Lars von Trier is a great filmmaker, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you’d much like to hang out and have a drink with. Aside from all that Nazi stuff, his films tend to traffic in the grimmest possible subject matter: he’s tackled rape, slavery, the death penalty, paralysis, and genital mutilation, so it somehow seems logical that his latest picture, Melancholia (on demand now, in theaters Friday) is about nothing less than the end of the world.
Apocalypses are a popular topic for filmmakers — though most are more interested in the narrative possibilities of the post-apocalyptic world than the event itself. Melancholia distinguishes itself by being something of a pre-apocalyptic picture, delving into the anxiety and fear of those who are awaiting the earth’s possible collision with a foreign object (timely!). After the jump, we’ll take a look back at a few of our favorite cinematic apocalypses.
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George Miller’s 1981 follow-up to his hit Mad Max has become, in the years since its release, the quintessential post-apocalyptic movie: set in a vast and mostly deserted wasteland, populated by meek survivors and leather-clad, mohawked marauders, its iconography became our go-to pop-culture conception of a crumbled and ravaged world.
John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grim, brilliant 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner follows a widower and his young son through a post-apocalyptic wasteland sparsely populated by scavengers, cannibals, and other terrifying types. Hillcoat’s world isn’t as flashy or as fun as Miller’s; there’s no thrilling chases or action set pieces here, merely a man and boy trudging through a barely-intact civilization, trying to stay alive.
Harlan Ellison’s novella served as the source material for this 1974 cult classic from director L.Q. Jones (best known for his acting work in A Prairie Home Companion, The Edge, and several Peckinpah pictures). The story is set in 2024, in an alternate history where JFK lives to see the development and proliferation of nuclear technology that culminates in a five-day world war in 2007 that wipes out most of civilization. The film focuses on Vic and Blood, the title characters, an 18-year-old child of the apocalypse and his telepathic canine, as they avoid mutants, androids, and scavengers in an attempt to find a land untouched by radiation, which they call “Over the Hill.”
The cataclysmic event that drives the bulk of civilization underground in Terry Gilliam’s 1995 masterpiece is not nuclear, but biological: a devastating virus unleashed in 1996, which convict Bruce Willis is hurled back in time to track (though not, it seems, to stop). Most of the film’s action is set in the 1990s timeframe that Willis’ character is sent back to (where his pronouncements of impending doom are, unsurprisingly, treated as the ravings of a lunatic), but the scenes of the post-apocalyptic future are haunting and poetic: perpetually snow-covered, quiet, and oddly terrifying.
The end of the world in Pixar’s 2008 gem doesn’t arrive via a single, flashpoint event; it follows decades of consumption, resulting in a trashed ecosystem and a toxicity that renders the planet uninhabitable. (The film’s more cynical critics were perhaps right to point out that there’s something a tad dishonest about a film from a Disney subsidiary warning of the dangers of mass consumerism, but we digress.) As a result, humans live on automated spacecraft in a perpetual orbit, while the barren planet below is literally covered in trash — and that’s where our hero, the last of the trash compactor robots, comes in.
John Carpenter’s 1981 action thriller is set in a dystopian 1997. Following a gas attack by the Soviets at the beginning of World War III, crime has risen 400%, necessitating the transformation of the island of Manhattan into a vast, maximum security prison. Thus, Escape from New York’s Gotham is a gang-ridden, garbage-strewn hellhole. But wait, there’s some cinematic exaggeration too! (Rim shot. Apologies. Apologies all around.)
The Dead Series
Of all the possible movie apocalypses, few are as irresistible to filmmakers as the ever-popular zombie apocalypse. No one has made more hay of the rise of the ghouls than George A. Romero, whose breakthrough film Night of the Living Dead (1968) focused on an isolated farmhouse whose thrown-together inhabitants do their best to ward off the reanimates (and drive each other nuts). If Living Dead was Romero’s portrayal of the zombie apocalypse, its numerous follow-ups explored the post-apocalyptic world, and the resultant damage to consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), science (Day of the Dead), class (Land of the Dead), media (Diary of the Dead), and the military (Survival of the Dead).
Journeyman director Danny Boyle fused the virus apocalypse and the zombie apocalypse in his ingenious 2002 effort, in which a bicycle messenger (Cillian Murphy) awakens from a coma to find the entirety of London trashed and deserted. These are the fruits of the “rage virus,” a highly contagious infection (created in a lab, of course — shades of 12 Monkeys), which overwhelms its victims in about twenty seconds flat and turns them into bloodthirsty zombies — albeit ones with noticeably more spring in their step than Romero’s flesh eaters.
Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, which told the story of the (seemingly) sole human survivor of a worldwide pandemic, inspired three cinematic adaptations: the 1964 Vincent Price vehicle The Last Man on Earth (directed by Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow), the 1971 Charlton Heston starrer The Omega Man (from director Boris Sagal), and the 2007 Will Smith picture I Am Legend (helmed by Francis Lawrence). Though the details of the three films differ — in terms of both their narrative arcs and the vampire/zombie/monster qualities of their primary antagonists — all three delve into the intriguing possibilities of having the earth pretty much to oneself.
A pandemic or nuclear apocalypse is one thing — it happens, and then it’s over — but Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (adapted from the novel by P.D. James) imagines a more protracted dying out of humanity: a plague of utterly inexplicable infertility. Set in 2027, and beginning with the murder of the world’s youngest person (“Baby Diego,” 18 years old), the world of Children of Men is an understandably hopeless and despairing one, in which a violent and chaotic society is on the verge of collapse. But Children of Men is also that rarest of apocalyptic tales: a story of hope and faith, in which mankind might just stand a chance after all.