If culture is a guide, there are really only two ways for the world to end: You've got the "bang" theory and you've got the "whimper" theory. Of course, way back when he was inventing modern poetry, T.S. Eliot made his whimpering preference well known. But later, being a clever race, we devised the means to blow ourselves all to hell, and our nuclear arsenal, in conjunction with the Cold War, brought the big bang into vogue. So, on screens large and small, mighty bombs burst and mushroom clouds formed and a hard rain fell.
It fell in 1959's On the Beach where, tucked away down under, Australians were spared immediate destruction and left to await the foul wind that would spell their irradiated doom. It fell in 1965 in Peter Watkins's The War Game, a short but devastating film that the BBC aired once and then, such was the fear factor, banned for the next few decades. It fell repeatedly in the Reagan years of the early 1980s – in Testament, in another potent British drama called Threads, and, more bombastically on U.S television, in The Day After.
However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bang theory quieted down again. Sometimes, sci-fi would skip right past our petty fate and head straight into post-apocalypse terrain, where the future looked awfully primitive. And blockbusters, naturally, continued to put the world in peril, yet always with a superhero at the ready to play the saviour's role. But generally, as the millennium approached and passed, it seemed to bring a sense that the planet faced a less explosive finale – perhaps chipped away by intermittent acts of terrorism, or eroded by the creeping consequences of climate change, or maybe done in by the fiscal fault lines in the global economy, a civilization destroyed not by big bangs but by bad mortgages.
With that shift in mood came a change back to the whimper side of the spectrum, and to emerging depictions of what might be called the "soft apocalypse" – a quieter, ruminative, almost caressing apocalypse, not an explosion but an elegy. This softer demise could be used to plumb individual psychology, as Jeff Nichols did in Take Shelter. It could be elevated into social allegory, as Lars von Trier did in Melancholia, where, metaphorically at least, Armageddon arrives as a terminal case of the blues. Then again, it can also be deployed to concoct a third option: to end the world neither with a bang nor a whimper but with something far more endearing – with a laugh.
Even back in the era of hard rain, Stanley Kubrick brought satiric yuks to Dr. Strangelove. But it was our own Don McKellar who, in 1998's Last Night, invented the soft apocalypse and played it lightly for beige comedy – the planet's tragedy served up as theatre of the absurd. In today's release, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Lorene Scafaria does precisely the same. Trapped in its doomsday scenario, each film struggles to manage the transition from comic to poignant, and the bright tone threatens to grow tedious.
Nevertheless, McKellar redeemed himself with a final frame as lovely as it is haunting. Scafaria doesn't, although not for lack of trying. Indeed, both pictures share an Ending that mirrors the Beginning. Faced with expulsion from their earthly garden, damned if the last humans don't make out like the first, and another lost paradise is sealed with a kiss.
THREE SIGNPOSTS ON THE ROAD TO THE SOFT APOCALYPSE
On the Beach (1959)
A nuclear holocaust has razed the rest of the world, but Australia is still intact and awaiting its fate. Some hope that the winds of change will blow favourably, sparing them the radioactive dust. The more fatalistic prepare their suicide tablets, while the let's-go-wild crowd race fast cars on the F1 circuit. Although the mood is bleak, with nary a laugh in sight, the tone is quiet and contemplative, punctuated by an ending that sees the holy-rollers' banner fluttering in the ominous breeze to double as a warning flag: "There's Still Time Brother".
Last Night (1998)
Billed as the "ultimate Canadian disaster movie," Don McKellar's take on the apocalypse is as polite as it is amusing. The cause of our imminent demise remains unspecified; instead, in a bleached-out cityscape where the sun never sets, it's daylight throughout the last night, and the characters are seen shaping their "deathstyles". On the radio, the golden oldies station counts down history's top 500 hits; in the kitchen, folks ponder which vintage to serve with their last supper. Yes, the doomsday clock has a smiley face.
It arrives in the first frames and, thanks to Lars von Trier, the apocalypse has never looked better. A cerulean planet, dubbed Melancholia, emerges from its hiding place behind the sun to set sail toward us. Huge and surreal in its gravitational pull, the approaching orb contorts life here like a Salvador Dali canvas. The End isn't a fiery collision but a vast enveloping, a passive surrender as our small cell gets engulfed by its large host. Peacefully, quietly, we surrender to the blues.