The 20 Best End-of-the-World Movies
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In honor of the release of The World’s End, we decided to take a look at some of the most notable end-of-the-world films.
10. The Day After(1983)
Few movies in 1983 inspired as much heated debate or produced a more visceral reaction in audiences than this two-hour, made-for-TV movie. The story centers on the citizens of Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri and how they unexpectedly find themselves dealing with the effects of a nuclear bomb. Hot off his work on Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan, director Nicholas Meyer lobbied hard with the ABC censors to make the film as realistic as possible and the results speak for themselves. Calls flooded in to politicians’ offices across the country, with citizens who’d watched the film demanding to know if such a situation was possible. Children’s TV personality Mr. Rogers even did a series of shows to help placate the children traumatized by the film.
9. The Last Wave (1977)
Prior to breaking through with more mainstream fare such as The Year of Living Dangerously and Witness, Australian director Peter Weir made his name crafting atmospheric genre pictures like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. The latter finds future Thornbirds star Richard Chamberlain as a lawyer who accepts a job defending a group of Aboriginals. The group had apparently broken out into a fight during a freak storm and appeared to kill one of their own. As his investigation leads him deeper down the rabbit hole, the character discovers the coming signs of a cataclysmic event. Though not for all tastes, The Last Wave is a hypnotizing experiment in visuals and sound that make it an ideal thriller for an art-house crowd.
8. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatches stands as perhaps the quietest apocalypse on this list. Here, it’s not war, nuclear holocaust or even a hostile invasion that threatens the end of humanity; instead, it’s a strange, plant-based species that quietly and effectively replaces the inhabitants of San Francisco with identical pod people. Director Phillip Kaufman’s re-imagining of Jack Finney’s novel Body Snatchers takes a decidedly darker, more cynical approach to the premise than the original 1956 film adaptation. In doing so, however, the film has established itself arguably as the most accomplished of the four Body Snatchers adaptations.
7. 28 Days Later (2002)/ 28 Weeks Later (2007)
A bit off a cheat, but Danny Boyle’s 2002 alt-horror film and its 2007 follow-up work very much as a whole when it comes to maximum emotional impact. Introducing a world where a “rage” virus has turned the majority of the population into something approaching crazed, rabid dogs, 28 Days Later eventually settles on leaving its audience with a sense of hope for the future. 28 Weeks Later, however, negates this, depicting a world just as brutal as the first but with a far less optimistic ending.
6. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Inspired by the classic 1962 French short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys went on to become the rare financial success in the notoriously disaster-prone career of former Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. Bruce Willis plays a mentally unstable convict from an apocalyptic future who is sent back in time to halt the release of a deadly virus that will kill billions. Featuring great performances from Willis and a decidedly un-glamorized Brad Pitt, 12 Monkeys bears that rare distinction of containing all the creative visuals and quirks that make Gilliam films great without the incoherent, scatter-brained plotting that often proves to be their downfall.
5. Dawn of the Dead (1978)
When it comes to “end-of-the-world-by-zombies” there’s no shortage of viable examples. Certainly old classics such as George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and newer classics like Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead have more than earned their place in the pantheon of great go-to films. Yet, Dawn of the Dead takes the lone spot for specific reasons. In both Night and Shaun the zombie threat is seen on a very small scale, with the action taking place in a rural house and a relatively small neighborhood respectively. Though most of its running time is confined to a massive shopping mall, Dawn’s first third effectively hits home the widespread nature of the zombie outbreak, with scenes like the apartment raid by an overzealous SWAT team visually establishing the reach of the outbreak. Furthermore, while humanity appears to be winning out or returning to normal in a good portion of zombie films, Dawn ends in a place of great ambiguity. Certain heroes survive, but how long can they survive in a world overrun by the undead with limited resources?
