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Films
by Kathi Maio

APOCALYPSE, MON AMOUR


THE TERM "post-apocalyptic," like most oxymorons, has always annoyed me a bit. Not that I haven't used it a million times myself. (How could I not, as an sf film critic?) Still, given my druthers, I would call most post-apocalyptic novels and films dystopic. I don't want to get too biblical about it, but an apocalypse, to my mind, really is the end time for humanity on the planet Earth. There is no "post" to it. It's finito. Game over, folks. Hasta no vista, baby.

Most novels and movies and everyday mortal thought processes refuse to quite confront that sort of total annihilation scenario, though. (And at this point, can I just issue a giant SPOILER ALERT, gentle reader? I will be discussing the endings of many films in this column

…so be warned!)

Even in the earliest days of the atomic age, most disaster/horror movies chose not to obliterate humanity completely in their cautionary tales of nuclear devastation. Oh, things might get rough. Civilization might crumble. Giant insects might try to take over. But valiant survivors would struggle to reestablish society and make sure that humans remained the dominant species.

One of my favorite oldie we-can't-quite-bear-to-obliterate-Homo-sapiens films is the 1959 film The World, the Flesh and the Devil (written and directed by Ranald MacDougall). More a rumination of race than nuclear peril, it has Harry Belafonte's last man on Earth (he had been trapped in a mine when the rapidly abating nuclear cataclysm occurred) head for New York, where he is quickly joined by Inger Stevens and Mel Ferrer. The inherent love triangle goes from bad to worse. Jealous bloodshed is threatened. But in the end, or "The Beginning," the three survivors walk off, hand in hand, toward a future where, no doubt, gorgeous mixed-race children will repopulate the planet.

In recent years, too, most movies that have threatened planet-wide atomic warfare, agricultural collapse, catastrophic celestial impacts, atmospheric disintegration, alien attack, or other global calamity have somehow offered the hope that the blue planet and at least a handful of its human inhabitants would somehow survive and rebuild a viable world.

Remember 1998—the summer of the planetoid smackdown? In the more interesting disaster drama of that year, Deep Impact (directed by Mimi Leder and written by noted gloomy gusses Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin), the filmmakers were willing to off the nominal protagonist of the film (a reporter played by Téa Leoni), but made sure that self-sacrificing space heroics averted a complete "Extinction Level Event" for a nice teen couple (Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski), a fatherly President (Morgan Freeman), and enough fine American folk to pick up the pieces of the Capitol and the rest of the planet.

The more macho and jingoistic action of Armageddon (directed by Michael Bay from a group project screenplay) later that same summer, also involves space heroics to save the planet from asteroid strike. New York takes a hit and Paris is vaporized, but many of the rest of Earth's settlements do fine. And the film's young romantic leads (Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler) provide everyone with a ceremonial happy ending through their nuptials. Love is swell. Life is good.

And so it goes with most Hollywood films. Even Roland Emmerich's Earth- (and ear-) shattering 2012 made sure that an ark or two made it through every possible disaster scenario, to preserve humanity and the reconciled nuclear family of John Cusack.

But what if there is no ark? And what if the movie's nice couple isn't destined to make it through? A few films have been willing to explore love at the true end of the world. The earliest I recall seeing was Stanley Kramer's anti-nuclear black & white drama, On the Beach (1959), written by John Paxton and James Lee Barrett from Nevil Shute's novel. After all the atomic bomb buttons have been pushed, Earth is a silent wasteland. The only survivors are the crew of an American nuclear sub, underwater during the mutual destruction, and the inhabitants of Australia. In both cases, the remaining populace knows that their survival is only temporary. The radiation will reach them before long and they, too, will succumb. This includes a nice young couple (Anthony Perkins and Donna Anderson) with a new baby as well as a mature pair of new lovers, the Submarine's captain, Dwight (Gregory Peck), and an alcoholic Aussie party girl, Moira (Ava Gardner). It's all doom and regret and government-issued suicide pills for everyone but the submarine crew who decide to head back to the United States despite there being nothing but death awaiting them.

