George W. Bush has just been sworn in as the forty-third President of the United States, and for some reason I am thinking about the end of the world. If you're thinking along the same lines, come watch these fine examples of the various ways in which filmmakers have imagined Earth's final days. There are many more films in this genre (On the Beach, Deep Impact, Delicatessen, Mad Max 2); I'm just listing some of the lesser-known.
- Miracle Mile (1989). Anthony Edwards finds love in the form of waitress Mare Winningham - but after missing a date, he picks up a ringing public phone and learns that a full-scale nuclear attack is just a couple of hours away! This is a personal favorite of mine because the whole story takes place in my Los Angeles neighborhood. Spooky during its first half, capturing the eeriness of LA in the quiet pre-dawn hours, and absolutely chaotic during its last act, when the sun has risen and the populace has learned that the missiles are on their way.
- The Rapture (1991). Jewish filmmaker Michael Tolkin asked himself, "What if evangelical Christians are right?" and concocted this nightmarish fable about what might happen should the Rapture actually occur. One of the creepiest movies I've ever seen, with a terrific performance by Mimi Rogers as the doubtful born-again caught up in the middle.
- Last Night (1998). Canadian actor/director/writer Don McKellar's sprawling drama opens with the world facing its final six hours before total obliteration. No reason is ever given, or needed. For this non-sci fi film is really about how lonely people pass the time after learning that there's not much left of it to pass.
- The Quiet Earth (1985). A more sci fi-ish take on the old Last Man on Earth story, this New Zealand film follows one, then two, and finally three people who find themselves the only ones left after some mysterious event has wiped out everybody else. Tough to watch at times, but it does have a spectacular final shot.
- 12 Monkeys (1995). Terry Gilliam's sad drama helped establish Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt as serious actors while exhibiting a bittersweet sense of loss and impending doom, as Willis's time traveler is sent back from a post-Apocalyptic era to try to stop a virus from killing five billion people. I'm still haunted by the idea that a lone man can indeed bring about the end of the entire world. Adapted from Chris Marker's classic 1962 short La Jetée.
- Z for Zachariah (1984). I've never seen this British TV movie, but I did read the book way back in sixth grade. The most notable story about the Apocalypse written for young readers, I still remember it very well, as it takes a harsh look at life on Earth when apparently just two people have survived a nuclear holocaust: an adolescent girl and a mysterious, possibly dangerous man.
- When the Wind Blows (1986). This animated film about the horrors of nuclear fallout is based on the Raymond Briggs graphic novel, following an elderly British couple who try to "make do" after an attack devastates their town and slowly kills them. Far more heartfelt than garbage like The Day After, you really care about these cartoon characters. Pink Floyd's Roger Waters composed the score.
- Damnation Alley (1977). This movie scared the hell out of me when I was a kid; I haven't seen it since, so it might be schlocky (how could it not be, with a cast that includes Jan-Michael Vincent and George Peppard?), but this story of two souped-up Winnebagos trying to cross a post-nuclear American wasteland has that same arid '70s feel as all those CHiPs reruns that I watched on daytime TV when I was home sick from school, and which made me even sicker. Dusty, stark, and gross. I still remember the scene where Paul Winfield gets eaten alive by cockroaches.
- Night of the Comet (1984). Now this is a guilty pleasure: A comet kills nearly everybody on the planet, leaving a few scary zombies and two Valley Girls! Not a great film, but humorous, and a welcome "light" entry in a genre that is as depressing as they come.