10 great films about the end of the world

…or how we learned to stop worrying and love films about impending apocalypse.

Mike Sutton
Updated:

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Influenced equally by American film noirs of the 1940s and the documentary-style science fiction of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories, Val Guest’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) is one of the pivotal British science fiction films. Now fully restored, the film demonstrates that it’s quite possible to create a convincingly terrifying end of the world scenario without the need for a massive budget or CGI spectacle.

The film begins with a man walking through the deserted streets of London – quite a cinematic coup in itself, conjuring up an unnerving sense of reality gone wrong. We then flash back to discover what has happened and find out that ill-advised nuclear tests have knocked the Earth out of its orbit and sent it moving towards the sun. Initially, the British public enjoy the scorching weather, but, as the Earth gets hotter, a state of emergency is declared and scientists search for a solution. 

The inspired decision made by Guest and writer Wolf Mankiewicz is to set the film largely in a newspaper office thus immediately offering a sense of documentary realism which is increased by location filming at the Daily Express buildings in Fleet Street and the casting of a former editor, Arthur Christiansen. It’s all very low-key and unsensational, but this somehow makes it more disconcerting, as if the sheer banality of the settings makes it more likely to happen.

Ever since the days of silent cinema, filmmakers have realised that disaster is good box office and what better disaster to set the tills ringing than the end of the world and civilisation as we know it? From 1950s science fiction to millennial European angst, apocalypse has time and again reared its fiery head and attracted the attention of some of cinema’s finest talents…

When Worlds Collide (1951)

Director Rudolph Maté

“Planets Destroy Earth!” screams the tagline to this 1951 blockbuster, George Pal’s second science fiction film as producer, and to its credit it fulfils the promise. Earth is in the direct path of a star called Bellus and science proves powerless to prevent the collision or the devastation wrought by Zyra – the planet that orbits Bellus – as it passes us by. But 40 people can be saved in a rocket shop which will land on Zyra and offer a future for the human race.

The narrative is shaky and the science even more so, but the special effects, notably the flooding of Times Square by a tidal wave, remain highly entertaining and manage to overcome the limitations of the acting and dialogue. The worlds finally collide on a monitor screen, Earth flaming like Dante’s inferno as it’s swallowed into the monolith-like star.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Director Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick’s blacker-than-black comedy seems increasingly relevant in a world whose inhabitants seems bent on destroying themselves. Nuclear apocalypse is initiated by a mad general (Sterling Hayden) who believes his bodily fluids are being tampered with by communist subversives while the politicians and top brass sit around debating the idea of Armageddon. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops,” says General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), while the US president (Peter Sellers in one of three roles in the film) becomes involved in a lengthy discussion with the Soviet premier about who is the more sorry about the end of civilisation as we know it.

Meanwhile, the eponymous doctor (also Sellers), inventor of the Earth-threatening Doomsday Machine, finds the idea of apocalypse sexually stimulating and the pilot delivering the bomb rides it into eternity like a bucking bronco. Vera Lynn sings ‘We’ll Meet Again’ as the mushroom clouds multiply. 

The Quiet Earth (1985)

Director Geoff Murphy

The world hasn’t quite ended at the beginning of Geoff Murphy’s quietly devastating film but the people have vanished, all except for the great Bruno Lawrence as Zac. At first, he can’t process what’s happened, slipping between bursts of madness and self-pitying despair, but he gradually develops a way of life.

When he discovers two other survivors – a man and a woman – we seem to be on course for a rerun of the love triangle of The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), but Murphy’s film is far more interested in a study of one man’s own personal apocalyptic, dreamlike apotheosis, which culminates on a deserted beach in the face of the awesome beauty and destructive potential of nature. The ambiguity of the film can strike some viewers as infuriating but the eerily effective location shooting on the deserted New Zealand streets offers a potent sense of a time after everyday life has simply stopped.

The Sacrifice (1986)

Director Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film is a stark, sober corrective to the hysteria of some end-of-the-world blockbusters, dealing with not only the possibility of apocalypse but also the aftermath of its non-appearance. In a series of long, lingering takes and profoundly moving images captured by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Tarkovsky tells a story of Alexander (Erland Josephson), an agnostic aesthete, who, upon learning that the world is doomed to nuclear destruction, makes a deal with God that he will sacrifice everything he loves in his life if the inevitable can be reversed. When he wakes the following morning, all is normal again and he must fulfil his side of the bargain.

There’s a potent feeling of spiritual isolation here but also a sense of transcendence and healing, particularly in the character of Little Man, the hero’s son, who is mute right up until the final moments. Nor is it depressing to watch; the intellectual turbulence behind what was a final statement by the dying Tarkovsky is endlessly fascinating.

When the Wind Blows (1986)

Director Jimmy Murakami

Based on the Raymond Briggs graphic novel, When the Wind Blows offers a very British apocalypse in which an elderly couple, Jim and Hilda, live their everyday lives in the face of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. They follow the advice of Protect and Survive, whitewashing their windows and constructing an “inner core”. When the missiles strike, the couple survive but find that they are the last remnants of civilisation. They maintain their everyday routine in the face of despair but are eventually worn down by isolation and radiation sickness.

