Apocalypse is an ever-popular idea in cinema. After all, what could be more dramatic than the possibility — or even the actuality — of the end of everyone and everything that you've ever known. It's an all purpose metaphor, and can be used to tell all kinds of stories, in all kinds of tones, as highlighted by this weekend's comedy-drama "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World," which sees Steve Carell and Keira Knightley brought together by the impending end of civilization.
The film's only semi-successful at melding romantic comedy with the end of days, as you'll find from our review, but there's plenty in the film to recommend it as well. And if you're still looking for a little more end-of-the-world drama, we've picked out five lesser-known examples that are worth seeking out ASAP. Check out our selections below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
On the surface, "Kairo" (or "Pulse," to use the English title, and that of the spectacularly inferior U.S. remake, which starred Kristen Bell, Christina Milian and Samm Levine, of all people) looks like just another J-horror picture of the kind that were so popular in the early 00s. It has eerie spirits appearing on screens, grisly deaths, and an overwhelming mood of dread. But director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has bigger things on his mind than the relatively small scope of "The Ring" and "The Grudge," talking about the way in which technology isolates us, and bringing it to apocalpytic ends. It starts with two parallel storylines: Kudo Michi (Kumiko Aso), whose colleague kills himself after discovering a ghostly face on his monitor, and Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) a student whose computer starts asking him "Do you want to see a ghost?" Both segments are terrifying, full of imagery that will haunt you for weeks, but as more and more people around them disappear (red tape over their apartment doors signifying this), and society starts to crumble (including a plane crashing from the skies, which are turning black), the existential dread — caused, it would seem, by nothing more complex than extreme loneliness — becomes almost unbearable. Even surviving everything else isn't necessarily enough; at the end, escaping to Latin America, Ryosuke loses the will to live, and crumbles into ash. It's not entirely narratively coherent, to an almost Lynchian degree (backed up by the spectacular use of sound design), but you always feel that the opaque quality of the picture is to its advantage. Buried by the Weinsteins in favor of the remake, the film's finally beginning to get the critical respect it deserves (Slate named it as the greatest horror film of the century so far in a poll last year), and cinephiles are finally discovering one of the most terrifying celluloid apocalypses ever put on screen.
"Last Night" (1998)
An obvious inspiration for "Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World," Don McKellar's "Last Night" arrived in the same year as megabudget apocalyptic asteroid movies "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon," and felt all the better for its quiet, character driven approach compared with their bombastic, sentimental nature. The directorial debut of actor and screenwriter McKellar ("Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," "The Red Violin"), it's set on the eve of an unnamed event that will cause the death of the planet, and everyone on it, and follows a stalwart group of Canadian cinema's finest, including David Cronenberg as the owner of a power company, Sandra Oh as his wife, McKellar as a widower who enters into a suicide pact with her, Callum Keith Rennie as a man sworn to go out fucking, and Sarah Polley as McKellar's sister. For the most part, the director brings a lovely sense of detail and specificity to it; this is, you suspect, how the world will go out, not so much with a whimper, but more with just a sudden stop. It does feel a little sprawling and unfocused, but not distractingly so, because most of the people it touches on, from Cronenberg's meticulous, dedicated public servant to Genevieve Bujold's high school teacher finally giving in to her attraction to Rennie's character, a former pupil, are worth spending time with. It increasingly feels like a definitive take on the end-of-the-world flick, and it's only a shame that McKellar couldn't bring the same humanity and humor to his script for a later apocalypse film, Fernando Mereilles' "Blindness."
"When The Wind Blows" (1986)
For all the bleak takes on nuclear apocalypse — "On The Beach," "Dr. Strangelove," "The Day After" — it's perhaps a little discomforting to find that the most harrowing comes in the form of a cartoon. Based on Raymond Briggs' graphic novel of the same name, "When The Wind Blows," from Japanese-American director Jimmy Murakami ("Battle Beyond The Stars") follows an average, elderly British couple, Jim and Hilda (who Briggs admitted were based on his own parents, rather hauntingly), who face an imminent Soviet strike on the U.K. with typical British chipperness. Voiced touchingly by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, they follow government advice and build a wooden shelter, and wait for the whole thing to blow over. But the bombs fall, and although they survive the blast, they're obliviously dying of radiation poisoning, leading up to a haunting conclusion as they pray together. The wry humor just about makes it palatable, but it's an enormously affecting piece of work (sometimes made a little too obvious by the Roger Waters score and David Bowie theme song), which haunted at least a couple of generations of Brits, and anyone else who managed to see it, sitting alongside "Watership Down" and "Grave Of The Fireflies" on the "unbelievably traumatic animation" shelf.
"The Day The Earth Caught Fire" (1961)
Riding the wave of similar nuclear-fearing apocalyptic sci-fi pictures like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "When Worlds Collide," "The Day The Earth Caught Fire" is one of the more thoughtful and plausible takes on the genre. Recently divorced Daily Express journalist Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) discovers that simultaneous nuclear tests by the Soviets and the U.S have thrown the Earth slightly out of orbit, causing it to come closer to the sun, and raising temperatures to the point that water is evaporating, covering all of Britain in a mist. There is a plan, but we don't follow the government types hoping to detonate more bombs in Siberia to throw the planet back in its groove, we stay with Peter, his best friend Bill (a lovely turn by the great Leo McKern) and love interest Jeanie (Janet Munro) as they wait on, helplessly. Director Val Guest ("The Quatermass Experiment") keeps everything thoroughly grounded, despite the iffy science of the inciting incident, providing an authentically nightmarish look at London under the cooker. And it has one of the greatest endings in science fiction: Stenning dictates an editorial, as two alternate versions of a final front page, reading World Saved and World Doomed wait to be sent to the presses, depending on how successful the nuclear detonation turns out. U.S. prints added the ringing of church bells, but even that seems to only contribute to the bleak ambiguity of the ending, rather than suggesting that the world's been saved.
"Time Of The Wolf" (2003)
Unlike the rest of these picks, the apocalypse has pretty much been and gone by the opening of Michael Haneke's "Time Of The Wolf," the Austrian helmer's sole entry into the science fiction genre. But that doesn't mean that the worst is over. Far from it. Society is still crumbling around the family at the centre of Haneke's dystopia. A middle class family, led by matriarch Anne (Isabelle Huppert), are struggling to survive in a world in the aftermath of an again unknown catastrophe (drinking water is scarce, and livestock are set aflame). In the opening minutes, they're robbed, and watch as the patriarch (Daniel Duval) is murdered, forcing them to flee, eventually coming under the questionable protection of tinpot despot Olivier Gourmet, who has control of the uncontaminated water. It's about as much fun as you'd expect from a post-apocalyptic Michael Haneke film — i.e. no fucking fun whatsoever — but it's impeccably directed and performed, by Huppert especially. And what elevates it above, say, "The Road," are the hints that the director gives — without ever over-egging it — that he's not really talking about some futuristic dystopia, but about the places in the world — Kosovo, Somalia, wherever — where people eke out existences all to similar to that of Anne and her family.