me, rather than something like Armageddon.''
Hilditch says he watched ''as many apocalypse films as I possibly could'' as preparation, but his story kept coming back to a simple question: if you knew the end was coming in a matter of hours, how would you spend them?
That's the kind of moral riddle apocalypse films allow us to pose for ourselves - along with a bit of imaginary role playing.
A scene from This Is The End.
''When I watch those films, I like to fantasise,'' Hilditch says. ''Would I be the guy in the bunker with the gun who saves the day or, more realistically, would I be the first guy eaten by the zombies? It's interesting to think what would I do in that situation. Everything we know about society and the rules gets reset in an instant.''
In the 1950s, such questions were not just academic. As Johnston's film tells it, Nevil Shute and Stanley Kramer were among the many who feared nuclear apocalypse was not just possible but likely - a prospect that has largely been forgotten since Mikhail Gorbachev set about dismantling the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s.
''Making Fallout was a chance to look at the nuclear issue without being flag-waving about it,'' Johnston says. ''I came to the material as a storyteller rather than an activist, but that element had to be there because it permeates Kramer's vision for the film.''
The idea for Fallout came from an interview Johnston recorded with Peck in 1997, when the actor was in Melbourne to make the TV mini-series Moby Dick. Snippets of that audio are in the documentary, as is some amateur footage of the cast and crew of On the Beach on the beach at Canadian Bay, in Mount Eliza.
''I always say the film is about Nevil Shute, Stanley Kramer, Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck, and the other character is Melbourne,'' Johnston says. ''When I read the novel as a teenager, it felt like a horrific thing that this disaster could come to Australia - the last place on Earth, in a sense.''
And what about now? Does he think Shute's doomsday scenario remains a real risk?
''I do, actually, because the world is very unpredictable,'' he says.
''The weather is out of control … people put bombs on themselves and [go] into public places and it seems acceptable now that that is part of daily life.
''We're damned lucky here, in Australia. But in 50 years' time, what is it going to be like?''
Fallout screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) on July 29. These Final Hours screens August 2, 6 and 10, and is one of six Australian features eligible for The Age Critics Prize.