It's quite the downer—and meant to be—since the movie was designed as a wake-up call to encourage earthlings to roll back the Doomsday Clock. Despite the large assortment of bad Australian accents and the annoyingly repetitive strains of "Waltzing Matilda," the movie works well as a cautionary tale and a somber love story. But the special poignancy of this romance is that as the end approaches, Dwight and Moira cannot face it together.

Other movies have been more merciful. These include a cult classic from 1989 called Miracle Mile, written and directed by Steve DeJarnatt. Although its plot, like On the Beach, involves new love at the time of the nuclear holocaust, it is filled with energy, quirky humor, and a colorful cast of characters. Anthony Edwards is the hero, Harry, a modern day Glenn Miller who plays trombone in a retro big band. He meets the girl of his dreams, Julie (Mare Winningham), at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Harry fails to wake up on time for their late night date at the end of Julie's waitress shift at Wilshire Avenue diner. When he shows up at Johnnie's Coffee Shop too late he ends up taking a phone booth call from a desperate young man named Chip who says that the atomic bombs are on their way.

For much of the movie, neither Harry nor the audience is completely certain whether Chip's terrified phone call signifies Doomsday or just a dumb joke. But when Harry walks back into the diner and tells his tale, he sets off a mounting frenzy throughout Los Angeles. Although Harry has a possible escape, he's not going anywhere without Julie, and so he spends much of the rest of the film finding his lady love and getting her to a helicopter rendezvous. Will they make it out of L.A.? Nope. They end, like they began, at the La Brea Tar Pits—except this time actually in the Tar Pit. United in certain death, they can only comfort themselves with the thought that their remains might be fished out of the glop and put in a museum, side by side, one day.

Even though I just spoiled the ending for you, I hope that you'll track down the (regrettably fullscreen) DVD of Miracle Mile, if you haven't seen the movie already. And for another addition to your video list, consider a gem of a small Canadian film called Last Night (1998). Writer/Director/Star Don McKellar never bothers to inform us exactly how the world will end, only that everyone in the movie, and on Earth, is facing their last evening of life. McKellar's Patrick Wheeler is a widower who seems content to follow his lost wife into the great abyss. He plans on spending his last evening alone, after an awkward family dinner with his parents, grandmother, sister, and her prodigal boyfriend. Others are facing their imminent end differently. Yes, there is some rioting and looting, but most of it seems like a final party rather than brutal atavism. (This is Canada, after all!) One of Patrick's best friends, Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) writes an elaborate wish list of sexual partners, positions, and experiences on his kitchen wall and then sets out to do it all before time runs out. A dedicated gas company bureaucrat, Duncan (filmmaker David Cronenberg) has a more dignified plan—to call and thank each of his utility customers.

Patrick's own intention to meet annihilation by himself is stymied when he finds a stranded young woman, Sandra (Sandra Oh) on his doorstep. She is eager to get home to her recently acquired husband and needs Patrick's help to make it across town amid the end time chaos. The two make a connection that deepens as the evening progresses. Soon it becomes clear that Sandra won't make it home, so she feels the need to find a new, almost instantaneous soul mate in Patrick. And does.

In last few years there have been an increasing number of films that have toyed with themes of true apocalypse. (Personally, I feel this is more closely related to the Great Recession than the predictive powers of old Mayan calendars.) Lars Von Trier's elegantly arty Melancholia from last year is but one. Yet despite the fact that Kirsten Dunst spends the first half of the movie in a wedding gown, there is no romantic love (new or old) to be found in that particular film. In fact, Dunst's depressive Cassandra is such a self-indulgent and uncaring character, and her equally repellent and exceedingly privileged family and circle of friends are so unsympathetic, that I almost wished for a planetary attack just to do away with them all. Luckily, I got my wish. But not before I grew tired of watching.

This year we have two new movies about the final days of Earth. Both try to hark back to the love connection angle, but I recommend only one.

First up was 4:44 Last Day on Earth from indie darling and European fave, writer-director Abel Ferrara (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant). I am guessing that Mr. Ferrara meant well with this movie, which is much more mild-mannered than his usual fare. Like On the Beach a couple of generations earlier, Ferrara is issuing a warning about the future. In his case, it is a vague environmental object lesson instead of an atomic alarm. It seems that, in the words of a TV newscaster, "Al Gore was right." But because we didn't listen and act to protect the atmosphere, every living thing on the planet will die in the early hours of the next morning.

