About three minutes into 4:44 Last Day on Earth, an extremely indulgent and stupid movie that opens tomorrow and that you should absolutely not see, NY1 anchor Pat Kiernan stares into the camera and prepares us all to die. If the world is gonna end, if we're all gonna go out together, if that's how this long, pointless story's going to end, I think I speak for most New Yorkers when I say that I hope it's Pat Kiernan who takes us home.
Of all the things that movies do best, that movies are capable of in a way no other form of mass entertainment or art can approach, it might be dramatizing the end of the world. There's nothing internal about the end of the world; even Revelations, in a book full of plodding storytelling, mixed messages and gnarled metaphors, revved up the imagery when it came time to blow it all up. We don't want to imagine the end of the world—we can't, not really—we want to see it. That way we can come to terms with it. Hey, that doesn't look so scary. I could handle that.
End-of-the-world movies are always reflections of the fears of a certain time. For decades, it was nuclear war that would get us; we would be the means of our destruction, either through our own insecurities and idiocy (Dr. Strangelove), international confusion (Fail/Safe) or just those goddamned Russkies (The Day After, Miracle Mile, the great and forgotten Testament.) But in the decade after 9/11, the general cinematic consensus became that apocalypse be something out of our control. It'll be something that we couldn't have predicted or stopped, a very American idea, as if our nation's afflictions exist in a vacuum, as if A Nation As Great As This One couldn't dare be responsible for the end of it all.
To list, let's see what has killed us in the last decade:
• Monsters. (Cloverfield.)
• A rage virus. (28 Days Later.)
• A rogue planet crashing into ours. (Melancholia.)
• Global warming, kinda. (The Day After Tomorrow.)
• Vampires that are side-effects of a scientist's discovery of the cure for cancer. (I Am Legend.)
• Vampires that are just regular old vampires. (the Underworld movies.)
• Robots. (Terminator: Salvation.)
• Global infertility. (Children of Men.)
• Fuckin' Mayans. (2012.)
• People just randomly being enveloped by darkness. (Vanishing on 7th Street.)
• Aliens. (War of the Worlds, Skyline.)
• Dragons. (Reign of Fire.)
• Trees! (The Happening.)
• The elimination of our senses, one by one. (Perfect Sense)
• Zombies, of course. (Too many to mention.)
In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, what gets us is the ozone layer, i.e. not caring about it. (Writer-director Abel Ferrara actually makes poor Kiernan say, "Al Gore ... was right." Ferrara should be arrested for that.) This is the lamest possible reason for the world to end in a movie, because what kills us should be a metaphor for the sins of man, not the actual sins of man. Of course, most of the movie involves Willem Dafoe in his apartment doing yoga, muttering to himself and playing around on Skype, so whatever it is that hastens the end of our suffering, as far as I'm concerned, will suffice.
I'll confess to being a sucker for end-of-the-world movies—knowing that 4:44 Last Day On Earth was one of them was the only thing that got me to go see it—and I'm not alone, considering there's an impressively thorough online database of all apocalyptic films at www.apocalypticmovies.com. (The next one is Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which has Steve Carell as another sadsack lovelorn fellow hanging out with Keira Knightley and Patton Oswalt before a meteor takes us down.)
The popular theory is that the whole culture has felt apocalyptic since 9/11, that we now can fathom it all ending in a way we couldn't during, say, the Monica Lewinsky scandal or something. As ApocalypticMovies.com clearly shows, though, this has always been a thing; as long as movies have been around, we've been trying to show people how we're all going to die. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a pretty solid reminder that the end of the world can be dreadfully dull, and that when it happens, there will be some people for whom it'll be tough to mourn. For my money, the "best" of these movies is probably War of the Worlds—a film that's so sporadically terrifying in ways that I'm not even sure Steven Spielberg ever quite understood or intended—but the most fun has to be 2012. If I'm going to a movie to see the world end, I don't want Willem Dafoe having an existential crisis, or Kirsten Dunst moping around her own wedding, or Mark Wahlberg being confounded by forestry. I want to see the world end, with Los Angeles falling into the sea, Mount Everest collapsing, and a volcano erupting underneath Yellowstone. That's bang for my buck. Some men just want to watch the world burn. Preferably narrated by Pat Kiernan.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.