Apocalypse Soon: The End of the World on Film
The release of Conor Horgan’s debut, One Hundred Mornings, has got us thinking about how other films have portrayed the end of the world or apocalyptic scenarios. Hurry up and read while there’s still time.
Type the year 2012 into a search engine and you will find thousands upon thousands of alarmist websites forecasting the end of the world to take place on December 21st of this year. If you’re somebody who suffers with Doomsday Phobia then it might make you feel better to know that throughout History there have been countless days that the world was supposed to end.
Recently an American Christian radio broadcaster, named Harold Camping, announced that the world was going to end on May 21st 2011. It didn’t. On May 5th in the year 2000 the planets were due to be positioned in a line with the Sun which led to predictions that the alignment would create magnetic forces that would cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, hurricanes and various other nasty things that mother nature is capable of dishing out when she’s in a bad mood. Nothing happened just like nothing happened back in 1982 when a similar alignment occurred. The fact that there was no scientific basis for these claims and that the distance of the planets is far too great for their gravity to have any noticeable effect on Earth didn’t stop certain newspapers from scare-mongering.
It’s natural though for human beings to have a preoccupation with Earth’s mortality and this interest has seeped into the world of fiction. With film being the perfect medium to convey the horrors of a global catastrophe, apocalyptic movies can take many forms. Some are didactic, some mindless entertainment, some are propaganda while others are satirical.
One Hundred Mornings however, Conor Horgan’s first feature film, doesn’t particularly fit into any of the aforementioned categories. Instead, it’s a wonderful exploration into how we as a society and as individuals, would cope with an apocalyptic scenario. It tells the story of two couples hiding out in a remote, rural cabin after an unknown cataclysmic event has occurred. With society completely broken down, both couples struggle to survive while still desperately trying to hang on to a sense of moral compass. What’s interesting about One Hundred Mornings is that, other than a brief mention of Dublin and the appearance of the Gardaí, there are no overt references to the fact that it is set in Ireland. This gives it a unique, universal quality, not often seen in Irish films. One Hundred Mornings premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2009 and is part of a spate of films released in the last few years about the fall of mankind or the planet’s demise. Coincidentally, two of the best films released in 2011 dealt with these themes and coincided it with the subject of mental illness.
Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia opens with the Earth being destroyed as a rogue planet collides with it. Von Trier made the decision to begin the film in this way in order to eliminate any suspense so that the audience wouldn’t be distracted away from the story. It then moves back in time, focusing on two sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the former in the grips of a crippling depression and the latter a more balanced, family orientated woman with a husband and son. We witness the end of the world through their point of view, the interesting factor being the juxtaposition of how a depressed person handles a crisis in contrast with someone who is well.
Take Shelter, also released in 2011 and starring Michael Shannon, is more of an ambiguous but equally brilliant film. Directed by Arkansas native Jeff Nichols, it tells the story of Curtis LaForche (Shannon) and the disturbing apocalyptic visions and nightmares he begins to suffer from. Unsure if this is a premonition or if he is in the early stages of schizophrenia, an affliction his mother was diagnosed with years before, Curtis nonetheless builds a underground shelter on his property to protect his family from an immense disaster that might be looming. While watching Nichols’ film you constantly flip, from believing his visions are real to believing they are a symptom of a mental illness.
The circumstances regarding how the world is coming to an end can often be left unclear or sidelined in certain apocalypse movies. In John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, what brought about the world’s downfall is never stated, as it concentrates instead on the characters struggle to survive in a bleak and harsh post-apocalyptic world. The Road used real locations instead of CGI with filming taking place mainly in Pittsburgh because of it’s many abandoned buildings and the bleakness of the woods in winter time. Normally when shooting exterior shots the crew are hoping for good weather but on The Road the opposite was true. As Mark Forker, the director of special effects remarked “A little fog, a little drizzle, those are the good days.”
