Digital Polyphony

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Top 25: Apocolyptic Movies

The end is nigh!

Hollywood loves disaster flicks. More importantly, they love showing everything just crashing down and the world itself being destroyed, whether it be by aliens, zombies, asteroids, diseases, stupidity, mother nature or war, there's more working towards an eventual end of life as we know it than anything.

There's a difference between "Dystopian" and "Holy shit our world is dead or will be destroyed." Dystopian is the world in the future, usually after a catastrophic event (disease, etc..) but life continues on even if we don't like it. I think of Blade Runner, Brazil or Children of Men in this regard. There's still some sense of power, order and structure to everything, only individual rights belittled and government oppression are often rampant. For this list, it's about the destruction of everything we know. A dead world is just that...dead. There's nobody around, perhaps some zombies or cannibals, no government, no order...nothing either to happen, is happening or has happened. The world is coming to an end, and you're fighting for your life to either prevent it from happening or to survive after its happened.

So, either it's about preventing the world from being destroyed, the world being destroyed, or trying to live in a destroyed world. Well, good luck, humanity. You're gonna need it.


25: Knowing


Nicolas Cage is slowly losing his mind.

And now let us discuss Knowing.


All in all, though, Knowing is an intelligent science fiction film that isn't quite as executed as well as its material demands. Still, though, it's an intriguing and mystery-riddled piece from Alex Proyas, who has shown he has quite the affection towards science fiction over the years. A buried time capsule at a school holds the secret to man's demise and only Nicolas Cage seems to be able to figure it all out. Twists and turns ensue until a very startling reveal that is both unexpected and even a little bold in that Deus-Ex-Machina kind of way


24: Miracle Mile


If you have only a little over an hour left in the world, and you were the only person that knew about it, what would you do? That's the basic premise of Miracle Mile, but with a dash of a boy-meets-girl plot as well. On paper, it might play out like a comedy. A guy meets the girl of his dreams the night of the end of the world? Hilarity could ensue.

However, Miracle Mile plays it straight and ends up one of the most saddening films you'll see. A lot of apocalyptic movies end on a down-note, this one ends on a down-symphony as it fades to black one final time. Like any good disaster film, it's all about the characters and Edwards and Winningham really give their all as two people you really want to see come out unscathed on the other end.


23: The Signal


A small, independent film with a lot of ambition, The Signal is one of most unique and original movies you'll see. Well shot, well acted with a great use of a musical score. It's told in three small stories, loosely intertwined yet each very different in tone and style. It ranges from the graphic violent to darkly humorous to emotionally dramatic, all centered on a strange signal sent through televisions that, whomever is looking a TV at that moment, suddenly begins to lose their minds.

It's a little similar to George Romero's The Crazies in that respect, only world-encompassing.  Those that weren't watching TV fighting for their lives from those that became ill from it. An overlooked, low-budget movie that is slowly gathering a bit of a cult following.


22: 2012


An over-the-top spectacle that's often more ridiculous than anything, yet that doesn't mean its a horrible movie. In fact, 2012 is one of few world-ending disaster movies (as we know disaster movies) that I actually can say was good. "Good" being a relative term here, it's not as though the standards are high. But it is one thing if any: a lot of fun.

We've seen the world "destroyed" in past movies, sure. Somehow, though, 2012 actually makes all that destruction fun with very, very pretty special effects and a great sense of tension and pace to its otherwise shallow story. Yes, 2012 makes the end of the world fun entertainment. It knows this and just runs with it. It couldn't hit an emotional core or human drama to save its life, but it knows how to blow shit up, that's for sure. Out of all of Roland Emmerich's "epic" movies, this one is his best and one of the better movies about the end of the world done on such a scope.

21: The Omega Man


Give a man a gun, he'll kill for a day. Teach him how to shoot, and he'll wreck havoc. Give a gun to Charlton Heston...well, you know. It's more action than anything, but The Omega Man is still one of Heston's better films as it takes the classic novel I am Legend and flips it into a way to have Charlton Heston kill a bunch of bad guys.

