Today: April 19, 2024

Decidedly British Armageddons

The apocalyptic sci-fi movie has often been a very American genre, with massive spectacle and expense, but it was in Britain where the roots of the genre lie, with Mary Shelly’s The Last Man and much of HG Wells‘ writing, War Of The Worlds in particular.  With Edgar Wright‘s The World’s End having its last ever Last Orders this week, Ed Boff sees how this Sceptred Isle has envisioned the end of days on film over the years …

The Day The Earth Caught Fire
Behind that somewhat over dramatic title is one of the most sober and down to Earth films of the atomic age.  The disaster here refers to how, after both the US and Soviets decide to show off their new super-nukes at the same time, the resultant shockwave forces the Earth out of its orbit.  But we don’t see that happen, nor does this follow the sort of leaders, scientists and such you’d think would populate such a story; instead the focus is on the press.  The film actually follows reporters at the Daily Express, as they start putting the facts together and realise just how bad the situation is.  Director Val Guest uses real London locations (especially Fleet Street) to full effect, especially in the scenes later on in the crisis as the monochrome film gets a red tint to show the effect of the heat.  For a very grounded and human tale of facing the end, along with a bravely ambiguous climax (with a slight fiddle from the American distributors), this is recommended.

The Day Of The Triffids
John Wyndham‘s classic 1951 novel has one of the most original scenarios for the collapse of civilisation in sci-fi history; a double threat of a cosmic event, blinding most of the population followed by the take-over by moving, venomous monster plants.  This 1962 adaptation gets these points mostly right, with some well-achieved disaster scenes and the Triffids themselves have a lot of menace (even if their design seems to keep changing drastically from scene to scene).  However the film misses a lot of the spirit and satire of the book, with much of the novel’s deeper exploration of the issues being left out.  Also, there’s some really awkwardly worked in additional scenes, set apart from the main action in a lighthouse, that were very obviously shot later to pad out the runtime and to add a really awkward “happy ending” that doesn’t fit what came before.  It’s an OK B-Movie, but for a better adaptation of the book, best to go with the 1981 BBC mini-series version (but not the 2009 BBC mini-series version that has many similar problems).

Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 AD
The second of two Doctor Who feature films made, this offers a glimpse into a far flung future … which looks a lot more like 1950 AD to be honest.  In this future where Microsoft, Apple and the Jubilee line extension haven’t survived but Sugar Puffs have, the Daleks have taken over, and are busy either exterminating the last of humanity or making them work to death in their mines as part of their diabolical plan.  Good thing Doctor Who (Peter Cushing) just showed up then!  This is a bit more lightweight than the ridiculously dark original TV serial, but for all its faults, it’s still a very fun adventure film, with a lot accomplished on a far from blockbuster budget, and with British sci-fi’s most iconic monsters at the top of their game.  Also, with their jackbooted Robomen servants and propaganda broadcasts, it’s easy to see the real subtext behind this story of occupation.

The Bed Sitting Room
This list is full of British films, but this is probably one of the only ones actively about being British after The End.  After the nuclear misunderstanding, there are only about 21 people left in the country, and several of them are having to fill the roles of NHS, MoD and BBC all by themselves.  But they soon must face the threat of nuclear mutation into horrendous forms like … furniture.  Based on a play by Spike Milligan (who also plays the Post Office) and directed by Richard “A Hard Day’s Night” Lester, you can tell this is going to be a weird one from the cast listed in order of height at the start.  Despite the sheer absurdity on display, there’s still a definite note of melancholy to proceedings, as really only in an utterly absurd storyline can one get across what an insane concept all out nuclear regrettable incidents are.

The Quatermass Conclusion
The last of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass serials was made by Euston Films in the 70s, and later re-edited for release as a feature film.  All of the previous serials dealt with potentially apocalyptic scenarios, but this one actively shows the whole world crumbling.  Quatermass (Sir John Mills) is looking for his granddaughter in a world after a catastrophic socio-economic collapse, but soon faces a strange phenomena that’s claiming thousands of lives in what he believes is an alien harvest of the human race.  Director Piers Haggard makes the most out of the budget, portraying a believably ruined Britain, with many having to make do as best they can, which makes the urge to go to the “escape” offered that much more believable.  Not the best of the series, but a damn good slice of what 70s British television was capable of.

