Goodbye Cruel World – Top 5 Doomsday Films

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If the silver screen is a mirror reflecting our darkest fantasies, then it seems we have a sly yearning for human extinction. Apocalypse films abound – those currently heading to World War Z will see trailers for three more before their Fanta has even warmed up. But while our culture’s obsession with catastrophe is interesting, the films we tend to feed it with are usually not – the destruction of mankind would seem like a small mercy to anyone sitting through Deep Impact

Strange really – you’d expect the end of days to at least be entertaining. Only very occasionally do these films avoid cinematic disaster – here are five recent examples.

Children of Men (2006)

The word ‘Apocalypse’ comes from the Greek apokalyptein, meaning to uncover or reveal, and the best apocalyptic tales function less as a prophecy and more as a warning. Perhaps the major flaw in Hollywood’s vision of doom is its glib approach to this side of the genre. Yes, there will often be vague nods to liberal cliché (in The Happening there is a laughably earnest suggestion that love can literally save the day), but social commentary is largely avoided.

Not so in Alfonso Cuarón’s compelling portrayal of an infertile future. Set in England, the fact of our imminent extinction is less important in this film than the political response to it, which in Children of Men amounts to an authoritarian cocktail of corporate-military grimness. The movie’s success lies in its expert weaving of political tyranny and white-knuckle violence. Much of the most insidious imagery is found in the background – fleeting glimpses of an oppressive, xenophobic ideology justified by fear – and it’s an atmosphere that envelops the main action in a suffocating haze of all-too-possible horror.

Melancholia (2011)

Apparently you either love or hate Lars Von Trier. Those who hate him are wrong. Melancholia is a truly beautiful, truly dark blend of depression and doom. The opening sequence is a blast of rapturous imagery, sucking you into the operatic sadness of mental and planetary collapse, and the lines between allegory, sci-fi and fairy-tale are subsequently blurred to mesmerising effect.

As with the depression of Justine, its central character, this is apocalypse as a deeply private occasion, a dance to the death between rational hope and existential despair. Set entirely on a wealthy, isolated family estate, we see no screaming crowds or social breakdown, and witness the end of the world as an intensely lonely, inevitable affair.

Melancholia, a planet swooping towards collision with Earth, will end all hope, but the script succeeds in that long before impact. As Justine says, “I know things. And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on earth, and not for long.” Sean of the Dead this isn’t…

The Mist (2007)

Yes, it’s based on a Stephen King story. Yes, at times it has the look of a slightly farcical b-movie. But Frank Darabont’s The Mist contains enough genuine horror and subversion to warrant a viewing.

It’s a slow-burner. Trapping us in a small-town supermarket shrouded in what appears to be a lethal fog, we’re initially presented with a distinctly human drama of confusion and fear. Nobody knows what’s going on, including the viewer, and the only early clue we get is a comical tentacle that infiltrates a loading bay and picks off a young shelf-stacker. At this point the urge to switch off should be resisted – things get much darker, much more bizarre, and much more interesting.

While the characters are shallow embodiments of human traits – cynicism, hope, hubris, religious zeal – The Mist’s interest lies in its regular undercutting of Hollywood convention. Love does not conquer all (the obligatory ‘romance in the face of struggle’ thread is brutally severed before it gets going), people who look set to play a major part in proceedings wander off into the fog and are never heard from again, and hope most certainly does not endure.

In fact the final few minutes of the film is a shockingly bleak, disturbingly rendered vision of pure hopelessness. “You’ll be on your knees before this is through,” warns the ‘evil’ religious fundamentalist early on. It says much about The Mist that she turns out to be right.

War of the Worlds (2005)

This big-budget version of H G Wells’ famous tale is in no way amazing, but it deserves an honourable mention because it’s not half as bad as it could have been. Spielberg’s sugary sentimentalism simmers but never quite boils over, and the idea of having Tom Cruise play a fairly feeble hero adds spice.

Tom does run around a lot, as is his wont, but, for the first half of the film at least, he basically plays a guy who is bricking it as much as everyone else. And who could blame him? The stalking alien tripods do justice to my terrified childhood imagination, and some of the early carnage is suitably epic.

Unfortunately staleness starts to creep in. Why must there always be an unfeasibly smart kid in these films? Why is the family so desperate to get to Boston? Why change the sinister ending of the book for some wishy-washy humanist love-in? What law says Morgan Freeman must narrate all films, and can it be repealed?

But for all that, no, it’s not a complete desecration.

V For Vendetta (2005)

It says much about the lack of quality in the genre that I have to shamelessly crowbar V for Vendetta into my list. It’s not strictly an end-of-world movie, but this tale of dystopian politics and revolutionary ideals does culminate in a day of reckoning, albeit a positive one.

V is not so much a superhero as the incarnation of an idea – the idea of freedom and hope – and it’s no surprise that the character’s Guy Fawkes mask has since passed into the real political zeitgeist.

What is surprising is how the film encourages us to support violent political action. This is no hippy-dippy paean to peace, love and pacifist protest – our revolutionary hero bombs and kills his way to success, and at times it’s a merciless rampage – a kindly scientist’s pleas of good intention do not save her life: “I have not come for what you hoped to do. I’ve come for what you did.”

V is referred to as a terrorist throughout, and the film bravely raises questions of how power can misuse the language of fear at a time when such questions were deeply unfashionable (it was released not long after the London bombings). Reflecting its origins as a graphic novel, the violence is stylised and the symbolism rife, but when it works (as in the film’s rousing finale) V for Vendetta taps into a strangely powerful subversive spirit.

Gareth Thornton

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