Jimmy Murakami’s film, simply but elegantly animated, is one of the grimmest, most heartbreaking films about nuclear Armageddon simply because it is so fundamentally parochial in its concerns. The couple’s heroism lies in their unassuming courage and sustaining love despite the impending tragedy. Particularly powerful is the suggested contrast between the memories of the moral certainties of the Second World War and the insane randomness of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The Rapture (1991)

Director Michael Tolkin

The Book of Revelation is rich fare for those with a taste for weird visions of catastrophe and many films have referenced it. But none have taken it quite so literally as Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture, which concludes with scenes which come straight from the pages of the Bible. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear, the shackles of prisoners fall, the trumpets sound and darkness falls upon the world.

The film is blisteringly powerful and disturbing, centred almost entirely upon a painfully credible performance from Mimi Rogers as Sharon, a former swinger who becomes a born-again Christian upon being told that the final judgement is nigh. But things go wrong and we’re left with a film that raises more questions than it answers. The final scene, showing spiritual and physical desolation, is cruelly logical in its implications about exactly who “the chosen ones” might be.

Last Night (1998)

Director Don McKeller

Last Night is perhaps the quietest of all films about the end of the world, offering a naturalistic study of behaviour and relationships in place of bombastic special effects. We don’t know why the end is imminent but we observe a group of characters spending their last night on Earth in various ways. Some people choose family, others choose isolation. Some despair while others find solace in sex, music or memories.

The exceptional performances – including David Cronenberg in a rare appearance in front of the camera as the owner of a power company ringing all his clients to thank them for their custom – give us a real sense of empathy for these wonderfully normal people whose resilience in the teeth of hopelessness is inspiring and moving. The final scene, where love unexpectedly overcomes despair and crowds celebrate their ultimate destruction, is bizarrely uplifting.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Director Richard Kelly

Richard Kelly’s debut film begins with the eponymous Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), a dissatisfied teenager, being told by a giant rabbit named Frank that the world will end in 28 days. This spurs him into a journey of discovery that involves the failures of society and education, the 1988 presidential election, sex and time travel. If this sounds dangerously incoherent then in some ways it is, but Kelly’s decision to leave the explanations cryptic means that it is open to various interpretations. At its most simple, it can be enjoyed as an entertaining mind-game with a killer soundtrack of 1980s hits.

In terms of the world ending, it doesn’t quite pay off in the way you might expect. But this is certainly a very personal cataclysm and it reminds us of a scene in the film version of Graham Swift’s Waterland when the narrator tells us that the world can end in many ways, “as many ways as there are people”. 

Melancholia (2011)

Director Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier’s film is as much about depression and familial relationships as it is about the planet which is about to crash into the Earth. All the hysteria and impending doom that we expect from this genre are channelled into a painfully close study of two sisters, Clare and Justine, whose roles reverse during the film. At the beginning, Clare is rational and grounded but as time goes on, Justine’s own persistent melancholia – also the name of the planet – gives her a sense of calm as the destruction of Earth begins to seem an inevitability.

Right at the start of the film, we see what is going to happen at the end and this knowledge casts an ironic shadow over the events we see portrayed, which are often sharply funny and occasionally wounding in the case of the behaviour of the girls’ parents. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are astonishingly powerful as the sisters and the apocalyptic conclusion, backed by music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, is madly, wildly beautiful.

Take Shelter (2011)

Director Jeff Nichols

Sometimes people like Curtis in Take Shelter dream of catastrophe and act to protect themselves and their families from it. Society might jerk its collective knee and label them mad but Jeff Nichols’ film asks whether we should perhaps give them a fair hearing. Michael Shannon’s tour-de-force as an ordinary Joe who becomes obsessed with his sense that something dreadful is about to happen is the centre of the film, which continually plays with our sympathies – there is a history of mental illness in his family – but ultimately suggests that the prophet was right all along.

Throughout, the sense of impending disaster amid the beautifully shot broad Ohio fields and the endless blue air is compellingly sinister and the everyday details of a life lived with the burden of foreknowledge are completely credible. Equally frightening is the sense of a social infrastructure that’s woefully inadequate to cope with disaster. 

Your suggestions

  1. The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
  2. Threads (Mick Jackson, 1984)
  3. 4.44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2011)
  4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)
  5. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)
  6. On the Beach (Stanley Kramer, 1959)
  7. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Lorene Scafaria, 2012)
  8. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)
  9. The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953)
  10. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, 2011)

Films about our complete annihilation (or at least the end of the world as we know it) proved a lively source of debate when we asked you on social media what we’d missed from the list. There was lots of love for the 1984 BBC TV movie Threads, which documents an outbreak of nuclear war between the US and USSR with terrifying veracity. Pipping it to the apocalyptic post, however, is the 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen as a father struggling to survive after a civilisation-destroying cataclysm. On Facebook, Joe Penketh wrote: “Can’t believe The Road doesn’t appear on the list, phenomenal novel maybe adapted a little too literally but still heartbreaking nonetheless.”

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