Apocalypse you say? Then armageddon outta here. Whether it's war, pestilence or one of the other Four Horsemen, the end of civilization as we know it has been a recurring theme since the beginning of science fiction cinema. This Friday sees the release of Knowing, a film in which a looming global cataclysm plays a major role -- so let's take a look back at seven films with different versions of how it will all end.
I Am Legend (2007)
Let's start with one that's still fresh in everyone's mind. In this film based on the Richard Matheson novel, Will Smith plays Robert Neville who, at the start of the film anyway, appears to be the last man on Earth thanks to his immunity to the virus that has stricken everyone else. The majority of the population has died from the disease, while the remainder have been mutated into animalistic rage-driven creatures who fear the daylight. Neville is a virologist and spends his days looking for a cure and his nights locked away in the safety of his Manhattan home.
It's interesting that this is one of the few such films where the end of civilization is not brought on by an act of aggression, but by a noble cause: a man-made virus intended to cure cancer that goes horribly wrong. The film is entertaining, but personally I find the CGI Darkseekers distractingly unconvincing. They leap around as if they have no weight and when they shriek their jaws distend like an anaconda swallowing a pig. Also, the film's original ending, which you can see on the DVD, made a lot more sense to me. Of the previous adaptations of the novel, The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price remains my favorite. Charlton Heston's The Omega Man has its moments but hasn't aged well and starts to run out of steam early on.
12 Monkeys (1995)
This film from director Terry Gilliam is based on a short film called La Jetee. Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a criminal from a bleak future in which a global plague has forced mankind to live underground. In hopes of earning a pardon, Cole allows himself to be sent back in time to obtain a sample of the original plague before it mutated in hopes that scientists can develop a cure and humans can return to the surface. On his first trip to the past, Cole is committed to a mental hospital where he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) who we eventually learn is part of a terrorist group called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys -- the group believed to be behind the spreading of the plague. The grim subject matter is made all the more tragic by the fact that, in this movie's version of time travel, changing history is impossible, so the world of the 1990's that Cole sees and falls in love with in his travels is doomed. A dark and fascinating movie.
The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)
This one seems almost prescient today with its variation on global warming and other environmental issues. The U.S. and The Soviet Union have set off simultaneous nuclear tests and soon afterward the world is plagued by bizarre weather anomalies. London, where the film is set, experiences unseasonable fog, a tornado, and an unanticipated solar eclipse. It is soon learned that the force of the nuclear tests has jostled the Earth's axis, shifting the equator in the process. Even worse though, Earth's orbit has been changed and the planet is moving closer and closer to the sun. The film's strongest point is that it's told, not from scientist's point of view, but as a newsroom drama. Our main character is Pete Stenning (Edward Judd), the reporter who initially breaks the story and digs into the British government's attempts to cover it up. The film's ending is both ambiguous and downright haunting.
Planet of the Apes series (1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973)
This series gets extra points for the sheer number of times the world goes kaboom. In the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, a team of astronauts from Earth crash land on an what they believe is an alien planet where intelligent apes rule over mute savage humans. The crew is quickly whittled down leaving Colonel George Taylor (Charlton Heston) alone against a world full of damn dirty apes. Taylor finds himself on the run from the apes with his new cavegirl girlfriend Nova in tow. At the film's climax (OK, spoiler alert for a forty-year-old film) Taylor discovers the remains of the Statue of Liberty, proving that his space ship could really have used a GPS because he's been on Earth all along, and mankind had finally destroyed itself with its warring nature (that's apocalypse #1) .
By the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the apocalypse quotient had been upped to include the Alpha-Omega Bomb, a leftover from the cold war which if ignited would burn away Earth's atmosphere. Taylor tries to disarm the device, but when Dr. Zaius refuses to help, Taylor sets off the bomb destroying the Earth (apocalypse #2) and bringing the series to an end, right? Wrong, my simian friend. For Escape From the Planet of the Apes, a chimpanzee couple escape the destruction of Earth in Taylor's ship and travel back in time to then modern day Los Angeles. Their son Caesar leads a revolt in the next installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, kicking off the ape-ruled society of the original film. By the time Battle For the Planet of the Apes rolls around, there's been a nuclear war (apocalypse #3) and apes are ruling over humans in a technology free society. For a bonus slice of potential apocalyptic goodness, there's a version of this fifth film showing up occasionally on TV with footage that had been excised from the theatrical release showing that the mutants in the film are in possession of the aforementioned Alpha-Omega Bomb.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one morning to find out that every single other person on Earth has vanished. The event appears to have coincided with the completion of an energy experiment Hobson was working on called Project Flashlight. Zac takes advantage of the opportunity to go completely mad, but comes to his senses and eventually finds two other survivors of the event. Comparing notes, they all learn that when everyone else disappeared they were all about to die. This is a modestly budgeted effort whose third act doesn't quite live up to the promise of the first, but still manages to entertain.
Damnation Alley (1977)
Based loosely on a novel by Roger Zelazny, Damnation Alley eschews the cautionary tale angle of end-of-the-world movies in favor of pure action. Jan Michael Vincent is Jake Tanner, an Air Force officer working in a nuclear silo the day World War III starts. Two years later Tanner and a few other survivors (including Major Eugene Denton, played by George Peppard) embark on a cross-country trip to see if there's anyone left out there. Since the war the only communications they've received is a signal coming from Albany, NY, so they head there through "Damnation Alley", a narrow path in which the radiation levels are tolerable. Along the way they fight giant scorpions and man-eating radioactive cockroaches as well as pick up a few survivors including a boy played by Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley. Less than cerebral, and the ending is just ridiculous, but all in all a fun dopey little sci-fi action flick.
The Terminator series (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009)
I almost didn't include this one because it seems so obvious, but how can I not? In these three (soon to be four) films, mankind is on the verge of being exterminated by an artificial intelligence called Skynet and it's cyborg operatives called Terminators. In the original film, a Terminator played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is sent back in time to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), whose son John will one day lead the resistance against the machines. Hot on the Terminator's heels is Reese (Michael Biehn), a human from the future sent back to protect Sarah.
For Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a shape shifting T-1000 model Terminator is sent to murder young John Connor but this time another Terminator (looking remarkably like the one from the first film) has been reprogrammed to work for the good guys and acts as John's bodyguard. Schwarzenegger came back for a third film, one which left me cold and thinking the series was done, but a fourth installment with Christian Bale playing John Connor looks pretty awesome and is due out on May 21.
What are some of your favorite apocalyptic science fiction films?