Yet, that doesn't undermine the story. Heston's Neville is still a lonely man who talks to himself and struggles to survive the hundreds of infected humans that try to kill him every night. They gather outside his home and try to find their way end, they trick him into going out at night and when the time comes for Neville to finally find people he can care about instead of talking to statues, they use them against him. 


20: Mad Max


Utilizing the Australian outback as the visual wasteland, George Miller's Mad Max films are amongst the most popular post-apocalyptic films out there. The first was a little independent revenge tale set in a world struggling to find its way and introduced us all to Mel Gibson who is at his best in his iconic role as Max across three films.

Max is a part of a "police" force, though that's putting it lightly. The "police" here is really just another gang traversing the wasteland and taking on other gangs. It shows how humanity has a tendency to find groups and structure no matter how bleak the world is. It's part of our nature, though Max would shun these notions as he soon turns into a lone wolf bent on revenge and continuing that approach for two more films and coming across others with the same notion as the "outsider" looking in. At its heart, Mad Max films are a classic western movie with a post-apocalyptic setting, and really some of the best action movies you'll see.


19: Night of the Living Dead


I'm in the stern belief that should the world end, it will be a zombie apocalypse. I feel we all just have it coming and after decades of zombie films, it's not like we won't be prepared. The first to really define the world of zombies is the classic horror film, Night of the Living Dead. It's apocalyptic story, though, is told through radio and television broadcasts as a small group of people board themselves up in a house and the dead constantly try to break in. Everything we and the characters know are from these broadcasts, from the mass murders all across the Eastern seaboard and spreading, to the fact the dead are reanimating to the only way to kill them being destroying the brain.

It's the end of the world, and it's presenting it the way that most of us will probably find out about it: in our homes, listening and watching broadcasts and hearing about horrible things that are happening. We're removed yet a part of it all, a commentary Romero has in the film itself about society, and an intelligent apocalyptic film in incognito as a result.


18: The Last Man on Earth


Yet another I am Legend adaptation, and I would actually say the best out of the bunch. The fact that Richard Matheson co-wrote the script might have a lot to do with that. This small, Italian independent feature has gained in popularity over the years, so much so that many consider it Vincent Price's best work (I would argue opposition, yet I wouldn't complain at the same time on such hyperbole).

What can be said, though, is that while it certainly departs from Matheson's novel, and obviously low-budget, it in itself is a great little movie about the literal "last man on earth.") It's a dark film, not just visually but in how it portrays man and his struggles versus his desires, not to mention a far bleaker ending.  Price's voice overs show a man at a loss and the thematic elements of his "legend" status comes through stronger than any other adaptation.


17: Le Dernier Combat


A strange, dreamlike early film from Luc Besson where a world catastrophe leaves few people alive, yet it somehow manages to find a weird tone to it all. At its heart, there is a good amount of comedy to this bleak future. As a result, we end up finding the human side of people that are disillusioned and desperate - always scrounging and looking to survive. 

Le Dernier Combat is also unique in that no words are spoken. It's entirely visual and done through body language and facial expressions. It allows for this universal tale to truly be that and it says something about the world ending and how it is going to affect us all, not just who is speaking French or English. Visually striking and unintentionally funny at times, Le Dernier is one of Besson's best films and one of the most interesting apocalyptic movies you'll see. 


16: On the Beach


Legendary and varied director Stanley Kramer threw his hat into the Apocalyptic move-ring in 1959 with this star-studded film about survivors in Australia after a nuclear war searching for remaining people somewhere, anywhere, in the world. Their own fates are written, however, as fallout radiation itself slowly begins to creep towards them.

Like a lot of these movies, it asks the question "what would you do with your final moments?" Interesting enough, while the search of survivors might appear ultimately pointless, it's more about the lofty search of hope. Maybe there's a place that is habitable. Maybe there's an area made for people to still live. I think the "maybes" of the end of the world would come in that fleeting sense of hope that the end isn't entirely coming. Maybe some will overcome the great odds. On the Beach, though, is far from hopeful and stands as one of the great human dramas about mankind's fate.

