“The end is nigh!” Nigh is a lovely word that has fallen out of use, but it means near or almost. In fact, the only people keeping it going are the ones possessed of unusual insight about the end of the world, mostly in films. And that’s what we’re here to talk about – what the movies tell us about the end of the world. Actually, what constitutes ‘end of the world’ is open to interpretation. It rarely refers to the planet Earth being totally destroyed, Alderaan style. So, for example, a total breakdown of society and law and order could be regarded as the end of the world as we know it, as could a situation in which carnivorous plants become the dominant life form.
In any end of the world scenario, the story is shaped by the stage of the disaster that the film chooses as its focus: the period leading up to the world-ending event, the period when the event happens, and finally, the aftermath. There is some variety in the period that is examined in each scenario but some combinations are unusual. For example, there aren’t many films that show us what happens after the comet hits the earth or after the aliens have taken over. Join us in our survey of this aspect of moviedom, and maybe you’ll learn a few things, things that will help you survive if it really does happen.
All the people disappear
How likely is it? There are days when we all wish for this to happen. These days are called “Mondays.”
Imagine what would happen if everyone else on Earth suddenly disappeared. Stories of this type tap into a secret, misanthropic wish and a facet of the overall appeal of post-apocalyptic drama. The New Zealand film The Quiet Earth (1985) is a fairly pure example of this setting. The main character awakens to find himself the last person on Earth due to a scientific experiment gone awry, leaving the entire world as his plaything. There’s an experimental aspect to the proceedings as we watch him as he finds interesting things to do. He acquires a huge house, drives a train and then walks the streets at night while playing the saxophone, before declaring himself the ruler of Earth. After a while, though, the loneliness becomes unbearable and he starts to go mad. It’s worth noting that many other end-of-the-world scenarios, such as a virus pandemic, make use of this dynamic. For example, all of the official adaptations of the 1954 Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (The Last Man On Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), I Am Legend (2007)) deal with the survival challenge posed by extreme loneliness itself, even though they might be considered to be zombie or vampire stories.
Sometimes, in films like TV movie Where Have All The People Gone (1974), or the entertaining slice of ’80s cheese that is Night Of The Comet (1984), it is a group of people, rather than an individual, who wander through the lonely apocalypse. A group allows a more conventional story form that makes greater use of dialogue than a story setup involving only a single character. In addition, adding an antagonistic force such as a zombie outbreak, although stretching the basic premise slightly, helps to add excitement to the story. Getting back to The Quiet Earth, at the point that Zac starts to lose his mind, ironically, we hit upon another staple of last person on Earth dramas: the discovery of other people. But, who will our hero encounter? A lover? A friend with whom to save the world? Or a nemesis?
Comets and meteorites
How likely is it? It’s happened in the past, and it’s definitely going to happen in the future.
Sometimes, people won’t believe you when try to tell them that the world is about to end, and this is common trope in movies about impending destruction from above. The focus of most of these films is the period leading up to the disaster. This means that there is something of a niche amongst made for TV and straight to DVD thrillers. For one thing, it’s possible to put together such a science fiction film without an enormous budget. Societal breakdown is often one focus of the story, and this is in area in which TV movies often outdo theatrical releases. The downside is the use of echoey piano or guitar music while family orientated drama plays out in a way that is rather cornball. Add in some recognisable faces of actors experiencing a career low point, and there’s usually some ‘so bad it’s good’ enjoyment to be had from one of these bargain bin DVD thrill rides when you find one.
But what could we actually do if this really happened? In films, quite often, nuclear weapons are employed to destroy the comet or meteor, but it seems unlikely that this would work in real life. In 2014, we did manage to land an experimental craft on an asteroid, but come on – we couldn’t land a nuclear device on the surface, drill down to a reasonable depth and then detonate the device to blow a massive comet to pieces. That is, unless we hired Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis and Aerosmith to do it. That this was the tack taken by Armageddon, the 1998 Michael Bay guilty pleasure. It’s a film that even has star Ben Affleck mocking its plot on the commentary track.
More sedate and sensible, Deep Impact was released the same year. This film covers the exposure government cover up through the eyes of a reporter, played by Téa Leoni, and then the frantic preparations to survive the disaster. That said, if anyone could save us, surely it would be Sean Connery, and he did so in dodgy-but-enjoyable-schlock Meteor (1979). That film employs the nuclear weapon solution as part of a typical, but unexceptional, ’70s disaster movie that features Connery sporting a moustache. What’s not to like? Disaster from above? That’s just his toupee in this one. If you need cheering up after some of the more conventional takes, Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World (2012) serves up Steve Carell and Keira Knightley in a modern rom-com take on the subject.
