It's the end of the world as we know it. And you’ll feel fine, especially with this collection of end-of-the-world movies to choose from. According to the Mayan calendar, it’s iffy whether or not we’ll make it to the end of the year.
If that’s the case, what better way to prepare for the end than to see how others have anticipated it over the years. And, no, Heaven’s Gate is not on the list!
1. On the Beach (1959) The first (and perhaps only) minimalist end-of-the-world movie, this sensitive film by Stanley Kramer takes place in Australia as the population there awaits nuclear fallout reaching them after the rest of the world has been bombed out of existence.
The cast includes Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire (the latter in his first dramatic role). If nothing else, this proved you could make a movie about the effects of war without ever showing a single explosion. A decidedly different take on the war film genre.
2. Dr. Strangelove (1964) Nothing says laugh out loud riotous comedy like nuclear annihilation. Kubrick’s outrageous nightmare, absurdist take on war started out as a serious look at the problems of nuclear weapons, but the director found that most of his best ideas were laced with such morbid humor that he was tossing them aside. He eventually decided to go with his gut and make his point about the inanity of war by showing just how ridiculously funny it could be.
Putting together a first-rate cast which included Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens and especially Peter Sellers (in three different roles!), Kubrick made the definitive anti-war film by blowing up the world at the end and gave us such quotable phrases as “precious bodily fluids” and “sexual preverts,” plus a war room set that’s literally to die for!
If you want to see a serious film about the same subject, check out the overly earnest Fail Safe which was released the same year. However, time has put that lesser effort deeply in the shadow of Kubrick’s superior work.
3. 12 Monkeys (1995) Based in part on the spare 1962 French art house short, La Jetee, this American remake written by David and Janet Peoples and directed with manic energy by Terry Gilliam, stars Bruce Willis, Madelyn Stowe, Brad Pitt and Christopher Plummer. In a post-apocalyptic world, decimated by disease, a team of scientists send a man back in time to bring back a pure virus sample so a cure can be made. The complex story unfolds in an inventively off-kilter manner in which not only don’t you know where in time you are, but whether Bruce Willis’s character, Cole, is really traveling through time or is simply deranged.
Serious at its core, the film is nevertheless very funny, as you might expect from a former member of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Willis pockets his trademark smirk and smug demeanor to create a sympathetic character you truly care about, while Pitt plays against his good looks in a role that garnered him an Oscar nomination. Stowe is luminous and strong as a psychiatrist who tries to help Cole, and has never been better.
4. 28 Days Later (2002) Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting; Slumdog Millionaire), and boasting an excellent ensemble cast that includes Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns and Brendan Gleeson, this terrifying film explores the effect of a deadly virus which breaks out in London and instantly transforms those infected into flesh-eating vampire zombies. Followed by a pretty good sequel, 28 Weeks Later in 2007.
5. The Road (2009) Coming full circle, this semi-minimalist story, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and directed by John Hillcoat concerns the last vestiges of humanity trying to survive in a post-war America where supplies are dwindling. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are a father and son making their way south across a devastated, ash-gray world in the hope that something better may be there.
On the road, during their desolate journey, the pair encounter a number of characters, friendly and otherwise, including an old codger played by Robert Duvall. In flashback, prior to the apocalyptic event, we see the father with his wife (Charlize Theron), where her absence in the present timeline is eventually revealed.
To say the film is bleak is almost an understatement. Director Hillcoat, who also made the gritty Australian western, The Proposition in 2006, proves he’s equally adept in the post-apocalyptic genre as well. Whether you respond favorably to The Road depends on your need for emotional closure, something that is generally in short supply here.
We will learn soon enough if the Mayans have the last laugh or not. If they’re wrong, then we’ll have more great films to look forward to in 2013. Either way, this group of “end-of-the-world” flicks will let you party in style, just like it’s 2012, because, in fact, it is!