15: Maximum Overdrive


First off: wow, what an absolute awful poster. When compiling this list, I thought to myself "surely that's not official." Yeah, that's official. It really doesn't do the movie justice and when you look at, the last thing that comes to mind is "every electronic device coming alive and killing people." Instead you think Steven King will show up from some crack in the earth and bring about the end of the world in some Gozer-like fashion.

But no, that's not what it's about. Maximum Overdrive is a campy, sometimes goofy and funny movie about inanimate devices coming alive and killing people. It's ridiculous in hindsight, but makes for an entertaining story nonetheless as our reliance on everything electric is astounding in every fashion, from our vehicles and cars to phones and soda machines. 


14: Last Night


When you think of small, independent Canadian film you might think of something about mounties playing hockey and the maple syrup cup. Instead, you have a small movie with an all-star cast that shows what most people will probably be doing on their "last night."Many try to pretend nothing is wrong, a strong case of denial as some go shopping and have Christmas when it's not winter. Most, though, are completely unabashed in their desire to loot, destroy and have a lot of sex.

Still, though, Last Night shows a variety of people during this situation looking for something more. Meaning to life. Love. Simple affection from another human being. Last Night is more powerful than its humble Canadian roots let on and the ending moments, particularly the final shot, are some of the most powerful and richly moving you could ask to see.


13: WarGames


Ferris Bueller nearly destroyed the world in 1983. This is an indisputable fact which shows that his "days off" were really evil plans to hack into government mainframes and toy around with nuclear arsenals and threatening World War III.

It's easy to write off WarGames as just another teen 1980s flick not directed by John Hughes. In actuality, though, the film was nominated for three Oscars including screenplay, and that is nothing to be taken lightly. WarGames is really a 1980s version of Dr. Strangelove and an early look at what computers might end up playing in our society (and pretty accurately, I might add).  In the end, it all boils down to misunderstandings, similar to Strangelove only with our creations and technology rather than an angry Russian on the other end of the phone. It's a great movie of its era that, though dated, is still interesting and relevant today, as so many great movies tend to be.


12: 28 Days Later


I wasn't entire sure if I should add this film. As bleak as it is, it's not exactly "end of the world" as much as it is "end of Britain." Yet, we also have to realize that this is the beginnings of the end of the world, if anything (there's an extended timeline of events in the fictional world this is set in and, supposedly, the virus spreads through Europe by the still-to-be-made third film, 28 Months Later).

It still follows the conventions and has the thematic ideas of an apocalyptic film - in this case the usual ideas of establishment destroyed, society broken and fear of the end and desire for survival. It's unique and visceral visual style and sense of isolation and loneliness it presents is as good as you'll see and the movie is an instant classic as a result.

Now bring on 28 Months, Danny. You said you were directing it too.



11: 12 Monkeys


The movie that showed that Brad Pitt was more than just a pretty face, 12 Monkey's is as enthralling as it is ambitious, as many Terry Gilliam films tend to be. It has a little of everything: a mystery to be solved, a disease to be stopped, a mental asylum, a romance, violence...oh and time travel. Bruce Willis comes from a future destroyed where few people still exist. He's forced to travel back in time (and we get the impression he's one of many forced to do this) to uncover the truth about the Army of the 12 Monkeys who "leaders" in the future feel were responsible for the biological outbreak. Of course, nothing ever quite goes to plan.

12 Monkeys more or less tells us that we are all spinning around in the wheel of fate and our memories aren't entirely things we can trust. It questions fate, sanity and will...and gives us no answers even until the climax and allusions that, perhaps, the world will be saved from destruction.


10: A Boy and His Dog


Probably the most unique entry on this list, A Boy and His Dog is not just about a young man traversing the wasteland with his trusty canine. It's about the bond he shares with him....the psychic bond where they can read each others minds and communicate as though they're speaking.

Like I said, "unique."

Criticized by feminists at the time (rape a common thing in the world this is set in), A Boy and His Dog is quite honest in its critique and cynicism towards the animalistic nature of human beings. It's a small film, shot almost like a documentary, that is far more dramatic than its poster, noting it as "kinky," really says. It's quirky, a little weird, but more dramatic than that as you watch this boy and his dog look to survive, and hopefully find someone to love, in a world that is destroyed.