The best part? This scenario has actually happened before – it probably wiped out the dinosaurs. If it happens again, let’s just hope Affleck and Willis are still around to save us.
How likely is it? It’s one of the classic questions about life in the universe. So, somewhere between perfectly likely and completely impossible.
In the 1950s, it was a staple of science fiction movies, but all-out invasions of Earth are less common in modern cinema. There are two main types of invasion story: In the first, the aliens tend to arrive in a spaceship to conquer us with their exotic weapons and technology. In these ones, their plans are typically stymied by human qualities such as self-sacrifice, inventiveness and sheer determination. It’s a mixture of patriotic pluck and technological sneakiness that beats the alien foe in Independence Day (1996).
The second type of invasion film involves an insidious takeover. It gets downright creepy when the aliens start to replicate or take command of the human hosts in various versions of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, 1993, 2007). In another film, Invaders From Mars (1953), a boy realises that his parents are under control of the alien invaders, but no one believes him. It’s difficult to think of a more paranoia inducing scenario, and it was probably paranoia that produced it. As there are two types of invasion movie, there are two types of warfare in real life: the war against tanks and planes and the war against ideology. In the 1950s, fear of the two types of alien invasion were mirror counterparts of paranoia about both real-life incursions by communism and nuclear war. In the final entry of the Cornetto trilogy, The World’s End (2013), Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg riff on this idea. It’s okay.
For some reason, most stories seem to revolve around the actual period of the invasion rather than the aftermath. It’s a shame that the much derided Battlefield Earth (2000) is one of the few films that explores this.
How likely is it? Very likely. It’s probably imminent.
We’re coming to get you, readers. The concept of the zombie has an ancient origin in folklore, but Night Of The Living Dead (1968) is generally acknowledged as the first modern zombie film. Just why is the first zombie movie still considered one of the best? Firstly, the script is very efficient – you’ll be hard-pressed to work out where the 96 minutes has gone after you’ve watched it. The film has an oddly ‘realistic’ atmosphere given the subject matter. No doubt, budgetary issues actually helped the film in this area. Secondly, the characters are well-defined, giving the audience an investment in their respective fates. Here, we have a traumatised young woman, a helpful, level-headed young man alongside a short-sighted father who turns out to be sneaky and unreliable. Of all the the characters, Ben, played by Duane Jones is the kind of guy that you’d want to be stuck with in a situation like that. It’s significant that director George Romero chose a black actor as it was unusual to have a black man as the hero at that time. Gritty realism and the reliance on diversity, in every sense, went on to become hallmarks of zombie-driven cinema and television, right up until the present day, and it’s part of what makes genre so enduring.
Romero’s second zombie movie Dawn Of The Dead (1978) is an equally highly regarded entry and takes place during the later stages of the apocalypse. Bubbling below the surface, we have the musings on the sociology of the situation, which makes this film, and others like it, far more than simply horror movies. It poses an allegory: the parallel between the pull-factor of the mall both to the zombies and to the rabid consumers that they had once been. This style of film also touches on deeper, more widely felt fears about interference with nature as we continue to probe the boundaries of medical science.
A much later zombie movie, Shaun Of The Dead (2004) touches on some of the same themes within a comedic context, and the success of this film helped to kick off the recent revival of the genre along with the earlier fellow British film 28 Days Later… (2002). Apart from the more serious tone of the latter film, comparing the two reveals the contrast between fast zombies and slow zombies. With slow zombies, the characters have more time to think, but it’s often the case that disaster strikes when they have let their guard down. In fact, getting bitten due to a silly mistake or simple unforeseeable bad luck has become a cliche of the genre, as has covering up the fact that a character has bitten. So, if you’re ever IN a zombie apocalypse, keep an eye on other members of your party. Due to the current fascination with zombies, there are too many excellent examples to even keep track of them all, alongside too many terrible straight to DVD ones to even contemplate.
This last point serves as test. The classics are all about good characters and fascinating situations. Zombie films that rely on simple gore and action tend to fail that test.
How likely is it? It’s been a constant threat since the 1950s.
There are some films about impending thermonuclear disaster, a few about the actual disaster itself, and the period long after the disaster is a staple setting for both video games and many, many Italian science fiction classics that went straight to video in the 1980s. It seems that, to survive in the desert wasteland, one requires cobbled-together armour along with big, big hair. Perhaps there’s an element of the cargo cult to this and the characters wanted a hairstyle that explodes upwards and outwards in the manner of the nuclear explosions that shaped their world.
