Halloween is a time to contemplate horror, and there are few horrors more pressing than that of Donald Trump winning the election. Only slightly less horrifying is the prospect of Trump losing but refusing to admit it, and lingering in the media for weeks or months to come.
On that note, what better time is there to check out these six classic films about the end of world?
Title: I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being (1955)
Plot: Ten years after WWII, the world is haunted by the specter of nuclear armageddon. Nowhere do they feel it more keenly than in Japan, where Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune), an aging industrialist, can no longer bear the strain. Assuming nuclear war to be inevitable, he proposes to sell off his family’s assets and relocate to the Brazilian rainforest, which his research has led him to believe will be the safest place to weather the coming nuclear storm. Unfortunately, his family have not caught the nuclear bug and the rainforest holds no attraction for them, so they take Nakajima to court to try to have him declared mentally incompetent and unfit to dispose of their wealth. In a blend of courtroom drama, family disintegration story, and nuclear parable, director Akira Kurosawa asks: Are men like Nakajima mad? Or are they prophets who see all too clearly humanity’s grim future?
Context: As the only country in the world to have been attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan has a long (and understandable) history of sensitivity to nuclear issues. When Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon, Seven Samurai) released this underrated humanist drama in the mid-'50s, there was every reason to believe that the coming of WWIII, fought with nuclear weapons, was not a matter of if but of when.
The dread of this seemingly inescapable catastrophe pervaded Japanese culture, from the pessimistic novels of Kenzaburo Oe to the Godzilla movies. It was a subject that was to engage Kurosawa throughout his life, and he returned to it in one of his last movies, Rhapsody in August (1991), which, if one overlooks the rather perplexing casting of Richard Gere as half-Japanese, depicts in moving terms the lingering effects of the atomic bombings. It was a story that needed to be told, as evidenced by the surprising number of American critics who were offended by the movie, and professed to not understand why Kurosawa and other Japanese weren’t grateful to us for dropping the bomb and ending the war.
Where it’s streaming: Hulu.
Title: The End of the World (1916)
Plot: Now we know that the “1916” business above might turn you off, but bear with us here, because this movie is about as enchanting as a Danish silent film about flaming space rocks is likely to get. The premise is fairly simple: There is a comet headed toward Earth, threatening all of humanity. Amid pending apocalypse is the story of a Danish astronomer, the rich bastard he’s kind of friends with, and the woman they both love (in addition to being perhaps the first space disaster movie, there’s also a good case to be made that this is the first "love triangle given way too much attention as the Earth is about to be destroyed” movie). The film climaxes with a surprisingly (it’s 1916, remember) convincing rain of fiery space rocks upon the good people of Denmark (and presumably the rest of the world).
Context: August Blom may not be a household name, but in the '10s he made some of the first films to blend sensationalism, spectacle, and dubious taste (a proto-Michael Bay, you might say). Making his name with movies like A Victim of the Mormons (1911, several years before even basic notions of political correctness) and Atlantis (a 1913 film about a transatlantic liner that hits an iceberg, made a year after the sinking of the Titanic, which some people thought was too soon), Blom was well-positioned in 1916 to make his generation’s Armageddon.
If 1916 Denmark seems an unlikely location for such a large-scale spectacle, it’s important to remember that WWI is on, and the Germans and the French and the British and the Russians (etc.) are devoting most of their resources to destroying each other, leaving smaller neutral countries like Denmark and Sweden untouched by war and in the unlikely position of dominant players in wartime and immediate post-war cinema. Given the apocalypse ravaging Europe at the time, a film about the end of the world really captured the zeitgeist.
Where it’s streaming: YouTube.
Title: On the Beach (1959)
Plot: Now, we don’t know what you think of when you think of Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, and Fred Astaire (maybe you just don’t think of them, that’s fine), but you probably don’t think “Doom! Despair!”
On the Beach may change that. Made by Americans but set in Australia, this resonant piece of nuclear horror follows a group of characters living in Australia in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. There is an enormous, radioactive fallout cloud drifting slowly but irreversibly southward. When it reaches Australia, the people there will die, and they know it. On the Beach asks, “What will they do in the meantime?” It’s 1959, so don’t say, “Fuck like rabbits,” because they can’t show that yet.
The standout in this film is Peck, who plays a submarine commander desperately plying the waters of the southern hemisphere looking for a place where the fallout will be less intense, although Astaire’s performance as a suicidal Grand Prix racer is also worth noting, if only because this is not where one would expect to find Astaire.
Context: Like I Live in Fear, On the Beach -- adapted from the novel by British writer Nevil Shute -- grapples with what many people at the time felt to be the inevitability of a nuclear destruction, and the question of how a reasonably mentally healthy person is supposed to live under these circumstances. Now, while it’s not particularly surprising to see a film like this come out of post-war Japan, it’s unusual fare for Hollywood, which tends to insist that even the bleakest subject matter (cancer, the Holocaust) has to be “uplifting” and “life-affirming.” If you are looking to have your life affirmed, look elsewhere, because On the Beach treats the end of the world like, well, the end of the world.
