Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Apocalypse Wow: 5 great films about the end of the world

With two knockabout comedies concerning the end of the world (This is the End and The World's End) crashing into cinemas within weeks of each other like so many deadly asteroids, it appears that Armageddon remains a potent and fertile subject matter for filmmakers. Whether either of these features joins the canon of apocalyptic cinema remains to be seen, but if so they will be in very illustrious, if often decidedly gloomy, company. Here are five of the very best that this very broad genre has to offer. Will they help avert imminent global catastrophe? No. Will they instruct you in how to survive in a ravaged wasteland without resorting to cannibalism? Nope. Will they blow your socks off? Hells, yes.

The Seventh Seal, 1957, Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Leave it to cinematic depressive par excellence Ingmar Bergman to weave together the Book of Revelations, plague-ridden Medieval Europe and existentialist agonising over the absence of God into one timeless and majestic tapestry, so lodged in cultural memory that it even recently received its own Google doodle. The Swedish master filmmaker's parable creates a vivid world of self-flagellating religious zealots and travelling players oppressed by forebodings of the day of judgment. Bergman's substitute for himself in the narrative is an atheistic knight of the crusades, played by Max Von Sydow, engaged in a chess battle with Death and desperate for a glimpse of meaning and hope in the universe.
The miracle of this movie is how Bergman's delicacy of touch and mastery of technique turns a story that could have been very heavy-going into an absolute pleasure to watch. The moment at the end when Death leads the cast of characters in a merry jig across a hilltop is a perfect metaphor for the film's peerless blend of terrifying, universal themes and life-affirmingly beautiful storytelling: a dance with death, indeed.

La Jetée, 1962, Dir. Chris Marker

The enigmatic and hugely erudite film essayist Chris Marker's science-fiction gem is often ranked amongst the greatest short films ever made. A male prisoner in the aftermath of the Third World War narrates his own fateful story of being sent backwards and forwards in time "to call past and future to the rescue of the present". Whilst carrying out his mission in pre-war 1960s France, he falls in love with a young woman and seeks to escape his involuntary occupation in order to join her in the past.

Marker's unique vision is on full display, the intellectually-inclined filmmaker jettisoning nearly all of the conventions and tropes of sci-fi cinema (spectacle, gadgets, alien life-forms) to dwell upon the philosophical riches and melancholy beauty of his material. Obviously La Jetée is most famous for being a series of still photographs instead of the usual celluloid stream at 24 frames per second, and as well as giving the work an aura all of its own, it's the perfect style for what the film has to say about the allure and pain of memory, transforming the movie into a collection of snapshots of a life already lived out. Appropriately enough, once seen, this film is never forgotten.

And you can watch the whole damn thing on Youtube right now:

Invasion of the BodySnatchers, 1978, Dir. Philip Kaufman

This genuinely chilling 70s version of the oft re-told 'bodysnatchers' mythology is something rarer than the unicorn, Jersey Devil and Beast of Exmoor combined: a remake better than the original. Not that I want to slight the better known 50s thriller about an invading force of pods from outer space which quickly start replacing Earth's human inhabitants with soulless replicants, as it remains a creepy and atmospheric slice of McCarthy-era 'reds-under-the-beds' paranoia. But whilst Kaufman's version keeps the same basic story and structure, it cranks up the menace from slightly worrying to downright terrifying.

If you're anything like me, then you'll agree that the most unsettling of all primal fears is that your loved ones might mean you harm and have sinister designs upon you. Well, this little bastard mercilessly taps, nay, drills, into those very same anxieties for the best part of two hours with the aim of leaving its audience a gibbering, nervous wreck. In the best possible way, of course.  

 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

The first feature-length film released by Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli and the East's (superior) answer to Walt Disney, director Hayao Miyazaki, is, like most of their work, a thoughtful and compassionate joy.

Set a thousand years after a war that almost extinguished humanity, it tells the story of princess Nausicaä, determined to prevent conflict between her people and the gigantic, armoured insects called Ohmu that populate a nearby jungle. Although by no means up to the standard of Miyazaki's later masterpieces like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, it establishes many of the deeply humanistic and prescient  themes of caring for one's environment and seeking understanding instead of dominance that would come to characterise his style and elevate his work above the increasingly conservative output of the Mouse House. Also mercifully free of wisecracking animals.

 Melancholia, 2011, Dir. Lars Von Trier

Melancholia begins with a slow-motion sequence depicting Earth's destruction as it collides with a newly-discovered planet in our solar system. It's so drawn-out and visually ravishing that it begins to resemble some kind of disaster pornography, making Roland Emmerich's orgies of destruction like 2012 seem positively restrained by comparison. Perversely, perhaps, Von Trier has crafted an end of the world movie where said event is not to be feared, but revelled in as some sort of blessed, cathartic relief from what he apparently sees as nature's inherent evil.

Structurally, the film is as innovative as any Von Trier has ever made. Beginning as a fly-on-the-wall document of the fallout at a weekend country wedding between two members of the affluent upper middle-class, one of whom is manic depressive Justine (Kirsten Dunst), by the second half it has morphed into a low-key chamber drama unfolding beneath the shadow of the planetary crisis.

In some way the movie is a negative image of The Seventh Seal, replacing Bergman's appeal to human love and sacrifice as the meaning and value of life with a wholehearted, provocative, and surely repulsive for many, embrace of death. But the often misunderstood Von Trier's ambition is not as hopelessly nihilistic as that sounds: in Justine's recognition of the futility of existence and our pointless attempts at exercising control over it, he finds something oddly liberating and even hopeful.