If you’re looking for something that explores the extreme stress of the period leading up to nuclear war, along with the horror of it actually happening and the misery of the aftermath, have a word with your psychiatrist before viewing the awesome docudrama Threads (1984). At all times, when viewing Threads, one finds oneself thinking that this what nuclear war would really be like – absolutely the worst thing that could possibly happen. “I wish WE were dead”, weeps a woman At one point, lying in her makeshift shelter as she suffers in agony. As becomes apparent, part of the problem with nuclear weapons is that they don’t kill enough people. Yet, infrastructure is destroyed, lots of people are maimed and even agriculture is disrupted because of the nuclear winter. You must be either made of something sterner than any of us, or simply a permanently happy person if you can get through a viewing of Threads without feeling depressed. It’s just that the film is so… damn fantastic.
On The Beach, the 1958 film starring Gregory Peck, is another classic of grim hopelessness, and The Day After (1983) competes with Threads for the title of ‘most depressing film ever made’. Almost no filmmaker seems to have addressed the funny side of nuclear war.
How likely is it? It happens all the time around the world.
Human beings need a stable environment in which to live and prosper, but we also need stable economic systems. Without them, infrastructure, law and order and public services crumble. At that point, what we think of as normal life becomes impossible. This seems to be the backdrop to the Mad Max franchise, the much imitated standard-bearer for lawless desert-based post apocalyptic action films. According to official production documents for Mad Max 2, warfare in the Persian Gulf disrupted the oil supply causing a massive run on the price of fuel, and a consequent run on the value of gold, and this led to worldwide economic chaos. This in turn caused riots in most industrialized nations followed by declarations of martial law. Before long in Australia, fuel was the most valuable commodity and the highways degenerated into a warzone. Cool.
Soylent Green (1973) is, in part, a police drama set in a future blighted by severe economic depression. The cause seems to be massive overcrowding that has led to depletion of resources along with global warming. So, in that story, it may be the case that economic breakdown is the result of other factors. Suffice to say, if you’re in a situation like that one, and you fancy a snack, read the label very carefully.
How likely is it? It’s scientifically possible and happens, to a smaller extent, all the time.
Bird flu, SARS, Ebola, Zika – from time to time a pandemic, a disease spread over huge areas of human population, occurs. The most famous pandemic is the Black Death, an outbreak of mostly pneumonic and bubonic plague in the 14th century. That one may have wiped out as much as 60% of the European population. As the disease was spread largely due to the filthy living conditions of the time, that might make you feel safe, but the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic knocked off as many as 100 million people, mostly fit, healthy adults with strong immune systems. An interesting aspect of that one is that most western governments imposed censorship on the newspapers of the time as morale was already at a low point due to World War I. So, we have a cultural backdrop of unstoppable disease, coupled with a government cover-up etched into our collective memory from the start.
Made in 1980, Virus (also known as Day Of Resurrection and Fukkatsu No Hi) was, when released, the most expensive Japanese movie ever made, and it’s a great post apocalyptic romp. In this story, as with many similar ones, the virus was created as a weapon by government scientists working in secret. Unfortunately, it falls into the wrong hands and is accidentally released, killing off most of the world’s population. This is significant for story reasons, as you need a virus that kills as many people as possible to keep things interesting. For example, if all but 10% of the population were killed off, it would be a devastating tragedy on many levels, but the total ratio of, say, doctors to other people would remain the same. The same goes for electrical power plant workers. Remember, those power plant workers would only have to be able to supply 10% of the power demand at most. Certainly, at the 10% level, life would difficult for the survivors and normal society would be disrupted, but most virus pandemic stories take the number down to a fraction of 1%.
Contagion (2011) details the initial phase of a pandemic and the attempts by healthcare professionals to control the outbreak. It has the slight whiff of a docudrama to it, and it never quite comes to life in terms of excitement despite an all-star cast. The 1971 adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel The Andromeda Strain deals with the outbreak of a deadly viral infection of an extraterrestrial origin. Directed by Robert Wise, it’s a ‘sciencey’ science fiction film with a serious tone, and it’s remained well-regarded film. The Satan Bug (1965), an adaptation of a novel by Alistair MacLean covers similar ground but gives us a more typical action adventure plot revolving around a government created virus. The Cassandra Crossing (1976) takes the idea of a plague virus being used on a train full of passengers and shoe horns it into the then-popular disaster formula. Like most disaster films, it features lots of highly recognizable stars, but it’s a somewhat dull movie and one for the completists only.