4. Melancholia (2011)
An end-of-the-world movie conceived by the director responsible for Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Antichrist? Oh joy. All joking aside, Danish provocateur Lars von Trie here turns in a product that, while undoubtedly sad, is also disarmingly beautiful (emphasis on the opening, slow-motion sequence) and emotionally resonant without feeling overbearing. The movie even manages to squeeze in moments of genuine levity courtesy of Udo Kier as a hilariously snooty wedding planner. The film tells two different stories. In the first part, we follow a soon-to-be bride (Kirsten Dunst, in a career-defining performance) as she struggles to make it through the parties and celebration while her depression’s tight-hold on her grows stronger. The second part focuses on the exploits of her older, type-A sister (the great Charlotte Gainsbourg). There’s also the fact that a blue planet called Melancholia is fast approaching Earth’s orbit.
While far from subtle, von Trier’s use of an apocalyptic event as a metaphor for the nature of depression is an apt one. What’s more impressive is that, despite the movie’s dark subject matter, von Trier manages to infuse the apocalypse with a strange sense of hope.
3.Take Shelter (2011)
Curtis LaForche is a man plagued by apocalyptic visions. Convinced his premonitions will soon come to pass, he begins constructing a shelter for his wife and child. His increasingly erratic behavior leads him to a shrink, where we learn he has a family history of mental illness. Thus lies the central question of Take Shelter. Is Curtis a prophet for the modern time or a mentally disturbed individual becoming lost in his delusions? A kind of subversive take on the traditional Noah story, Take Shelter made good on the promises of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ first feature Shotgun Stories, establishing him as a powerful new voice in the film community. Not to mention, the film features Michael Shannon giving what may be his finest performance to date.
2. Last Night
Last Night fades in on 6:00pm of what we soon discover will be the last day before the complete obliteration of the planet (a specific reason is never given though the film does draw attention to the fact that night has not existed for some time). In six hours time, the world as we know it will be gone. Written and directed by Canadian actor/filmmaker Don McKellar, the film hops between several loosely interlocked stories, exploring how different people chose to spend their last night. Stranded on the street after her car is stolen and demolished, Sandra (Sandra Oh) tries desperately to get to her husband in time so that they can commit suicide together, recruiting a depressed loner named Patrick (McKellar) to help her out. Patrick’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) decides to spend the time recruiting women to enact all the sexual fantasies he’s ever had.
Sticking the perfect balance between sincere drama and laugh-out-loud comedy, Last Night builds to an incredible crescendo that will both haunt you and bring a sad smile to your face.
1. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)/ Fail-Safe (1965)
Inspired by the same source material and released within a year of each other, Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe provide an incredible side-by-side comparison for how the same plot can result in two widely different, though equally successful films. That being said, Strangelove, with its demented, ahead-of-its-time dark humor, will always be first in most people’s hearts. While attempting to adapt Peter George’s novel Red Alert for the big screen, director Stanley Kubrick found that he kept needing to cut out certain real-life details about the emergency nuclear bomb procedures because they were simply too absurd to work in a serious drama. Deciding to rewrite the project as a dark comedy, he recruited renowned satirist Terry Southern to help pen the script. From there, it’s all history. To this day, Peter Sellers’ three very different (and very funny) performances remain a feat by which few actors have matched (with possibly the exception of Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Moreover, the image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb to its destination as well as the final montage of destruction set to the wistful “We’ll Meet Again” are the stuff of movie legend. Worldwide Armageddon has never been so hilarious.
Of course, at the same time, director Sidney Lumet was developing a more serious take on the “what if?” of nuclear war. Intimidated by the amount of talent involved in Fail-Safe, Kubrick filed a lawsuit asserting that the plotline had been plagiarized from George’s Red Alert, which Kubrick owned the rights to. The lawsuit was eventually settled but it had the desired effect. Kubrick’s movie came out eight months prior to Fail-Safe. It’s a shame because Fail-Safe is nearly as dramatically effective as Strangelove is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau are fantastic in their roles and Lumet’s camerawork and editing beautifully pounds home the escalating tension.