The idea of the world ending has provided an endless stream of brilliant art. What's wonderful about it is that it's open to interpretation. What does it really mean? The world itself being blown up, thus ending?
In some cases but rarely is it meant so literally. What it usually refers to is the breakdown of society, not the physical world but the world as we know it. In film, the breakdown of society can come from a number of instigators. This list aims to include the many different ways that the world ending has been committed to film. Prepare for a wide variety.
Some of you may click on this list and expect to see dystopias. While they are in many ways tales about the breakdown of society, they also involve a new (worse) society being built. So they're excluded from this. Dystopias are often set in worlds where it seems possible, at least in theory, to reverse the damage and recover what once was. The films on this list set characters up to face problems that can't be solved through political manoeuvring.
The causes of the apocalyptic situations these movies pit against our heroes are often reflections of the world we live in and we aim to include most on this list, to highlight the fears that plague us. Be they climate change, nuclear war, racism or, gulp, disease. If your favourite didn't make it, remember, it's not the - Well, you know the rest.
Christopher Nolan does not make bad movies yet his work is so ambitious in scope that it often divides viewers. The initial awe that Inception inspired quickly gave way to parodies about the apparent smugness of the complexity of the ideas at hand, South Park leading the way with their brilliant 'Insheeption' episode. Interstellar is a film open to the same criticisms. A 2014 sci-fi release, it was broadly marketed as a film made with scientific accuracy.
Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne was the film's consultant as Nolan ran big ideas past him - and this film is full of big ideas. Set in the near future, the earth is ravaged by blight and dust storms that are endangering humanity's survival. Matthew McConaughey's Cooper leads a team of astronauts on a space mission through a wormhole near Saturn in the search for a habitable planet. In doing so, he leaves behind his two children, who will be raised by their grandfather as their mother has already passed away. The film focuses heavily on the father-daughter relationship between Cooper and Murph, the adult version of whom is played by Jessica Chastain.
It is a film full of challenging concepts and most of them are wrestling for attention and understanding. The science behind wormholes and spacetime are explored but the biggest theme of the movie is love. Hathaway makes a cheesy speech about love transcending dimensions of space and time that was widely mocked. Yet this film took place at the heart of the McConnaissance and it's hard not to be drawn into the brilliant performance of the leading man, particularly the scenes in which he expresses his emotional turmoil. If the world ever ends, love may be the only weapon we have to get us out of that jam. Our love for Interstellar transcends cynicism.
11. Dawn Of The Dead
The first zombie movie to appear on our list, it comes from The Dead franchise, as it sometimes is known, that has spawned so many great films. The (delicious) brainchild of George A. Romero, we're selecting what many consider to be the best of this subgenre, 1978's Dawn of the Dead. The 2004 remake was a worthy and entertaining entry in the series but it lacked the depth and subtlety of the original. Dawn of the Dead was violent, bloody and jarring, but it also had the humour and satire that would be a staple of Romero's work and was absent from later zombie flicks.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, the tagline does a decent job of bringing viewers up to speed: When there is no more room in hell, the dead shall walk the earth. Why they're walking the earth, we don't know. Neither do the band of survivors who take refuge in a shopping mall while the hungry corpses swarm around it. While life is by no means perfect or carefree, the group are somewhat satisfied with the amenities on offer.
A social commentary on consumer culture in America, Dawn of the Dead still holds up. It's one of the most influential horror movies of all time yet most homages fail to pay respects to the message behind the flesh-eating. To be fair, the flesh-eating is distracting. As 'end of the world' movies go, this one doesn't pull any bites.
10. Planet Of The Apes
Potentially delving into spoiler territory with this entry but the original Planet of the Apes movie has been out since 1968. Even though its spoiler statute of limitations has expired, we will try our best to not give away the ending. The chances are that you're already familiar with the franchise due to its brilliant 21st-century trilogy. The gist is that apes are the dominant species on a planet (which planet we cannot say) and humans have to deal with it. Dealing with it doesn't mean finishing second in the school sprint. It means being the subservient species.
If ever there was an actor born to play the role of a man who hates being told what to do, it's Charlton Heston. The future five-time National Rifle Association president stars as an astronaut who is rudely awoken from his deep hibernation after the spaceship he's snoozing in crash lands on a mysterious planet in the year 3978. It's a planet that he can breathe on without a spacesuit. It looks familiar but there's one big difference: Apes are running the show now and they're doing it on horseback with whips and nets. It is at times sincerely distressing.
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling wrote the script only for Fox to have it re-written as his vision was going to cost too much money. They did keep one thing though: The damned dirty ending that we managed to not spoil.
9. This Is The End
The end of the world can be a heavy topic so it's not a bad idea to kick off the list with a light-hearted entry. This Is the End is a 2013 apocalyptic comedy starring the most influential comic actors of this generation playing fictional versions of themselves.
Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel form the core group of celebrities holed up in Franco's mansion after an apocalyptic occurrence straight out of The Book of Revelation beams good people to heaven and leaves the less-than-worthy below. Barricading themselves inside after a hilarious scene involving a giant sinkhole kills off their famous friends, we see why they weren't raptured.
Divisive among critics, this won't be everyone's cup of tea. Anyone familiar with the brand of comedy that Rogen and company specialise in can expect a gratuitous amount of dick and weed jokes. It is their MO, after all. There is no doubting that it's a touch self-indulgent but that's in the spirit of a send-up. The improv is heavy here and it often results in funny exchanges that feel off the cuff and raw. There's a lot thrown at the wall and not everything sticks.
Adapted from a short film trailer that Rogen and Baruchel made in 2007, This Is the End is the type of movie that can best be enjoyed by a group of friends hanging out and shooting the breeze. There are nods to many of the best films these actors have made with a Pineapple Express 2 trailer showing what could have been. The scene-stealing turn, though, is made by Michael Cera, who plays himself as a coked-up deviant who runs afoul of everyone at the party.
The only animated entry on the list, WALL-E is a Pixar take on the end of the world. If you haven't seen it, you might be able to imagine what it involves by applying the Pixar formula. Sentimental, funny, occasionally heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting.
WALL-E has all of this and an environmental message to boot. Set on Earth in the 29th century, humans have long since cleared off, leaving the planet an uninhabitable, litter-strewn mess. The only sentient being that cares about cleaning up the place is a trash compactor robot or rather, a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter (Earth Class). WALL-E to his pals, of whom there are few. His only friend is a seemingly invincible cockroach named Hal.
That is until an unmanned probe shows up unannounced carrying another robot, an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator (EVE) that will scan the planet for plant life. For WALL-E, a softie who collects trinkets and watches old romantic musicals on repeat, it's love at first sight. Shy but smitten, WALL-E may struggle to woo EVE at first but he has viewers under his spell from the word go. His cute design - binocular-eyed and twig-armed - suit his sweet personality and his earnest attempts to court EVE are a great portrayal of the trappings of first love.
Another thing that makes WALL-E the character so likeable is his purity. Roaming around in the wasteland, he continues to fulfil his duty by compacting trash. There's an honesty to everything that he does that is in stark contrast with the humans who once inhabited the planet that they bailed on once it resembled a dump.
7. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers
Cold War paranoia is the inspiration for Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1956 adapted classic that was later remade in 1978. The original black-and-white version introduced viewers to the idea of 'Pod People', a term for a species of aliens that grow from plants and are capable of replicating any life form.
The life form that they are concerned with is exclusively the human life form. Our hero, Dr. Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, stumbles upon this takeover plot after being initially tipped off by a number of patients convinced their relatives have been taken over by identical-looking imposters. A concern he once dismissed as mass hysteria now seems very real.
Conformity is one of the biggest themes in the movie. What it's a metaphor for conforming to is open to interpretation. Some see it as conformity with what the government wants you to do, how it wants you to think. The era of McCarthyism had Americans eyeing each other with suspicion, not knowing who to trust. Others may have seen it as a critique of the creeping invasion of communism into American society. Sure, they look American, but where's the patriotic twinkle in their eye, huh? What are you hiding, you pod person freak?
Director Don Siegel wanted the movie to be interpreted as a message to young people to think, to challenge what they know and what they think they know. He succeeded in making a film that sparks discussion to this day.
6. Donnie Darko
Has the end of the world ever had such a good soundtrack?
A springboard for the blossoming career of Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko is a coming-of-age psychological thriller that follows a problematic titular character who has knowledge of the world's impending end. Specifically, it will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds from the moment Donnie is first told. His source is a figure in a scary bunny suit who introduces himself as Frank. Donnie receives this message after sleepwalking out of his home. He wakes up the next morning and returns home to discover that a jet engine has crashed into his bedroom.
What does it all mean? The next hour or so attempts to unload this carefully-packed plot that involves time travel and astral projection. Set in the 80s, it captures a nostalgic feeling that feels layered. There is nostalgia for a time that has already taken place and the feeling that Donnie is also experiencing live nostalgia as the events laid out before him seem out of his control. He's doing the best he can from a situation that was thrust upon him.
And isn't that really all that can be asked of anyone when the world unexpectedly ends?
5. 28 Days Later
Capital cities always bear the brunt of world-ending forces in cinema. Rarely are they filmed like London was in 28 Days Later though. One of the busiest cities in the world, Danny Boyle managed to get locations like Westminster Bridge and Picadilly Circus looking desolate and deserted. Cillian Murphy's Jim wakes up from a coma with no idea what has become of the world around him but later finds out that the zombie apocalypse has taken place.
These aren't normal zombies though. They didn't climb out of the earth to stumble towards the living whilst mumbling 'brains'. No, these are people who have been infected with a highly contagious disease known as the rage virus. Originating from a monkey in a lab, the virus spreads after a group of animal activists knowingly set it free despite the ominous warning of scientist-in-labcoat David Schneider. Whilst this isn't the first time fast zombies were used on-screen, 28 Days Later popularised the movement with their terrifying depiction of an infected maniac.
