End-of-the-world movies have their own brand of power. They combine the adrenaline rush of disaster movies with the creeping dread of horror movies, so you’ll definitely feel a pulse-quickening suspense. Sometimes, the movies take place as the world is about to end, so you have to sit there and mentally create your own end-of-the-world to-do list along with the characters. Sometimes, there’s already an extinction event, and you wonder if you’d be able to hack it with the other survivors. And sometimes, the movie takes place sort-of in-between, so you can panic as you watch society unravel in real time.
World-ending movies also are a mirror that reflects society’s biggest paranoias back at us. For the movies of the ’50s, there was unease about the dawn of the Atomic Age. In the ’80s, the disaster was almost always caused by an impending nuclear war between the United States and Russia. And there are always lingering doubts about what exists in outer space, and whether unconquered forces of nature can end us at any moment — be it via comets set to collide with Earth, a sun ready to expand its borders in our solar system (or stop working entirely), or, you know, aliens. These impending disaster movies span decades, so you can take in the various neuroses we’ve had over time.
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The Wandering Earth (2019)
These Final Hours (2015)
In this one, a comet does succeed in colliding with Earth, as it’s threatened to do so many times before (see also: Armageddon and Deep Impact). The film takes place 10 minutes after impact, when Australia has about 12 hours before the firestorm reaches the country. It follows James, who wants to spend his remaining time at the “party to end all parties,” but finds himself being pulled in other directions.
This Is the End (2013)
Is it possible to make a comedy about the apocalypse? Seth Rogen tries, in a movie where people like James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Jay Baruchel play exaggerated versions of themselves amidst the looming disaster.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
An asteroid is headed towards Earth, and Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Keira Knightly) decide to try and reunite Dodge with a lost love before it hits. Along the way, they meet others who are dealing with impending doom in their own unique ways.
Kirsten Dunst plays a bride whose wedding reception is interrupted by the discovery of a planet named Melancholia — one that’s on a collision course with Earth. What follows is a movie that’s ostensibly about the end of the world, but is also a rumination on chronic depression.
Take Shelter (2011)
What if the end of the world is on its way, and you were the only one who knew? In Take Shelter Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has a premonition of what’s to come, and runs into trouble when he becomes obsessed with building a storm shelter to prepare.
This one is about the end of the world in more Biblical terms. In it, Paul Bettany plays the Archangel Michael, who seeks to stop evil forces from bringing about the apocalypse.
The Road (2009)
This is another one where the sun is the main culprit, causing the end of the world. This time, the sun is dying, and a group of scientists go on a space mission to try and re-ignite it with a bomb. (What could go wrong?)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
In a movie that embodies the term “climate crisis,” extreme weather breaks out across the country — from tornadoes to deep freezes. In New York, a group of survivors huddles in the New York Public Library and start to work toward their rescue.
Last Night (1998)
It’s never explained why the world is ending in this Canadian film, but what’s clear is that there’s only one day left. All of the characters have to figure out what they want to do on their last night (celebrate Christmas, perhaps), and who they want to share their last moments with.
12 Monkeys (1996)
The Rapture (1991)
David Duchovny and Mimi Rogers star in a movie about a woman who abandons her swinger lifestyle and turns towards religion when she starts to see signs that the Rapture is on its way. Could she be right?
Miracle Mile (1988)
Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham star as Harry and Julie, a who suffer a missed connection at the worst possible time — right before the breakout of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film follows Harry as he tries to find Julie before the world ends.
The Quiet Earth (1985)
For fans of The Leftovers, this is a movie about a scientist (Bruno Lawrence) who wakes up and realizes the people of Earth are all gone — and thinks the energy project he was working on may have been to blame. He then goes in search of other survivors.
Mad Max (1979)
The Mad Max franchise takes place mid-societal collapse, where worldwide shortages have caused everyone to devolve into violent gangs. In the first film in the series, Max represents some semblance of law and order as a police officer off to catch a deadly biker gang.
The Last Wave (1977)
Richard Chamberlain stars as an Australian lawyer takes a case defending a local tribe of Aborigines who killed one of their own. As he becomes more involved with the tribe, he learns more about their prophecies, and becomes plagued with apocalyptic visions of water.
This Stanley Kubrick-directed masterpiece takes place on the brink of nuclear war, and the government agencies (and egos) dispatched to stop it. At the time, it was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Peter Sellers, though it ultimate walked away empty-handed.
On the Beach (1959)
Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire star in this film, which takes place after nuclear war has wiped out all but a few. When it becomes clear that radiation clouds will finish off the rest, the survivors have to adapt to the grim news in their own way.
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