9: In the Mouth of Madness


Only until the final moments, do you finally realize what's happening with John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness. It really comes out of nowhere because the world full of mass hysteria, murders, creatures, insanity, suicides isn't really on the radar at all. Most of the film is entirely about John Trent and how he is pretty much losing his mind as he looks to uncover the mysteries of a town and a strange book. Then things start getting weird...and all because of a book.

This is one of John Carpenter's best, unsettling and frightening films in his "Apocalypse Trilogy" because it doesn't end nearly as well as his other two films with good defeating evil (although Prince of Darkness is a little ambiguous regarding that). Evil, instead, sneaks up on you...and the next thing you know you've realized you've not only completely lost your mind, along with everyone else, but actually helped the evil destroy everything you know.


8: Time of the Wolf


A tale of a family wandering the countryside of Europe after an apocalyptic event. Of course, it's not quite as simple as that, as many of director Michael Haneke's films (Funny Games, The White Ribbon) tend to be. The world hasn't entirely ended, but it's in the process of ending. The "event" itself relatively ambiguous, though it's easy to assume it's an outbreak of some sort.

Time of the Wolf is a look at the slow breakdown of society during the period: a commentary on acceptance, societal structure and morality and law. It's a small film, mainly taking place at a train station as survivors hope to hear the chugging of a train one more time and get out of their predicament, and its here the human drama escalates. Distrust, the feeling of the end finally setting in, not knowing what to do or think. Time of the Wolf ends without answers, yet not having answers is truly fitting.


7: The Quiet Earth


A precursor to the brilliant atmosphere of 28 Days Later, Zac Hobson wakes up one morning to find that the entirety of New Zealand has disappeared. There is no lines of communication and he has no idea exactly what happened other than the mysterious "Project Flashlight." Unlike Danny Boyle's Zombie-esque thriller, The Quiet Earth is more psychological as Zac's mind begins to deteriorate due to the isolation and loneliness. Eventually he begins meeting a few other survivors and the mystery begins to reveal itself. It also proves that, as everyone expected, New Zealand will be the cause of the end of the world.

The Quiet Earth is one of those unheralded science fiction masterpieces that is complex in metaphors and symbolism, not to mention an interesting commentary on the human mind as it relates to death (or the fear of death). There's more to a simple "end of the world" story than meets the eye here, as the bold Albert Einstein quote on the poster states: "The creations of our mind should be a blessing, not a curse to mankind."

6: Dawn of the Dead


If Night of the Living Dead didn't prove already, the larger-scoped Dawn of the Dead certainly did. More zombies. More blood. More gore. More showing the passage of time and how it can really drive the few survivors to near madness. It took the elements of Night of the Living Dead and multiplying it by a hundred. Dawn of the Dead's simple story of zombie apocalypse survivors making a shopping mall their home has become iconic. If a world-wide catastrophe did occur, I think more people would look to safe haven like a mall than they would the military or police. There is no order...but there's always free shit.

As the greatest zombie movie ever made, it never forgets the human side of everything and our desire for survival. We don't want to end up like zombies, but do we really want to live in a world where that's all anybody is? The social commentary and questions brought up in Dawn is its finest aspect, that and a hell of a lot of blood.


5: When Worlds Collide


A big planet has lost its orbit and is heading for Earth. What do you do?

You build a bunch of spaceships and get the hell of it ASAP, that's what. With numerous small, human stories intertwining to the grand finale, When Worlds Collide more or less sets the template for modern disaster movies (it itself a re-imagining of the story of Noah and his big boat). It has everything you want, from techno-babble talk to action to romance and weepy moments. Like the modern 2012 (When Worlds Collide itself being remade as we speak), it's a special-effects spectacle, winning the Oscar for that category in 1951 and the film itself directed by an Five time Oscar-nominated director. It simply does its story well and, quite frankly, better than a lot of disaster movies that would follow.