Don McKellar's 1998 Canadian film, Last Night, hints that the world is coming to an end due to a glowing sun that gets bigger and brighter as the film progresses. Apart from this visual reference though, the focus on what’s causing the apocalypse is marginal. Last Night, which features Canada’s most famous film director David Cronenberg, follows various characters during their final hours on Earth and is a touching and original film, released at a time when the world was in the throes of Y2K paranoia.
Films like the previous ones mentioned don’t require huge special effects to maintain audience interest. Sometimes though it can be fun to sit back in a darkened cinema and watch the Earth being destroyed in expensive and spectacular ways. The grim scenario involving human beings and the world we live in being annihilated, hasn’t stopped Hollywood from churning out various ‘end of the world’ summer blockbusters.
I Am Legend (2007), based on the novel of the same name by Richard Matheson, was definitely one of the better apocalyptic “big films.” With Will Smith playing the seemingly last man on Earth, or at least the last man not affected by a deadly virus that turns human beings into fierce monsters who prey on the healthy, I Am Legend is particularly memorable for a heart wrenching scene involving the Fresh Prince and his dog. However, it’s not without it’s problems either. The CGI leaves a lot to be desired and it’s hard to believe that somebody who has the complete run of New York city wouldn’t spend most of their time in the FAO Schwartz toy shop playing with that giant keyboard from the movie Big.
Though compared to other films of a similar type, I Am Legend is Citizen Kane dipped in chocolate. Michael Bay’s cloying and laborious movie, Armageddon, about an asteroid the size of Texas heading for Earth, got at least one thing right. The Aerosmith song, I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing, written for the film, is indeed the perfect anthem to coincide with the apocalypse.
Then there’s the asinine, disaster film that was The Day After Tomorrow which showed us that the biggest threat of global warming wont be a new ice-age or devastating super-storms but rather famished wolves escaping from the zoo searching for people to eat. The film drew controversy for Kenneth Welsh’s portrayal of the Vice-President due to the fact that he bears a striking resemblance to Dick Cheney, the Vice-President at the time. Director Roland Emmerich didn’t hide the fact that this was an intentional criticism of the Bush administrations policies on global warming.
Like The Day After Tomorrow, many films that convey the end of the world hold some sort of moral lesson but none are quite so palpable as the Christian based film Left Behind. As predicted in the Book Of Revelations, the rapture arrives and Christians who’ve been good are called to Heaven and those who’ve been bad or aren’t Christian are left behind on Earth. Starring the world’s most famous Christian actor, Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame, it was based on the Left Behind series of books written by minister Tim LaHaye and author Jerry B. Jenkins. To say that the film is preachy would be a colossal understatement. Watching it is the equivalent of being smacked in the face repeatedly with a Bible while Christian Rock music blares in your ears.
Stanley Kubrick’s classic comedy Dr. Strangelove is another doomsday film that carries a didactic message but chooses to convey it through satire instead of in your face pomposity. Made at the height of the Cold War, when the nuclear threat was like a gigantic foot hanging over the Earth ready to stomp, Dr. Strangelove beautifully lampoons the incompetence and insanity of those with their finger on the button. It’s been hailed as one of the greatest comedies ever made even though it culminates in the obliteration of the world through nuclear war.
So what better way to end than to go back to the beginning. In 1916, the early years of cinema, Danish director August Blom took on the subject of the apocalypse with his silent film The End Of The World. Also known as The Flaming Sword, Blom’s movie is about a comet that passes by Earth causing natural disasters and social unrest. It was inspired by the arrival of Hayley’s comet 6 years earlier which caused widespread panic spurred on by yellow journalism and unscrupulous entrepreneurs looking to capitalise on people’s fears.
It seems not much has changed in the near hundred years since August Blom’s film was released. Businesses still make money from terror, newspapers still frighten us with rumours and half-truths and human beings can’t help imagining what the end of the world will be like. Let’s hope though, that for many years to come, that’s where the apocalypse will stay; in our own imaginations.