Facing the end in their Manhattan loft apartment are Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh). I have read that Cisco is supposed to be an actor, but I got no clue of this from the film except for the fellow's tendency to stand on his balcony and yell. Skye, many years his junior, is seemingly an artist, judging from all the really bad paint dripping she does, at intervals, throughout her final hours. The most notable thing about the couple is actually their heavily wired lives. They Skype farewells to family and friends or share a moment with pals via smartphone video chat, while newsfeeds, admonitions and life lessons from the aforementioned former Vice President, Joseph Campbell, the Dalai Lama, and other Buddhist teachers can be heard and seen on iPads and televisions throughout the apartment.

Surrounded by multi-media, the couple has sex and orders in Chinese food (pathetically trying to bond with their delivery worker through hugs, big tips—he won't be spending—and complimentary Skype sessions). Skye attempts to wear all of her favorite vintage togs. (Or perhaps Mr. Ferrara just likes showing off his girlfriend's body when she changes.) Meanwhile, recovering addict Cisco understandably considers taking up heroin again. Their Bohemian life gets a bit tedious—for the viewer, at least. But perhaps that is the point. Why shouldn't the last day of Earth be as banal as any other? The tiresome aspects of the couple's everyday last day is at least better than the film's final moments, wherein Skye prattles about surrendering "completely to God" and telling her lover that "we're angels already."

I'm not quite sure when 4:44 moves from serious to silly, but for me it was early on. Yet, to be fair, finding the right tone for an end-of-the-world love story is not an easy task. Drama can seem preachy and self-indulgent (as 4:44 does), and comedy is even harder to pull off when you are talking about the destruction of all Earthly life.

So imagine the challenge experienced rom-com screenwriter Lorene Scafaria (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) faced directing, for the first time, another of her screenplays, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. That's not a metaphor. Very early on, a radio announcer tells us and protagonist Dodge (Steve Carrell) that a 70-mile-wide asteroid will soon strike Earth but the station will bring us "our countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites." (First up, the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice.")

With the news that the end is near, Dodge's wife literally runs off. Other friends (played in cameos by Rob Corddry, Connie Britton, Melanie Lynskey, and Patton Oswalt) decide that hedonism is the way to go. Dodge, always repressed, instead shuts down even further, even attempting a suicide that only results in an adopted dog. It seems that he will likely die alone. But then a free-spirited neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightly), enters his life. She hands him a stack of misdirected mail that includes a letter from his first high school girlfriend. And, with a mission to fulfill, Dodge and Penny hit the road to reconnect Dodge with "the love of his life."

Seeking is, in large part, a "road movie" filled with sometimes unsettling and sometimes comical interludes (offering opportunities for more cameos by recognizable actors). Stops include one with a survivalist ex of Penny's. Speck (Derek Luke) has deluded himself that he and a few buddies can withstand the apocalypse. He may be wrong, but he provides the pair with fresh transportation and gives Penny a chance to speak with her family in Britain one last time. Elsewhere, the staff of a chain restaurant—here called Friendsy's—plan to meet their fate with unwavering dedication to their hospitality mission. Led by a merry host (T.J. Miller), they offer mudslides and orgiastic opportunities to anyone who stops by.

Like most road pictures, there is an episodic nature to the proceedings here, but entertainingly so. For all roads lead to the growing bond between a man who allowed himself to feel too little and a woman who felt too much, too easily, but in so doing, lost track of what mattered most. The storyline does get a bit sappy toward the end. (And the sixties soundtrack featuring dubious classics like Herb Alpert's "This Guy's in Love with You" and the Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine (Anymore)" grated after a while.) But, generally speaking, Lorene Scafaria balances the tone and content of her apocalyptic rom-com very well and ends up producing a humane movie that fits well into the (limited) tradition of end-times love stories, and yet still ends up being unlike any movie you have seen.

Since the movie had none of the raunch hilarity of Carrell hits like the The 40-Year-Old Virgin and since the romance ends in a manner many viewers will find quite distressing, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World sought but never found a cineplex audience. Even so, I would personally advise that you add it to your queue of movies to see before the asteroid hits.

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