Jim finds a group of survivors to buddy up with but he also encounters bad people who take advantage of the situation in the most depraved of ways. There is little hope in this world but the infected don't live forever and many end up starving to death. So if you have enough tinned food and can keep hidden, you may actually be alright.
4. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
A contender for the best sequel ever made, Terminator 2 is a movie about stopping the end of the world before it's even started to end. You with us so far? Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous robot man was a killing machine in the first instalment of the franchise, but here, he's a saving machine. Specifically, he's a machine tasked with saving John Connor, the boy who will one day lead the Resistance against the rogue AI terminators of Skynet. By proxy, he's saving humankind. If that wasn't enough for you, he's also a catchphrase machine, which is great for merch.
Arnie's character is what is known as a Model 101 Terminator. If they were around in our world, we would call them classic Terminators. (In a way, they are and we do.) Future John Connors has reprogrammed him to protect his younger self as he knows that Skynet has sent a new T-1000 back in time to do what Terminators do best.
Played to iconic effect by Robert Patrick, the shape-shifting liquid metal villain is a wonderful foe for our leather-jacketed motorcycle-riding hero. Linda Hamilton reprised her role as Sarah Connor from the 1984 original to team up with her greatest enemy to fight a bigger threat in the form of arms-occasionally-made-of-blades Patrick.
The Terminator wasn't lying when he said he would be back, but nothing ever came close to matching the second entry in the franchise for entertainment or fun. Humanity's future being at stake has rarely been so thrilling.
3. The Birds
The world is pecked to pieces in Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 classic The Birds. Based on the 1952 short story by Daphne du Maurier, it sees a Californian town set upon suddenly and inexplicably by swarms of vicious birds. While we don't claim to be ornithologists, we wouldn't sum it up with the blanket term 'birds' if they all weren't working together. That's right, Tippi Hedren's Melanie Daniels character finds herself under the attack of crows and gulls, sparrows and more bloody gulls, all working together with the sole aim of turning the tables on wingless humanity.
A master of suspense, Hitchcock usually weaves a plot so intricate that there are no loose ends by the time the credits roll. This is something of an anomaly in his filmography and it's all the better for it. We don't know why the birds attacked to begin with and we're none the wiser by the end of the movie when reports flood in from other nearby towns about similar attacks. If it wasn't for the informative title, we would be as blindsided as the characters.
In recent years, The Birds has been put back under the microscope as Hitchcock's behaviour has been re-examined. Hedren said that he was abusive and that he conducted himself in an inappropriate way, an accusation that has levelled at him before. Coincidentally, one of the main themes of the movie is the relationship between men and women. We prefer the reading that it's nature lashing out at its abuser, another hot topic in the current climate.
2. The Road
Bleak as hell, The Road will not make you feel optimistic about the apocalypse. Maybe that's the point. Maybe the apocalypse wouldn't be fun at all. We don't wanna commit but it's definitely a maybe. A father and son are trying to survive in a version of America that resembles a wasteland. An extinction event has occurred and wiped out most of the living things on the planet, plants and all. As the title of the movie might suggest, the film follows their hopeful journey to the coast. With no way of knowing what it's like there, the father can only guess it's warmer and easier.
A cold film, The Road puts viewers in the depths of winter with its protagonists. It's miserable and grey, and if this wasn't bad enough, there are cannibals to worry about as well. Seriously, if the nuclear holocaust was ever on the cards, the men pushing those big red nuke buttons should sit down and watch this. Nobody wants this.
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it features amazing performances from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Both are playing characters so out of their depth in this crazy world that it's impossible not to root for them to find a sanctuary of sorts. Sure, it's bleak, but it's also brilliant.
1. Dr. Strangelove
We started this list how we're going to end it: With laughter. Mind you, this laughter is so highbrow by comparison to This Is The End that the brow is on the crown of your head like an ineffective combover. Directed by the masterful Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove ('or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb' to give it its full title) is probably the greatest satire of all time. Loosely based on a thriller novel called Red Alert, Kubrick traded tension for laughs in the blackest of black comedies. Peter Sellers plays multiple roles, all to hilarious effect.
If you cannot contain your laughter watching Sellers as the titular Dr. Strangelove, you're in good company. It has entertained audiences for decades and even made his co-stars corpse in takes that made it into the movie. Made in 1964 with Cold War tensions high, the film is about a rogue American General who is attempting to drop hydrogen bombs on Russia in a surprise attack.
What he and the rest of the world don't know is that Russia has a 'doomsday device' that will automatically detonate buried bombs all over the world should they be the subject of a nuclear attack. The detonation of such a device would render the surface of Earth uninhabitable for 93 years.
Sadly, the threat of nuclear war is something that will never go away. Movies like Dr. Strangelove are important because they expose the absurdity of war. This is why it has aged so well. Important and really, really funny.