“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.”
Then again, what does T.S. Eliot know? As far as the movies go, the possibilities for destroying our planet or civilizations are downright infinite. Certainly, in light of several recent predictions claiming that the end of the world is ‘nigh (most of which have passed, mind you), the apocalypse has naturally been on a lot of peoples’ minds.
And so it goes: What’s prevalent in society’s consciousness is subsequently reflected in our pop culture. This means a surge of movies dealing with a world-ending event. Dramatic or funny; action-packed and exciting or slow and deliberate; real life or supernatural—there’s an apocalypse story for everyone.
20. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
Released in mid-summer of 2012, director Lorene Scafaria’s (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist) feature film directorial debut came and went without much fanfare. To be fair, it was a hard sell. An apocalypse comedy/rom-com/road trip movie starring the likes of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley, two actors who don’t seem like they belong in the same world together let alone in a romantic pairing, the movie was never going to be a runaway hit. It’s certainly not without its flaws, with a tone that oscillates sharply between comedy and drama and a plotline that borrows heavily from a certain other movie on this list. And yet, Carell and Knightley’s combined charm and chemistry make this one end-of-the-world road trip worth checking out.
19. War of the Worlds (2005)
Director Bryon Haskin’s 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel remains one of the most notable science fiction films of the 1950s. Today, the film stands as an essential, if somewhat dated, milestone in the evolution of special effects. In other words, unlike certain other properties, a remake was not out of the question. And who better to do so than Steven Spielberg?
The power of Spielberg’s 2005 version is how he repurposes the original’s pervading Cold War paranoia in favor of incorporating elements of post-9/11 trauma. When the Tom Cruise character, having narrowly escaped the initial alien attack, looks into the mirror and realizes he’s covered in the ashes of disintegrated civilians, it’s next to impossible not to summon up the image of debris-covered New Yorkers wandering around the aftermath of the Trade Center attack. Moreover, by sticking closer to the book’s original premise, which involved a man’s attempt to locate his wife in the ensuing chaos, Spielberg creates a disaster film that feels much more intimate and personal than the ‘50s version. Yes, the film kind of falls apart in the final reel, but by that point it’s earned more than enough goodwill to balance out the weaker areas.
18. The Rapture (1992)
Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a Los Angeles hedonist who ends up falling in with a religious sect obsessed with the End of Times. The group warns that the biblical Rapture is near and Sharon takes the news to heart, vowing to give her life to God and live a purer lifestyle. She eventually even marries and has a daughter. As the signs of the Rapture begin appearing, however, Sharon also begins to doubt her devotion to God and his “cruel” ways. Made on a miniscule budget, the film did little business during its initial run, despite ringing endorsements from the likes of Roger Ebert. It’s not hard to see why thanks to its ham-fisted diatribe against traditional religious views of God. While such a heavy-handed approach certainly bogs the story down in parts, the film is worth seeing for Rogers’ fantastic performance alone as well as the sheer bravery of story’s final 15 minutes.
17. On the Beach (1959)
Given the content restrictions enforced on films in the pre-MPAA age, you’d think it would be next to impossible to release a film containing the kind of visceral impact as a more modern production. And well…you’d sort of be right. Leave it to Stanley Kramer then—director of such issue-heavy projects like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Inherit the Wind—to deliver a moving ensemble drama about a group of characters in denial about their eventual destruction. Set months following a devastating World War III, the film posits a world in which most of the Northern Hemisphere has been contaminated with radiation poisoning and people are moving down to Australia in order to escape the slow-moving but ever encroaching radiation dust. Boasting a cast that includes Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire, On the Beach is a must-see for any classic-film fans.
