Human beings have always been obsessed with our own mortality. Our earliest cultures invented elaborate mythologies and rituals concerning what happens to us when we die. But never a creature to stop anywhere short of the extreme, we have also been fascinated with not just the end of our own lives, but the end of ALL life.
Most civilizations imagined possible endings to the world as we know it. The Vikings told stories of Ragnarok, the final battle between the good and evil gods. The Mayans famously ended their calendar at the year 2012. And, of course, the final book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation, which depicts the return of Christ and the war with Satan.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood is quick to jump to an apocalypse — interestingly, often as summer blockbusters — when it wants to grab an audience. Here are what we think are the top six apocalypses as seen on the silver screen:
#6: I Am Legend
Will Smith. A dog. And a whole lotta vampire/zombie things. This movie may not have been high art, but one thing it did well was present a vision of Manhattan after all living humans have left. Overgrown with weeds and abandoned cars, the once proud Times Square is now a spooky ghost town, showing how little flashy signs and billboards matter in a world gone to hell.
#5: The Day After Tomorrow
Roland Emmerich is the go-to guy when it comes to blowing up the planet, as seen in his films Independence Day and the upcoming 2012. But rather than aliens or an ancient Mayan prophecy, in 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow the antagonist was Mother Nature, as the environment finally hit back after being abused for so long…and she hit hard. The movie isn’t great, but the visions of destruction are a wonder to behold. (For a great chuckle, check out the South Park episode “Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow.”)
#4: Dawn of the Dead
Though both versions of this film were excellent (and to be perfectly honest, I prefer the high-octane action of the 2004 remake), it was George Romero’s 1978 horror masterpiece that created a vision of the future that sent chills up an entire generation’s collective spine. While the movie’s predecessor, Night of the Living Dead, is more famous, Dawn furthers the story by showing an entire world infested with zombies, and follows a tiny handful of survivors trapped in a mall, desperately fighting to stay alive. The movie’s tag: “When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth.”
#3: 28 Days Later
Following in Romero’s footsteps some thirty years later was Danny Boyle, when he created this chilling independent British film starring Cillian Murphy as a bike messenger who is conked on the head and put in a coma, only to wake up and discover that most of the world’s population has been infected with a virus called “Rage,” turning them into foaming-at-the-mouth homicidal psychopaths. Much like in Romero’s world, the surviving humans are often far more dangerous and frightening than the infected.
Not every vision of the apocalypse is grim and terrifying. In 2008’s WALL-E, the world has been littered over with garbage, and humanity has departed, leaving trash-collecting robots to clean up the Earth. The plan continues on indefinitely, and eventually only one robot is left working, while humankind drifts through space. The charming love story that ensues between WALL-E and another robot named EVE is one of the most unique ever to be captured on film. If you’re looking for an original film, this is the one.
#1: The Terminator
In 1984, James Cameron gave the world a gift, and that gift was The Terminator. If the apocalypse is all about the battle between good and evil, it has never been exemplified more by this simple tweak: man vs. machine. In the not-too-distant future, the machines that we ourselves invented turned on us in an attempt to eradicate the human race. Leading the human rebellion is the Christ-like John Connor (note the initials) who was not born of virgin birth, but was conceived as part of a time paradox.
Of course, most of the film takes place in the present, when a human-looking terminator played by a certain well-known Austrian attempts to locate and kill Sarah Connor, John’s mother. But that first vision of the nightmare future stuck with film-goers and kept the franchise alive to this very day.
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