06 July 2019

Apocalypse Soon

One of the first things I learned as a beginning writer was that good stories must have conflict. In fact, the more conflict, the better. Maybe that's the reason I prefer writing mystery/crime stories. When the characters in a story have broken--or are breaking, or are planning to break--the law, one level of conflict is already there. It's built-in. And I need all the help I can get.

The same could be said of stories whose plot involves a countdown of some kind. In that case, the built-in ingredient is suspense. It could take many forms: the timer on a bomb, a deadline set by a killer or kidnapper, a runaway train, an upcoming trial date, a clock ticking down to high noon, etc. Or the relentless approach of something final and terrible--an asteroid, a missile strike, a plague, an alien attack--that will put an end to all of us.

This line of thinking of course led me to all those end-of-the-world movies I've seen, and forced me to--how could I resist?--pick out what I thought were the best and worst. So in case anyone besides me likes this kind of thing (doubtful, I know), I've put together a list of my twelve favorite global-disaster-is-coming films. Sometimes doomsday is averted, sometimes it happens as scheduled. You'll have to watch them to find out; no spoilers in this report.

NOTE: I did not include movies set mostly after an apocalypse--and there are plenty of those: The Road, The Day After, Night of the Comet, War of the Worlds, The Book of Eli, 28 Days Later, Children of Men, The Day After Tomorrow, Zombieland, Waterworld, 2012, Dawn of the Dead, Daybreakers, and so on. Even the Mad Max and Hunger Games-style movies could fit into that post-cataclysm group. Unlike those, the movies in my list are set in the time leading up to the event, and therefore populated with characters in the normal world who must somehow deal with the knowledge of impending doom. They aren't the walking dead, at least not yet. They're just regular folks who are fully functional but soon to be in deep bandini.

Anyway, here's my list of the dozen ultimate-catastrophe movies that I enjoyed most, from silly to serious, from action-packed to slow and thoughtful. I liked them all, but the first ones are my

1. Melancholia (2011) -- Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland. Definitely a slow-paced, navel-gazing story. Two sisters try to work out their problems with each other as a newly-discovered planet heads toward a collision with Earth.

2. Deep Impact (1998) -- Morgan Freeman, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood. This time it's an asteroid on its way to do us in. The President tries to save a select few; the rest are on their own.

3. Fail-Safe (1964) -- Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau. American bombers are en route to Moscow and the Russians are set to retaliate, but the attack was a mistake--and now it can't be stopped.

4. Dr. Strangelove (1964) -- Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden. Sellers plays three different roles, and once again the threat is nuclear holocaust. The only comedy, if you can call it that, in the list.

5. Take Shelter (2011) -- Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain. A young father who has visions of a coming apocalypse takes steps to try to protect his family.

6. The Mist (2007) -- Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden. A group of shoppers huddle inside a supermarket after a botched government experiment unleashes a spreading mist that contains bloodthirsty creatures. One of the better Stephen King adaptations.

7. On the Beach (1959) -- Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire. Most of the world has blown itself up, and the so-far unaffected Australians are now in the path of a deadly and slow-moving (like the plot) cloud of radiation.

8. Miracle Mile (1988) -- Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham. A young man accidentally hears a phone call telling him nuclear missiles will strike his city in seventy minutes.

9. Seeking a Friend at the End of the World (2012). Steve Carell, Keira Knightley. As another asteroid nears Earth (screenwriters are fond of asteroids), a lonely man goes on a road trip to find his high-school sweetheart.

10. These Final Hours (2013) -- Jessica De Gouw, Nathan Phillips. On the Last Day, an Australian man makes his way across a chaotic town to help a little girl reunite with her father.

11. Last Night (1998) -- Sandra Oh, Don McKellar. With the end of the world six hours away, several unusual people decide to face their fate together.

12. Armageddon (1998) -- Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Billy Bob Thornton. As yet another asteroid (?!?) makes its fiery way toward Earth, NASA recruits a team of misfits to try to save the world.

Runners-up: Independence Day (1996) and The Rapture (1991).

What do you think? Have you seen all, or any, of these? If so, do you agree? Disagree? Do you have any movies to add to the list? (I intentionally left out a few: The Day the Earth Caught Fire, When Worlds Collide, etc.) Do you even like this kind of movie?

If you don't, no worries. It's not the end of the world.


  1. John, I'm not a huge fan of this kind of movie, but you've got some good ones here. I particularly like Miracle Mile (party 'cause I grew up there and partly 'cause I just like it) and how can one not like Dr. Strangelove. Some of the others are hit and miss with me. I haven't seen Seeking a Friend at the End of the World, and that sounds interesting 'cause I'm always thinking about old girlfriends (don't tell Amy ;-) ).