12 Monkeys (1995) visits two periods: that leading up to the release of a man made virus, and initially, due to time travel, that time long after the virus has destroyed most of human civilization. Of course, there are some films that make use of a virus as plot device without being classed as pure virus scenario movies. Zombie flick 28 Days Later (2002) is an example. Makes you think – who knows what governments around the world have sat around in secret laboratories?
How likely is it? That one depends on your beliefs in the mystical and supernatural.
The Bible was the first mass printed book, and it features at its climax an apocalypse. However, people are, in general, less religious than they used to be. As a result, supernatural apocalypses in fiction have fallen by the wayside compared to those involving zombies and viruses and things like that. Ghostbusters (1984) features a group of scientists battling the forces of the occult. Had they failed to close the gateway to another dimension, presumably, the entire world would have been overrun with demons and other supernatural entities. If nothing else, if New York became the nexus of this activity, it might at least make property rental more affordable there. Perhaps The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005) belongs in this category? In that film, the monsters and crazy characters from the writer’s imagination cross over into the real world. We wouldn’t want to live in that world any more than the one in which the Gremlins (1984) were running amok.
Dogma (1999) is Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse take on an impending end of the world scenario within a religious context. At the time, some people were surprised to see a religiously themed story from a writer/director so well known for his edgy humour, and it’s ironic that it’s a rare throwback the religious origins of apocalyptic fiction. On the whole, these films tend be about a battle between good and evil as supernatural forces attempt to take over the world rather than the aftermath. This may be the setting for John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974), but we’re not actually sure what’s going on in Zardoz.
How likely is it? We may not have reached the tipping point yet, but we’re certainly heading that way.
We tend to take the environment for granted; it is, after all, the world around us. But when you think about it, we humans are quite fragile, and you wouldn’t have to change much about our surroundings to make life unlivable for us. Most disaster films tend to assign blame on a character, but environmental disaster films lay the guilt trip on the viewer and society in general. The message is about the sanctity of the Earth and the punishment we are due if we do not learn to respect it. The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961) is a black and white film that explores this horror. The science that forms the premise is hard to believe as scientific experiments somehow throw the Earth off its usual axis causing a rise in temperature around the world, but putting that aside, it’s an absorbing drama. The protagonist, played by Edward Judd, is a hard drinking journalist who seems sick of life following his divorce. It’s this antihero performance combined with the perspective of the film, that of the inner-workings of a newspaper newsroom and early 60s London in general, that make the film worth worth watching. The tension builds and builds as the temperature goes up and up, leading up to a last-ditch attempt by the scientists to save life on Earth.
It’s interesting to contrast the character based drama of The Day The Earth Caught Fire with another film, The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Roland Emmerich isn’t exactly renowned for his subtlety as a storyteller, and you can call the film a romp or even a guilty pleasure, but it’s, basically, great fun. Like many science fiction stories, this one builds on one of the prevalent fears of our time, global warming. The film’s an action-adventure, and like all films that owe part of their lineage to the disaster boom of the 1970s, it relies on an ensemble cast of interrelated characters. The speed at which things start to go horribly wrong isn’t scientifically plausible, but who cares when you’re having this much, admittedly silly, fun? Go, put the DVD in, you know you want to.
The Colony (2013) is a solid, if unambitious, bit of fun that seems to have passed most audiences by. In this film, one of the mighty Bill Paxton’s final ones, a group of survivors living underground during an ice age investigate a distress call from one of the other bunkers and get caught up in a fight with a ruthless enemy. So, it’s an example of environmental post apocalypse mixed with with conventional action that adds up to an enjoyable B-movie.
No Blade Of Grass (1970) is an adaptation of a novel by John ‘Tripods’ Christopher. The film has some strange distribution issues and hasn’t been widely seen, and frankly, it’s not that great anyway, as it’s a bit of a clunky mess. However, it does show the really nasty side of what happens to society when nothing will grow and all the food runs out. Some films show the long-term results of massive environmental disaster. For example, the degradation of the environment in the Blade Runner films is the backdrop of the story. Waterworld (1995) is set in the far future and shows us a world that is mostly submerged beneath the sea.
Computers take over
How likely is it? It’s already happened to an extent and it’s gradually getting worse.
Generally speaking, computers don’t have feelings, so when they run things, it’s bad news for the human beings. The Terminator franchise gives an insight into a world in which a malevolent computer system, Skynet, has taken control of the the world. We get glimpses into what the future has in store for mankind in the first film, made in 1984, and it’s the principle setting for Terminator Salvation (2009).
