What to Watch (and not) after “Don’t Look Up”
In the last post, I reviewed the hit movie Don’t Look Up from a post-doom perspective. After watching it (twice), I went on a apocalyptic film spree. I solicited recommendations from friends and then watched several which I hadn’t seen before (and a few that I already had). I admit, afterward, I had to fight off the urge to stock up on ammunition and canned food, but I don’t regret it. So I want to share with you my recommendations for what to watch (and what not to watch) in the genre.
First, I want to define the genre, because a lot of the movies that people suggested weren’t really apocalyptic. “Apocalyptic” or the “apocalypse” refers to an event in which world-as-we know-it comes to end. This could be as catastrophic as the end of all life on the planet or just the collapse of Western industrial civilization. The “event” in question could happen quickly, like a meteor hitting the Earth, or over a period of time, like a pandemic.
Closely related is the post-apocalyptic genre. I put a movie or a book in the apocalyptic category if a significant part of the drama surrounds the apocalyptic event itself. It goes in the post-apocalyptic category if the apocalypse is already past or even something of a distant memory. The Mad Max and Planet of the Apes movies are examples of post-apocalyptic fiction. The more time that has passed between the apocalyptic event and the action in the story, the more post- apocalyptic it is.
I also want to distinguish apocalyptic movies from disaster movies. Disaster movies appeal to that same part of us which is drawn to doom-scrolling and real-life “disaster porn”. The point of disaster movies is to blow as much shit up as possible, kill lots of extras, and thrill us with lots of narrow escapes by the protagonists.
In contrast, the point of apocalyptic movies is to make some kind of commentary on the state of human civilization as it is today. In fact, the word “apocalypse” actually means “revelation”. (Both words are used for the last book of the Christian Bible in different traditions.) In apocalyptic movies (as in all good sci-fi), something is revealed about our present condition.
Post-doom refers to the awareness that we are in some sense doomed and what we decide to do with that awareness. While post-doom themes can appear in either apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction, they’re more often found in the former because only in apocalyptic settings is denial still possible.
Now let’s get to the movies.
Since we’re still in COVID-times, the two big pandemic movies naturally come to mind: Contagion (2011), which stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, and Jude Law, and Outbreak (1995), which stars Dustin Hoffman. But neither are technically apocalyptic movies, because the world doesn’t end in either movie-though it was temporarily crippled in Contagion. I do recommend watching Contagion. It’s a realistic portrayal of both the impact of a serious pandemic and the effort to track down its epidemiological origin, with some significant overlap with our present-day circumstances. You should pass on Outbreak (1995). Though they’re sometimes confused, they are very different movies.
After having watched Don’t Look Up, which is about a comet hitting the earth, it’s natural that other rocks-from-outer-space movies comes to mind, like Armageddon (1998), starring Bruce Willis and Ben Afleck, and Deep Impact (1998), starring Elihjah Wood, Robert Duvall, and Tea Leoni. Both movies are about asteroids hitting the earth, and both came out the same year. Armageddon, directed by Michael Bay, is a disaster movie, though, and as such I’m not recommending it to anyone.
Deep Impact is an apocalyptic movie, and I liked it a lot. It’s not really a post-doom movie, per se. An asteroid does hit the earth, or at least part of one. But most of the movie is about trying to avoid that happening, and in the end humankind is able to avert the worst of it. There are a few characters, however, who embrace their fate, most notably the character Tea Leoni who gives up her seat on a the last helicopter out of D.C. and then goes to stand on the beach with her estranged father as the tsunami wave hits.
Children of Men (2006), starring Clive Owen, is an example of slow apocalypse. The human race has become infertile and, consequently, faces extinction with the death with the last generation born. The movie follows a man who must guide the only pregnant woman on the planet, Kee, to safety. A lot of the conflict is over the issue of immigration and xenophobia. I highly recommend Children of Men, but it’s not a post-doom movie. While it is a very grim movie, it really is about keeping the flame of hope (in the form of Kee) alive.
Into the Forest (2015), starring Elliot Page and Evan Rachel Wood, is about two privileged sisters living in a high tech house in the mountains and their struggle to survive after a widespread and seemingly permanent power outage. It’s one of those movies that is more about the characters and their relationship than about external events. From a post-doom perspective, I think it was most interesting for the characters’ response to one of the sister’s pregnancy.
Snowpiercer (2013), starring Chris Evans, is a more of a post-apocalyptic movie. (It’s also a series on TNT.) It’s set in the near-future after the earth experiences a freezing event. The only survivors are passengers on a self-sufficient high-speed train. It is interesting for its depiction of how class hierarchies can survive an apocalyptic event, and in that way resembles other dystopian movies like the Hunger Games and Divergent series.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), starring Steve Carell and Kiera Knightly, is a fun rom-com-style movie with an apocalyptic backdrop. I would have preferred if the ending had been different (as with most rom-coms), but there are some post-doom themes to be found in there.
This is the End (2013) is technically an apocalyptic movie, but not one that is meant to be taken seriously. Seth Rogan, Jonah Hill, and James Franco all play … themselves. And that’s all you really need to know. If you like those actors, it will be a fun watch. If you don’t, then don’t bother.
The less that is said about Melancholia (2011), starring Kirsten Dunst, the better. The movie was inspired by the filmmaker’s own depression. If you’re prone to depression (and even if you’re not), I think you should avoid this movie (though it does have some interesting visual sequences).
Annihilation (2018), starring Natalie Portman, is a very strange (and disturbing) movie about the beginning of the end of the world. I think it is interesting mostly for its depiction of the power of nature to evolve faster than humans can adapt. I don’t think I can recommend it though, if for no other reason than it was inscrutable.
Interstellar (2014) is a movie that I love in spite of my better judgment. It a truly great film … with a truly terrible message. I have so much more to say about Interstellar that I need to save it for its own post (hopefully to be shared soon).
And last, but not least, my absolute favorite apocalyptic, post-doom movie: These Final Hours (2013). Another spoiler warning is warranted here, because I am going to go into some detail about the plot. These Final Hours is an Australian movie, acted, produced, and set in Australia-and maybe for that reason avoids the need for a happy ending which plagues so many American movies.
These Final Hours starts after the impact of a planet-killing asteroid into the Atlantic Ocean, but 12 hours before the wave of fire hits Australia. The main character, James, wants to go to the party to end all parties and numb out for the next 12 hours. But on the way there, he sees a young girl being kidnapped by would be rapists and feels compelled to rescue her. He then struggles with continuing to his party or taking the girl back to her father from whom she had been separated.
These Final Hours is the perfect setting for the exploration of post-doom themes, because the end of the world has not happened yet, but it is inevitable. It is what Roy Scranton calls the space between sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind. It is in that space that post-doomers say we are living.
“There’s a time lag between carbon dioxide increase and subsequent effects, between the wind we sow and the whirlwind we reap. Our lives are lived in that gap. My daughter was born there.”
- Roy Scranton, “Raising My Child in a Doomed World”
I won’t spoil the end of the movie, but I will say that James’ choices make sense to me from a post-doom perspective.
So here’s my breakdown. These Final Hours is really the only “post-doom” movie on the list, but I still recommend the others (with an asterisk for Interstellar). Feel free to leave your recommendations in the comments.
Originally published at http://anotherendoftheworld.org on January 31, 2022.