  2. Cool list, John. I love DR. STRANGELOVE and FAIL SAFE. I liked ON THE BEACH but it is slow moving. Those three I could watch again. Most of the others, well, I've seen it ...

    Paul. Thinking of old girlfriends. The older I get the more I think of old girlfriends (and thankful I found debb). They visit me in my dreams. They look like they used to. A couple are still mad at me.

  3. I liked Seeking A Friend at the End of the World, Dr. Strangelove, and On The Beach (which, as a small child, freaked me out and made me cry for the sheer sadness of it all).

  4. Unless you are allergic to whimsey you might add Good Omens, the current Prime show, in the comic apocalypse category - haven't gotten to the end yet, but I think Armageddon will be avoided

  5. Raul, your secret's safe with me. BTW, hope you fared well during all the earth-shaking that went on there a couple days ago.

    O'Neil, I think you and I just like old movies. No kidding, though, if you haven't seen Miracle Mile, it's an interesting take on this subject. (I agree that you should be thankful you found debb. Give her my best regards.)

    Eve, you and I might be the only two people who've seen Seeking a Friend at the End of the World. I did like that one--and I didn't think I would. I re-watched These Final Hours last night, and re-enjoyed it too.

    Janice, thanks for that--I have not seen Good Omens, but I will. Love to get that kind of recommendation. I confess I sort of liked Armageddon, but it ranks low among my favorites. I think it came out around the same time as Deep Impact, which I thought was a far better movie.

  6. I know what you mean, O'Neil. They haunt us, don't they. And I think a couple of mine are still mad at me. Maybe we had the same GFs. -- That said, I'm glad I found Amy, too.

  7. Thanks, John. And I think Raul is my secret code name. But we fared okay. The two big ones were pretty big. The second one knocked over some stuff, but I don't think anything broke. I hope the aftershocks start getting smaller from here on in.

  8. Yes, Paul, since my typing is always perfect I'm glad you recognized your code name. And I'm glad to hear you guys are okay--the quake and aftershocks sounded pretty scary.

    I was in L.A. once, way up in the IBM building on Wilshire Blvd., when one shook us up pretty well. Not sure which is worse, tornado alley or the earthquake zones.

  9. I hope everyone who's in the earthquake zone are doing okay.
    I was in L.A. for the "big one" (then) of 1971 - slept right through it.

  10. Cool and calm, Eve--that's probably why you're a good suspense writer.

  11. No - just wiped out.
    My roommate of the time, however, had her boyfriend with her. They thought the earth had literally moved. They broke up fairly quickly after that. Apparently, nothing ever measured up. ;)

  12. There's gotta be a story in that.

    In the nature-can-play-tricks-on-us department, I'm reminded of the (Woody Allen, I think) story where Dracula was wandering around one night looking for victims, and when the sun came out and he was still a mile or so from the safely of his casket he realized it was a total eclipse. Can't remember the name of the story.

  13. Fun read, John! I think the darkest of these films is The Mist. Not a date flick. I bet you’d like The Satan Bug. Cheesy end of the world ‘60s goodness starring Route 66’s George Maharis.

  14. Hey Larry--I actually remember The Satan Bug. Saw it years ago. And it's one of the many I seem to have overlooked when I put this list together. Yep, good old George Maharis, or--as I remember him--Buzz Murdock. Showing my age!

  15. Once you've destroyed the world, where do you go from there?

  16. Hey Jeff. Yep, not many sequel possibilities, here.

    In an old joke, a tourist at the Grand Canyon asks one of the guides, "How often does somebody fall into this thing?" The guide says, "Just once."

    (I should probably worry about the fact that almost everything reminds me of an old joke.)

    Thanks, Jeff.

  17. I'm late responding, but I have two words for you: War Games! Loooove that movie.

  18. Yep, I loved that one too, and completely forgot about it. Thanks, Barb!

  19. What about Day of the Triffids, John? I loved the book by John Wyndham but the movie was good, too, even though it starred Howard Keel, who would have done better if he’d sung his way through.

  20. Hey Janet. Yep, there's another one I missed. I even read Day of the Triffids years and years ago--I found a paperback copy in a dresser drawer the other day when we were doing some work at the house where I grew up. But you know what--I never saw that movie. Just another thing for my "to do" list.

    Good ole Howard Keel. I always think of Calamity Jane when I hear his name--and of the TV show Dallas.


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