December 21, 2012 was a day long awaited for the world, and it wasn’t necessarily for the winter solstice. Many doomsday believers felt the Mayan calendar’s ending on that date would lead to the ultimate ending, despite others (including NASA) claiming nothing catastrophic would occur.
The day came and went, and the Earth was still standing – with no long-term apocalypse taking place.
Yet the whole concept of the end of the world has been a long-standing favorite topic for many filmmakers and screenwriters, with the idea of how people would deal with that distinct possibility. These five films demonstrated the idea of the Earth’s impending doom and its population, from the satirical to the thrilling, from the political to the personal.
5. La Jetee (Chris Marker, 1962)
The French visual artist only needed photographs (save for one crucial use of film) to tell a jaw-dropping story about one man’s quest to change the fate of the world. After World War III has broken out with Paris in rubble, a man is drafted into a dangerous time travel experiment. Yet his involvement leads him to connecting with a woman from the past, only to discover her as a symbolic element of a memory that has haunted him throughout his life. This was Marker’s masterpiece, and also one of the more unique short films ever devised – so influential, Monty Python member Terry Gilliam looked to it as a driving force for his 1995 science-fiction thriller 12 Monkeys.
4. Fail-Safe (Sidney Lumet, 1964)
The United States and the Soviet Union were still in the midst of the Cold War when this intense thriller was released. Based on Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s novel, the film deals with the potential danger of a technical mistake leading the two superpowers to nuclear battle. When such an error takes place, the U.S. President (Henry Fonda) finds himself trying to convince the Russian Prime Minister – and even the Air Force squad sent out to destroy Moscow – of such a moment. Director Sidney Lumet recruits a top-notch ensemble cast led by Fonda, including Oscar winner Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy and Larry Hagman as the President’s translator. It also boasts one of Lumet’s strongest endings of his career, though it may have been an ending no one would hope for.
3. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)
Before this robot-dominated epic, Pixar seemed to be a studio geared towards great computer-animated films for kids and adults to enjoy – with nary a thought about a social conscience. Yet Pixar crafted this powerful epic story set thousands of years into Earth’s future, as the title robot tries to clean it up after long periods of waste and destruction. While on his mission, he encounters a female robot named EVE, and his pursuit of her leads to other universe-altering events – especially for a group of humans who live up in space, letting their bodies turn them to almost mobile-less creatures. Conservatives attacked the film’s environmental and social messages, but it was another Pixar triumph at the box office and at the Oscars (winning for Best Animated Feature).
2. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (Lorene Scafaria, 2012)
This underrated comedy-drama was released on the year of the Mayan end-times prophecy. Yet its release in the blockbuster-packed summertime may have doomed its chances of being more relevant – and it deserved better. An insurance salesman (Steve Carell) mopes around after word gets out of an asteroid preparing to hit the Earth, and with his wife running away from him. After encountering his British neighbor (Keira Knightley) and getting a letter from his former sweetheart, he decides to take a journey to find her before the Earth explodes. The film benefits from Carell and Knightley’s unique chemistry, and has top-notch supporting cameos from Connie Britton, Patton Oswalt & even Martin Sheen in a crucial third-act plot. It also has guts for having an ending that seems also inevitable, but also hopeful at the same time.
1. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Unlike Fail-Safe (released in the same year), this dark comedy based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert took a more outrageous approach to the idea of a technical error leading to a Cold War showdown. Peter Sellers displayed a virtuoso style to playing three different characters: the U.S. President, a British Royal Air Force officer who watches his American superior lose his mind, and the title character – a German scientist delighted at the thought of nuclear annihilation. George C. Scott nearly steals the film as an American general who would rather be with his woman than in the War Room, where most of the action takes place. A young James Earl Jones shows up in one of his first roles as an Air Force officer, with Slim Pickens riding the humor as his boss – especially when he gets to ride a bomb in a memorable scene. It may also have one of Kubrick’s great final lines, with Sellers rightfully getting those last words – before the end.