Title: Fish Story (2009)
Plot: Returning to Japan on a much cheerier note, Fish Story presents what is surely the most whimsical of all the films about a large object from space threatening Earth. Told episodically, we begin in the present day, where a comet is barreling toward us. Poised to destroy humanity, our only hope is a young Japanese astronaut on a last-ditch mission to stop it. Will she have the courage and tenacity to save humanity? Yes, but only through a series of wildly improbable twists and turns leading back to the seemingly unrelated story of a failed Japanese punk band from the ‘70’s and the release of their one single, “Fish Story.”
In the fantastical chain of cause-and-effect that follows (with episodes linked in the fashion of the chaos theory by which a butterfly flapping its wing off the coast of West Africa creates a hurricane in the Caribbean), this film tells the story of how one obscure musical effort can save the human race.
Context: In some ways the filmic equivalent of a Chicken Soup for the Punk Rocker’s Soul (which, who knows, probably got written at some point), Fish Story is an inspiring tale of the power of music and -- something unusual in a popular culture so saturated with hipster irony -- sincerity. It is also a testament to the resiliency of the Japanese people, who continue to make a go of it despite: being subjected to some of the biggest earthquakes in history, being so prone to tsunamis that the word “tsunami” comes from the Japanese language, and being nuked and firebombed by us.
Title: Melancholia (2011)
Plot: At a stately country manner, a dysfunctional, vaguely Anglo-American family has gathered for the marriage of their younger daughter, Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who won the Best Actress Prize at Cannes for her performance). When the wedding falls apart, Justine and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s husband and son find themselves menaced by two sinister forces: the crippling depression to which Justine is prey, and the appearance in the sky of a new red planet, aptly (and not subtly) called Melancholia. As Melancholia speeds dangerously closer to Earth (through a “scientific” process that probably wouldn’t hold water with Neil DeGrasse Tyson), the troubled sisters must grapple with the implications of their own potential deaths, and of the end of all life on Earth. Most intriguingly, the film grapples with the question: Who will bear up best in this scenario, the depressive Justine, whose darkest thoughts about Earth and life will be confirmed, or Claire, in love with life and family and the civilization that sustains it?
Context: Sandwiched between two films in dubious taste about Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex life (the bloodbath Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, a sex movie to end all sex movies, as in, seriously, we don’t need more movies like this), Melancholia is Danish provocateur Lars von Trier at his most restrained. It is a visually beautiful film that explores mental illness with a sensitivity and deep compassion that perhaps even von Trier himself didn’t know he had in him.
It is also thanks to him that we have the film’s unusual cast: while there’s nothing surprising about finding Charlotte Gainsbourg in an arthouse film, the presence of Kirsten Dunst (of Bring It On fame) and Keifer Sutherland as Claire’s husband, is unexpected, to say the least. It’s the sort “bold” casting we usually don’t see outside of a Tarantino movie, and its works, too, even if the question of how two sisters end up with very different accents is never resolved.
Where it’s streaming: Amazon.
Title: The Man Who Saved the World (2014)
Plot: Having explored various scenarios to destroy the world, it seems only fair that we should conclude with this compelling documentary about the man who saved it. If you don’t know the name Stanislav Petrov, you should, because you probably owe him your life.
In 1983, at a time of ratcheted-up tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Petrov was the commander at a Russian nuclear defense early warning system. On September 26, something appalling happened: The early warning system sprang into action -- red lights flashing, alarm bells ringing -- and reported that several nuclear missiles were inbound from the United States. Now, the protocol for Petrov in this situation was very clear: He needed to immediately send this warning up the chain of command, because in the event of a nuclear attack, the Soviet Union would only have a few minutes to launch a retaliatory strike.
Petrov knew, however, that if this was a false alarm, a Soviet retaliatory strike would provoke an American retaliatory strike, and we’d all be destroyed anyway. Let us all thank God that Petrov had courage and a cool head, because he realized that something wasn’t right here, so he said “fuck protocol” and sat and waited for several minutes to see what would happen. The “incoming missiles” disappeared shortly thereafter, because it was a false alarm. Had Petrov just followed orders, it probably would have meant the end of humanity.
Context: Well, first off -- and this really can’t be said too much -- Petrov saved the human race, and one of the principle aims of this film is to celebrate him, because he deserves it. More broadly, this film serves as a reminder, not just of the power of the freethinking individual, but of the moral responsibility of the freethinking individual. Because Petrov could have just followed orders -- that’s what he’d been trained to do. When the alarm went off, his instructors at Nuclear War Academy didn’t tell him, “Wait a few minutes, think it over, and use your own judgement.” No, they told him: “Get that message up to [aging Soviet leader Yuri] Andropov, because he’ll have only a few minutes to nuke America.”
Essentially, he had been told not to engage in critical thinking, but he did so anyway. In a world of uncertainty, we need more Petrovs. More critical thinkers. More morally responsible people. Because make no mistake, our lives depend on it.