Best in Class: Top Apocalypse Movies by Genre
Last week we took a stroll through some of my favorite films about the world ending. There were some definite gems that took the top honors, but so many great Apocalypse films had to be passed over. In Our Ten’s List, we’ll try to pick up that slack and present some of the greatest movies about humanity’s final moments.
To be fair, we’ve broken the list of movies down into brackets, selecting the top three for each sub-genre. This is the first part of our list, and next week we’ll show you the best of the best for the remaining categories: Aliens, Monsters, Zombies, Acts of God, and the hilarious Miscellaneous Category…where we don’t really get a great explanation of why the world is ending, just that somebody somewhere decided Earth had had enough, and time was up.
While Snowpiercer may have left audiences with more questions than answers, Directors Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook create a frightening and stylish vision of a world gone cold. Misguided efforts to reverse global warming lead to a deep freeze, and the last hold-outs of humanity are aboard the Snowpiercer super train, having a grand old time living in an Orwellian dystopia. At least they get all of the cockroach jello-shots they can eat.
Back in the late 1990’s, flying chunks of rock aimed at the Earth were big business at the box office, and the leader of the pack was definitely Michael Bay’s testosterone fueled space-cowboy wet dream, Armageddon. Sure, Deep Impact was infinitely more realistic, and Michael Bay has become synonymous with glossy exploding crap lately, but Armageddon was actually a thrilling adventure about a team of re-purposed oil drillers, flown into space to give mother nature a flying F.U. via nuclear missile…which is actually the goddamn stupidest thing you could do in this situation. Seriously, you’ve just turned one hellacious impact into a dozen only slightly smaller impacts, which are now irradiated all to hell. Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi and the dead-eyed soulless husk of Steven Tyler’s daughter star.
1. Soylent Green
It’s not a doom and gloom list without the official spokesman of the genre (and honorary Horseman of the Apocalypse) Charlton Heston, and Soylent Green may be his finest work. Not just one, but a WWE tag team of four natural disasters have pushed mankind to the edge, and to nobodie’s surprise, Heston discovers that the worst part of doomsday turns out to be the people. One part police procedural, one part noir detective story, and 998 parts Charlton Heston’s righteous indignation make Soylent Green our top pick for Natural Disaster movies.
3. 12 Monkeys
A bio-engineered disease has wiped humanity off the face of the Earth, with the only pockets of survivors forced to live underground. With nearly no resources, humanity cannot cobble together a cure for the virus which only targets humans…but somehow manages to scrape together a time machine. Let that be a lesson to all: if you’re stuck in an end of the world situation, always focus your efforts on time travel. This will in no way lead to a bad outcome.
The silliness of the time travel angle is quickly forgotten as it allows Terry Gilliam a chance to create a profound who-dunnit. As facts, alliances, sanity and time all become fluid and untrustworthy, Bruce Willis must race against time…through time…back in time…you know what, just go see the film already.
In the wake of the current Ebola tragedy, you can expect a spate of virus movies to rush to the box office. In 1995, another Ebola scare coincided with the release of Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo as epidemiologists trying to combat a deadly virus that is infecting a small town…and threatening to jump from there to the whole US.
Director Wolfgang Petersen manages the clock masterfully in this thriller, whisking the audience around the world, always one step behind the lethal contagion. The finale is a bit over-cooked, but the sheer star power of this film (Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey both contribute) helps to carry it over the bumps and snags in the script.
1. The Andromeda Strain
When an experimental satellite falls to Earth, it begins a deadly countdown. An extraterrestrial virus has hitched a ride aboard the vehicle, and quickly wipes out a small town in New Mexico, leaving only two individuals alive. The probe is whisked away to a secret government facility, where a team of scientists attempt to combat the foreign disease before all hope is lost…and before the facility itself is destroyed via a nuclear strike to prevent further spread.
The Andromeda Strain is a doomsday smorgasbord, deftly weaving together many of the most terrifying elements of the whole genre. Alien menace, fear of nuclear annihilation, mistrust of the government, and a double race against time (first against the virus itself, and then against the looming explosion,) create a perfect storm of terror and suspense. Even threads of technology run amok, akin to Kubrick’s masterful 2001 A Space Odyssey, can be found here. Establishing writer Michael Chrichton as master of the thriller, The Andromeda Strain was a truly seminal work in the doomsday genre.
3. The War Game
Clocking in at a brisk 46 minutes long, this documentary-styled look at the horrors of nuclear war is filled to bursting with terror, sadness, and grim reminders of the knife’s edge we currently exist on.
A communist attack by China and Russia on South Vietnam and Berlin, leads a bellicose United States down a road of brinksmanship that ultimately leads to WWIII. Caught in the middle is Great Britain, a key strategic partner for attacking Russia, which is therefore first to experience the horror of nuclear holocaust. Densely populated and saturated with nuclear weapons, Britain is quickly turned into a ravaged waste land…but it is the films first act, about the hurried preparations for war that are most striking. The recreation of the early days of a pre-war panic reveals frightening ignorance, jingoism, prejudice, and selfishness. Families object to housing immigrants and “coloreds”, store owners gouge their customers, and families are ripped apart by a nearly robotic military as it institutes last minute protocols that are like stacking pebbles to halt a tsunami.
Filmed as a newsreel documentary and featuring many public polls and interviews, The War Game is harrowing and visceral, all on a shoe-string budget. It’s effect was so chilling, it was originally barred from airing in the UK.
