One of the great things about movies, or really any hobby, is that a failed attempt at a concept can open up a trove of unforeseen wealth. Earlier this year a relatively bad movie came out called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. It wasn’t so much of a bad movie as more of a solid beginning and a touching end with a made for tv road trip comedy in the middle. In it, Steve Carell and Keira Knightley meander through an inconsistent world of impending doom, trying to find some sort of peace before the apocalypse. The concept is more or less trying to tell the story of how a couple of every day Joes/Janes could try to survive in Deep Impact or 2012 ,but without all the government connections. The last attempt to destroy an astroid headed towards earth has failed, and now an insurance agent and a flighty manic pixie dream girl have to figure out what to do with themselves. The film suffers from a writer trying to be a director. The entire movie reeks of scenarios and characters that must have seemed a lot better on paper. The balance of likely vs. unlikely-yet-forgivable simply does not weigh out. Despite of all of its flaws, I was drawn in by its attempt to portray the reality of the end of the world. One of my biggest gripes of big Hollywood films (especially superhero movies) is that it is almost always about saving the world. Whether it be from terrorist, natural, or an alien attack, the protagonist (Tom Cruise, or for the younger readers, Chris Hemsworth) is always trying to stop the end of the world as we know it. My jaded view of this all too cliche cinematic situation may be drawn from that fact that I can’t relate to it. It is not so much that I can’t relate to the concept of the world ending, but the fact that I know good and well that I could not even to begin to imagine that I could ever prevent it. That said, I can certainly imagine the world ending, and more so put myself right in the middle of it. (My inferiority complex would run wild at that point.) So after watching Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, it dawned on me that others before me must have thought of this, besides the writer of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. By golly, I was right. I quickly watched 5 movies that did a much better job with that premise than the movie that inspired me.
5. The Last Woman on Earth (1960) – Roger Corman
There are two different types of end of the world movies. The first type covers what happens leading up to the end of the world, and the second deals with what happens after the world ends. There are three movies that deal with both. Now, there are a TON of movies that deal with what happens after the end of the world. These are called “post-apocalyptic” movies. A lot of them feature zombies and/or a lot of dirt. Zombies will play no part in this list. Neither will Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner. This list is for either films that take place right before or right after the end of the world. In The last Woman on Earth, a fortunate trio are on vacation in Puerto Rico and decide to go scuba diving. While submerged and using their oxygen tanks, they survive some sort of act of god or man that renders the atmosphere toxic. They surface and find it hard to breath, but are able to survive on their bottled air until it is safe to breath naturally. The rest of the film unfolds much like a play, two men fighting for the attention and respect of what they believe is the last woman on earth. The beauty of this film is that it was produced for a very low budget, but is very effective in establishing a believable wasteland (if you can forgive a few twitching “dead” extras). This was not only one of my favorite screen writers’ (Robert Towne) first script, but he also stars in it.
4. The Day After (1983) – Nicholas Meyer
Have I mention how depressing of an endeavor it was to create this list? The phrase “feel good” has no place in this discussion. After watching any one of these movies the viewer is left with an overwhelming feeling of “Well, shit, we’re all just going to die anyway”. Which, to be fair, can be a positive epiphany if you have a decidedly confident outlook on life going into it. For those of us who tend to view glasses as more empty, movies like this can shed light on the more bleak sides of our existence. None more so than the 1983 made for TV movie, The Day After. The story follows a small Kansas town leading up to, during, and after an all-out nuclear attack. This was the brain child of then ABC Motion Picture president, Brandon Stoddard, after being inspired by another uplifting family film, The China Syndrome. He made it his mission to not only inform the American public of the threat of nuclear war, but show them (to the best of his corporate abilities) exactly how the aftermath of said war may look. Using the best special effects that were available at the time (which unfortunately didn’t stand the test of time), the director of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan, and almost all of the townspeople of Lawrence, Kanas, Stoddard managed to do just that. With a cast of principals that would fit in any Altman film, we watch the lead up to and eventual destruction of the mid-west. But just when you think it is going to end, it keeps going and we get to watch all of the survivors slowly die of radiation poisoning while trying to maintain some sort of normalcy. And when I say “die slowly of radiation poisoning”, I am not talking about what you would expect from your typical ABC family feature. There is not just a few coughs and then you’re gone. No, we get to see these victims not only slowly lose weight and their minds, but skin, teeth, hair and everything else that I can only imagine comes along with radiation poisoning. As you can probably guess, this TV-exec turned-hippy did a fair amount of battling with pretty much everyone else involved on the topic of how much gore and despair was appropriate for network television. I’ve heard tell that there is a good deal of footage (8 1/2 minutes) that has a higher body count and more brutal burns. I am not the only one that got bummed out by this film, Reagan watched it and wrote in his diary (which I really hope was adorned with hearts and flowers and pictures of Leif Garrett) that it was “very effective and left me greatly depressed.” Well done, Stoddard.
