Almost every site on the web confuses apocalyptic with post-apocalyptic films. I’m setting the record straight.
By apocalyptic, I mean a film set during a catastrophe that spells the end of civilization, or will do so if not averted. The catastrophe could be anything, and represented on this list are divine punishment (Noah, The Rapture), nuclear warfare (Threads), pandemic (Pontypool), nature (The Birds), alien invasion (War of the Worlds), resource depletion (Sunshine), environmental (Before the Fall), existential (The Tree of Life), and unknown (Into the Forest).
In some cases the apocalypse is averted (Sunshine, War of the Worlds), though at terrible cost. In most of these, however, the “end” actually comes, though it’s not always clear what follows.
1. Sunshine, Danny Boyle. 2007. Critical approval: 75%. I can’t say enough about this film. It’s set in a future where the sun is dying, and people can barely stay alive and warm. A crew of eight embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire, so it’s an outer-space film as much as an apocalyptic one. To get through one disaster after another, the crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and at one point they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. On top of all this, there is the subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The theme of the apocalypse is woven in on multiple levels, and while the ending is “happy” on the macro-level (the sun is saved), it’s tragic on the micro-level. Sunshine is Danny Boyle’s best work, far better than his overrated zombie-fest 28 Days Later.
2. The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock. 1963. Critical approval: 96%. This famous classic is nihilistic to the core and unapologetic about nature’s savagery. And like the great horror films rarely seen anymore, it has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about before terrorizing and killing them. The only humans-vs.-nature film that has affected me this strongly was The Grey, which was a wilderness survival thriller. The Birds is apocalyptic, portraying unstoppable biological forces that have suddenly decided to sweep down on a humanity minding its own business, for reasons we never learn. The coastal setting works wonders, and while at first blush it looks like a localized apocalypse, the implication is that birds are attacking elsewhere in the world. By ’60s standards the attack sequences are terrifying. When nature comes after us, says Hitchcock, things aren’t going to turn out okay, and I think he’s probably right.
3. Noah, Darren Aronofsky. 2014. Critical approval: 76%. Here’s the story of Noah’s Ark, served up Lord of the Rings style. It works perfectly, because the first eleven chapters of Genesis are complete myth; the same sort of mythic pre-history that Tolkien intended by Middle-Earth. So when we see giant rock creatures (the Watchers) and bits of magic here and there, it somehow makes the story of Gen 6-9 seem as it should. It’s a sweeping epic that doesn’t soft-peddle God’s act of genocide. Don’t listen to complaints that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of “environmentalism” can be derived from scripture; and if we’re going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn’t add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). Noah isn’t pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level. Reviewed here.
4. The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick. 2011. Critical approval: 84%. It seems that 2011 was the year of abstract apocalyptic films. There was Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, a metaphorical apocalypse manifested in a woman’s psychological anguish; Take Shelter, a hallucinated apocalypse of a schizophrenic; and finally The Tree of Life, an existential apocalypse, and one of my favorite films of all time. Malick portrays an apocalypse experienced in the “now”, as both wish fulfillment and transcendent reality. A man reflects on his childhood within the grand context of the universe’s life cycle, from Big Bang to Absolute End; the latter intrudes on the present through visions of a dead and barren Earth, a white dwarf sun above it, desert shores with waves rolling in, and dead souls walking the shores. It’s unquestionably the best apocalypse abstractly conceived.
5. Pontypool, Bruce McDonald. 2007. Critical approval: 82%. Then there was 2007, the year of the “town-under-siege”. These are localized apocalypses which could spread globally if not contained. The Mist is set in Bridgton Maine, a town suddenly blanketed by a mist from which otherworldly creatures attack; 30 Days of Night is a vampire slaughter-feed in Barrow Alaska. My pick, however, is Pontypool, set in the Canadian town by that name, not only because it actually results in apocalypse (when the credits roll, it’s clear that the town’s quarantine fails and the pandemic spreads), but because it’s about one of the most bizarre and terrifying ideas I’ve come across: a zombie pandemic that spreads literally by word of mouth; a quantum virus (born of “perception”) that has infected the English language (only English), and hearing certain words dissolves your mind and turns you into a cannibal. Seriously, this is one messed up idea: that you obsess language and become so scrambled by it that the only relief you can obtain is by chewing your way through the mouth of someone.