In the Terminator franchise, the computer running things is clearly the enemy of humankind, but there are many dystopias in which the computer running things was set in motion with a benevolent intention. In the original Rollerball (1975), the lead character, athlete Jonathan E. finds life in what should be a paradise extremely unsatisfying. At one point, he discovers that he can’t even read the original version of a book because all the books are now stored on computers and all the books have been censored. What’s the point of being human if you can’t make decisions and choose how you want to lead your life? Fellow 1970s dystopian vision Logan’s Run (1976) similarly shows an ordered society run by computers that are the enemy of individual thought.
The fear factor from scenarios like these comes from the fact that the computerisation of society is gradually happening. Every time a government gives itself more power to intrude into our lives thanks to the computers that we now rely on, the reality of computer run dystopias comes closer. At least, in the case of the computer in the Terminator films, there is an actual enemy to fight with using guns and explosives. In the case of government and corporate policies as an enemy, they are harder to fight as we get lazier and more reliant on machines simply because of convenience. Every time you find yourself going “how the… ” when one website seems to know what you were doing on another website, and every time you buy another gizmo with AI, a camera and a tracking device, that dystopia is one step closer.
Animals take over
How likely is it? As secure as we feel in our everyday lives, our relationship with nature is always an uneasy one.
Thinking about it, the animals turning against us must be a primal fear as early humans were closely connected to husbandry and constantly wary of attack. Australian creepfest Long Weekend (1978) is a fairly pure example of this scenario. In this film, a couple who’ve decided to get away from it all on a camping trip find that all the animals have turned nasty. In common with films about environmental disasters, there’s an element of punishment for disrespecting nature.
Reign Of Fire (2002) takes a mythical and terrifying animal, the dragon, and turns it into the enemy of humankind. Day Of The Triffids (1962) is an adaptation of the John Wyndham novel and is a type of animal attack story. The human race finds itself helpless when most are blinded by a meteor strike while, coincidentally, a species of carnivorous, mobile plants go on the attack. Irwin Allen’s disaster flick The Swarm (1978) features deadly bees, and it often tops lists of the worst movies ever made. Despite the deployment of massive military forces to fight the insects, it’s not clear if the entire continent, or even the entire world, is under threat or merely the city of Houston though. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film adaptation of The Birds is a more typical apocalyptic tale in which common domestic birds turned against humanity en masse. In common with the short story on which it’s based, the film ends on an uncertain note as we don’t know if what the long term prospects for normal human life will be.
Films in which the animals turn into our enemies are, in a way, a subcategory of environmental thriller. Although it seems unlikely that civilization will ever be literally under siege due to animal attack, ironically, we could be killing ourselves off by threatening the life cycle of, for example, bees, vital to us as the pollinators of flowers. Who knows what else we will do to ourselves, ultimately, as we gradually kill off one species after another?
The weird ones
How likely is it? We should always be on the lookout for new threats from unexpected directions.
Some films involving an apocalyptic threat to humanity are difficult to categorize. Viciously derided by critics as ‘silly’ due to its premise, M. Night Shyamalan employs some sort of airborne agent that induces suicide in the film The Happening (2008). It’s not a perfect movie, but the hate that it’s been subjected to is difficult to justify. That filmmaker touches on similar ground in his similarly critically mauled After Earth (2013), a story of human astronauts who crash land on a future Earth on which practically all life has evolved to be hostile to human beings. In all fairness, that one is grown-worthy with not much going for it.
Stephen King’s only feature film directing credit, Maximum Overdrive (1986), offers some visceral thrills, and it’s become regarded as a trashy horror cult classic. In that film, all of the vehicles have become hostile to human beings. How it works, we’re not exactly shown, although it seems to involve a force from outer space in some way. For example, how are the controls of vehicles held down and manipulated? Are the vehicles independently intelligent, and if so, what is their ultimate aim? Children Of Men (2006) shows us a future in which fertility rates have suddenly dropped to such a level that the human race is in danger of extinction. As with many of the films that we’ve talked about, it’s a fantastical premise that has some roots in reality as sperm counts in human males are dropping globally at the moment. Scientists are unable to say whether viewing After Earth is the cause of this.
Sometimes a film doesn’t tell us what causes the breakdown of civilization. For example, in the underrated The Postman (1997) starring Kevin Costner, it seems to have been combination of the effects of warfare, disease, economic breakdown and massive environmental change that has lead to people living primitive lives in small communities. Similarly in The Road (2009), we’re never told exactly what happened to Earth, although it seems to have been environmental in nature.
Some of these films have been difficult to categorize. For example, is 28 Days Later a zombie film or a virus film? What about the film adaptation of The Mist (2007)? Is that a supernatural or alien invasion, or even, an animal attack film? In the same way, we have, no doubt, missed out some important films. Let us know what you think in the comments selection.