The end of the world is not exactly an enticing prospect, but it can make for a compelling film. In fact, seeing humanity approach its end can be oddly cathartic and certainly exciting. With an unprecedented pandemic on our hands, post-apocalyptic disaster films have soared in popularity – and relatability – and cover everything from the climate catastrophe to zombie invasions.
While many end of the world movies tend to focus on the bleakness of looming destruction, some take a lyrical approach, emphasising the beauty of stillness in the face of humanity’s destruction. Here, we take a look at some of the best apocalypse movies ever made.
Don’t Look Up (2021)
Adam McKay’s blackly comic sci-fi Don’t Look Up stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as a pair of astronomers who attempt to inform the public about an approaching comet set to destroy Earth. It features other big-name actors such as Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep.
A whole seven years before Bong Joon-ho became a household name globally following his Oscar-winning thriller Parasite, the director brought us the fast-paced action thriller, Snowpiercer. The plot follows a group of rebels led by Chris Evans who break out of the lower class rear of a train where they have been confined since a climate disaster rendered the outside uninhabitable. The film’s commentary on both global warming and class struggles force us to imagine a worst-case scenario should both implode.
Depression can make it seem like the world is ending, but can conversely make you apathetic to the real end of the world. This peculiar dichotomy is what Lars Von Trier examines in his 2011 masterpiece Melancholia, marking the second instalment of his “Depression Trilogy”, written while the director was himself struggling with his own mental health. Von Trier's Antichrist (2009) and Nymphomaniac I & II (2013) also feature in the trilogy, and fans will notice several recurring motifs across the films, including hijinks with spoons and a protagonist's infinity for mechanics.
In Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst stars as a new bride struck down with melancholy as a planet threatens to collide with Earth and destroy it.
This Western-inspired Brazilian film from directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles centres on the small town of Bacurau, which begins to experience a series of strange, inexplicable events after their matriarch dies at the age of 94.
While the town of Bacurau is fictional, most of the filming took place in the real-life village of Barra, close to the city of Parelhas. The village has around 80 inhabitants, most of whom took part in the film’s production as extras or crewmembers.
The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)
This British science-fiction disaster film, The Day The Earth Caught Fire by Val Guest, is one of the all-time classic apocalyptic films of the 20th century. The film was partly shot on location in London and Brighton and features the real headquarters of the Daily Express on Fleet Street.
The story follows Peter Stenning (Edward Judd), a dejected reporter, his journalist friend (Leo McKern) and weather girl (Janet Munro) as they discover that US and Russian nuclear warfare has interfered with the Earth’s rotation causing natural disasters left, right and centre. The survivors, led by the news trio, desperately try to save themselves by getting the planet back on its axis.
A Quiet Place (2018) & A Quiet Place II (2021)
John Krasinski, known for his role on The US Office, directs this tense thriller series starring himself and his real-life wife Emily Blunt. The hit horror takes place in a near-future where extraterrestrial invaders have wiped out the human race save for one family. In order to survive, the couple and their children have to maintain complete silence at all times. The sequel, A Quiet Place II, continues to explore the tribulations of the family’s peculiar predicament.
Christopher Nolan’s epic Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut entrusted with the mission to travel to find a new home for humanity near Saturn.
The method of space travel featured in the movie was based on physicist and producer Dr Kip Thorne’s works. In fact, Thorne actually instructed Nolan to ensure all intergalactic events were grounded in science and not the creative mind of the screenwriter.
Children Of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón’s tense and sophisticated thriller brought an arthouse flair to the post-apocalyptic genre. The film is set in a nightmarish future London where the global infertility crisis has led to widespread turmoil. In amongst the chaos, a disillusioned former activist (Clive Owen) is tasked with protecting a woman who is miraculously pregnant as she tries to flee the country to safety.
For some reason, the film opted to portray the infertility crisis as being due to women being infertile, whereas the book states that it is a result of men’s ability to produce sperm.