When The Wind Blows
There were quite a few British movies around based on the threat of impending nuclear doom, such as The War Game, Threads and this animated piece based of a comic by Raymond “The Snowman” Briggs (so you know already there’s going to be tears before bedtime).  Jim and Hilda Bloggs (Sir John Mills again and Peggy Ashcroft) aren’t so worried about the news of war; they made it through the Blitz, and the government has lots of information on what to do, so all should be OK, right?  The whole story is a massive “take that” to the government’s “Protect and Survive” information campaign at the time, pointing out how it ultimately would provide no protection or survival if the worst did happen.  Yet even amongst this bleak story, there’s a note of hope in here, as Jim and Hilda still stick together and keep their spirits up right up unto the end.  Thankfully we never had to go through what they did in the end, and videos like the following never had to be used …

Whoops Apocalypse
Looking on the funnier side of Mutually Assured Destruction comes this spin off from the sitcom co-created by David “One Foot in the Grave” Renwick.  Imagine an even sillier Dr. Strangelove, and you’ll be close to the sheer lunacy on display in this movie, with an all-star comedy cast.  Highlights here include the British Prime Minister (Peter Cook) instituting a policy to solve unemployment by having employed people jump off a cliff, the many bizarre disguises of the terrorist Lacrobat (Michael Richards), and an utterly incompetent SAS team (lead by Rik Mayall).  That’s barely scratching the surface, and it still manages to tell a compelling race against time story to try and stop all out war; although the title may give away how successful that is.

28 Days Later… /28 Weeks Later…
Big British sci-fi and horror movies had gone into hibernation across the 90s, but with the release of 28 Days Later they exploded back to life, reinvigorating the zombie genre along the way.  Danny Boyle’s bleak look at a “rage virus” ravaged Britain shows its inspirations clearly (like George Romero‘s Dead movies and Day of the Triffids), but retains its own identity well.  It gave us running zombi- sorry, infected, a much more down to Earth and gritty take on such a survival story (due to fewer guns over here in Blighty) and a very memorable soundtrack.  In many ways, the follow-up 28 Weeks Later is an extremely worthy sequel, coming up with a clever new storyline that follows the original well, and having a touch of satire on top.  Plus it’s worth mentioning that both films are, surprisingly rarely for zombie movies, utterly terrifying in places!

The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
There probably hasn’t been a more callous, more of a sick joke of a way of ending the world then having the whole planet annihilated as part of a scheduled demolition for the construction of a hyperspace bypass.  It really shows author Douglas Adams‘ view on life, the universe and everything to have a story where not only is the end of days brought about by a very arbitrary reason, but all human life was only in existence for a very limited purpose… which ultimately turns out to have failed.  While the film version by Garth Jennings isn’t the best incarnation of this story, it still shows the absurdity of the tale and the sheer mind-boggling scale of the universe, and ourselves against it.

Children Of Men (Main Picture)
The end of mankind is a really depressing prospect if one stops to think about it too long, and this film is pretty much one of the few that really tackles that point.  In a future where no children have been born for 18 years, Theo (Clive Owen) finds himself the unlikely protector of Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the first woman to get pregnant in all that time.  This is an incredibly bold tale of hope, and the need for it; the world has gone to the dogs because everyone has assumed there is no hope, and with no children no innocence left, thus all the old prejudices are out worse than ever.  But Kee’s child could be what brings that hope back, and the story is all about preserving one’s hope in the face of whatever may come.  Plus it’s just plain brilliantly directed, with Alfonso Cuarón giving some incredibly done long single take scenes in the midst of utter chaos.  Easily the most recommended film on this list if you haven’t seen it already.

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