2. War Games
Another game of the nuclear variety, a young hacker (Matthew Broderick) inadvertently triggers a countdown to Armageddon. The United States has relinquished control of its nuclear arsenal to a computer A.I. in order to avoid human error and weakness. The machine is capable of learning complex strategies, and begins a game of nuclear chicken with Matthew, which results in real-life panic as the pentagon assumes the computer to be actually engaging in real warfare. Soon enough, they are proven correct, as the computer cannot distinguish real life from the simulation, and adopts more aggressive tactics to defeat Matthew. With only hours to spare, can the young human avert a holocaust and teach the machine the futility of war?
In addition to a rock-solid thriller, War Games also manages to present a complex presentation of dealing with computers, a concept very alien to most audiences in the early 80’s. Playing upon the conventional wisdom of computers as children’s toys, the film turns the premise on its head, and makes for a chilling introduction to modern computing that actually spurred a deeper interest in many people.
1. On The Beach
Prepare to be depressed when you watch this masterpiece. You may want to set in with a pint of your favorite ice-cream and a week’s worth of lithium, because this cautionary tale is bleak. Set a few short months after a nuclear exchange between Russia and the US, the film begins with a ray of hope: despite an ever widening swath of radio-active death forcing humanity further and further south, an improbable transmission from America via Morse code gives hope to the survivors that there are pockets of safety, even in the wastes of bombed out America. To discover the source, a nuclear submarine is assigned a perilous mission to find the pocket of survivors and study the nature of the radio-active clouds that continue to push mankind to the brink.
On the Beach is the lull after the storm, the slow unwinding of humanity’s fate, delivered by its own hand. The pacing of the film is slow and often stately, like watching the death of a ship fatally wounded as it gradually disappears beneath the waves. A psychological thriller, very little action occurs, but the film is riveting, nonetheless.
3. Logan’s Run
In the distant future, the surviving remnants of mankind (the film is vague about what caused the final destruction of civilization) live under the benevolent care of a supercomputer, sealed away from the world in a giant domed city. Humanity has become indolent and childish, having surrendered almost all responsibility to the machinery in their city. In exchange for pleasure and ease, the computer demands one major concession: all citizens must be euthanized at the age of 30 to prevent overcrowding (apparently the final casualty of the apocalypse was condoms.) If a citizen resists, he is deemed a “runner” and elite “sandmen” are charged with capturing and killing runners. As you would expect, when Logan 5, a high ranking sandman is confronted with his life’s end, he decides to make a break for it, and so begins Logan’s run.
Logan’s Run harkens back to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, but adds its own anti-technology flair to the morality tale of humanity surrendering liberty for security.
2. The Matrix Series
Woah, Keanu Reeves must save humanity from god-like machines that have enslaved the entire population. The conflict between Neo and the machines is largely a kung-fu infused metaphor which can become a little tedious, but the action is top notch, the special effects were bleeding edge for their time, and the film is plotted and paced meticulously.
The series spun out of control with later iterations, but the Warchowski siblings created such a fascinating world that despite the silliness of the sequels, it continues to intrigue to this day. Those turned off by the later movies should instead delve into The Animatrix, a series of animated shorts set before, during, and after the actions of the first film. The Animatrix gives audiences an in depth look at the global conflict that caused the creation of the Matrix, and is filled with startling visuals and intriguing ideas.
1. The Terminator
Before Arnold decided he could Jingle All the Way to the bank with endless sequels, their existed the ultimate Robot Apocalypse film: The Terminator. Tough, gritty, and rough around the edges, this film created a terrifying universe of death-dealing machines with creative practical effects, and continues to define the genre to this day. Pivoting deftly from established fears of nuclear annihilation, The Terminator created an implacable villain so remorseless, that the machines who attempt to destroy Sarah Connor and humanity become almost a force of nature.
3. End of Days
Arnold Schwarzenegger versus the Devil. End of argument.
2. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
To be completely honest, it is actually Saddam Hussein controlling the levers of Armageddon in this irreverent animated musical, but since his means of achieving Ragnarok involve making a deal (and playing hide the pickle) with the Devil, this film technically counts.
A monument to Trey Parker and Matt Stones talents at finding the ridiculous in any situation, South Park the Movie manages to skewer censorship, the war in Iraq, negligent parents, Hollywood, and especially American culture and politics, all while aping the tried and true Disney animated musical formula. The result is a lumbering mutated version of Mickey Mouse, raining fire and satire down upon anything that stands in its way. A giant magical clitoris is also involved, so, you know, they’ve got that going for them as well.
1. The Omen (Trilogy)
One of the few film series where a trilogy was not only desirable, but absolutely necessary. Each film charts a segment of the life of Damien, or as his friends call him, The Antichrist. From his humble beginnings as a precocious child with a penchant for murdering priests through “acts of god” accidents, all the way up to his adulthood as the charming businessman with presidential aspirations…and the same penchant for murdering priests.
The genre of “I’m Satan’s baby momma!” kicked off with Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, and while the first Omen follows the formula established in that film, it quickly displays its ambitions to a higher level of carnage and misanthropy, with Damien graduating from killing nannies to committing mass murder. Sam Neill notches his second apocalypse classic as the grown Damien in The Omen III, and the series comes to a bloody and thrilling climax.
Though written and directed by different individuals each film, The Omen Trilogy remains stylistically and thematically consistent, even as the stakes are continually raised and the nature of the evil changes from insidious invasion of a child to full blown, gleeful malevolence. A truly classic trio of films, taking the top spot for putting the fear of the Devil back into audiences.
Just don’t see the 4th film. Man, did that one suck.