3. Miracle Mile (1988) – Steve De Jarnatt
The moral of this new wave tale: never be late for a date. Anthony Edwards stars as a wannabe jazz musician that is punished for cellphones not being invented when the power goes out and his alarm clock doesn’t wake him up in time to go meet his soul mate (Mare Winningham) at the diner she works at. He shows up much much too late but decides to wait it out with the regulars at 4am. While attempting to out-creep the creeps, he takes a call from a pay phone hoping that it is the girl he stood up (again, being punished for cell phones not yet being invented). Instead of the girl of his dreams, it is a frantic soldier calling from some bunker in Nevada exclaiming that he can’t believe that they actually fired “it”. Edwards initially takes this for a joke, but the rant is followed by a gunshot and a stern voice telling him to forget everything he just heard. Turns out the world may or may not be obliterated in 70 minutes depending on whether or the phone call was real, and Edwards will do anything he can to get back to this girl he’s just met before it does. As the film progresses and the rest of LA quickly picks up on the impending doom, the sense of panic builds at a very surreal pace as the sun begins to rise. The mix of smog and neon are almost supporting characters in this musky and dusty paranoiac romance. You will definitely never look at the La Brea Tar Pits the same way again.
2. Last Night (1998) – Don McKellar
When Seeking a Friend for the End of the World came out earlier this year there were more than a few film critics that called foul play, due to its uncanny resemblance to this Canadian independent drama. On the outside, this resembles your run of the mill day-in-the-life indie ensemble drama. We follow half a dozen or so individuals as they plan events for their final day. Amongst them you have a guy using his last day to check off every item on his sexual bucket list, a lady that is desperately trying to get back to her newfound lover so they can take matters into their own hands, a middle age energy worker (beautifully underplayed by fellow Canadian director, David Cronenberg) who can’t leave his job until he personally reassures all of his customers that their power will remain on until the very last moments, and another guy who will do everything in his power to watch the world end far away from other people as possible. The factor that sets this film apart from other end of the world movies is that the actions of the characters, while being quirky at times, are completely believable and for the most part understandable. The tone and the pace that McKellar sets is so perfect that, for the most part, you forget about the end of the world part of the plot at times and are more interested in the story lines unfolding. A great end of the world movie should make the viewer want the world that the filmmakers have created to continue, you can’t really say that for Michael Bay films.
1. On the Beach (1959) – Stanley Kramer
I am officially upset with all of my film nerd friends that were aware of this film and have been keeping it to themselves all these years. Set in the near future of 1964, World War III has left all of the northern hemisphere either destroyed by nuclear devices or uninhabitable do to radiation levels. Survivors of the war have relocated to Melbourne, Australia where they attempt to reinstate their pre-war lives. Scientists argue drunkenly over whether winds will bring the radiation south or not as the remaining populace live out their days in nervous decadence. A team of American sailors are sent on a mission in the last remaining submarine to find out if there are any other safe places on the planet and if there are pockets of unknown survivors. Much like The Day After (and another depressing movie that I love called When the Wind Blows, which easily could have made this list) this film attempts to capture the atmosphere of what life is like before the inevitable happens. In this film, Melbourne is in a state of denial and dread similar to Berlin before the Russians invaded in 1945. Their nation has made their bed for them and now the must lie in it. The population knows that it is just a matter of time before they are all going to be exposed to radiation poisoning, but very few are willing to accept it. One of the most iconic shots in the film is a banner in front of the library that simply states “There Is Still Time… Brother”. The fantastic cast features Gregory Peck as the captain of the submarine who refuses to believe that the family he left behind in America is dead. Ava Gardner plays a lush who tries and convince Peck that she is his best option for companionship. A pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins has one of the best scenes, involving a young sailor attempting to explain to his wife the proper way to euthanize herself and their newborn in the case that he doesn’t return from the mission. I am not going to claim to be a Fred Astaire expert, but I can’t imagine that he ever delivered a better (or more heart breaking) performance in his career than he does here. He plays an Australian scientist who is the voice of reason, albeit a drunken one. He keeps track of the geiger meter and is one of the few in the city that is willing to speak out about the impending doom. Throughout the film he menders between hilarity and sorrow whilst trying to convince those around him that there is no hope. Based on the 1957 Neil Shute book of the same name, this film was well beyond its years and rivals even Dr. Strangelove as one of the best anti-war films of its (or any) time.
Top Five End of the World Songs!
If I am to believe Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, the soundtrack to the apocalypse should feature lots of over-the-top melodramatic songs revolving around love pushed to the most extremes imaginable. If you can’t survive on pure love and that alone, if you need air, food, or pretty much anything else, then apparently you are a poser. Also, if you love someone, you are not allowed to stop physically touching them. Here are a few it missed.
5.Perry Como – Till the End of Time
3. Mina – No Arms Can Ever Hold You
2. Connie Francis – I Will Wait for You
1. Skeeter Davis – End of the World