4: Dr. Strangelove


A personal favorite (certainly my favorite on this list) this satirical masterpiece is a great look into the fears of the Cold War and how utterly dumbfounding human beings can be - especially when it comes to common sense. As I noted in my review, Strangelove is about miscommunication. 

Let's face it, people often say something that is taken the wrong way, they assume far too much and there's a good chance that the world is going to end more on human stupidity than it is a giant meteor or the sun exploding. No, what's going to happen is someone will say something, it's relayed through five other people and catches the ears of a person with a "Push Here to Launch Missile" button to his right and an empty bottle of scotch to his left. That's all it'll take, and Kubrick's masterpiece not only brings that to like, it almost celebrates it in a way and that we nobody to blame but ourselves. 


3: The Road


A lyrical and deeply personal film that, sadly, is probably pretty accurate in what will happen to the world should the end finally come. The fact is, more people will wish they had died than actually want to try and survive in this wasteland of ash, death and human atrocities. Something so simple as a drink of water or a good sleep is now a commodity.

To pin the story between a father in son brings this home even further. It's touching and disheartening at the same time. The supposed unadaptable novel is given beautiful justice here. It doesn't belittle it. It doesn't try to do more than what the novel allows. It's a small film that is about as affectionate of a movie about the end of the world that could ever possibly be made.


2: The Day After


Though dated, it was a made for television movie afterall, The Day After sits the viewer right front and center in middle America and the onslaught of a nuclear attack. The fears of the world about something like this happening was at a high in the 1980s, the Cold War still very relevant now going into it's second decade, and ABC had the balls to show people what will probably happen should "the end" ever arise: most people will die and the rest will struggle in pain to survive until, eventually, they die as well.

The backdrop of the explosion and war never supersedes the human drama as well as the pathological and physiological horrors that would arise. This was a time when movie of the weeks had gutso and boldness, when they could an Oscar-nominated filmmaker to participate and a quality cast. The film was a major event, even having a live panel discussion and debate afterwards that included Sagan, McNamara and Kissinger. They really don't make 'em like they used to.


1: The Road Warrior


"We go in! We kill! Kill! We kill 'em! They kill us, we kill them! Kill 'em! Kill 'em! Kill! Kill!"

If there's anything that The Road Warrior says about the end of mankind, death is always going to be on the tips of tongues of any straggling survivor. Here, though, it's much more direct and brutal, influencing countless post-apocalyptic movies to come in both style and substance. Taking place years after Mad Max, the world falling even further into dissaray, we soon discover the strong are the survivors. They take everything and give nothing in return and the few that fight, deep down, only know its a matter of time before they're taken over.

An action classic with one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed, The Road Warrior might be easily assumed as just another early 1980s, low-budget action movie. Look a little deeper, and you find something far sharper and with much more to say than just our dependence on fuel and violence in our world. There's a touch of humanity here that great apocalyptic movies always touch on, but it's less direct and more subversive. Max, here nothing but a lone-wold, slowly eases himself into learning to care and, perhaps, love other people in a world where love simply no longer exists. He's that bit of hope, like a father checking in on his children after a horrible nightmare. 

Visually, The Road Warrior's depiction of our future is influential and likely accurate. People rummage for whatever they can use as weapons and clothing, our vehicles become our greatest ally in a world where you simply don't know how far it will be until you see another human being, thugs and gangs will rape and pillage and innocence or kindness is as rare as a drop of water or gasoline. 

Throw in some great action sequences and a lead that is absolutely beloved, you have the mixings of a great film. So popular that, even to this day, it is quotes, people hold conventions and film purists write essays analyzing it. A finely crafted film and my choice for the greatest Apocalyptic Film of all time.


More End Films: Night of the Comet, Day of the Dead, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, The World the Flesh and the Devil, The Stand, The Day After Tomorrow, By Dawn's Early Light, Armageddon, The Final War, , Reign of Fire, The Core, I am Legend, Armageddon, Deep Impact, Waterworld, The Postman, Men in Black, The Day the World Ended, The Last Battle, The Happening, The Book of Eli, Wall-E




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