16. Time of the Wolf (2003)
Austrian director Michael Haneke isn’t exactly known for playing it safe; rather, he seems to prefer pushing the boundaries of good taste, as if daring anyone to keep watching. This is certainly the case with his 2003 apocalyptic film Time of the Wolf. Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert plays the matriarch of a French family who travels to their home in the country only to find that an unspecified disaster has driven the world into chaos. When the family tries to find new shelter, however, they are shunned or ignored like lepers in biblical times. Here, by never revealing the cause of the apocalypse, Haneke almost seems to be making a statement not about the nature of man in times of peril but about how fragile human relationships can be and how little it takes to suck the compassion out of people. While not nearly as powerful as some of Haneke’s other works, Time of the Wolf stands as a fantastic alternative to the typical end-of-the-world fare.
15. Fish Story (2009)
There’s one scene in Almost Famous where rocker Jeff Bebe, high on his own self-importance, utters the soundbite-y phrase “rock ’n’ roll can save the world.” Never has these words been more literalized than in Yoshihiro Nakamura’s 2009 film Fish Story. The film opens on the deserted streets of Japan. Everyone is prepping for the seemingly inevitable asteroid collision that will wipe away civilization as we know it. In a still-open record shop in the middle of the city, however, a music fan holds up hope that an obscure punk single from 1975 will save the world. And, in a series of seemingly unrelated stories that trace the song’s history over the years, we see how it does just that. Relentlessly clever and fun, Fish Story manages to tackle the concept of a “hyperlink” story without any of the pretentiousness or overindulges that typically plagues projects of that ilk.
14. Miracle Mile (1988)
It’s a piece of irony worthy of Alanis Morissette (in that it’s not exactly ironic). You find the partner of your dreams, only to discover after the initial “meet-cute” that the world will soon be engulfed in a nuclear apocalypse. Anthony Edwards stars in this highly underrated late 1980s thriller as Harry, a lovelorn man who just happens to answer a random ringing pay phone late at night. On the other end of the line, a frantic man warns him that nuclear war is set to break out in exactly 70 minutes. What follows is Harry’s race against the clock to find his newfound love and escape in a helicopter before it’s too late. Shot mostly in real-time, Miracle Mile is a exhilarating roller coaster ride through late-night Los Angeles and a seemingly huge inspiration for the 2008 movie Cloverfield.
13. This is The End (2013)
The Book of Revelation as seen through the eyes of a group of stoned prima donnas, This Is The End has Seth Rogen and company staring down the apocalypse and lobbing dick jokes in reply. There are many ways in which Rogen and co-writer/director Evan Goldberg’s feature-directing debut could have gone horribly wrong, whether it be leaning too much on the inside jokes or half-assing the special effects. Yet, Rogen and Goldberg avoid all the major pratfalls of first-time comedy filmmakers, combining the loose, Apatow-inspired interactions with impressive visual set pieces that create a sense of scope and escalation. This is the End is probably one of the few apocalypse-based films you want to re-watch the second after its done.
12. Night of the Comet (1984)
A forgotten little gem from the 1980s (recently released on Blu-Ray), Night of the Comet can easily be dismissed as nothing more than a goof of a film. Those with an open mind, however, will find an intriguing example of a film that mixed genres before such a thing was readily acceptable. The story centers on two teenage Valley Girls who, after a comet passes right near the Earth and vaporizes billions in its wake, decide to take advantage of the end-of-the-world situation by having an epic shopping spree. On the way, however, they encounter zombies, the military and countless other “totally lame” detours. A hilarious send-up of 1980s culture, Night of the Comet provides a thoroughly entertaining time capsule of the decade.
11. The Road (2009)
Adapted from the 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is an appropriately dark journey into the depths of human despair and desperation. Viggo Mortensen stars as an unnamed man making his way through the remnants of an eviscerated world with his young son in tow. Faced with a brutal population that’s quickly destroying itself, the man must eventually decide between continuing forward and hoping for a better life or executing his son then and there to prevent future suffering. Director John Hillcoat and writer Joe Penhall’s film is not an easy one to watch, but they deserve credit for transforming a beautifully effective novel into an equally effective piece of cinema.