Armageddon in Retrospect: 10 Films about the End of the World

It seems that movie goers can’t get enough of the Armageddon these days. This month, audiences have been treated to visions of their own doom with the likes of After Earth and World War Z whilst This is the End, released in the UK on the 28th of June, offers a more light hearted spin on the end of days as stoner idols Seth Rogen and James Franco battle for survival in post-apocalyptic LA.

Filmmakers have long mused on the whens and whereabouts of the end of the world and these films join a long and storied list of others that have looked with a concerned eye towards the shape of things to come. From nuclear war to environmental disaster, these topics have made for some pretty compelling viewing as these classics attest to:

28 Days Later (2002)

As the spread of a virus turns the inhabitants of London into rage infested monsters, courier Jim wakes up from a coma to find his beloved city completely deserted. The opening moments of Danny Boyle’s guerrilla-style zombie film is one of the most chilling moments in modern horror with its use of digital cameras and closed down streets creating a sense of realism that cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. Expertly cut to Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s ‘East Hastings’, the scene builds in intensity with Jim stumbling over the rubble and wreckage of the city until he enters a church and comes face to face with the infected.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

At first glance, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind appears to be a fantasy film until you realise that the world of the titular princess and her family is built upon the remains of one wiped out by war and pollution. A cautionary tale that sees the survivors of humanity battling mutated insects and the spread of the ‘Toxic Jungle’, this anime’s message was so prescient that its release was part-funded by the WWF though it wasn’t until 2005 that English speaking audiences would see it in its full glory following a hastily dubbed and re-edited version by New World Pictures in the 1980s.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Before he was the most hated man in Hollywood, Mel Gibson was Max, the loner protagonist of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic film series. Modelled after Westerns like Rio Bravo, the trilogy’s finest saw Max come to the aid of besieged settlers guarding the last source of petroleum in the wasteland from a band of leather-clad outlaws. The film’s minimal use of dialogue and nomadic characterisations suggest a world where its inhabitants have regressed to tribal instincts following the depletion of Earth’s natural resources whilst packing some of the best motor stunts of any feature film.

Mel Gibson in Mad Max 2.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Though the film doesn’t show you the apocalypse per se, the end of the world is a subject that is very much at the forefront of this science fiction masterpiece. Arriving on Earth bearing an ultimatum, alien Klaatu offers humanity with a warning on the direction which its violent actions will take them. Released during the height of the Cold War, the whole film is essentially an allegory on the nuclear age with Klaatu’s final words acting as an eerie reminder of humanity’s continued aggression: ‘it is no concern of ours how you run your planet, but, if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder.’

La Jetée (1962)

Chris Marker’s short, exquisitely constructed from still photos, sees the survivors of a third World War attempting to use time travel as a means to prevent the current state of humanity. Part of the wave of French cinema which spawned the likes of François Truffaut and Alain Resnais, La Jetée is as much a rumination on time, loss and memory as it is on the end of civilisation with the film’s nameless protagonist using his childhood memory of a woman and the death of a man (his future self) as a springboard into the past. An influential classic, La Jetée would serve as the basis for Terry Gilliam’s own dystopic film Twelve Monkeys.

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Proving that no topic is beyond farce, Stanley Kubrick’s savagely satirical black comedy looks at the fallout of a crazed Air Force general’s decision to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Released a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film’s satire is shocking even by today’s standards with its flippant and jovial attitude to total annihilation (the final montage of mushroom clouds is ironically cut to Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’) and its portrayal of the politics of the Cold War as a series of boys fighting over toys.

Day of the Dead (1985)

You can’t throw a rock these days without it landing on some form of zombie film or programme such is the popularity of the sub-genre these days. It would be nothing though if it wasn’t for George A. Romero’s pioneering ‘Trilogy of the Dead’ which kick-started the craze as we know it. The concluding part of the series, Day of the Dead sees the undead finally taking over the face of the Earth forcing the surviving humans (a ragtag bunch of scientists and soldiers) to seek refuge underground. Arguably the funniest and bloodiest of the series, Day is zombiegeddon at its finest.

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WALL-E (2008)

Not all apocalyptic films are deep examinations of the human condition: WALL-E is a charming and romantic film set at the end of the world and arguably one of Pixar’s finest. A waste disposal robot wanders an empty Earth clearing up the endless amounts of rubbish that its former occupants (now living in exile in outer space) have left. Inspired by silent comedies, WALL-E impresses with the physicality and childlike optimism of its leading character, a trait almost always lost in these types of film.

The Terminator (1984)/Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Though the end of the world is seldom seen in this influential film series, the scenes set in a post-apocalyptic LA leave by far the biggest impression on the mind. Pitched perfectly between guerrilla warfare and tech-noir nightmare, these scenes show the future descendants of mankind fighting a losing war between the machines against a permanently blackened skyline and atop a bed of human skulls. Wonderfully macabre, the apocalypse as designed by James Cameron is terrifying and somehow awesome to behold.

Planet of the Apes (1968)

‘YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!’ Charlton Heston’s hysterical overacting aside, Planet of the Apes’ ending remains one of the most powerful and iconic science fiction endings of all time as the film’s protagonist, a displaced astronaut named Taylor, discovers that the ape-inhabited dystopia he is attempting to escape from is his own world several millennia in the future. The image of a ruined Statue of Liberty sticking out of the soil has been frequently copied by other dystopic fictions (see Escape from New York and Cloverfield) such is the cultural impact this film has made.

Written by Chris Shackleton, a Leeds based blogger with an interest in film, music and television. Currently moonlighting as a Michael Cera lookalike. Find more of his writing on his blog: filmcraicwithchrisshack.wordpress.com.

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