12 Monkeys (1995)
Inspired by Chris Marker's 1962 short film La Jetée, Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys stars Bruce Willis as a convict who takes part in a mission to travel back in time to find out the origins of a deadly virus that killed millions across the globe, and Brad Pitt as a sanatorium patient.
Gilliam was initially worried that Pitt wouldn’t be able to carry off the nervous, fast-paced speech pattern of his supporting character. To achieve the effect he wanted, Gilliam took away Pitt’s cigarettes so his withdrawal jitters would read just right for the character.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Often cited as the greatest science-fiction film of all time, Stanley Kubrick based his space voyage epic on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1951 short story The Sentinel, and the director collaborated with the author on the film’s screenplay. This end of the world movie follows a mission to Jupiter with the sentient computer HAL after the discovery of an extraterrestrial monolith on Earth.
The casting of HAL by Kubrick was not straightforward. The original script called for a female voice, with the AI being initially named Athena. It was later changed to a male voice and eventually Douglas Rain was cast, delivering all of his lines barefoot with his feet resting on a pillow to get a relaxed tone of voice.
Planet Of The Apes (1968)
Planet of the Apes imagines a planet where apes have developed advanced faculties and are dominant over the mute, enslaved human species.
During filming, it was reported that actors tended to stick to their cast species while on set i.e. orangutans with orangutans, gorillas with gorillas. This wasn’t encouraged by the production, it just happened naturally.
The 1968 film spawned a media franchise and four sequels between 1970 to 1973, and Tim Burton directed his version of the film in 2001. A reboot film series launched in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was followed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017).
The Road (2009)
The Road is a survival film based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. It follows the plight of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they navigate a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Mortensen slept in his clothes and intentionally starved himself to get into character. Allegedly, he even got kicked out of a shop in Pittsburgh as the owners mistook him for a homeless man.
28 Days Later (2002)
Danny Boyle’s emotionally charged horror drama is set 28 days after a zombie virus has devastated the planet. The plot follows Cillian Murphy as he wakes up in a hospital gown to find himself in a ravaged, deserted London.
28 Days Later stands out amongst other zombie-themed disaster movies for its realistic, compelling characters and its optimistic denouement. Celebrity fans of the film include author Stephen King, who once bought out a whole cinema screening in New York City.
Mad Max (2015)
The 2015 instalment of Mad Max inspired a whole new aesthetic in fashion and design thanks to director George Miller’s captivating take on dystopia. The film is set in a desert wasteland where tribes of survivors fight and compete for fuel and water. Charlize Theron leads the cast as the initiator of a rebellion along with Maz (Tom Hardy), Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and a group of prisoners.
While most dystopian films opt for a grey-tinted dreary aesthetic, Miller envisioned the contrary and instructed his team to portray a colourful cinematography.
The film cleaned up at the Oscars, winning six awards and receiving nominations for a further four.
Dr Strangelove & How I Learned To Love The Atomic Bomb (1964)
Inspired by events of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick’s darkly funny satire chronicles the various military and political attempts to impede a nuclear war between the US and Russia. Peter Sellers stars in a triple role, delivering a side-splitting performance that exquisitely reflects the absurdity of the political climate at the time. The actor was so desired for the role that his paycheque reflected 55% of the film’s overall budget.
Surprisingly, the film actually had an impact on policy, with new laws passing to ensure its events could never take place in reality.
Take Shelter (2011)
Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain star in Jeff Nichols’ psychological thriller Take Shelter. The plot follows Shannon in the role of a young father who experiences a series of apocalyptic visions making him question his psychological state.
The budget for this film was so low that Chastain was only paid $100 per day of shooting. However, a lack of funds certainly didn’t interfere with the quality of the script and production.
Armageddon is another classic disaster sci-fi film of the late 1990s. The plot follows Bruce Willis in the role of Harry Stamper, an oil driller ordered by Nasa to prevent a huge asteroid from colliding with Earth.
While hugely entertaining, the film favours creative licence over scientific reality. In fact, Nasa shows the film as part of their management-training programme and asks participants to identify errors. To this date, 168 have been discovered.
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