6. War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg. 2005. Critical approval: 74%. Yes, it’s a Spielberg film and has its problems. But it starts out strong, and is superior to the original classic. It plays especially well in a post 9/11 age, where everyone thinks “it’s the terrorists” when buildings collapse around their ears and power goes out everywhere. And there’s some weird psychology on display in the basement-shelter of a paranoid libertarian. The heart of the story is the sort of substandard stuff to be expected out of Spielberg (ineffectual father forced to connect with his children and do everything in his power to save them), but what places the film on my list is the sheer visceral imagery of the alien attacks. Honestly, the first sequence is among the best ever shot on celluloid: the weird “lightning storm”, followed by the emergence of underground tripod vessels, which blast away and vaporize people running for their lives.
7. Threads, Mick Jackson. 1984. Critical approval: na. This one is both apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic, but I’m placing it on my apocalyptic list since it focuses more on the catastrophe and the build-up to it. It’s a British TV-film that was born of the same intent as the American The Day After (1983), but it’s much better — and far, far more traumatizing. And keep in mind The Day After upset Americans so much that people were telephoning the government to ask if this is what a nuclear attack would really do. Threads takes place in the town of Sheffield, and when the bombs strike, things are as ugly as it gets; the aftermath sends humanity hurtling back into a primitive age of famine, lawlessness, and mental retardation. It’s a completely miserable film to watch. It’s well done, but you don’t enjoy any aspect of it at all; you simply suffer through it as an educational exercise that was very necessary back in the Reagan years.
8. Into the Forest, Ellen Page. 2015. I’m going out on a limb and predicting I’m going to like this a great deal. It’s based on the novel by the same name, about two teenage sisters living alone in their Northern California forest home. This is how it’s described: “Over 30 miles from the nearest town, and several miles away from their nearest neighbor, Nell and Eva struggle to survive as society begins to decay and collapse around them. No single event precedes society’s fall. There is talk of a war overseas and upheaval in Congress, but it still comes as a shock when the electricity runs out and gas is nowhere to be found. The sisters consume the resources left in the house, waiting for the power to return. Their arrival into adulthood, however, forces them to reexamine their place in the world and their relationship to the land and each other.” At the end of the season I’ll revisit this list and rank it appropriately.
9. The Rapture, Michael Tolkin. 1991. Critical approval: 64% I was completely fooled by this one. I thought Sharon was a typical nut-job who found Christ and prayed for the apocalypse, but didn’t think the film would take her expectations seriously. Especially when she goes out into the desert to wait for the rapture, and ends up (yes) shooting her little daughter to force God’s hand. I mean, she blows her crying kid’s brains out. For which she’s rightfully thrown in jail; obviously the kingdom isn’t coming for perverse born-again Christians. Except that it does. The horsemen of Revelation make a stunning literal appearance out of nowhere, jail prisoners are liberated… God, it turns out, is real and ushering in the end times. Tolkin treats his subject matter with a respect it doesn’t seem to deserve — indeed he portrays the outrageous at complete face value — and in so doing, makes the rapture seem oddly plausible.
10. Before the Fall, F. Javier Gutiérrez. 2008. Critical approval: na. The Spanish title is Tres Dias (3 Days), which is the amount of time humanity has until Earth will be hit by a meteor larger than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. The apocalyptic setting is used as a backdrop for a horror story: Amidst the chaos and riots, a convict breaks out of prison and decides to go after the children of a man who wronged him long ago. His likes to hang little kids, but the main character can’t be bothered to care about protecting his nephews and nieces since the world is going to end. As the psychopath closes in (the film doesn’t cop out on the subject of harming children), Alejandro gradually sheds his apathy and realizes that people who will die anyway are worth trying to save. It turns out to be a strong message in an original film.
Dishonorable mentions. The following most emphatically do not make my cut: Independence Day (1996), Armageddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009). All are embarrassingly absurd.
See also my Top 10 Post-Apocalyptic Films.